Chicago: Second City Soul (July 4th 1970)

I first became aware of Major Lance in the Autumn of 1964. In that first wave of British Beat it was customary for the new groups to record their own versions of US R&B hits, As an 11 year old I knew the meaning of neither “cultural” nor “appropriation”, in fact these energetic Anglo attempts led me to the original versions which, in most instances I found that I preferred. This was certainly the case with the intriguingly titled “Um,Um, Um,Um,Um,Um”, a UK hit for Manchester’s Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, a US smash for Major Lance. “Um, Um,Um…” is a smart, melodic little story, a change from the “moon” & “June”, “baby”, “maybe” rhymes. On Wayne & the Mindbenders’ label it was credited to Curtis/Mayfield, a pair to keep an ear on. Turns out that it was just the one man, my introduction to The Man. Curtis & Major had met at Wells High School in North Chicago. Curtis was just 16 when his group the Impressions had a big hit with “For Your Precious Love”. He went to work at Okeh Records under the tutelage of producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate & this team created Major’s first record for the label, the charming “Delilah”, in 1962. A new entry at #42 on the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations for July 4th 1970 was “Stay Away From Me (I Love You Too Much)”, sung by Major Lance, written, arranged, produced & released through his new label by Curtis Mayfield.

 

 

 

Major Lance PageMajor Lance had been a featured dancer on “Time For Teens”, a local TV show so Mayfield wrote him a dance song.”The Monkey Time” was a breakthrough hit, the start of a run of success that by 1965 brought the release of a “Greatest Hits” album, 12 tracks all written by Curtis. Some were tailor-made for the singer, others were later recorded by the Impressions, all had a bright, danceable Latin tinge. It’s the  the sound of Chicago R&B becoming Chicago Soul. When Curtis started Curtom he brought his friend with him & “Stay Away From Me”, which rose to #13 on the R&B chart, is a great example of the innovation he was bringing to his music. The lively, dramatic interplay of strings & brass underpinned by the insistent percussion of “Master” Henry Gibson & Mayfield’s own guitar would be heard more on the release of Curtis’ solo debut in September of 1970.

 

With The Song Of Life: Major Lance - Everybody Loves A Good Time ...There was just one more 45 on Curtom & in 1972 Major Lance moved to the UK where a thriving Soul scene appreciated his records & his live performances, His 1973 album “Live at the Torch” in Stoke-on-Trent captures the energy of the music & audiences at these all-night clubs. On his return to the US he recorded with various labels before, in 1978 he served three years of a 10 year stretch for selling cocaine & his career stalled. Just as Lee Dorsey & Allen Toussaint were making significant, popular music characteristic of New Orleans so were Major Lance, Curtis & the Okeh team in Chicago. “Everybody Loves A Good Time” is a 40 track collection of his work at that label. It’s essential for those interested in the development of Curtis Mayfield & for fans of great Soul music. I have just found out that Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, so eloquent during the recent BLM protests, is Major Lance’s daughter. His legacy lives on.

 

 

Classic and Collectable: Gene Chandler - Duke of Earl by Gene ChandlerGene Chandler is another Chicago Soul legend. He made his mark before Major Lance when “Duke of Earl”, a song he recorded with his Doo-Wop group, the Dukays, & released under his name sold a million in 1962. Gene ran with it, adopting a cape, top hat, monocle & cane for live performances & releasing tracks under his new title. Any thoughts after a  couple of less successful follow-ups that he could be a one-hit wonder were dispelled when a strong ballad “Rainbow” written by (this is Chicago…you guessed it) Curtis Mayfield put him back in the R&B Top 20. Gene did write his own songs but it was Mayfield’s which brought him the biggest success. I’m sure that Carl Davis & Jerry Pate were already involved. From 1964 their names & others from a team of talented arrangers appeared on the record sleeves. I have to mention the swinging, consummate “Nothing Can Stop Me”, a US Pop 20 hit in 1966 & so popular in UK Soul clubs that a 1968 re-release almost made the Top 40 over here.

 

Gene Chandler - "Groovy Situation" | Songs | Crownnote“Groovy Situation”, a new entry at #41 on this week’s chart, was to become Gene’s biggest Pop hit since “Duke of Earl”. His established team had dispersed to pursue their own things & Chandler had not only signed a new contract with Mercury Records but was confident enough to start his own Bamboo label. “The Gene Chandler Situation” (1970), his first self-produced LP, effectively matches his strong, smooth voice to an updated sound for new songs rather than the cover of standards & recent hits that had filled earlier records. The fine single (“Can you dig it?”) & the less successful but, to my ears just as good, “Simply Call It Love” are great examples of an artist responding to changing times. In 1970 Gene was awarded “Producer of the Year” by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers (against Norman Whitfield & Gamble & Huff). It was not only his work on his own album that had earned him this accolade.

