Sweet Home Alabama (Soul May 23rd 1970)

In my weekly reviews of the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations from 50 years ago it has been inevitable that the records coming from the Soul music production lines of Detroit, Chicago & Memphis have predominated. This week my three selections were all recorded at a much more unlikely,  smaller operation. FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) had moved their studio just across the Tennessee River to Muscle Shoals (population around 10,000) in 1961 & when the money came in from the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”, they were able to upgrade to a place on Avalon Avenue. The word was out that something was going on. The New York bosses of Atlantic Records sent Aretha Franklin down to record while the “hippie cat who’s been living in our parking lot” turned out to be Duane Allman who had come up from Florida hoping to get a gig. By 1970 there had been changes but that “Muscle Shoals Sound” picked me up when I’m feeling blue, now how ’bout you?

 

 

 

Rick Hall, Muscle Shoals soul music pioneer – obituary

Rick Hall & Clarence

Clarence Carter, blind from his birth in Montgomery, Alabama, came up to FAME in 1965 to record his song “Tell Daddy”, an inspiration for Etta James’ answer “Tell Mama” & successful enough to gain him a contract with Atlantic. This week his latest 45, “I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone”, entered the R&B Top 10, the sixth time a song of his had achieved this mark. It’s not one of Clarence’s most remembered songs but his strong, gritty voice & his lascivious laugh when the innuendo got close to the bone complemented by the swampy, mid-tempo rhythms & the punchy Memphis Horns always got you in the end. The three albums Clarence had already recorded at FAME are sprinkled with hit singles & plenty of songs that you know given the Muscle Shoals treatment.

 

Clarence Carter - I Can't Leave Your Love Alone (1970, Vinyl ...“I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” is the lead single from Clarence’s newest record. The title track “Patches” was a track from the debut LP by Chairmen of the Board. Written by General Johnson, the main Chairman & Ron Dunbar, who may or may not have been a pseudonym for Holland-Dozier-Holland, it’s a story/song about a tough upbringing in rural Alabama which Clarence certainly identified with as did others at FAME. “Patches was everywhere, his biggest hit in the US, his only one here in the UK. At the time I thought that it was over-sentimental (tough guy eh?), that he had made better records. Millions of others didn’t, Clarence deservedly (I think now) got a gold record & a Grammy nomination. As public tastes changed Clarence was less in the public eye but he continued to record, he’s still around & his great music always will be.

 

The group of young Alabaman musicians, inspired to fuse their Rock & Roll, R&B & Country influences, who first assembled in their local studio soon dispersed to either Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis or to Nashville where FAME co-founder Billy Sherrill was establishing himself as a major Country producer. Two local men, bassist David Hood & Jimmy Johnson (guitar) together with Barry Beckett (keyboards) & drummer Roger Hawkins stepped up & became the celebrated & in-demand Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In 1969 the quartet left FAME to open their own set-up less than a mile away. The guy who started it all & stayed was owner/producer Rick Hall, who integrated the fluid, funky rhythm section with the brass swagger, added strings when a little sweetness was needed & captured the brightness of it all. Hall recruited a new unit & to get them into the groove recorded an album of covers of the hits of the day. “Sweet Caroline” & “Sugar Sugar” are songs that will never make my favourites playlist but “Solid Gold From Muscle Shoals” by the Fame Gang is my kind of middle of the road Pop-Soul.

 

 

45cat - Candi Staton - Sweet Feeling / Evidence - Capitol - France ... Staton married Clarence Carter in 1970 so was a natural to be signed to the relaunched FAME label. Already 30, with four children from her first marriage, Canzetta (lovely name) was prepared for the switch from backing singer to being out at the front & her work at Muscle Shoals soon justified claims to the title “First Lady of Southern Soul”. “Sweet Feeling”, #25 on the chart & rising fast, with producer Hall, husband Clarence & Candi herself sharing a composing credit, was the fourth in a run of 8 R&B Top 30 hits & it was included on both of her first two LPs issued by the label. There are four albums recorded at the Shoals before Warner Brothers & “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976) made Candi a Disco Queen. Candi is a Soul survivor, still around she had hit records across four decades, whatever she sang she did it with class & style.

