Coming To Ya On A Dusty Road (Soul May 16th 1970)

The highest new entry on the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations for May 16th 1970 was by a singer who was better known as a songwriter. When I say “better known” I’m talking one of Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songwriters of All Time, Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, having a street in Memphis named after you better. David Porter, you know him, well maybe not.

 

 

Isaac Hayes and David Porter | Isaac hayes, Music poster, SongwritingDavid Porter was a teenager hanging out at Satellite Records in Memphis when it changed its name to Stax in 1961. Apart from his songwriting talent he introduced high school friends Booker T Jones, William Bell & saxophonist Andrew Love to the label. It was in partnership with Isaac Hayes where he made the most impact. In 1969 Sam & Dave released a glorious “Best Of…”, 14 tracks & the Hayes/Porter team were responsible for 11 of them. Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y”, that was one of theirs, in fact most every Stax artist recorded their songs. In 1968, still reeling from the premature death of its major star Otis Redding, Stax found themselves on the wrong end of a distribution deal with Atlantic Records & lost control of their back catalogue. Hayes & Porter were kept busy in the studio as the label, desperate to have something to sell, released 27 LPs & 30 singles in mid-1969. When the dust settled it was Isaac Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul” setting new standards in Orchestral Soul, selling millions & saving the company. “Black Moses” had the road to international stardom to follow so David Porter finally got down to making his own solo album.

 

Featured Album: Stax Legend David Porter enlightens on "The ...“Can’t See You When I Want To”, straight in at #37, is taken from “Gritty, Groovy & Gettin’ It” (1970). A plea from “the other man” in a love triangle & over 7 minutes long on the LP the song most resembles his former partner in its drama & scope. It’s also the only track composed by David & then it’s a serious remodel of a 45 he had recorded in 1965. On other tracks he takes Curtis Mayfield & a couple of Motown tracks to Memphis & the transposition is enjoyable. Subsequently “…Into a Real Thing”, issued later in the year, is more Hayes-like though the Garage-Pop classic “Hang On Sloopy” can hardly carry the weight of the 11 minute treatment it receives. 1971’s “Victim of the Joke…an Opera” is an ambitious conceptual mix of music & dialogue. David Porter’s solo work is worthy of consideration. “When Something is Wrong With My Baby”, “Hold On I’m Coming” & “Soul Man” contributed to the dignity of Soul music & for that “I Thank You”.

 

 

 

Whitney Houston: film alleges singer sexually abused as a child by ...At the beginning of the 1960’s a New York recording session was not complete without the backing vocals of the Gospelaires, a group started by the Warrick sisters Dionne & Dee Dee. The older sister’s gig singing on demos for Burt Bacharach & Hal David led to Dionne Warwick becoming the interpreter, even muse, for the great songwriters. Young Dee Dee’s early career was guided by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, a more experienced & established partnership. While Dee Dee lacked the smooth, rich, Pop sophistication of Dionne the girl could certainly sing. Her R&B hits released by Mercury display a great range. In 1966 “I Want to Be with You” was a big production of a number from a Broadway show & “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, later a hit for Diana Ross & the Supremes & the Temptations, was cool & possibly ahead of its time. In 1969 “Foolish Fool” displayed Dee Dee’s power, earning her another chart placing & a first Grammy nomination.

 

Dee Dee Warwick - She Didn't Know (She Kept On Talking) / Make ...When Dee Dee signed for Atlantic she was sent down to Florida where, at Miami’s Criteria Studios where the label were setting up a new operation. Keyboard player Jim Dickinson assembled a band of Memphis session aces & the Dixie Flyers, guitarist Charlie Freeman, bassist Tommy McClure & drummer Sammy Creason  moved in. With stellar backing & well chosen material “Turning Around” (1970) is a very fine showcase for Dee Dee’s talent. Her Gospel grounding is undeniable but her forceful voice is no Soul shout, comfortable with songs that require a touch of Country or a shot of Blues. “She Didn’t Know (She Kept On Talking)” is the flipside of the David Porter record, a wife finding out that her husband is cheating. It was written by Swamp Dogg & Gary “U.S.” Bonds who were getting developing a knack for dramatic lyrics that were almost conversational & certainly distinctive. A Top 10 R&B hit, “She Didn’t Know…”was nominated for a Grammy in the Best R&B Vocal Performance-Female category. Others in the frame were winner Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Candi Staton & Esther Phillips. Dee Dee Warwick was keeping good company & was by no means out of place.

 

I am aware of & not ignoring the allegations made against Dee Dee in Kevin McDonald’s movie “Whitney” (2018). My take is that both parties are no longer around to either confirm the events or to defend themselves. I am more sure that Dee Dee Warwick’s openness about her sexuality, the lack of promotion of her records & possibly just being the little sister of a major star prevented greater recognition than she is given.