 

 

Mel & Tim | Discography | DiscogsMel Hardin & Tim McPherson were cousins from Holly Springs Mississippi. Discovered by Gene they were signed to Bamboo (an operation that also involved Mel’s mother) & began work on their debut LP, produced by Gene with the assistance of experienced Chicago hands. It was the track “Backfield In Motion” that caught the record-buying public’s ear & the new act found themselves with a R&B Top 3, Pop Top 10 hit with a gold record for a million copies sold. “Mail Call Time”, rising to #38 in this week’s listings, was the third selection from the album to chart after the title track “Good Guys Only Win In The Movies” had made the R&B Top 20. I’m sure this song about letters from home resonated with those serving in South East Asia & those at home writing the letters. Mel & Tim were no dynamic Sam & Dave, their record, which rather individually includes two covers of British Prog-Rockers Spooky Tooth, still packs a punch & is very pleasant. In 1972 the duo recorded another album, this time at Muscle Shoals, & repeated the million-selling success of “Backfield…” with “Starting All Over Again”.

 

Another track on the record was “Groovy Situation”, obviously a very good call for Gene Chandler to take it for himself. Gene recorded an album with Mercury’s other Chicago Soul star, Jerry Butler, before the hits got smaller. In 1977 he was sentenced to a year in prison when he sold a pound of heroin to undercover federal agents. While still on probation he came straight back to music & the R&B Top 10 with the Discofied “Get Down”. Jeez, these Chicago Soul guys lived some kind of lives.

Just Blew In From The Windy City (Soul May 2nd 1970)

The #1 record in the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B locations for the whole of the month of May was “Love On A Two Way Street” by the Moments. Such a smash was keeping a couple of discs made in Chicago from the top spot. Tyrone Davis was hoping to repeat the success of last year’s “Can I Change Your Mind” but “Turn Back the Hands of Time” was stalled at #2 for the third week running while at #3, up a massive jump from #19 & surely a contender to replace the Moments, were the mighty, mighty Dells.

 

 

 

Northern Soul/Tamla Motown - Gladys Knight/The Dells Repro Concert ...The Dells had their first million-selling record in 1956. A decade later, the seasoned vocal group, with a line-up that would not change for almost 50 years, brought their expertise & talent to the great Chicago label Chess & pretty soon the Dells’ name was back in the R&B chart frame. Remakes of “Stay In My Corner” & their original hit “Oh What A Night” were both #1 records. New songs were provided by producer Bobby Miller & ace arranger Charles Stepney, at this time pushing the boundaries with Rotary Connection, did his thing with the blend of strings & brass that they did so well in Chicago. Between 1968 & 1970 the Dells had 10 Top 20 R&B hits. “Open Up My Heart” is one of that run, as finely tuned & classy as the rest.

 

The Dells, an American R&B vocal group, five men performing on ...There were many fine singers around in Soul music but the powerful, versatile baritone of Marvin Junior, a big man with a big voice, was a special thing. It’s Marvin’s voice that let’s you hear a song for the first time & know it’s the Dells. He was a great influence on Teddy Pendergrass whose time would soon come as the lead with Harold Melvin’s group but the Blue Notes didn’t have what the Dells had. Johnny Carter’s tenor-falsetto, a remarkable range, provided the perfect counterpoint to Marvin. The pair had sung together for a long time & knew exactly how it worked. Marvin’s son later said, “Johnny would set it up with the lightning, then Marvin would come with the thunder” & that’s perfect. When Miller left for Motown Stepney took over production & the hits just kept on coming. When they split with Chess they kept on going & going. There’s a lot more to the Dells than their remarkable longevity, pick up any of the 12 albums they made with the Chicago label & you’ll be on the right track.

 

 

 

little milton | TumblrMeanwhile at the same Ter-Mar Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue Little Milton was recording “If Walls Could Talk”, his fourth LP for Chess’ Checker imprint. Milton had been around so long that, after being spotted by Ike Turner, he had recorded at Sun Records in Memphis before Elvis Presley made the place world famous. He combined performing with production & management at his own Bobbin label where a distribution deal with Chess led to him moving over in 1961. It would be four years before “We’re Gonna Make It” was an R&B #1 & he was able to release his first album. Little Milton was a Blues man, as much a guitarist as a great singer. His next record was “…Sings Big Blues” but he knew what was commercial & the title track of “Grits Ain’t Groceries (All Around the World)” is a brassy Soul stomper. “Grits ain’t grocery, eggs ain’t poultry & Mona Lisa was a man!”, one of the best lyrics ever.

 

Little Milton (The Blues is Alright) - YouTube | Blues music, Jazz ...“Baby I Love You” was Little Milton’s highest charting R&B hit since 1965. It’s the most commercial track from an album that favours Soul rather than Blues. I don’t know who makes those guitar stabs in the middle eight but they sound good. When Milton slows it down he can mix the gruff with the smooth in the style of Bobby “Blue” Bland & when he ups the pace, ably supported by the nameless & immaculate Chess house band, he gets down with the best. When his label hit problems after the death of founder Leonard Chess Milton’s former protege, Albert King, found him a gig at Stax. The Blues were now running the game & Little Milton’s reputation was sustained as much for his instrumental work than by his vocals.

