We Got To Have It, Soul Power

I discovered this weekend’s top tune while listening to a selection by Arthur Alexander, a favourite of mine from those pre-Motown days. Times when Sam Cooke & Jackie Wilson carried the R&B swing. I posted some of Arthur’s great songs here but “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way” was written & recorded in 1992, 30 years after his effective & affecting ballads had influenced young Lennon, McCartney, Jagger & Richard to record their own cover versions. His biggest song “You Better Move On” was the first hit to be recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals & it was his friends from back in that day, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham & Donnie Fritts (who co-wrote “If It’s…”) who helped him make his first LP for 21 years. I hope that our man saw some of the money which is surely generated when the Beatles & the Stones use your songs but Arthur had been driving a bus for a living. It was only a matter of months after the release of the LP “Lonely Just Like Me” (1993) & his return to performing that he suffered a fatal heart attack. The world would be a better place with more beautiful country-soul songs like this one from an innovative & influential man.

There is a generation of performers who never made it in front of the movie or TV cameras so are not around the Y-tube for our (OK, my) enjoyment.  No tape around of Arthur Alexander performing live or even lip-synching any of his songs. Another Muscle Shoals master, Clarence Carter, was only filmed when he had a worldwide hit with “Patches” in 1970 even though there was a run of R&B hits spanning 1968-71. Some of these crossed over, 2 of them sold a million & “Slip Away” was one of that golden pair.

Clarence, who was blind from birth, is remembered for that big hit but “Patches” has always seemed a little extravagant, too heavy on the schmaltz for my taste. A Greatest Hits collection captures the liquified, flexuous pulse that places the Muscle Shoals sound firmly on the soul side of country-soul & is a very good thing. His rich baritone incorporates a salacious chuckle which adds a pleasant humour to his testifying. The hits stopped coming when African-American music started on the path that ended up in Disco but he continued to perform & you know you will have a good night, with some good songs, at a Clarence Carter show.

This wonderful clip is from a hometown gig at the Shoals Theatre in Florence Alabama in 2011. Clarence is 75 years old here…really. “Too Weak To Fight”, the follow up to “Slip Away,” was another big seller & another great song. It’s not just the song & the ribald showmanship which makes this performance a delight. Mr Carter’s exhibition of how a Southern Soul rhythm guitar part is played is just immaculate & splendid. I love this music.

OK…are you ready for Star Time ?…I  said…We move to Memphis in the meantime to check for my Uncle Overton. O.V.Wright was a nonpareil of brooding, impassioned soul singing. He may have said that the difference between his gospel & his secular music was no more than the substitution of the word “Jesus” by the word “baby” but O.V. never really came to terms with his choice of the profane over the sacred. In Tennessee in the mid-60s a musician had to be wholly holy, Rock & Roll was still the Devil’s music. O.V. Wright’s blues are right there on his records.

“Eight Men & Four Women” was one of the first songs O.V.  recorded with producer Willie Mitchell. An earlier contract meant that the records were released through a Texan label, Backbeat but the music is pure Memphis, home of the Blues. Mitchell’s set-up at Hi Records flourished with the brilliant success of Al Green & his partnership with Wright lasted for 10 years. There was no great commercial success as public taste moved to a sweeter, slicker sound which did not always complement the singer’s more traditional style. He remained though, a star in the Southern states & those earlier Backbeat records are something to hear. Unfortunately O.V. Wright’s taste for the high life got him into something that he couldn’t shake loose.

This amazing film is from May 1979 when O.V. visited Japan where he was still a big deal. Heroin addiction had wrecked his health & his finances, had put him in hospital & in jail. This frail man is just 40 years old. There’s a short excerpt from a 1975 show of his on the Y-tube where he is a stocky, smart-dressed man singing & dancing up a storm. He can’t do that anymore, those last 4 years must have seemed like 20.  O.V.Wright’s medley of “God Blessed Our Love” & “When A Man Loves A Woman”, performed with Teenie Hodges , Teenie’s 2 brothers & the rest of the Hi Rhythm section is stunning & chilling. His control, his delivery…ah, man, just watch & then watch again Within 18 months O.V. was dead from a heart attack. We are lucky that this great artist, this great piece of American art is here for us to watch & admire.

