All The Way From Memphis (Soul March 20th 1971)

The Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations for 50 years ago this week was rammed with great records by great artists. The four Tamla Motown singles in the Top 10 by the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 & the Four Tops, were joined by Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin & James Brown. The remaining two, Johnnie Taylor & Z.Z. Hill, are probably not regarded with the same elevation but they were pretty good too. Let’s see what other fine, fine music we can find from the lower reaches of the chart.

The Staple Singers – The Staple Swingers (1970, Vinyl) - Discogs

A good start & how about this clip? For some years the Staple Singers, a family group from Chicago, had been moving towards the mainstream with little success. A reverence for their distinction in the Gospel field had led to a little timidity in both production & choice of material. Their final two records for Epic & those made with Steve Cropper at Stax were interesting but tended to undervalue the rich, emotive voice of Mavis & the individual guitar style of patriarch Pops, reaching back to the Country Blues he heard in Mississippi as a youth, that could distinguish them from the pack. There were some changes in 1970, brother Pervis left to be replaced by sister Yvonne while Al Bell, co-owner of the label, a man with an ear for what got played on the radio, took over production duties.

Press Advert 10x5 The Staple Singers : Be What You Are Album: Amazon.co.uk:  NewspaperClipping: Books

For “The Staple Swingers” LP (1971) Bell, looking to toughen up the testifying, moved the operation to Muscle Shoals. His song choice from the staff writers at Stax was considered. Their lyrics were more socially conscious, more compatible with Pops’ aim of telling it like it should be. On “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry”, an R&B hit in 1965 for O. V. Wright, Mavis sang the Blues & oh my, my. There are songs by Smokey Robinson & the Bee Gees & there is “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)”, co-written by Pop vet Jeff Barry & Bobby Bloom, lifted from Bloom’s debut album. It’s a surprisingly light choice benefitting greatly from its Stapleised treatment & it achieved just what was intended. Rising 6 places to #19 on the chart “Heavy..” was the first of an unbroken run of R&B Top 20 hits that stretched to 1976. Here on an Anne Murray special for Canadian TV, not yet the major stars they would become, they perform that first hit with the joy & affirmation that gave the Staple Singers a very particular, significant place in 1970s Soul.

Booker T. and the MG's – 64 Quartets

Just as Stax were welcoming new stars on their roster at #33 on the chart, up a lucky 13 places, was the final 45 from a group of musicians who had been absolutely pivotal to the extraordinary success of the label. In 1962 17 year old organist Booker T Jones, 20 year old guitarist Steve Cropper & bassist Lewie Steinberg, all already fixtures of the fledgling Memphis label’s house band, took advantage of a session break to jam on a track that was considered good enough to release. A B-side was needed so, with drummer Al Jackson, they quickly came up with “Green Onions”, a Top 3 US Pop hit, one of the most popular, enduring instrumentals of all time. The record made Booker T & the M.G.’s reputation, they continued to record throughout the decade though it would be 1967 before a photo of the racially integrated group appeared on an album cover. Back in the studio at 926 East McLemore Avenue both Jones, while studying music at Indiana U, & Cropper became indispensable as musicians, writers & producers. Their credits are too long to list here, Steve co-wrote “In the Midnight Hour”, “Knock On Wood” & “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” along with many others. With bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn joining in 1965 the sound of Booker T & the M.G.’s was the sound of Stax.

Booker T. and the MG's | Members, Songs, & Facts | Britannica

That was then this is 1971, the group were no longer young kids happy to be making music. Just as up in Detroit at Hitsville USA key players at Soulsville USA demanded more autonomy & probably a bigger cut of the money they were making for the company. Booker T left for California in 1969, Steve Cropper formed his own production company in the following year. When time came to record the “Melting Pot” album Booker T refused to return to the Memphis studio, the band travelled to New York between gigs. The title track, abbreviated as a 45, is 8.15 of alchemy between Jones, Cropper, Dunn & Jackson. I can’t pick a man of the match, these guys knew when to step forward when to lay off, just how good they sounded when they played together. The track surges, swells & is as funky as anything. An outstanding instrumental & what a way to finish. In the words of Duck Dunn “we had a band powerful enough to turn goat’s piss into gasoline”.