 

 

 

Curtis Mayfield Finally Gets a Definitive Biography. What Took So ...Across town The Impressions had a new entry on the chart, at #35 with “Check Out Your Mind”, the title track of their latest LP. This was probably no surprise for one of American music’s greatest vocal groups. They were a fixture of Soul’s rich tapestry & since 1967’s smash “We’re A Winner” the majority of their 45’s made the R&B Top 20. From 1964 to 68, on six Top 20, R&B albums the group had moved through simple Gospel truths, honeyed love songs to social commentary reflecting the changing aspirations of African-Americans, all marked by Curtis Mayfield’s great songs, his sweet high voice & melodious vocal harmonies. The last of these records, “This Is My Country” (1968) was released on Curtis’ own Curtom label. He had learned his trade in Chicago with producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate at Okeh Records & now, just 26, he was ready to take care of his own business.

 

The Impressions - Check Out Your Mind / Can't You See (1970, Vinyl ...“Check Out Your Mind” was to be the final LP that Curtis made with the Sam Gooden & Fred Cash & from the bustling Psychedelic Soul of the title track onward the trio went out on a high. Curtis’ songwriting was becoming more complex, & so were the sinuous arrangements, that Windy City brass/string driven thing again, with the rhythms of percussionist “Master” Henry Gibson prominent. The Impressions, Mayfield replaced by Leroy Hutson, stayed at Curtom & made more hit records. The records Curtis, Sam & Fred had made together are the soundtrack to the 1960’s. In May 1970 Curtis entered Chicago’s RCA Studios to begin work on his debut solo LP. The Impressions had always been about affirmation & moving on up, now he was free to embrace the Funk, to pull no punches & to get right on for the darkness. In November 1970 when we first heard the ominous bass, the spoken Biblical intro & the scream of ” (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go we not only knew that Curtis Mayfield had changed but Soul music had too.

 

This week’s lockdown bonus is taken from the treasure trove that is “The !!!! Beat”, a TV show that, for 26 episodes in 1966, brought the Soul stars of the day to Dallas to perform their latest songs, capturing them, many for the only time, in glorious colour. Here’s Little Milton with his big hit “We’re Gonna Make It”, performing live in front of a great band led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown & along with a couple of Go-Go dancers. As I said…Glorious!

 

Doing Our Thing On The Friendship Train (Soul December 1969)

The #1 song on “The Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations” (I wonder what that means) through December 1969 was a valedictory single by Tamla Motown’s most successful artists, indeed one of the biggest groups of the decade. The label were making plans for the 1970’s & those plans included separating Diana Ross from the Supremes.

 

 

Image result for supremes someday we'll be together advertIn fact “Someday We’ll Be Together Again” was slated to be the first solo single by Ms Ross. The Detroit trio had enjoyed 11 previous #1 hits on the Pop chart (you probably know them all) but 1969’s releases had not proved to be as popular & that’s no way to say goodbye. “Someday..” was the final 45 to have “Diana Ross & the Supremes” on the label & it added to that list of chart toppers. The Supremes performing “Baby Love” were the first young, stylish African-American women I had ever seen on UK TV. The bespoke hits, provided by Holland-Dozier-Holland, just kept on coming. In 1967 the Modtastic “The Happening” was a sure fire smash by international superstars then troubled & dissatisfied Florence Ballard was ungraciously replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Backing vocals on the records were increasingly provided by session singers & next time out the psychedelicised “Reflections” had Diana’s name as first billing.

 

Related imageDiana, Mary & Cindy, all gussied up & glittery, made their customary appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to promote “Someday…”. It’s poised & polished but the performance lacks producer Johnny Bristol’s ad-libbed interjections of encouragement which added grit, depth & drama to the record. The song is a remake remodel of Bristol’s 1961 original recording with his duo Johnny & Jackey, a much simpler, almost Ska-like affair. It’s an appropriate conclusion to such a remarkable run of success. Diana’s solo debut was coming along the following year & there were rather hopeful plans to make her into a Hollywood star. Mary Wilson continued as the only original member of the Supremes & there’s a run of memorable 45’s to come. Despite all the personal positioning & politics between the women & the label there’s no doubt that the Supremes were not the same without Diana & equally no doubt that they were sensational.

 

 

Image result for gladys knight friendship trainAt #6 on the chart was another Motown act, another female with her name at the front of the group. Gladys Knight & the Pips were an established name, particularly for their impeccably choreographed live performances, before they signed for the label in 1966. Producer Norman Whitfield made good use of Gladys’ urgent delivery for “Take Me in Your Arms and Love Me” (a big UK hit), “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” & “The End of the Road” but she never shook the feeling that Motown were not providing the material & promotion that others received. The fantastic, funky “Friendship Train”, assertive & affirming, a different “calling out across the nation” this time, written by Whitfield & Detroit stalwart Barrett Strong, is certainly one from the top shelf. Beautiful Gladys & the equally attractive Pips sang the song when they were the star turn on the first syndicated episode of “Soul Train” in October 1971. A fine start to the show’s 35 year long run.

