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.

Whoo- Hoo ! Does Gladys Knight Have Pips ?

By the time Gladys Knight & the Pips signed for Tamla Motown in 1966 the family group were an established live attraction with 2 US Top 20 hits to their name. Gladys had 2 small children, her husband was the group’s MD. They were ready to take care of their own business &  independence was not always a good fit with Berry Gordy’s Motown manifesto. A case can be made that they did not always get a fair shake at the Detroit label. The Pips were never at the front of the queue for the sure-fire hit songs from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line, their records were released on the label’s Soul subsidiary. They knew what worked & worked what came their way. Their breakthrough hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, in 1967 was TM’s biggest selling 45 to date. Their last hit for the label in 1973, the Grammy award winning “Neither One of Us” made #2. In between they made some music which sits comfortably alongside the headline acts on any Motown anthology.

 

 

This clip is, despite the sound quality, pretty special. Shot in 1970 on a hospital ward for soldiers wounded in Vietnam, Gladys looks stunning & sings wonderfully. The Pips, brother Merald, cousins William & Edward, look sharp & dance up a storm. There’s a rocking band over in the corner so let’s do the show right here. The healing power of music. I feel better watching a film of it over 40 years later.

Of course “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is Marvin Gaye’s song now. Producer  Norman Whitfield had co-written it with Barrett Strong then recorded versions with Smokey Robinson & Marvin which didn’t pass Motown’s weekly quality control meetings.(Must have been a good week !). It was a faster, more urgent take on the song by Gladys Knight & the Pips that was released & became a hit. This was the style favoured for their singles, in fact an earlier song, “Take Me In Your Arms & Love Me, a hit in the UK, was edited for a US LP because it was too darned hot ! Motown were moving to the West Coast, busy making Diana Ross a movie star & bigging up the Jackson 5. The label missed that Gladys & the Pips’ smooth take on songs with a country feel,  Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” & the hit “Neither One…”  was bubbling up & breaking through.

 

 

Leaving Motown was the best thing that ever happened to the group. At Buddah there was better promotion, a greater freedom to choose their own material, a growing maturity & sophistication & Gladys blossomed as a singer & as a star.”The Empress of Soul” led her group to a run of Top 5 singles & gold record sales for their LPs. “Neither One Of Us” had been written by country songwriter Jim Weatherly & “Imagination”, the first post-Motown LP employed 5 more of his songs. This music was not the earthy country soul of Muscle Shoals & the Southern USA, it was the Sound of Young America growing up with its audience. An audience that had always liked Gladys Knight & the Pips.

On one of Weatherley’s songs “Midnight Train To Georgia” (originally “Midnight Plane To Houston”) Gladys’ swelling vocal is complemented by perfectly arranged backing vocals from the Pips. This is the group’s signature song & while I like to stray from the beaten path on these things I know a classic when I hear one. “Midnight Train…” has got to be included here. The group was riding high. At the 1975 Grammy awards they were impressive & charming when they sang the nominees for Song of the Year. “And the Pips” appeared on the short-lived Richard Pryor TV show performing backing vocals with an empty microphone stage left.

 

 

In 1974 they recorded a soundtrack LP for the film “Claudine” with the great Curtis Mayfield. The film starred Darth Vader & Diahann Carroll (oh my !). Carroll hooked a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a welfare mother of 6 children. It was not a typical blaxploitation movie. No superfly, black private dick risking his life for fellow man across 110th St. For the soundtrack Gladys & the Pips’ smooth assurance meets Curtis’ Chicago funk & lyrical social commentary to create, in my opinion, the best LP of a long career. Over on “Soul Train” they know that they have got it going on with “On & On”, the Pips getting down with their bad selves & no-one to edit beautiful Gladys now. Even the normally self-absorbed dancers know that they are in the land of the good groove. Fantastic.

At the time these records were made I liked more ham-hock in my cornflakes when it came to African American music, some funk in the trunk. Now I watch the clips & they make me smile. A class act at a time when Soul music was moving towards disco & the mainstream. Gladys went on to continued success with the Pips & as a solo artist. That’s a lot of music to sort through. A good start would be to compare those 7 years at Motown with the hits in the 3 years after 1973. You may not be able to decide which you prefer but you will have a damn good time trying.