O. V. Wright – When You Took Your Love From Me / I Was Born All Over (1970,  Vinyl) - Discogs

Less than a mile down the road from the Stax set-up is Royal Studios. It’s on Willie Mitchell Boulevard, the name changed in 2004 to honour to honour the trumpeter turned producer who did so much to maintain Memphis as the Southern Soul capital through the 1970s. Further down the chart at #55 “When You Took Your Love From Me” was the latest 45 from O.V. (Overton Vertis) Wright a singer who made a string of albums of the highest quality with Mitchell. O.V.’s first recording “That’s How Strong My Love Is” was withdrawn when a contract signed while with his Gospel group, the Sunset Travellers turned up. That contract was with Don Robey, gambler turned booking agent turned label boss & not a man to be crossed. There are many R&B songs credited to Deadric Malone (a.k.a. Don Robey) that he probably didn’t write. Whoever did when O.V. sang the outcome was often startling. It’s a sad & beautiful world, other singers like Aretha & Mavis gave us joy but no one did yearning & loss like O.V. pouring it all out.

O.V. Wright | Spotify

As a youth I had yet to have my heart broken, I had never walked around with no more than a nickel & a nail in my pocket. I have now & the voice of O.V. Wright articulates these Blues. Like his contemporary Bobby “Blue” Bland, life experiences are an aid to appreciation of the music. Willie Mitchell called O.V. the most honest Blues singer he ever worked with. He had that gliding, still powerful Hi sound, the rhythm section, the horns, Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes on backing vocals but the magic was in waiting for the spirit to move the singer & to capture that special take. “When You Took Your Love…” is one of those records. Have Mercy! O.V. Wright was a troubled man, his career was interrupted by a stretch for narcotics offences then rehab. He returned to recording, his health & his voice affected but not his passion. In 1980, just 41 years old, he died from a heart attack.

This week’s live clip goes back to the Oakland Coliseum on the 31st of January 1970 & inspired by the watching Creedence Clearwater Revival, Booker T & the M.G.’s play, in the opinion of the organist, as well as they had ever done. “Time Is Tight” was written for the film “Up Tight” & a slower single version became their biggest commercial success since the debut hit. Here they have four guns blazing & they are the best band in the world. It’s a great performance underpinned by the metronomic drumming of Al Jackson Jr. Al was older than the rest of the M.G’s. He took a weekly salary from Stax & played sessions for Willie Mitchell where he used a different kit for a lighter touch. For just a moment back then I thought it a coincidence that two great drummers had the same name! His violent death in 1975 was a great loss to Soul music.

Turning It Loose (Soul May 1969)

The higher reaches of the Billboard R&B chart for May 23rd 1969 were packed with legendary names. The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Marvin Gaye & Aretha Franklin were all being denied the top spot by Joe Simon, a singer who is less widely remembered but back then was enjoying his biggest hit. “The Chokin’ Kind”, another song from master tunesmith Harlan Howard, had been a 1967 Country hit for Waylon Jennings. It was picked up by Nashville-based Joe, given a smooth Soul treatment & a crossover smash was inevitable.

Meanwhile at #8 a great band had another great tune.

 

 

Image result for booker t time is tightThis clip has been here before & when we finally get this time machine working then set the controls for the Oakland Coliseum on New Year’s Eve 1970 when Booker T & the M.G.’s opened for Credence Clearwater Revival. The older guys had jammed with CCR & wanted to show just what they could do onstage. The exceptionally talented quartet didn’t get around much anymore, kept busy in the Stax Memphis studios where they played on most of the music made in that label’s ascendant years, writing & producing many of the hits. While Credence watch admiringly from the wings that driving beat from drummer Al Jackson & Duck Dunn’s loping bass lay a solid foundation for Steve Cropper’s stinging guitar lines & Booker T’s swirling Hammond organ. The joy & compatibility of the ensemble is obvious. the trademark sound one of the wonders of the world of Soul Music.