 

Image result for gladys knight buddah records advertGladys Knight & the Pips remained with Motown when the corporation moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. Their records continued to make the Top 10 of the R&B chart. The album featured Gladys’ strong, emotional vocal interpretations of popular ballads. 1971’s “Standing Ovation” included “Help Me Make It Through the Night”, “Fire & Rain”, “The Long & Winding Road” & others while the dead-stone Northern Soul classic “No One Could Love You More” was overlooked. In the final week of 1972 the group released “Neither One of Us (Wants to be the One to Say Goodbye)” a massive hit, their farewell to Motown having refused a new contract & finding the love they deserved at Buddah Records. In 1974 “Neither…” was awarded the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or a Group. Gladys Knight & the Pips were already on a journey to even bigger things aboard the “Midnight Train to Georgia” which won Best R&B Performance on the same night. Woo-Hoo!

 

 

Image result for betty everett been a long timeFurther down those Cash Box listings for December 13th 1969, at #41, was a track by a singer who had been enjoying a revival in her fortunes this year. Betty Everett had left Mississippi for Chicago in 1957 while still a teenager. Her biggest success came in 1964 with the vibrant super-catchy “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” while the more atmospheric “You’re No Good”, “Getting Mighty Crowded” & duets with Jerry Butler established her accomplishments across a range of styles. Betty & Jerry were the crossover stars of Vee Jay, an R&B label whose diversification led them to having the 4 Seasons & the Beatles, the biggest acts around on their roster. The logistics of pressing & distributing truckloads of vinyl & a mountain of cash in the hands of an owner with a weakness for the casinos in Vegas became a recipe for financial chaos & bankruptcy. It would be some time before Betty’s career was back on solid ground.

 

Image result for retro styleFinding a home at UNI “There’ll Come A Time” (1969) is a showcase for Betty’s mature talents. The slower songs aim for & come pretty close to the sophistication of Dionne Warwick while distinctive Chicagoan arrangements, sweeping string & punchy brass, keeps it soulful & the quality high. The title track, co-written by Eugene Record off of the Chi-Lites, put Betty Everett back on the R&B chart. “Been A Long Time”, not on the LP, was plucked from the “Ice On Ice” LP by her friend Jerry Butler in partnership with young writing/production team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. This fresh, talented pair were breaking on through & this modern uptempo treat is yet another sign that their time was coming.

 

Well, this is the final monthly selection from the R&B charts of 1969. It’s been nothing but a pleasure revisiting these 50 year old tunes, truly from a Golden Age of Soul. My only problem has been that every month great tracks haven’t make the cut. I’ve not taken a look at the charts for the new decade but I’m pretty sure it will be the same mix of classics, rediscoveries & others that are new to me. Looking forward to that.

 

 

 

 

 

Going To Chicago (Tyrone Davis)

For someone who has released 30 albums & enjoyed over 20 Top 20 R&B hits, 3 at #1, Tyrone Davis is not as celebrated & remembered as well as some of his contemporaries. He came to wider public attention in February 1969 when his first successful single replaced Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” at the top of the R&B charts. Two weeks later it was succeeded by “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. You know those two songs & you can see that it took a pretty good record to make it to #1 back then. “Can I Change My Mind” was more than pretty good, it was Soul Dynamite.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis can i change my mindBy 1968 two of the leading lights of the talented group who had gathered at Chicago’s Okeh Records were looking for greater independence & a management takeover by Epic was proving to be an obstacle. Curtis Mayfield made plans to leave his group the Impressions & establish his own label Curtom. Similarly A&R manager/producer Carl Davis struck out for himself & founded Dakar. One of his first signings was a former valet/chauffeur to Blues man Freddie King whose records as Tyrone the Wonder Boy had not made a mark. In the time he took to change his name Tyrone Davis gave the label their first hit. “Can I Change My Mind”, originally a b-side, moved Chicago Soul forward. The punchy, buoyant horns are still there, the bass of Bernard Reed & guitar of “Mighty” Joe Young adding an intriguing modern funkiness which influenced the way Pop-Soul sounded from now on. In Jamaica, after Alton Ellis had a hit at Studio 1, it became a song that great singers, Delroy Wilson, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown & others, all wanted to record.

 

Tyrone’s first LP is the one named after the hit single. Half of the songs are taken from the Atlantic Soul catalogue but this is no set of covers  quickly assembled to cash in while the singer is a hot property. Opening with Wilson Pickett’s “She’s Looking Good” followed by a surprising & effective interpretation of “Knock On Wood” Davis’ strong, bluesy voice is encouraged by immaculate production & arrangements by Willie Henderson & Don Myrick. The Chicago session regulars, equally at home with Blues or Soul are on point too. The LP may not have been as expansive or as ambitious as the greatest of the records made by African-American artists at that time but it’s a finely realised collection of songs that belongs on the top shelf alongside them.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis turn back the hands of timeWithin 18 months Tyrone was back at the top of the R&B charts & crossing over into the Pop Top 10. “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” is a smooth, impeccably crafted hit single while the rest of the LP with that title is a showcase for the singer’s extensive range . On the ballads it’s as if Bobby “Blue” Bland was a Pop singer & that’s a high compliment. This “Soul Train” clip is from December 1972, some time after the song was top of the pops. It’s as good an example of Tyrone in his pomp as there is. By the end of 1970, with the success of other singles taken from this record, Tyrone Davis was a fixture in the US R&B best sellers.