Through Our Voice The World Knows There’s No Choice (Curtis Mayfield)

Curtis Mayfield had a good 1960s. He & his boys from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green hood, the Impressions, had a run of 7 successive Top 20 hits with graceful gospel-soul songs of elevation & empathy. Over at Okeh Records Curtis learned about making records from 2 accomplished talents, producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate. This prolific trio cultivated a crop of Chicago artists which included Jerry Butler, Major Lance & Walter Jackson. They styled some snazzy, bespoke soul for these singers, at the outset catching whatever commercial way the wind blew before gaining the confidence to set their own course.

By 1968 Curtis had founded, with associate Eddie Thomas, his own record label, Curtom. His best songs for the Impressions, “People Get Ready”, “It’s Alright” & the sublime “I’m So Proud”, were modern hymns, endorsing & encouraging the positivity of Martin Luther King  & the Civil Rights Movement. Now Dr King had been murdered by racists, the war in Vietnam had become, in his words “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” Expectations of civil & economic progress remained unfulfilled. At the beginning of a new decade Curtis Mayfield left his group & began a solo career. He was 28 years old, he had something to say about America & his eloquence was matched by his vision for the music that would accompany the message.

“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go “…Hot Damn ! The opening track of “Curtis” is an apocalyptic symphony. An everything including the kitchen sink drama almost 8 minutes long, the Book of Revelations for Jah’s sake. This first solo LP, “Curtis”, came in like gangbusters & kept on keeping on. Curtis was so ready for his new artistic freedom. Whether he was using a full orchestra to elegant effect or allowing “Master” Henry Gibson to drive the songs along with his sensational congas, everything was in the right place at the right time. There are still romantic songs, there’s the poetic “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” & not a wasted note in 8 minutes 40 seconds of “Move On Up”. The “Sgt Pepper’s” of 70s Soul ? You decide. Both singles were severely edited for the radio, not an improvement.

In 1971 you had to be either legendary or the Jackson 5 to score a #1 R&B LP. “Curtis” swapped this spot with Isaac Hayes before Aretha had 5 weeks there. Marvin’s  “What’s Going On” prevailed for 8 weeks before  Hayes returned with “Shaft” for an amazing 3 months at the top. Stuff I still listen to. It had taken a while for the longer form record to stand predominate in R&B. In 1969 Isaac Hayes’ ” Hot Buttered Soul”, just 4 expansive tracks, was a landmark in terms of sales & creative artistic control. Curtis Mayfield, with his own Curtom studio, was right on for this & ready to get busy.

Well…here we are then. It’s the aforementioned Henry Gibson on congas, Joseph “Lucky” Scott rocking the bass & some other very cool cats. How about that band ! Curtom Records was rocked by the premature death of Baby Huey in 1970. Just 26 years old, already a Chicago legend, Baby H was ready for national success. There were other productions, Mayfield made a final record with the Impressions, but it was his own work that was getting heard. “Curtis/Live!” (1971) is a double LP recorded at the small Bitter End club in New York, a perfect blend of his past with the present. From “Gypsy Woman” to “If There’s A Hell…”, it’s all Curtis & it’s all good. In the same year “Roots” was a set of new material including “We Got To Have Peace”. I don’t know if these songs were from a stockpile or if they were all new. Whatever the case this was a major creative outpouring.

Curtis was never going to shake off his religion, his romance & uncomplicated emotional exposition. I have seen his viewpoint described as “middle brow”, of being that of the “Black middle class”. I think this is meant as a criticism.Curtis may never have been down with Amiri Baraka “up against the wall motherf***er” or as raucous as the Last Poets but I’m sure he was a supporter of the Panthers 10 Point Programme just as he would endorse anything which helped black people move on up. There could be an element of love being the answer, of children being the future but Curtis was about self-advancement, about a brother helping a brother, being an achiever not a victim. If you are too cynical for those things then you are too cynical.

Curtis’ next move was perfect as a musical choice & as a business option. In the early 1970s blaxploitation movies were reaching beyond Quentin Tarantino & the urban black target audience. Whether it was “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” or, more likely “Shaft”, both from 1971, which set the trend, these films needed a funked-up soundtrack. “Super Fly” (1972) is the story of a cocaine dealer’s one last score, a $1 million deal for his pension. It’s a gritty, grainy, low-budget movie which anticipates Scorsese’s kings of New York  & the street-smart soliloquies of Rap. “Super Fly” made money, it was an influential film which was helped  then outgrossed by Curtis Mayfield’s perfect soundtrack.