 

Image result for booker t and the mgs poster“Time Is Tight” was written for the soundtrack of “Up Tight”, a film about Black militancy which sits between “In the Heat of the Night” & the upcoming Blaxploitation trend. The group’s albums were often loaded with covers of the hits of the day. This soundtrack, mostly original material written by Booker T Jones, Jazz & Blues influences in the foreground, is one of their most interesting. The single version of “Time Is Tight”, slower, succinct, building to an exciting crescendo, a highlight of a very impressive body of work, is just a click away. ( Here in the UK we hold particular affection for “Soul Limbo”, for many years the intro to TV coverage of cricket).

 

 

Earlier in 1960’s Phil Spector, the Tycoon of Teen, had kept US Pop interesting in the doldrums between Elvis joining the Army & the Fab Four appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Holed up in the echo chambers of Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios with some ace session players & a gang of drummers he & his crew meticulously pieced together a “Wall of Sound” on a string of hits. In 1966 he spent heaps of time & money on getting “River Deep-Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner just how he wanted it. Here in the UK where we got good taste, the song was recognised as a Spector master work, the US didn’t get it & the single stalled at #88 in the Pop charts. We now know that an easily bruised ego was the least of his personality problems but it would be 3 years before Spector re-entered a studio for a Ronettes 45 & then this one at #28 & rising.

 

Related imageCheckmates Ltd, 5 guys from Indiana, had released a few unsuccessful singles & a couple of live albums before attracting the attention of the star producer. Spector’s deal with A&M would get them out there & “Black Pearl” was the first track from an LP that gave frontman Sonny Charles lead billing. I loved the depth, drama & scope of Spector’s teen symphonies & this, like those other ones, sounded great on the radio. Half of the album “Love Is All We Have To Give” is a fine addition to & send-off for the Wall of Sound. There’s a heart-wrenching title track, a dynamic arrangement of “Proud Mary” that Ike Turner was happy to take for himself & a couple of updates from Phil’s New York apprenticeship with Leiber & Stoller. Side 2 is a 20 minute long orchestral selection from the musical “Hair” & no-one wants to hear that.

 

 

Image result for marva whitneyThe influence of last month’s chart-topper was already becoming evident & there are two cover versions of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” among the new entries this week. At #45 was the Hammond organ-heavy Senor Soul. Four of their members would become War & their time, their big time, would come soon enough. The highest newcomer, at #38, is Marva Whitney, Soul Sister #1 with “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who To Sock It To)”, a kind of cover version, a kind of answer record. The Isleys had taken much inspiration from James Brown’s sound & it was only right that he & his band should have their say about it. Live, beautiful in living colour on “The Mike Douglas Show”…marvellous!

 

IImage result for marva whitney it's my thingn 1968 Marva replaced Vicki Anderson as featured female vocalist in the James Brown Revue. Her boss was the money-maker for King Records so she got to make discs with her own name on the label. The records made with Vicki, Marva, Lyn Collins & his various backing musicians are sure enough Funky, brilliant satellites orbiting the star’s own. This incredible clip is tagged as Marva & the J.B.’s. There’s James conducting the hazy figures of the band who were still the Famous Flames on the records & I reckon, the James Brown Orchestra on stage. I’m sure that Maceo Parker is on saxophone, Jimmy Nolen, guitar but I would be wishing & hoping about the other players. No matter, how about that band! The following year Marva & everyone else quit over unresolved grievances with The Godfather of Funk & their replacements, they were the J.B.’s. That group could play a bit too.

 

 

A Band Powerful Enough To Turn Goat Piss Into Gasoline! (Booker T and the MGs)

I really should find the time to watch the film of the Stax-Volt  1967 tour of Europe every week.  This recording of the Oslo concert is only an hour long & never fails to delight. Otis Redding defines charisma, the dynamism of Sam & Dave is still startling, Eddie Floyd & Arthur Conley do their thing too. On stage for the whole of the gig is the heartbeat of Stax, 4 musicians who usually stayed in the East McLemore Ave studio in Memphis, creating & playing great music & generally being the best band in the world.