 

I’m going to be repeating myself here because listening to “I Had It All the Time” (1972) is another fine experience. Willie Henderson still directs, making use of 3 different arrangers. The short stabs of the horns, the swirl of strings, the female backing vocals, the inventive bass & guitar lines, all contributed to an individual & popular sound. Changes in style & taste were reflected back with an innovative Chicago twist for good measure. At the forefront was Tyrone’s rich, assured voice.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis michael ochsTyrone Davis was Dakar’s star artist & there was an album from him every year until 1975. When his friend, Leo Graham, who had co-written the b-side of “Turn Back…, became his producer Tyrone returned to #1 in the R&B charts with “Turning Point” in 1976. It is a sign of the changing times that such a successful record made no impression on the Pop charts. Deep Soul music no longer got played on the radio, the days of Disco were upon us. “Turning Point” was his last LP for Dakar & Tyrone signed for Columbia where he continued his partnership with Graham.

 

It’s maybe another time for Tyrone’s Columbia years. The 7 LPs he made at Dakar are the ones that keep me coming back to him. The Greatest Hits compilations from these years are indeed great. Songs such as “What Goes Up (Must Come Down)” (1974) were made to be played on the radio & to keep Tyrone’s name in the frame. The 2 CD “Ultimate” & the 3 CD “Ladies Choice” reissues include album tracks, lesser known gems, like “Was It Just a Feeling” which push things a little further & are a delight to discover. There’s a roster of outstanding Chicago Soul singers, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Walter Jackson, Billy Stewart, Jackie Wilson.  (I’m not forgetting Etta James, Barbara Acklin, Chaka Khan), it’s a list & it’s not complete (oh blimey…Lou Rawls!). Tyrone Davis continued this fine timeline into the 1970s & if you like those singers then you will love the music he made at that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soul Man On Ice (Jerry Butler)

In the mid-1950s in Cabrini-Green on the North side of Chicago 2 school friends, part of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, were looking to get serious about their music. Jerry Butler was 2 years older than Curtis Mayfield but Curtis came along when Jerry hooked up with the Roosters, a doo-wop group from Chattanooga Tennessee. In 1958, the group now known as Jerry Butler & the Impressions, Mayfield still only 16 years old, made the US Top 20 with their first record “For Your Precious Love”. Butler, who co-wrote the hit, delivers a dramatic, heartfelt vocal which belies his teenage years. They were young men who got it right the first time & were encouraged that their creativity in writing & performance would find an audience. There was just one more 45 from this group before Jerry became a solo act. Over the following 20 years Jerry Butler’s name on the record became a guarantee of quality & excellence.

 

Like his contemporaries, Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye, Butler aspired to the LP sales & supper club cabaret success of Nat King Cole. His first solo LP is heavy on the orchestral & chorale arrangements. On signing to Vee Jay he got back with Curtis. One of the 4 songs they wrote together, “He Will Break Your Heart” put him in the Top 10. Jerry recorded the original version of “Make It Easy On Yourself” with Burt Bacharach. In the UK the Walker Brothers nicked the hit but, for me, Butler is definitive. The standards & the ballads were assured, the danceable Chicago Soul from Mayfield/Butler sounded great & they made a most acceptable mix.

 

 

When Curtis placed a higher priority on his own group, the Impressions, Jerry’s LPs played a little safe. A sweetheart Soul duet of “Let It Be Me” with Betty Everett was a smash.”The Soul Goes On” is a collection of covers. His style had less grit than the new Memphis Soul but Jerry Butler knew where the action was. He & Otis Redding wrote “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” together & that song is about as good as it gets.

 

A Philadelphia DJ dubbed Jerry “The Ice Man”. When he was matched with upcoming production team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff they ran with it & “The Ice Man Cometh” (1968) was his biggest selling LP. This is commercial Pop-Soul at its best, with many of the elements that would make the producers so successful in the near future. The lyrics are mature & emotional, the songs packed with hooks to catch your ear. Five singles were released from the LP, three more from the following “Ice On Ice”. Seven of these eight made the R&B Top 10.

 

 

I carried a cassette collection of these 45s around for years. It’s a tough call to include only one of them here. “Never Give You Up”, “Hey, Western Union Man”, the fantastic “Lost”, it’s a list…3 minute dramas, not a second wasted. “Only The Strong Survive”, the most successful of all, gets the shout because I still find the simple guitar figure under Jerry’s intro, before the big chorus & the sweeping strings, to be irresistible. Gamble & Huff produced 15 Gold singles, 22 Gold albums. In 2008 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & it was Jerry Butler, a member since 1991, who stepped up to do the honours.

 

In 1970 Gamble & Huff went off to do their own thing with Philadelphia International records. Jerry’s old spar Curtis was busy with his own label, Curtom but the rest of the Chicago crew were still around. “One on One” is an LP shared with Gene Chandler, a million seller with “Duke of Earl” in 1962, another who had benefitted from Curtis Mayfield’s songwriting skills & back on the scene with a “Groovy Situation”. Black music was getting all funked up. Gene & Jerry take it to the street on  “Ten & Two (Take This Woman Off The Corner)” , a busy version of James Spencer’s original which deserved a wider hearing. The subject matter, pimps & prostitutes, was possibly a little too strong for radio & for fans of the singers’ lighter output in the past decade.

