That Girl Could Sing (Ooh Betty !)

Very little is known about Betty James. She was in her 40s, singing in Baltimore clubs with her husband as guitarist & musical director, when, in 1961, she was offered the chance to record by the New York based label Cee Jay.Her song was a hit in Pittsburgh & the track was picked up by Chess Records. 55 years later “I’m a Little Mixed Up” abides as a classic good enough to rank with all the other ones to emerge from 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

 

 

There’s both kinds of music here, the Rhythm & the Blues with little embellishment to  a straight ahead 12 bar structure. Ms James’ vocal is urban & urbane, neither Blues shouting nor Gospel pleading. The guitar part, whether played by Mr James or by studio guy Tarheel Slim, is a loose, insistent, infectious delight. The record gained some attention in Modernist dance clubs with an ear for good American music. My knees & hips are no longer what they were but I’m still a cool jerk attempting an approximation of the Twist whenever I hear this tune. The following year Betty sang “I’m Not Mixed Up Anymore”. There was one more single for Chess, another released as Nadine Renaye & those 8 tracks are all we have. Listening to “I’m a Little Mixed Up” is a fine way to spend 3 minutes.

 

 

Betty Harris started in New York too. She was just in from Florida when she auditioned for producer Bert Berns with a measured, impassioned version of Bert’s hit for Solomon Burke “Cry To Me”. The subsequent release was a Top 30 national hit in 1963 and the following year there were 2 more 45s on the Jubilee label. The record buying public & American radio stations were pre-occupied with the British Invasion in 1964 & Betty was unable to catch that wave. She signed a new deal with Sansu Records in New Orleans.

 

Sansu was a new label started by partners Marshall Sehorn & Allen Toussaint. It was an opportunity for composer/arranger/producer Toussaint to run his own studio operation & Betty’s “What a Sad Feeling” was the first track to be released. It’s a perfect sweeping Pop-Soul ballad, an update of Toussaint’s earlier work with Irma Thomas. There were to be 10 singles by Betty Harris for Sansu, “Nearer to You” was an almost-hit. She came down to New Orleans to add her vocal to tracks created by the master & his house band who were to become the Meters. There’s a private number on a duet with the great James Carr & a shared credit with Lee Dorsey for the infectious floor-filler “Love Lots of Lovin'”. Toussaint produced over 30 singles for the label, taking the rhythms & melodies of the New Orleans tradition & moving them forward.

 

For Betty’s last single in 1969 everything the Sansu crew did was gonna be Funky. “There’s a Break in the Road” is a fantastic one-off. On his “Yes We Can” LP Lee Dorsey was given great songs with similar New Orleans funk pyrotechnics.   It’s a pity that there was no LP made with Allen Toussaint but their collaboration makes Ms Harris a contender for the Soul Queen of New Orleans belt. I have it on good authority (the Internet, so it must be true) that the featured funky drummer here is James Black from Eddie Bo’s group. As James showed on “Hook & Sling (Part 2)” his groove was quite a show-stealer in 1969. Betty made little money from her records & in 1970 she retired from music for 25 years to be with her family. Her 28 track legacy is impressive.

 

 

With 3 being, as you know, the magic number there is room for only one more Betty today.In contention is Betty Everett who shoop-shooped to an international hit with “It’s in His Kiss”, recorded a sweet LP of duets with Jerry “the Iceman” Butler & hit the heights with the atmospheric “Getting Mighty Crowded”. If  Betty Wright had only recorded “Clean Up Woman” & “Shoorah, Shoorah” (Toussaint again) her reputation would be high.It’s Bettye with an “e” who makes the cut. A recording artist for over 50 years, who only last year received a Grammy nomination for her latest LP.