Booker T & the M.G.’s were the opening act & part of the backing band on the tour. They, of course, had to play their 1962 surefire smash “Green Onions”,the tough, irresistible blues instrumental which just everyone knows & which still sounds great 50 years later. The song, written when Booker T was still in high school, is part of the culture. Only this weekend I saw a documentary on Mott the Hoople in which guitarist Mick Ralphs said that he did not play until he heard “Green Onions” &  thought that he wanted to have some of that.

The Y-tube says that this clip is “Red Beans & Rice”, a 1965 B-side. It is in fact “Tic-Tac-Toe” a 45 from 1964. It’s not included in the concert film that I know so watching these young, sharp dressed men walk out on to the stage & play this really is, to me, a thing of wonder. It is a cliche that the best groups are greater than the sum of their parts but have those constituents ever been as accomplished & inspired as these 4 musicians ? Man, a tune like this gets played first up & you know you are in for a good night.

This tour was a coming out for the group. It’s disingenuous to claim that fans did not know that the M.G.’s were an integrated combo. While there are very few early photographs, the billing for the tour says “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”. In Europe there was less reason to obscure the group’s racial mix. Damn, it made them cooler still. On the whole the fans were white boys with a love of the very same music that had gotten Cropper & Duck Dunn into this. It was though, the first time that all the musicians on tour had experienced adulation & appreciation on such a scale. It was also, I guess, the first time they could all go to eat or drink together just any place they wanted without checking that the vibe was right & the coast was clear. There was no going back from this, that’s for sure.

So just the next year, 1968, & the group are back in Europe, in, I think, France. One year on & the dress code is a little more relaxed. Duck could use a hair cut & a shave but the looseness of “Booker Loo”, a 6 minute Memphis blues & soul & rhythm stew, is just perfect. Cool cat Booker T, an Indiana U music student during the week while writing “Born A Bad Sign” at the weekend, takes it to church just for a while before Al Jackson Jr brings it back to the dirty boulevard with just a couple of firm strikes. I could listen to Mr Jackson play the drums on every day of my life. Whether it’s the drive of his work with this group or his silkier sessions at the Hi Studios of Willie Mitchell he is always absolutely doing it right. When I get to see him do what he does it gets a little too much & I need a sit down.

This clip, to these ears & eyes is so, so good. Whatever way up you want to look at the music of Booker T & the M.G.’s it is a groove to dance to. The beau monde here are giving it their best moves. I hope they now remember it & know how lucky they were to be there

1970 & the M.G.’s are the support act for the most popular group of the day, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hmm…ever get the feeling you were  in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a gig ! The headline act look on from the side of the stage, they do not want to miss “Time Is Tight”. This worldwide hit is from the movie “Uptight”, a crime drama made a year before “blaxploitation” & soul soundtracks became the current thing. There’s a tense logic to the progression of the song, an effortless restraint which gives it a clarity which the more ornate instrumentalists of the day kind of ignored. “Time Is Tight”…I think that the word is “cohesion”. Creedence liked to keep it simple too. In 1970, looking to enhance their bayou blues-rock their LP “Pendulum” made extensive use of a Hammond organ. That’s why John Fogarty has a close eye on Booker T in this clip.

By this time there was, just as there had been at Motown, the realization that while making music was fun maybe it was time to get paid. Despite being under contract Booker T upped & moved to California. Steve followed suit, starting his own studio in Memphis before, eventually leaving for the West Coast. Duck & Jackson stayed on, in 1975 the 3 of them were playing together & making plans. The unfortunate murder of “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” (Steve Cropper) closed this particular chapter of our music’s story. Now Booker T, a man with little to prove to anyone, gets to play with whoever he chooses  while Cropper & Dunn are beloved Blues Brothers. We have those wonderful instrumental records made by ambitious, confident & talented young men. I look around for the best available clips for these things I do. These 3 are all music of the highest quality. Right I’m away to throw some shapes to “Booker Loo”.