 

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You Can’t Mix Love With Money ‘Cause If You Do It’s Gonna Hurt Somebody (Arthur Alexander)

Last weekend, the 9th of June, marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Arthur Alexander a singer/composer from Alabama of such significance that I am prepared to suspend the First Law of loosehandlebars &…just this one time… use the “U” word. Arthur Alexander is  underrated & here is the proof, the whole proof & nothing but the…you get me !

 

 

So Randy Newman, a strong contender in a very strong field for a place on the Great American Songwriter podium, brings along Mark Knopfler off of Dire Straits to play with the world class house band on NBC’s “Sunday Night”. He has, even in these pre Disney/Pixar years, a stack of his own quality songs but chooses to perform a song by, in his words, “a great songwriter” Arthur Alexander. In 1962 teenager Randy was still trying to figure out how to write a pop song. “You Better Move On” is of a standard to which he aspired. It is a lovely, precise, assertive bit of work.

 

The song was the first hit to be recorded at a converted tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals where Rick Hall was establishing FAME studios. Arthur had a deal with Dot Records of Nashville who did not really know what they had.  The B-side to  the Mann/Weil written follow up, “Soldier Of Love” was evidently the superior track. In 1962 the generation of young British musicians, inspired by pick up an instrument by that first rock & roll explosion, were leaving school &  ready to make their own noise. They, like Randy Newman in L.A., were listening to Arthur too.

 

 

4 of these listeners were the Beatles. They performed 3 songs Alexander recorded, another, “Anna (Go To Him)”, made it on to the debut LP. The songs suited John Lennon’s emphatic vocals & the logical, simple pop/country/soul/rock structure (Arthur really did have it going on !) was a big influence on his songwriting. I’m giving up “All I’ve Got To Do” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, you know of others. In 1963, down in that London, the Rolling Stones were recording an EP of 4 songs for their label (the one that had turned down the Fab 4) which thought an LP would be a little previous. 3 of the tracks were well-known up-tempo rockers. It was “You Better Move On” (see above)  showing a more restrained, soulful Stones, which got played on the radio.

 

“Every Day I Have To Cry Some”, written by Alexander was given to Steve Alaimo, a teen idol/TV presenter who made better records than his jaunty interpretation of a plaintive song. Arthur did not get to record his song until 1975 & it’s a little busier than it would have been 10 years earlier. The quality of his voice still shines though. Back at the cultural centre of the planet in 1964 the song was claimed by a class act.

 

 

What a great clip. A video capsule of Swinging London in 1964, good music, everyone looking sharp, smiling & they are only sharing the dancefloor with a Beatle ! “Ready Steady Go” was must-see TV not just because it featured the best music around but it captured that notion that post-war Britain had changed & that there would be no going back. Dusty Springfield had a season ticket to R.S.G. interviewing the Mop Tops on their 1st appearance & here she is performing a track from her “I Only Want To Be With You” EP. The singer did her share of overly dramatic ballads, be-wigged & mascara masked on creaky variety shows like the other women singers. On R.S.G. she could relax & show her excellent taste in the soul music that she rode shotgun for in the UK. She was too old to be a Mod but she was still a face. Dusty’s smoky voice was a special talent suited to both ballads & belters. For me, when she was giving it that soul shimmy, singing a Motown or an Arthur Alexander song she looked to be a happy & attractive young woman.

 

There has been a lot written about Dusty since her passing about the insecurities she suffered over her looks, her sexuality & most other things. It’s a wonder she ever left the house. I was not even a teenager when this clip was filmed, I could neither locate Lesbia on a map nor had I even met a lesbian. I did know that Dusty was the Queen of British music with too much about her to take the cabaret/Eurovision route on offer to female artists in the music business. I was right, she never did.

 

 

One of the fables embroidered into Rock’s Rich Tapestry is the saga involving Phil Spector, Ike & Tina Turner & “River Deep Mountain High”. The Tycoon of Teen pays Ike to stay away from the studio then makes Tina sing till she’s hoarse to create his Wall of Sound masterpiece. This tower of force is ignored by the American record buying public, the master producer retreats to his mansion to lick his wounds. I saw it in a movie so it must be true. “River” is now accepted as a classic but so is the follow-up 45, the Spector produced, Holland-Dozier-Holland written, “A Love Like Yours (Don’t come Knocking Everyday)”, it’s just that this cymbals-in an-echo-chamber gem complicates the story.