 

In 1962, just 16 years old, Bettye Lavette’s first record, “My Man is a Loving Man” was a hit. She toured with the stars of the day, had a spell with the James Brown Revue & recorded for a couple of local Detroit labels. “Do Your Duty” a direct tasty plateful  of Memphis Soul Stew was recorded with the Dixie Flyers & when she signed with Atlantic they sent her to make an LP in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Things must have been looking & sounding good for Ms Lavette when “Child of the Seventies” was completed but the major label disagreed & the LP was shelved. 2 singles from the sessions, a Soul take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” & an emotional version of Joe Simon’s “Your Turn to Cry” only added to the legend. It would be almost 30 years before we got to hear the whole shebang. Just one click will get you her cover of Free’s “The Stealer”, confirming that a cloth-eared someone at Atlantic made a big mistake.

 

 

While Bettye’s recording career became more sporadic her range & versatility led her to the touring company of the musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar”. European interest in that lost album instigated a revival & she was ready for the 21st century. “A Woman Like Me” (2003), made with producer Dennis Walker (Ted Hawkins, Robert Cray, B.B. King), is a modern, mature Soul-Blues collection. As well as her fine voice, one of the keys to her new success was a shrewd choice of material. 2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” used songs written by female composers while “Interpretations” (2010) found nuance & depth in British Rock classics. The misty eyes of Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend as Bettye performs a stunning “Love Reign O’er Me” in tribute to the Who is a lovely sight. Ms Lavette returned to Muscle Shoals for “The Scene of the Crime” (2007), more cool covers backed by the Drive-By Truckers. The original, autobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)” is co-written with Patterson Hood. She has quite a story to tell & it’s great that she has the opportunity to tell it while making new music & memories.

 

 

I Was Not Singing The Devil’s Music, The Devil Ain’t Got No Music (Mavis Staples)

There is a new record by Mavis Staples released today (June 25th). “One True Vine” is a 2nd collaboration with Jeff Tweedy off  of Wilco, the best band in the USA. Like 2010’s “You Are Not Alone” the song selection is marked by taste of the highest order. This time there are 3 songs by Tweedy, covers of both Low & Nick Lowe & some re-imagined soul & gospel classics.

“I Like The Things About Me” is a song co-written by Pops Staples & was originally sung by the Staples’ patriarch. This time around Mavis takes the lead & the chiming guitar is replaced by a fuzzy bass line. The LP was recorded at Wilco’s Chicago studio & Tweedy plays almost all the instruments, leaving the drums to his son Spencer. Ms Staples made a record with Ry Cooder in 2007 which showed her passion & authority to be undiminished. “We’ll Never Turn Back” is a polished, assured take on some well-known songs. J.B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi” becomes, through her voice, the most accurate comment on the institutionalised racism of the US Government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

Any of the adjectives used about “We’ll Never…” are going to be good ones but it becomes a little worthy or formulaic if it is repeated. Mavis is an icon but is not ready for a museum yet. The records Mavis Staples is making with Jeff Tweedy show imagination in the song choice & their arrangements. Whatever Mavis sings is going to sound great but she is not a soul belter. Pops knew that she resonated most when space was left & Tweedy is the very man for the job. This is not music that seeks your immediate attention but slides soothingly under your skin.

Well, what a great call to record “Can You Get To That” from Funkadelic’s 3rd momentous LP “Maggot Brain”. A gospel inflected song of affirmation, maybe Mavis & her family group should have gotten hold of this George Clinton jam back in 1971. It is a song written for a gang of voices &, on this TV appearance, Mavis gives it up to her fellow singers which is precisely what is required. “Can You Get To That” is just one of my favourite  songs from the P-Funk, a last tip back to the Parliaments & the  sixties before getting on with the very modern things they had to do. To hear this revival by Mavis just cheer me no end…my song of the next few weeks.

Mavis & Jeff Tweedy did a similar thing last time around when another of the long-time, all-time jewels was given the treatment.

Mavis Staples is 74 next month & I hope that there will be a bunch more of these records to appreciate. There will always be a religious element in any of her LPs, it is what she has been doing for over 60 years & it is what she does better than anyone else. Jeff Tweedy is proving to be  a sympathetic & subtle partner who is helping Mavis to make this lovely modern, mature music.The 2010 record was awarded the Grammy for the Best Americana Record. It was her first such award, “It;s been a long time coming” said a tearful Mavis. This time she may not be so shocked.