If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck (Albert King)

Well…being ill for 3 weeks really sucked. Spending the Easter Holiday in hospital was a shock but the wonderful members of the National Health Service prodded & probed, gave care & consideration & reassured me that I was receiving the best attention. Any time your body gives out then self-absorption is, I suppose, inevitable. Perfect for some crappy blog post about me, me. me. So… fuck that noise ! I have heard too much of it & there are others who have it worse. The hospital has helped me to recover & the nicotine withdrawal, after 40 years of addiction, is too dull to write about. Man ! it is good to be well enough to be writing this thing again. Back to the music.

Albert King is known as one of the “3 Kings of the Blues”. B.B., the most established of the 3 had many hits in the 1950s, enough to claim the title for himself. Freddie was selling records too though “Freddie King Goes Surfin” was hardly for the purist. By the mid-1960s Albert was in his 40s, had some success with 45s but had released just the one LP.All 3 had worked the “chitlin circuit” for years but the Blues was hardly the current thing. If it was then it was the Blues as interpreted by the young long-haired British boys. Albert had  a fine reputation, a lovely Gibson Flying V & the killer nickname of “The Velvet Bulldozer”. In 1966 he made a very smart though surprising career move when he signed with the Stax label in Memphis.

The resulting LP was many things, every one of them good. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is recorded with the Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, young men who were proving to have a facility for writing, producing & playing on records which had a heart full of soul & sold by the truck load. They rose to the challenge of making a Blues LP & I am sure that Albert King knew that these guys intended to do his music right. The title track, written by William Bell & Booker T Jones, is either Soul/Blues or Blues/Soul. No matter…it is a stone dead monster classic of a track, a solid slab of rhythm which moved Blues music into 1967. The sessions were originally recorded as singles, “Bad Sign” was the 4th to be released, It was this concentration on quality along with a respectful & inspired selection of standards which made the LP a breakthrough in electric Blues & really made Albert King’s career.

By 1969 the Blues were back in the foreground of popular music. There was a new “Blues Boom” in Great Britain as the graduates of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers began to form their own bands. Cream, Jimi Hendrix (honorary Brit…no doubt !) & the wonderful Free all made their own stabs at Albert’s songs. In the US Canned Heat were listening while Led Zeppelin lifted a chunk of the lyrics from “The Hunter” for “How Many More Times”. Record labels contorted themselves to position their bluesmen in to the youth market. “Electric Mud” (1968) is a startling re-imagining of Muddy Waters as a psychedelic musician. The records made when players were sent to London to play with the young guys were less successful.

Albert King was already there with a cool label & the best studio band in the world. This gig at the Fillmore East shows his confidence, his great touring band &, above all, the style of the man as a singer & player. He was probably happy to be with a label which got his records into the shops & could even get radio play. He certainly stayed with Stax until the final financial meltdown of 1975.

He was not immune to the “let’s make this shit modern” syndrome (Rick Rubin did not invent this lame-ass notion). There’s a “King Plays the King” LP of Elvis covers. The early R&B hits at least, not the post-Army awfulness. Don Nix produced a record at Muscle Shoals with new songs, Taj Mahal covers & such. It was, however, when Albert played the blues straight that it really came together. In 1972 “I’ll Play The Blues For You”, a record made with the Movement, the studio band on the massive hits of Isaac Hayes, he made his other essential record & enjoyed his biggest hit. This clip of the title track is from the momentous 1972 Wattstax concert when the entire Stax roster played in L.A. for just $1 entrance fee.

So, this “Velvet Bulldozer” tag ? Wiki claims that Albert drove such a vehicle in the 1950s when the music was not full-time. I am just not buying that. Albert King just played his Blues. He did not, as Bill Graham said, jive & shuck his audience with tricks & showmanship. His smooth runs, a beautiful tone & technique,  kept on coming & would get to you inevitably. Albert kept on doing it until his passing in 1992 & there were always young guitarists willing to collaborate & to pay tribute to his influence. It is these records he made for Stax which stand as the first time the Blues met the 1960s head-on & produced some serious relevance to match these young white boys who were stealing their shit.

