Sumpin’ Funky Going On (Donnie Fritts)

Donnie Fritts, the songwriter & musician who sadly died this week, once said that he would retire if Ray Charles ever recorded one of his songs. When this actually did happen Donnie cried tears of joy & thankfully for us all, kept on doing the thing he’s always done. He may not be as familiar a name as some of his contemporaries but the frequency he shows up on record label credits endorses his reputation as a reliable & influential personality beyond his Muscle Shoals base.


Donnie Fritts was born in 1942 in Florence, Alabama, a teenage drummer, part of a scene raised on Country & Western, influenced by the Rock & Roll of Elvis Presley & by the R&B played by disc jockeys like Hoss Allen on WLAC in Nashville. This crew of young white boys had a local studio where they could learn how a song went. When Tommy Roe, a teen idol, was sent to the Muscle Shoals FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studios to record Donnie & his old band mate Dan Penn had a song for him. “Sorry I’m Late Lisa” became the b-side of “Everybody” a 1963 Top 10 hit. Donnie was in at the very start of something big.



He was around again when Penn moved across to American Studios in Memphis & broke big with a trio of hits for the Box Tops. The bluesy “Choo Choo Train” kept the run going. I liked the Box Tops & I liked this song. So, evidently did Quentin Tarantino as it turns up in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Donnie always had a song, usually written with someone, for whoever was around. “Behind Every Great Man There’s A Woman” is a great re-write of “When A Man Loves A Woman” for Percy Sledge, all the better for not having heard it a million times. There were others for Percy, a single for Sam & Dave, an album track for Tony Joe White. When Dusty Springfield came to Memphis in 1968 Fritts & regular partner Eddie Hinton brought the languid “Breakfast In Bed”, the next best known song, after “Son of a Preacher Man”, on a landmark record. The following year Atlantic repeated the trick & brought Lulu to Muscle Shoals where the same pair had “Where’s Eddie” waiting for the Scottish songstress.



Image result for donnie fritts kristoffersonDonnie was a piano player now but there were others, Spooner Oldham, David Briggs, around at Muscle Shoals. As a songwriter the deals were done up in Nashville & it was there he got the gig, which lasted for 25 years, of playing in Kris Kristofferson’s band. Theirs was a close friendship, “Funky” Donnie Fritts is name checked on the introduction to Kris’ “The Pilgrim” (used by Scorsese in “Taxi Driver”) & he had co-writing credits on the early albums. The KK connection took Donnie to Hollywood for small roles in “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”, two other Peckinpah joints & Monte Hellman’s fantastic “Cockfighter”. Nice work.



Image result for donnie fritts dan pennIn 1974 Donnie made his own LP. The title track of “Prone To Lean” was written for & about his economy of movement, the Alabama Leaning Man’s propensity to find the nearest wall for support, by Kristofferson. A Muscle Shoals all-star band, including the impeccable rhythm section, David Hood, Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins, showed out for a swampy Shoals Funk session, a self-possessed’ easygoing, heartfelt collection with no lack of dry humour. Donnie now had a portfolio of melodic songs, simply but strongly constructed, which lent themselves to the full spectra of Country & R&B. Dozens of artists wanted to record them.



Ray Charles was not the only one who recorded “We Had It All”. Written with Nashville Hall of Famer Troy Seals the ballad originally appeared on “Honky Tonk Heroes” the 1973 album by Waylon Jennings, a milestone of Outlaw Country. It’s been covered by an extensive & diverse range of artists, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Scott Walker, Tina Turner, I’ll stop there. Oh yeah, in 1978 while recording “Some Girls” Keith Richard showed his love & respect for Heartbreak Country with a wonderful version which didn’t make the final album but is the one that makes the cut here.


There was another solo record in 1997 when many of Donnie’s friends, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Waylon, happily gave assistance. In 2004 the old gang had a reunion as the Country Soul Revue, something would have been missing if he had not been involved. He was given the opportunity to to record again in 2015 & was joined by younger artists, Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, who had grown up listening to & admiring his work.



Image result for donnie fritts dan penn

Arthur, Dan & Donnie

Donnie met Arthur Alexander Jr when he was 16. They became teacher & student, friends & collaborators, as “June” made the first hits from Muscle Shoals with his thoroughly modern, influential (the Beatles & the Stones!) Pop Soul songs. In 1972 he contributed to Arthur’s marvellous eponymous LP & again to 1993’s “Lonely Just Like Me” which included their stunning “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way”. Last year, 2018, aged 75, Donnie released a tribute to his friend, a gorgeous, sincere, of course sentimental collection of Southern Soul which makes me smile & then chokes me up.