Funky Like Lee Dorsey

 

Everything I do gotta be funky like Lee Dorsey seems as good a yardstick to measure your life by than anything else. If Irma Thomas was the Queen of New Orleans soul then Dorsey was the king. Throughout the 1960s his easy-going, confident, funny and funky records never failed to hit the spot. He is remembered for just a few of them. “Working In A Coal Mine” ? Everybody knows that one, right. You can get compilations of his best work with maybe 25 tracks and not one of them is a dud.

Lee Dorsey and Allen Toussaint go together like cocaine and waffles. They had hit records in the early 60s with songs that were almost nursery rhymes but they had a New Orleans beat and that’s what sold at the time. Dorsey went back to working in his garage, in the 50s he had boxed as a light-heavyweight under the name “Kid Chocolate”, when Toussaint got a deal at Amy records he called his boy and in 1965 they were making hits again. “Get Out my Life Woman” is one of them and his strutting performance of the song (you gotta have some cojones to wear that shirt !) is Lee Dorsey at the top of his game as a soul star. Stax-Volt sent their reserve backline on this tour with Sam & Dave but this is a fine thing to see.

The records stopped selling but in the Mod era UK he was still a big deal. “Coal Mine”, “Holy Cow”, “Ride Your Pony” were all big soul club and youth club dance records. They were all written, produced and played on by Allen Toussaint. His distinctive backing vocals are a feature on them all too. New Orleans was in the shadow of Memphis and Motown for a time, as soul turned into funk the loping rhythms of the city were back in the game. Toussaint had the songs and the musicians he wanted and it was Lee Dorsey who benefited from this new energy.

“Give It Up”, released in 1969, was not a hit but that says more about the market than the song. It is not a James Brown punch to the solar plexus, more a dance, jab and move, a sinuous, a benignly insidious groove. The Meters and friends slide into the pocket and…well they are the pocket. In the same year Lee Dorsey had another fine 45 for us.

“Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” is a statement record from Allen Toussaint and he lived up to his promise. I just love the way New Orleans funk hits a groove and provides a whisper of a conventional pop song but just stays in that rhythm because hey, conventional is not their way. In 1970 an LP was released. The two singles were not included but Toussaint had a collection of songs which have become classics. The title track, “Yes We Can”, was adopted by Barack Obama (not brave enough for “Funky President”) as his campaign song. “Riverboat”, “Sneakin’ Sally Thru The Alley”, “Who’s Gonna Help A Brother ?” and others make “Yes We Can” a milestone in funk and soul music. That it did not sell probably mattered more to Lee Dorsey, he got one more shot 8 years later with the discofied “Night People”, another worthwhile effort. Me, I don’t care if it was not a hit because I always have Lee Dorsey’s great feelgood records around to put the bounce back into my stride.

Irma Thomas (Soul Queen)

Irma Thomas was “The Soul Queen 0f  New Orleans” before we were talking about soul music. The songs she recorded in the early 1960s were pivotal in shaping the young sound of America which made African-American music a worldwide success later in the decade. The quality of young Irma’s work is so high that it’s tough to choose just one but I’m the king around here and this is the one for me.

“Ruler Of My Heart” was written and produced, like all Ms Thomas’s early 45s, by Allen Toussaint, the mastermind of so much thrilling music from New Orleans. Otis Redding pinched the tune for “Pain In My Heart”. Toussaint successfully sued the Stax label for compensation. It has a charm,a power and an almost stateliness that marked all her songs. “It’s Raining”, so effectively used in the Jim Jarmusch 1986 film “Down By Law”, and the later “Time Is On My Side”, covered by the Rolling Stones, have a similar effect. When I checked out the timeline for these records (I don’t just make this stuff up) I was surprised to find that none of these were major hit records. You have got to be joking me, these are classics.

Irma moved labels and did have more success with emotive ballads. Come 1965 , 1963 was so over and everything had to be new. She was signed to some big labels, Chess & Atlantic,  but the material and the times were against her.