 

There are 4 other tracks from the Spector/Turner partnership. The commercial failure of “River” discouraged  both Phil & Ike from completing the planned LP. One of those 4 is this Wrecking Crew symphonic take on “Every Day I Have To Cry”. I’m not personally convinced of the merits of Arthur Alexander on steroids. I love Spector’s productions & understand how he felt the song was strong enough to bear a little extra weight. It is the clarity & restraint of his songs which is so effective, the strength is implied …mmm, attractive. So, the 2 biggest groups in the world, Dusty…Bob Dylan covered Arthur’s debut single later.

 

Heavy friends but he was driving a bus in the 1980s. There were a couple of later records & the collected work of Arthur Alexander is a deep soul delight. His legacy though is more than a nice set of hits. His natural ability with melody & emotion pointed the way forward for the Beatles, the Stones & others who preferred their pop music to include some integrity. He really was that good.

Ry Cooder Was Here First

I am on a Ry Cooder roll now. He recorded songs from throughout the 20th century & found a new audience for many of them. One LP “Jazz” contains transpositions to the guitar of the 1920s compositions for trumpet of Bix Beiderbecke, a jazz legend. This time round I want to showcase three R & B songs from the late 50s & the 60s that I did not previously know. It was not as if I had not been listening but Ry certainly had a good ear for potential in a neglected song.

Howard Tate’s music did not make it over to the UK in the 60s. Motown & Stax were established enough to get a release  and a hearing for anything that came with those labels’ endorsement. Tate recorded for Verve in New York a label with less clout. In fact on You Tube there are no American TV clips of him despite having several R & B chart hits. Tate, from Macon, Georgia (the hometown of Otis Redding) moved north to record with Jerry Ragovoy the noted writer/producer. Ragovoy wrote the songs for Tate and wrote many other notable songs. He was Janis Joplin’s go-to man & she recorded 5 of his songs.

“Look At Granny Run Run” is, indeed, a little (just 2min 16 secs) gem of a song. It is a pre-Viagra story of a re-vitalised pensioner & the necessary action taken by his perturbed wife. Ry Cooder hammed up the sit -com nature of this making it more of a breathless and funny rush than the original. I love the underplayed humour of Tate’s version. If there is any sexual innuendo then the listener has to find it for his or herself. The playing, by the New York studio stalwarts including Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey & Eric Gale is nothing else but exemplary. The song reminds me of  those coming out of New Orleans with a similar restraint &  humour. I think that I prefer the short &  oh so sweet version of Tate to that which led me to it.

Arthur Alexander is possibly the least known of the artists who influenced the creative rush of the 60s which laid the foundation for the rock & indeed the roll which has enchanted us for almost 50 years. He is the only songwriter to have had his songs covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones & Bob Dylan. He recorded the first hit to come from the legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals. His simple and very effective style encouraged those British beat boys to emulate him and write their own songs.

“Go Home Girl” tells a simple story very simply. Ry Cooder recorded this tale of the impossible love of a best friend’s girl on “Bop Till You Drop”. He did a fine job of it too, adding flourishes of arrangement but retaining the emotional directness of the original. When Arthur was recording in the early 60s “soul music” had not really developed yet. His vocal may not entreat & implore like those who succeeded him but , boy, this is a good song. I knew he had written “Anna” & “You Better Move On” but he was not around by the time Mersey Beat changed the music. Now I can hear the influence he had on John Lennon in the almost conversational openings to, say “Help” & “No Reply”. The first Jagger/Richard composition, “Tell Me” also bears his mark. I have checked for Arthur more in the last 10 years than I did the previous 30. It’s been a rewarding time, he was just great.

Wow, Wow & again Wow! ” Ev’ry woman I know is crazy ’bout automobiles & here I am standing with nothing but rubber heels”. This is a great record & was not a success on release in 1955. Maybe it was ahead of it’s time. It is not just urban it is urbane. African Americans maybe didn’t get aspirant until some time later. Rather than this sophisticated Chicago sound it was the Detroit Motown sound that reflected this new mood in the early 60s. I hear the progression from Louis Jordan, from Big Joe Turner, an assured self-deprecating R & B with elements of Chuck Berry’s lyrical knowingness. I think this record is just brilliant. It was Ry Cooder’s version on “Borderline” which put me on it. Thank you Ry.

Billy “the Kid” Emerson is still alive, a preacher in his 80s. I would like to shake his hand for writing this song. However he also wrote “my gal is red hot. Your gal ain’t doodly squat”. A rockabilly classic. I would like to give the man a hug.