 

In 1970 Rick Hall received a Grammy nomination for Producer of the Year & in 1971, when of all people the Osmonds called in to FAME to record “Crazy Horses”, he was awarded that accolade by Billboard magazine. He achieved this with a lot of new people around the studio & mention must be made of Harrison Calloway Jr whose trumpet playing & arrangements for the Muscle Shoals Horns made them so distinctive & such a pleasure.

 

 

Willie Hightower - Walk A Mile In My Shoes / You Used Me Baby ...Well, thanks to a Swedish documentary crew, here’s  how they did it a FAME in 1970. Rick Hall is running a session where Willie Hightower is recording “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”, already a hit that year for Joe South, & at #45 on the R&B chart this week, while the Fame Gang, most notably Clayton Ivey on keys, do their thing. Willie, an Alabaman had grown up with Gospel, a meeting with his idol Sam Cooke inspiring him to make music his business. A couple of local hits brought him to the attention of Capitol Records where he made the “If I Had A Hammer” album (1969) where he’s not as smooth as Sam but the influence is clear. He came to FAME & released just three 45s, “Walk A Mile…” was the most successful though “Back Road Into Town” sounds to me like a better record. A planned LP never came around & Willie returned to shows around the South where he was still known before he did a 15 year stretch singing with a revived line-up of the Drifters.

 

In 2016 producer Quinton Claunch, a Shoals resident as a teenager before moving to Memphis & starting Goldwax Records (James Carr, O.V. Wright), called up Willie & asked if he was interested in recording again. QC got some of the old gang back together, including Clayton Ivey & guitarist Travis Wammack, at his Wishbone studio in…where else?. The resulting LP “Out of the Blue” is a fine example of retro Southern Soul, Willie may be over 75 but his voice still strong, more experienced & controlled while Claunch, over 90, still knows his way around. The last week in May 1970 was a good one for FAME with three records on the chart. They probably didn’t know then that 50 years later people would still want to hear that Muscle Shoals sound & that musicians would still want to emulate it.

 

 

Here’s a little lockdown bonus. In 2014 Candi Staton returned to FAME to record three tracks with Rick Hall for her “Life Happens”. Here Ms Staton, 74 years old , looking & sounding fine on it, performs a stripped down version of  one of those songs, “I Ain’t Easy To Love”, & all I have to say is Flipping Heck

A Little Bit More Soul (January 1969)

So how long have I been just a click away from the Billboard R&B Chart archive? No matter, I’ve found it now & that sound you hear is my purr of contentment as I cruise the weekly Top 30 or, even better, Top 50 from past years, marvelling at just how many great songs were around at the same time. Let’s start with January 1969, 50 years ago, when Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” held the #1 spot for the whole month.

There were 3 other Tamla Motown releases in a distinguished Top 10 for January 18th 1969, I’m guessing that it had been pretty much the same every week for the past 5 years. Stevie Wonder was there & so were the Temptations, on their own & again with Diana Ross & the Supremes. 11-20 included the Delfonics’ “Ready Or Not Here I Come” & “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone, both certainties for the 1000 Best Soul records of the decade (not a real list but give me an hour & I’ll get back to you). OK, pick a number between 1 & 50… any one of them will be just fine.

 

 

Related imageAt #3 is Clarence Carter’s “Too Weak To Fight”. We never really got Clarence over here until the sentimental “Patches”, his only UK hit, came around in 1970 but, across 68/9, he was enjoying a consistent run of R&B chart success & crossing over to the mainstream Pop chart. Born without sight Clarence graduated with a degree in Music from Alabama State College in his hometown of Montgomery. He was already a fixture at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals when bigger record labels, hearing that the writers, musicians & producers there had got it going on, sent their own established artists along to grab some of that swampy Southern Country Soul. Carter’s records were picked up by Atlantic & the higher profile led to “Slip Away”, his second 45 on the label, selling a million copies.