In 1970 Irma began a record with writer/producer Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams Jr at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Mr Dogg was a prolific producer of “deep soul” music and when he got it right he was unrivalled. “In Between Tears” is the title track of the record which was eventually released in 1973 on the Fungus label (no, me neither). Irma is all grown up now, her voice huskier and stronger. Her confidence is reflected in the material, the arrangements showcase the voice and the LP is a masterpiece. At the time it made no real impression.

On “In Between Tears” there is a 12 minute track which I would not presume to include here. A monologue about, y’know, men and women, “”Comin’ From Behind” is similar to those that Millie Jackson sold bundles of just a few years later, only it is funnier and better. This segues into a remake of her biggest hit, “I Wish Someone Would Care”. The climax of the song is precisely that, orgasmic for the singer and the listener. Swamp Dogg has spoken of the sexuality in Irma’s voice and he captured it in this track. There is also evidence of the ability of the session guitarist Duane Allman and what a great loss to music his early death was at the age of 24. If you do have 12.34 to spare and you love soul music then seek this track out.

Irma made fewer records, opened a club in New Orleans and continued to perform and to be highly respected. It took the terrible events of 2005 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to remind us what we had been missing for so long. Irma Thomas’s personality, her humour and strength, became a symbol of the resilience of New Orleans. To see her, as cameras capture the devastation to the city was an inspiration. This interpretation of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” is from a concert to honour and benefit New Orleans.

Her 2006 LP “After The Rain” won her a Grammy. Her current standing is higher than ever. Her early music is still being discovered by new listeners. All I can add is that she deserves it all.

A Night To Remember

There have been concerts I attended when, as I have been leaving the venue, I have thought, “Well,that is some of the best music I have ever seen”. The Grateful Dead one enchanting night at Alexandra Palace, R.E.M.  on two consecutive nights of the “Green ” tour, Taj Mahal on more than one occasion. It’s a long list. The night I saw Joe South is the one that returns to my mind most regularly. It was not only Joe’s contribution that evening which made it so memorable. Writing about Joe has brought it fresh to my mind again.

The concert was billed as an “Southern Songwriter’s Circle”. These gigs , where the artists share the stage, are more commonplace today. This was the first of it’s kind in London and they hadn’t really got the format down. It kinda helped make the night unique. There were five artists on the bill which is too many. Now there are usually three. The deal was that a compere would ask questions of the participants who would share their secrets about song-writing. The M.C. was Charlie Gillett a respected label boss/D.J./facilitator on the British scene. Charlie was one of the good guys, his book about early rock & roll, “The Sound of the City” is one of the finest books on music I have read…I have read more than a few. This was not your night Charlie. The first time he tried to initiate a conversation he was shouted down by the audience. “Play the music !” was the rallying call. Gillett was not heard from again and we got the night we wanted…more music.

Well, there are few finer ways of opening a concert than hearing Guy Clark perform “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”, the original “outlaw country” classic. Guy wrote some great songs but “Old No 1” released in 1975 is his finest LP. A good friend of mine, still performing and recording, included this in his set through the mid 70s. It was a song I loved and to hear it played by the writer was most satisfying. Whichever way the concert went this was one to savour. The clip is from a movie, “Heartworn Highways”, a documentary on the Austin, Texas music scene centred around Townes Van Zandt. It captures some fine music.

Guy Clark sat to the left of the stage. Next to him was the youngest of the performers, the least commercially successful of the five. Vic Chesnutt, out of Athens Georgia, had recorded three LPs by this time and was less well known to the audience. In a wheelchair and with limited use of his hands since a teenage car accident there is a natural simplicity and frailty about his work. He was sharing the stage with some heavyweights and he performed some of his lighter and more accessible songs with great charm. Two weeks later a friend and myself went to see Vic in his own show at a dark little club in North London. We were at the front and helped lift his wheelchair on to the small stage. He, with his band, melted and then broke our hardened hearts with his individual take on Southern Gothic. (I ended the night discussing Flannery O’Connor with a well known comic actor). In a bigger auditorium, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by the river, Vic was happy to be the light relief.