“Super Fly” the record brought Curtis to a whole new audience. It topped the national charts, included 2 million-selling Top 10 singles. Curtis was not about the glorification of drug culture & was reticent about taking on the project. Of course he would never abandon long-held & heartfelt principles but the discipline of composing to a fixed brief & a deadline worked a treat. So, the title track, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Pusherman”, “Little Child Running Wild” ah… it’s a list & I could include the whole LP. Here, have another…

In the last clip Curtis is playing bigger gigs now. He is in the Premier League of R&B, Grammy Awards & more money than he could spend according to Jet magazine. There is a little loss of subtlety in having to please a larger audience but there is still an individual voice with something to say, a great band & some of the sweetest soul music ever made.

 

 

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.

All 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 crooner 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.

Billy 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.

Don’t Need No Baggage You Just Get On Board (The Impressions)

Curtis Mayfield dropped out of high school  when he was 14 years old to make music. In the next 20 years he composed, performed & produced a Himalayan body of work which would suggest that he rarely left the recording studio. The progression to be found in his music clearly shows that Curtis knew what was going down not only in his studio & his hometown Chicago but in the shifting social attitudes across 1960s America. Throughout the decade if his group, The Impressions, were not setting the pace both lyrically & musically then they were right on the shoulder of those who were.

The Impressions (as Jerry Butler & the…) had a hit record in 1958. Jerry left for a solo career, still writing with Curtis & justifying his nickname “The Ice Man” with the coolest of  pop-soul recorded in Philadelphia with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. 3 years later the group hit again with the classic “Gypsy Woman”. Curtis was working at Okeh records in Chicago. He was learning his craft, writing simple dance tunes or love songs. There were hits with Major Lance, Gene Chandler & Jerry’s brother Billy. By 1963 he found a template for his own group that would keep them around until the end of the decade.

The Impressions were now, Curtis, Sam Gooden & Fred Cash. They took the gospel songs of their church choirs, aided by the  productions of Johnny Pate, and recorded a string of positive, affirming tunes. “It’s All Right” was a signature of theirs. This, “Amen” & “Meeting Over Yonder” were pure gospel soul. Others, “I’m So Proud”, “I’m The One Who Loves You” & the gorgeous “Minstrel & Queen” have a touch of the secular about them but the roots are still showing. This was “message music”, a soundtrack to the development of the Civil Rights movement & the leadership of Martin Luther King. The confident, sweet falsetto of Curtis Mayfield perfectly aligned with the non-violent assertiveness of Dr King.

In 1965 The Impressions perfected this style. Mojo magazine polled some heavy hitters (McCartney, Brian Wilson, you know) & “People Get Ready” made the Top 10 Best Songs of All Time list.

WOW ! SUBLIME ! The first Impressions tune to use Curtis’ guitar as lead has been recorded by the greatest stars of Rock & Soul & Reggae (Joss Stone…kiss this !). These covers are a tribute, a tipping of the hat, the original has never been bettered.

The biggest soul groups of the 1960s were the 2 Motown giants, the 4 Tops & the Temptations. The Impressions did not have the same huge pop hits but were always around the R&B charts. One place where they were regarded as the leading American vocal group was in Jamaica & it was not just the young Wailers who were listening. The twin Jamaican traditions of harmony trios & music which, if not political, had a moral consciousness, were reinforced and encouraged by the same qualities in the Impressions’ music. From the Heptones, the Uniques through to Burning Spear & Black Uhuru the influence of the Impressions can be heard.

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed in the 1960s there was a greater assertiveness. New leaders, Stokeley Carmicheal, Malcolm X, advocated black pride, a celebration of heritage & of personal worth. It was Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions who provided the anthem for this developing confidence.

“We’re A Winner” was recorded months before James was saying it loud. It’s not a strident call to action but its lyrical prompts to “keep on pushing” , “moving on up”, to do “like your leaders tell you to” leaves no doubt that the message is changing. The blend of a social conscience with wonderful soul music set a standard for & a challenge to many great American artists which resulted in some of the finest music I have ever heard.

Curtis kept the flame alight. “This Is My Country” & “Choice of Colours” followed. His own Curtom label had started in 1968 & he knew that the confines of the 3 minute single were a limit on his ambition & ability. He did not officially leave the Impressions until 1971 but the first solo LP was released in 1970. He knew exactly what he was doing, the very first track is an ominous warning of trouble ahead & an absolute stone classic. Curtis had incredible artistic & commercial success in his solo career. His records with the Impressions are beautiful & affirming. A “best of” or the 1969 LP “A Young Mod’s Forgotten Story” look good in any collection.