 

 

The ponderously titled  “…Sings Assorted Sounds With The Aid Of Assorted Friends & Relatives” employed the same musicians, arranger Donnie Hathaway, brother Billy Butler & backing singer Barbara Lee Eager. The New Thing is incorporated but Jerry’s style was not going to change too much. He & his associates had been making records for a long time & they knew what worked for them. At the time Curtis Mayfield was recording the coolest original soundtrack to a movie ever. “Superfly” confirmed his membership of the new Soul aristocracy, writing, performing & selling millions of their own LPs. I would not claim that “…Assorted…” belongs in such company but it’s a classic of mature Chicago Soul. The opening track “How Can We Lose It” sounds like a hit to me & sets a standard which is matched by what follows.

 

Jerry continued to record on Mercury records then, in the Disco years, with Motown before returning to Gamble & Huff. There were more duets with Barbara Lee Eager & with Thelma Houston & enough quality from this period to decorate another one of these posts. In 1970 he & brother Billy appeared on US TV. They went back to “I Stand Accused”, a song they wrote together & released in 1964 on the same single as “Need To Belong”. Now that’s a small vinyl disc that’s worth having around & so is this one-off, intimate, informal version.

 

 

Jerry Butler is still around. By all accounts what you see, a stylish, dignified, articulate man, is what you get. Still in Chicago, he has served as an elected commissioner of Cook County since the 1980s. When he performs his great hits the pride & pleasure he takes is transmitted to his audience. It’s 60 years now since he & Curtis hung out at Wells High School working out how to capture a moment of emotion in a simple, memorable pop song. Those young boys were into something good back then. As styles & taste changed they continued to finesse their skills while never forgetting why & where they started out.

The Music Endures, The Harmony Endears (The Dells)

I’m a fool for a  male-vocal soul group. There’s the Motown giants, the 4 Tops, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo, Sugar Pie & Honeybunch. Those Temptations had 2 star singers in David Ruffin & Eddie Kendricks. At Philadelphia International the Intruders, the symphonic Delfonics, Harold Melvin & his Blue Notes & the Stylistics were all great while the O’Jays were probably greater. In Chicago the Impressions presented us with songs which collect into my long-time favourite “Greatest Hits” playlist. To this illustrious list I must add another Chicagoan combo. As one of the originals The Dells are often noted for their longevity. I’ve been around a long time too, longevity is overrated… believe. The Dells make the major leagues because they made an individual contribution to a fine tradition. Here’s the proof…

Phee-yew ! That’s phee-you get me ? How great is that ? “Stay In My Corner”, one of the finest slow jams, was originally released in 1965 then re-recorded in 1968 when it was a #1 R&B hit & the group’s most successful crossover to the pop charts. This performance is from the New York PBS TV series Soul! in March 1972, Also on the show was Chester Himes, the great American crime fiction writer. Man, I’ve just found an episode list of this series…I need those tapes. The Dells were a pretty well-oiled machine by this time. They knew how much is in this song & knew exactly how to get it all out. That powerful baritone is Marvin Junior….Johnny Carter’s smooth change from tenor to falsetto is almost unlikely. There are 2 soloists in the Dells.

The group made their first record in 1954, Is that true ? Were records invented then ? Those were the Doo-wop days, street corner symphonies or the cabaret precision of the Platters. These Illinois boys got a gold record in 1956 with “Oh What A Nite”, a song which became their calling card. The Dells…who ? “Oh What A…”…oh yeah. A near fatal car accident in 1958 stalled their progress, the group disbanded then reformed, with a significant team change, in 1960. These same guys performed together for the next 50 years !

In 1966 the Dells signed with Chess, Chicago’s premier label. Consolidating a reputation as a vital live act there was immediately more commercial success. They worked on the Cadet label, an imprint of Chess, with the production/arrangement team of Bobby Miller & Charles Stepney. “There Is” is the title track of this combination’s 1st LP, a collection of solid, varied, consistent tunes. I have no idea who made this early promo, the song has a martial urgency, the boys sure don’t dance like the Temptations but Marvin sings the heck out of it. Mr Junior has one of those outstanding soul voices that you need to get to know better.

The group stayed with Chess until 1975, recording a string of R&B hits. When Bobby Miller left Chess for Motown Charles Stepney took over production duties. Stepney, a classically trained jazz musician was pushing the symphonic soul envelope with the Rotary Connection. He produced electric Blues records with Howlin’ Wolf & Muddy Waters, a bunch of records for the Ramsey Lewis Trio. His 4 LPs with the Dells are the most commercial of his work, all imaginative, interesting pieces. “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)”, seen here on that same Soul! show, was co-written by another Stepney acolyte, the individually talented Terry Callier. The right song, the right producer, the right group, everyone’s a winner.
Oh oh, that clip seems to have gone from the Y-tube so here are the boys on the “Soul Train” in 1974.