Joe South was at centre stage. I have written about his career and his songs  before. His contribution maintained the high quality of the evening’s entertainment.

The two men to the right of the stage are two of the men I most admire in music .I am not going to attempt to do them full justice in this memoir, They merit, and will get, longer consideration.

Here was Dan Penn, part of the history of soul music through his time at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and at American Recording in Memphis. Those young white men from the Southern states with a love for R&B, a talent for writing, playing and recording music which went around the world, had helped to shape a sound regarded as predominantly African-American. They must have led such fascinating lives as their songs were transformed into gold records during a time when some of their work colleagues could not eat in the same restaurants because of the colour of their skins.

Tonight Dan played his greatest hits. Dressed in his hillbilly denim dungarees he could be unassuming when he knew that there was not a member of the audience who had not been touched by one or all of these songs. “I’m Your Puppet” and “Do Right Woman were perfect but it was “Dark End of the Street” which absolutely rocked the place. It may have been James Carr, Aretha Franklin, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ry Cooder or Richard and Linda Thompson who put you on to this song. Great voices were attracted to the song and never approached it lightly.

Dan Penn’s performance was conducted in an awed silence. This was how this song had been originally and we were privileged to hear it. When the song finished the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was not for a great performance it was for writing a song of such stature. I had been in the middle of similar appreciations at concerts but never one which contained such an element of gratitude. It was a fine moment.

Finally, on the right of the stage, sat by a piano, was a true legend of American music. I love the music of New Orleans. I find the way there is a complex though logical rhythm but sometimes only a hint of a structured song both fascinating and irresistable. I discovered this idiosyncratic sound through the 60s records of Lee Dorsey. I have moved forward with it and looked backwards to the musicians of the 40s and 50s. The fulcrum and link to all of this music is Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint is more visible these days. Peter  Buckley in “The Rough Guide to Rock” describes this appearance as a “return from exile”. You could not tell. A trim man, dapper in a suit, he must been confident that whatever he chose to play there would be big love for him. I’ve seen a tracklist of his songs from that night. I’m sure that “Fortune Teller”, the Benny Spellman tune was a medley spanning “Mother In Law” (Ernie K Doe) and “Working In A Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey). I have a memory of a shouted request for “On Your Way Down”, recorded by Little Feat , a band held in high regard in the UK. I remember him playing at least a part of it. If he did not and I’m guilty of a wish-fulfilment  of one of my sweetest dreams then I apologise for misleading anyone.

Allen Toussaint provided my personal highlight of the evening. To see him play was good enough but there was one particular song I was hoping to hear. For many years his “Southern Nights” LP had been one of the most treasured in my collection. I have seen reviews which refer to psychedelia or use the adjective “trippy” but that just ain’t right. The use of the title track as a motif throughout the set is a reverie anchoring the journey through the varied styles and talents of the composer. “Southern Nights” had been my go-to late night feeling good record for a very long time. (Feeling bad ? “No Other” by Gene Clark).

When Allen’s turn came around again he told a story about his Creole grandparents. I knew this was a prelude to him playing “Southern Nights” and , I believe, the word is “frisson”. There were a few empty seats at the back of the hall. I left my place and went to sit by myself…this was a personal thing. I have had few musical experiences which can rival hearing this most beautiful of tunes played in front of me by the man responsible for it’s creation. Now I am older such experiences can be somewhat lachrymose. Back then this horny-handed construction worker was warmed by an inner glow of contentment. Man, it felt good !

We lived, at this time, in Westminster, just a spit away from the Thames. We left the gig and walked in the summer night along the Albert Embankment on the South Bank of the river. Feeling good, we were in no hurry. We sat on a bench, smelled the air and took in the illuminated view of the Houses of Parliament. We sat and smoked quietly, buzzing that London could be as great a place as it was being that night. If there had been a better concert on the planet that night then good luck to it. It was after midnight. The bench, the view, the river, the city, was ours. We knew it was not ours to keep, by the morning we had to share with 8 million others. That’s why the times you felt this way were to be honoured and then filed away to memory.