 

My good friend Mitchell  kindly gave me his compilation of the “Best of C.C.” because I played it so often & took such delight every single time. “Too Weak…” is one of a string of songs featuring Clarence’s strong baritone, yearning in the heartbreak tunes, a lascivious chuckle in the…er…racier ones. The now famous Alabaman session players made it funky, gritty & sparkling. They made it sound easy too but if it was then everybody would have been doing it. There was a new name in the small print on the back of the album sleeves. Guitarist Duane Allman had shown up at FAME with his band Hour Glass & found himself hired. Duane brought his precocious Blues talent along, check out Clarence’s “The Road To Love”. Further on down that week’s chart, at #16, he was inventing Southern Rock on Wilson Pickett’s blistering “Hey Jude”.

 

 

Image result for the impressions this is my countryChicago was well represented in the Top 10 too. Producer Carl Davis, a man who knew what was what, removed Barbara Acklin’s vocals, added piano to the backing track & released “Soulful Strut”  (#6) by Young-Holt Unlimited, formed by the rhythm section of the successful Ramsey Lewis Trio. Davis’ newly founded Dakar records discovered a new star in Tyrone Davis. “Can I Change My Mind” (#4 up from #15) was an update of the classic Windy City sound, loping rhythms, vivacious horn & string arrangements, as smooth as Pop-Soul could get. Jerry Butler, a hit-maker for over a decade, went to Philadelphia to work with a hot new writing/production team.  “Are You Happy” (#10) was the third single taken from the resulting all killer no filler “The Ice Man Cometh” LP. Jerry enjoyed revived fortunes, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff had a calling card for their talents which they parleyed into their own Philadelphia International label &, pretty much, world domination in just a few years.

 

Image result for curtis mayfield civil rightsWhen Jerry Butler left the Impressions for a solo career he maintained his relationship with Curtis Mayfield, the kid he had met in his church choir. Curtis had songs to spare for his pal, the acts at Chicago’s Okeh label & his own vocal trio. The Impressions’ progress from perfectly harmonious Gospel to equally euphonic Soul was as influential as any other African-American music of the time. In Jamaica the 3 Wailin’ Wailers were listening closely while up in Bearsville New York their “Keep On Pushing” album featured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”. Like many young Americans Curtis was affected by & involved in the Civil Rights movement & his lyrics came to reflect the changing times. “This Is My Country”, #8 on the chart, the title track of the first LP released on his own Curtom label, tells it like it was, pertinent then & still is now & is an absolute gem.

 

 

OK, that’s the Top 10 pretty much covered. Let’s look further down at the page for the week’s new entries. A big favourite round here, “Grits Ain’t Groceries” by Little Milton, scrapes in at #50. “If I don’t love you, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry & Mona Lisa was a man!”. Right On! Further up at #41 Arthur “Sweet Soul Music” Conley entered FAME Studios to cover Paul McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” but you don’t want to hear that. I’m afraid there’s very little Soul to be extracted from this piece of cod-Reggae fluff & not even Duane Allman’s guitar contribution can add much value. So then Pop Pickers (heh, heh) in at #44 it’s…

 

Related imageTammi Terrell experienced great commercial success in 1968 when “You’re All I Need”, her second collection of duets with Marvin Gaye was released. The young Motown Mod was the perfect foil for sharp dressed Marvin, the label’s major solo star solicitous of their ingenue. A clutch of bespoke songs provided by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson added further class to an already classy pairing. Unfortunately Tammi was unable to fully enjoy her hit records, in October 1967 she collapsed onstage with Marvin & a brain tumour was diagnosed. After a first surgery Tammi was able to return to the studio but was never well enough to perform again & her health quickly declined. She died in March 1970 aged just 24. In January 1969 her only solo LP was released. “Irresistible” compiled the 11 tracks, just 30 minutes of music, that she had recorded for Motown between 1965 & 1968. I’m sure that Hitsville had plans for the new star & that with material tailored to her alluring voice & personality more success was inevitable. We’ll never know that now.

 

Image result for tammi terrell this old heart of mineHearing the Isley Brothers’ version of “This Old Heart Of Mine” will always be my youth club madeleine. Dancing until almost bedtime on nothing stronger than a can of Vimto & a packet of Oxo flavoured crisps. Walking that little girl home because well, she lived just round the corner from me. Tammi’s version, recorded in 1966, produced by two of the writers, Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier, will never hold the same resonance but if ever you need a classic, uptempo, floor-filling stomper, “the Sound of Young America”, then you’ve come to the right place.

 

 

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.