The Dells could handle Northern Soul belters, smooth last dance smoochers & often recorded the standards of  the day. The LP “The Dells Sing The Hits Of Dionne Warwick” is one I have to check.  Here in the UK their only hit record was a medley, “Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue”, a couple of middle of the road melodies improved by the quality of Stepney’s arrangement. The group’s work has come to me a little randomly. Even now I can hear something new to me that is unmistakably Marvin & Johnny doing that thing they do. The group adapted to the changes in soul music, sometimes following, sometimes setting the bar for harmony vocals. “Wear It On Your Face”, “Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation”, “Learning to Love You Was Easy”, just a sample  & all good stuff.

In 1980, with disco carrying the swing, the Dells worked with Carl Davis, a Chicago Soul legend & Eugene Record off of the Chi-Lites. The LP “I Touched A Dream” is probably the group’s last significant work. I can’t leave this thing without including “All About The Paper”, a late example of the energy & class of some exceptional singers.

It’s Okeh Because It’s Alright. (More Curtis)

In 1920 a New York independent record label had a surprise super solid smash hit with “Crazy Blues” by Marnie Smith. Here was a new little-tapped market for discs by African-American artists & Okeh Records hired musical directors in N.Y. & in Chicago to supervise the 8000 series of “Race” records released between 1921 & 1934. This all-star catalogue is now legendary & in 1926 Columbia bought a controlling interest in the company. Okeh’s light flickered intermittently over the years & in 1953 it became exclusively an R&B outlet. Then, in 1962 Carl Davis (that’s the “legendary”…), a Chicago producer, was employed as the head of the label. Davis was a talented & successful man himself. He assembled a group of singers, musicians & writers who, until 1965, made Okeh a creative & commercial hub for Chicagoan soul music.

OH-OH ! What’s that sound ? That’s “Rhythm” by Major Lance. “The Monkey Time” was a simple R&B dance record (in 1963 just everyone was Twisting the night away) which gave Okeh its first hit record for 10 years. Major had 4 Top 20 hits with this sweet soul which took that Brazilian baion rhythm off of the Drifters  & added a little cha-cha shuffle. The good Major, a former boxer & dancer, had the moves & was able to sell the crap out of these songs when he appeared on”Shindig”, “Bandstand” or whatever the black & white TV pop show of the day was called. I could have chosen any one of 5 clips of these hits.”Rhythm” gets the shout because I get to pick & I love this track. The “Best Of” is a cracking, dance around the house thing. The expanded 40 track, 2 CD collection maintains the quality. “The Monkey Time” was created by the team of Davis, Johnny Pate & Curtis Mayfield. “That was my introduction with working with Carl Davis” Pate said, ” We had a ball, making some very great music.” And so they did.

Image result for major lance curtis mayfieldAll but one of Lance’s 45s were written by his friend Curtis Mayfield. Curtis’ own group, the Impressions, were signed to ABC but it was at Okeh where he served his apprenticeship. With his school friends the Butler brothers, Jerry & Billy, he worked out how the simple gospel tunes from their church worked just fine when transposed to idealized teen romance or imagined dances. From the more experienced Davis & Pate he learned stuff, music stuff & business stuff. He was provided with an environment where he did not have to tout his songs around, where he got paid & where he had to sell some records. The glorious “Rhythm” was Okeh 7203 & here is #7204.

Now I don’t want to overstate my case here but Walter Jackson has never failed to hit the spot since that first Okeh selection I bought in the olden days. In the 60s alone there were so many outstanding voices, those obvious ones you take for granted like Otis, Marvin, Aretha & Al Green. Walter Jackson’s smooth, dramatic & powerful vocals are distinctive &, in these golden Okeh years, were of a quality to match the greats. Walter was a Image result for walter jacksoncrooner with soul. When I first heard his version of “My Ship Is Comin’ In” (a hit for the Walker Brothers) it was like…so that’s how that song goes…perfect. His later work does drift to the middle of the road but the Okeh team ensured that his ballads had balls & while the songs were not hits they are classics. “Welcome Home”, a best of collection from these years will make your life better.

I did not know that Walter had suffered polio as a child & had to use crutches. The only Y-Tube clip is from the late-70s & has no sound. At a time when Chicago soul was young & quite wonderfully gauche he brought a polish & authority to songs like “It’s All Over” while the budding “Iceman”, Jerry Butler, was watching carefully & taking notes.

Image result for billy butler and the enchantersBilly Butler & the Enchanters were the Junior Impressions of the label. Billy was signed as a teenager. While his older brother was over at Vee Jay Records, recording a mix of Mayfield & standards, he was happy to go with the sweet harmonies, the uptempo, punchy Latin touches that were coming to be recognised as the trademarks of Chicago soul. “I Can’t Work No Longer” was the biggest of a number of releases that were almost trial runs for Curtis, checking out what worked & what didn’t. However successful you can dance to every second of every one of them.