Image result for donnie fritts dan pennDonnie Fritts lived a long & happy life making the music he loved with his friends. Back in the 1950’s, when the alternative was picking cotton, he couldn’t have imagined that his weekend hobby would make him a living, take him around the world & that his songs would endure for & affect generations. He was part of a small, talented group who rode their luck & made their mark on American music. I apologise if there are too many clips in this post, I could have chosen twice as many & I’m sure there are others to be discovered. Funky Donnie Fritts was one of the good guys.



A Simple Song Might Make It Better For A Little While (Arthur Alexander)

Currently on heavy rotation round here is a welcome addition to the record collection. “Rainbow Road: The Warner Bros Recordings” is essentially a 1994 reissue of “Arthur Alexander”, a 1972 LP by that very man, with 3 bonus tracks not included on the original. It’s a great record, under promoted & mostly ignored at the time of release. The title track goes like this…

Image result for arthur alexander advertI’ve written about Arthur Alexander back when I was new to this blog lark. I got diverted by cover versions of his songs & only featured one of his own. I know, you don’t have to tell me, I’m disappointed in myself. He was certainly a fine & influential songwriter but he is also one of my favourite singers with a warm, restrained, soulful delivery. Any success he had as a Country Soul pioneer was in the early 1960’s, before the explosion of interest in Soul music just a couple of years later. His second single “You Better Move On (1961) was the first hit recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the windfall financed a move to a new facility on Avalon Avenue where musical history would be created. It was successful enough to get a UK release & there were young British musicians who were listening.

Image result for arthur alexanderThe Rolling Stones recorded their version of “You Better…”in 1963 for a 4 track Extended Play 7”. It stood out as another texture for the group, softer than the Blues & R&B covers that made up the rest of their live set. In 1964 the only track on the Stones debut LP credited to Jagger-Richards, the plaintive Pop ballad “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)”, had a similar tone to Arthur’s song. Meanwhile, over in Hamburg, the Beatles needed plenty of material to add variety to the up-to six sets a night they had to play & Arthur Alexander’s early singles were plundered by the pre-Fabs. “Anna (Go to Him)” made it on to the “Please Please Me” LP (1963) while there were live versions of “Soldier of Love”, “Where Have You Been” & “Shot of Rhythm & Blues”, songs not written by Alexander but all originally recorded by him. There’s no doubt that John Lennon’s early songwriting, songs like “This Boy” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, were influenced by Arthur’s mid-tempo style.

Arthur was signed to Dot Records, a label based in Nashville. The signature piano trill on “Anna” is played by the master session man Floyd Cramer. Dot was mainly a Country label & some of the material he recorded there could be a little conservative, standards that lacked the simple flow that made his own songs so attractive. When his contract ended he signed with Monument Records & his releases were sporadic for the rest of the decade. There are stories of a fondness for drink & amphetamines, breakdowns &, in 1971, a third & final commitment to a state mental hospital. Despite this “The Monument Years”, recordings between 1965-72, is a pretty good collection.

Related imageOn his release things picked up for Arthur & he signed to Warner Bros. The LP “Arthur Alexander”, his first extended set for 10 years, is produced by Tommy Cogbill, bass player with the Memphis Boys, house band at American Studios. He & his fellow band members, transplanted to Nashville for the sessions are all over the record. Songwriting talents from the 3 centres of Southern music, Nashville, Memphis & Alabama, make contributions to the playlist. On “Rainbow Road”, a wonderful story song co-written by Dan Penn & Donnie Fritts, Alexander’s assured vocal is enhanced by the inimitable guitar of Reggie Young. There are 4 tracks by Country writer Dennis Linde, one of which “Burning Love” was a single just before Elvis took his version into the charts. Steve Cropper off of Booker T & the MG’s has his name on the gentle “Down the Back Roads. My selection is one of Arthur’s own songs, co-written with his now regular partner Thomas Cain. “Mr John” is the kind of down home Americana that Elton John & Bernie Taupin were aiming for on “Tumbleweed Connection”. That LP was awarded a Gold record, this one was a well-kept secret until after the death of the singer. Them’s the breaks in an industry with plenty of similar stories.

Image result for arthur alexanderArthur didn’t make any money from those cover versions by his illustrious fans. He made more records but, disillusioned with the business, by 1977 he was happy to be at peace with his demons & his God, driving a bus in Cleveland , Ohio with little inclination to perform. He finally responded to continuing respect for & interest in with a well-received comeback in New York which led to the old gang getting back together for the LP “Lonely Just Like Me” (1992). A fine job was made of some old songs, it was the 4th time he had recorded “In the Middle of it All”, obviously a favourite of his.  Moves were being made to get Arthur a better deal on his catalogue of songs when, in 1993, he collapsed in one of the meetings & died the next morning. “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way”, from that final album, is proof that class is permanent. It’s a poignant piece of homespun wisdom taken at a lovely easy canter, pure Arthur Alexander. This tribute stops here because I seem to have something in my eye.

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.


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.