Till Steve Cropper Plays A Bum Note (Stax)

From that very first time I heard the brassy blare, the rock solid rhythm and Wilson “Wicked” Pickett strutting through the Midnight Hour the sound of Memphis soul has shaken more than my tailfeathers. In 1966 I dutifully posted my vote for Wilson as the best singer in the world to a music paper (I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause). A year later, just turned 15 years old, I waited on my bike to meet my best friend and share the shock of the morning news. Our new favourite, Otis Redding, had been killed in a plane crash. The world carried on with little regard but for Wink & I it was a big loss.

I did not know the hows and the whys, the whos and the wheres of the Stax/Atlantic legends then like I do now. I just knew that the raw, deep soul sound sure did it for me.

In 1967 Stax brought their artists to Europe for a tour which galvanised both performers and audiences. The Beatles, busy recording “Sgt Pepper”, sent a limo to meet them at Heathrow. The mainly black performers had not played to mainly white audiences before. The attention & interest alerted the label to not just a European market. Later in the year Otis Redding tore up the Monterey Pop Festival before the hippie “love crowd”. We are very lucky that one of these concerts, in Oslo, was filmed. Every second of the film is packed with quality, energy and soul.

Eddie Floyd is singing “Raise Your Hand” the follow up to his biggest record “Knock On Wood”. This simple call and response sits on a bed of pure Stax music. You could sing the telephone book and it would sound good. (Wilson Pickett started to do so on  “634-5789”). Eddie made some great records, he’s looking fine and singing strong here. He will always be remembered for the classic “Knock On Wood”.

Behind Floyd is the powerhouse band who backed all the acts on this legendary show and were the house band back in the Memphis studio. In the horn section there is Wayne Jackson and, I think, Packy Axton, son of Estelle, the AX in Stax. The other four are Booker T and the M.Gs, stars in their own right. Booker T Jones, played organ, arranged and composed songs while studying classical composition. His 2007 Grammy for lifetime achievement is deserved. Two childhood friends, Duck Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar) were young men who grew up loving R&B, they knew how it went, knew where it was going and were helping to take it there. Cropper co-wrote this song, “Knock On Wood” and many others in his years at Stax. On drums is Al Jackson Jr and he is simply the best exponent of this instrument I have ever heard or seen. Eddie Floyd is great in this clip. Watch it again, see and listen to the best band in the world…The Mar-Keys.

Stax was not only the honking, stomping shots of energy, when they tried a little tenderness they got the job done too.William Bell, like Eddie Floyd, wrote and recorded many memorable songs without great commercial success. In 1967 he released ” A Tribute to a King”, the label’s eulogy for Otis. A year later the near-perfect soul duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number” was a big UK hit. In the same year “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” set new standards in sweet soul music. From the opening restraint of Steve Cropper’s guitar, the strings, yes strings, before the horns move in and Bell’s impassioned regret. Man, producer Booker T does a fine job on this. Like the run of 1960s singles by the Impressions this song just ends too quickly.

The song has often been covered (Billy Idol…anyone ?) and sampled. In Jamaica in 1977 Lee Perry produced a version by George Faith which is a highpoint of sweet reggae and is well worth a listen.

The story goes that Otis Redding returned from Europe and said he didn’t want to tour with Sam and Dave anymore. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy duo were one of the great live acts of the 1960s. Sam Moore and Dave Prater enjoyed massive success with their records too. A run of hits, many written by the team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, established them as the biggest soul pairing in the US. Here they just wreck “Soul Man” with the Stax B-line. The A team were back making hits in Memphis but there is no visible or aural drop in quality. I could try and encapsulate Sam and Dave’s appeal but there are what, about 150 videos on Y-Tube and there are not 3 better than this. Just watch the clip, it’s great.

With international success, the tragic and premature loss of their greatest star and the machinations of the music industry the travails of the Stax label are labyrinthine and a little sad. Led by Isaac Hayes they recovered from the loss of their magnificent catalogue but the story still ended in bankruptcy. A cottage industry out of a converted cinema set the standard for great soul music which still endures. I still listen to and love the music that Stax made. I guess that once you’re a soul boy you end up a soul man.