Okeh was never going to be a true rival to Motown or Stax because the major players were on contract & had an eye on their futures. In 1965 Carl Davis, who had continued to work with Gene Chandler, another Chicago great, joined Brunswick where he orchestrated the comeback of Jackie Wilson (Davis produced “Higher & Higher”) & had other hits. Curtis & Pate were now confident that the Impressions were ready for prime time. They concentrated on & succeeded in making the band one of the most influential African American acts of the decade. Later both Davis & Mayfield ran their own labels out of their home city.

Okeh survived for a couple of more years. Walter Jackson hung around & there was a new infusion of energy from rock and roller Larry Williams. Williams, writer of some classic songs brought old hand Little Richard along with young gun Johnny Guitar Watson. The Williams/Watson collaborations are fine examples of energetic soul. It was though, impossible to emulate that short, special period when young men with music on their minds created the soul sound we now associate with their sweet home Chicago.

Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work (Chicago Soul Men)

As a teenage boy I was just beginning to differentiate between the the stabs of energetic soul of Stax Records  & the sweeter pop soul of Tamla Motown. You could get a handle on it when Wilson Pickett’s frenetic “Land of a 1,000 Dances” was played alongside “Baby Love”, the Supremes’ honeyed hit but when the 4 Tops shouted/sang  “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, hey, Memphis or Motown, this Soul Music was a thing ! In that year of Levi Stubbs, 1966, I heard a record which made me sit up & pay some serious attention.

“Unbelievable” that was the title of the LP & the vocal pyrotechnics of Billy Stewart seemed to be just that. I didn’t know Porgy & Bess from Adam & Eve. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” is like the most covered song ever. Whatever the template I did know that this version was over the top of it. I loved Billy’s “brrrrrr-a-cha” & the blazing brass backing. The record was a big hit in the US but here you had to take it where you found it. At a time when pop music was innovative & causing a commotion Billy Stewart’s “Summertime” had a style & an energy unlike anything else around.

Billy had come to Chicago & Chess records from Washington DC at the behest of Bo Diddley. The chunky crooner was known as the “Fat Man”. It was the creative head at Chess, Billy Davis, a former cohort of Berry Gordy & later a big wheel in advertising, who moved Stewart towards these classic covers. There are 2 LPs of them & they do try a little too hard to impress you with the same trick. However, there were earlier recordings by Billy which showed just what a talent he was. A year earlier “Sitting In The Park”, a straight from the fridge soul ballad which can be best described as groovy had national success. This song, a favourite of & an influence on that greatest of Jamaican rock steady trios the Heptones, was not the only classy cut. The 1965 LP “I Do Love You” is the one to seek out for a showcase of his ability.

Billy Stewart stayed in Chicago with Chess for the rest of his career. Unfortunately this was all too short as he was killed in a car accident in January 1970. A great loss of a unique voice.

Spotlight on Lou Rawls y’all. As a young Chicagoan Lou was connected with the burnished star of the city’s gospel scene Sam Cooke. When Sam left for Los Angeles it was Lou who replaced him in the Highway QC’s. After a spell as a paratrooper he was touring with Cooke when he was almost killed in a car accident. On his recovery he recorded with the star & began his own solo career. In the early 60s the  other role model for Afro-American singers was Nat “King” Cole, Lou’s first records were jazz oriented but his smooth assured chops could be turned to any style. In 1966 2 LPs, “Live” & “Soulin'”, found an audience. As Lou says, “Soul is truth, … no matter where it comes from, no matter how it is presented”.

“Dead End Street” is a hit from 1967 & my favourite of Lou’s singles. It’s a song about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the “Windy City” & it convinces this Englishman who has never been there. This clip is from the Playboy mansion. I have seen a few of these clips & they all seem a little incongruous. None of the acts have actually spat at the desperate hanger-on scum in the audience but maybe that is wishful thinking on my part. Hey, for Lou it is just another gig I am sure. He continued to have hits for 20 years & won 3 Grammys for best Male R&B vocal. His stuff is not part of the classic Soul canon but when you hear it you know who is singing & you sure do like it.

Oh yes, I love me some Jerry Butler ! Jerry grew up & sang with the other great Chicago Soul legend Curtis Mayfield. He wrote & sang lead on the Impressions first hit “For Your Precious Love”  when he was just 19 & Curtis 16. He left the Impressions for a solo career but he did not leave a partnership of great commercial & artistic merit. Jerry had hits all through the 60s. The early run was split between crooned classics, “Moon River”, “Make It Easy On Yourself” & the simple, sweet Curtis Mayfield soul songs, “He Will Break Your Heart”, “Find Another Girl”, “Need To Belong”. He was known as the “Iceman”, a suitably cool sobriquet.

He hooked up with producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, young guns from Philadelphia who would go on to form their own label, Philadelphia International. The string of inventive pop-soul singles this team created over the next 3 years makes for a quality “Greatest Hits” collection. The LP “The Ice Man Cometh” hits you bang, bang, bang. The biggest hit was “Only The Strong Survive” but plenty of others hit the spot & “What’s the Use of Breaking Up” is one of them. Jerry continued to have hits but he did not return to work with Curtis when his friend formed Curtom records. Curtis was getting deeper & funkier while Jerry was getting smoother. In 1985 Jerry Butler was elected as a Commissioner for Cook County Illinois. He has served Chicago well as a man & as an artist.