 

 

The Five Stairsteps – O-o-h Child (1970) | SamuelsoundsAnother new entry this week, in at #45, gets the nod because I will never tire of this great clip. In 1970 the five Burke siblings’ title as “The First Family of Soul” was under threat from Motown’s new contenders the Jackson 5. Chicago’s Five Stairsteps were all teenagers in 1966 when Curtis Mayfield produced their debut album, released on his own Windy C label. There were four R&B Top 20 hits on the record & while there are distinct Curtis touches the songs were mainly co-written by Clarence Jr. The partnership continued for two more records, with a mix of sweet ballads, funky uptempo tunes & a sprinkling of Mayfield songs the Five Stairsteps (& Cubie as they were known when the very youngest brother joined them) always proved to be popular. By 1970 Curtis was busy with his own plans, the Stairsteps signed to Buddah & were put under the care of the label’s house producer Stan Vincent. The first 45 “Because I Love You” missed the chart but “Ooh Child”, written by Vincent, was their first crossover to the Pop listing & the song for which they are mainly remembered.

 

The 5 Stairsteps* - O-O-H Child (1970, Vinyl) | Discogs“Ooh Child” has found it’s way into popular culture now. It was immediately covered by by the Spinners & Nina Simone, reggaefied by Bruce Ruffin & many versions have followed. Featured in “Boyz n the Hood” & “The Simpsons”, Spike Lee used the song in his movie “Crooklyn”, & it’s Peter Quill’s choice when offering a dance-off to Ronan the Accuser in “Guardians of the Galaxy”. It’s this original version & this “Soul Train” appearance that keeps me coming back. The group are growing up, Alohe, the eldest steps to the front sounding (& it has to be said, looking) as fine as her name. Clarence Jr & James take their turn & all the boys, ditching their lounge suits & straight out of the Superfly boutique, look confident & hip. In the backline drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey, later of Funkadelic, drives the thing along. “Ooh Child” is such an optimistic song, the one I turn to when I need a little pick-me-up, a sharpener. In strange days like these we all need reminding of better days to come. “Some day, yeah we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun. Some day when the world is much brighter”. That’s right!

 

A Better Day Is Coming (Soul August 1969)

Well OK, the good people at Billboard magazine have removed their chart archive from the Interwebs. No doubt the listings will return once those kind folk have figured out a way of getting interested parties (that would be me) to hand over some of their hard-earned to access the inspiration information required for these monthly posts. I just might do that, probably not. Fortunately just a few clicks away are the Cash Box R&B weekly rankings for 1969, pretty much the same discs in a slightly different order. So, for now, I’m a Cash Box guy & let’s get to the August selection (Blimey, is it August already?).

 

At the beginning of the month there was a second #1 of the year for “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”, “Mr Please, Please, Please”, James Brown. The double-bracketed “Mother Popcorn (You Got To Have a Mother For Me) (Part 1)” is a groovalicious invocation to dance ’till you feel better , co-written by James & bandleader/saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, featuring the band’s other sax ace Maceo Parker. Doing the Popcorn, if I knew how, will have to wait. The song that replaced JB at the top spot is a landmark by a significant artist.

 

 

Image result for impressions choice of colorsFor over a decade the Impressions had been making impressive, intelligent, influential music. A trio since 1963, under the guidance of Curtis Mayfield the group transitioned through Doo Wop to sweet Gospel & equally pleasing romantic Soul, honest sentiments expressed in spectacular harmonies. As early as 1964 Curtis’ involvement with the Civil Rights movement was reflected in his music. “Keep On Pushing” is an anthem to empowerment & 1967’s “We’re A Winner”, the group’s biggest hit in almost 4 years, an assertion of Black pride before that became a thing in Soul music. “Choice of Colors”, another affirmation of Mayfield’s idealism & hope for progress. has a lyrical maturity & the vocals, shared between Curtis, Fred & Sam, are the very thing. Three sharp-dressed young Black men singing “How long have you hated your white teacher?” must have caused a stir. Taken from their latest LP “The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story”, a pairing with the funky, equally pertinent, “Mighty Mighty Spade & Whitey” made for a substantial 7″ of plastic. Of course the song is Panglossian, you may say that he’s a dreamer but he was not the only one in 1969 & perhaps a little optimistic reflection regarding race relations in the US would still not go amiss 50 years later.

 

Image result for impressions choice of colorsCurtis, in parallel with his day job as an Impression, had an education in the music business at Okeh Records in Chicago with producer/executive  Billy Davis & arranger Jerry Pate, respectively 10 & 20 years older. He wrote songs for many of the artists on the label & he learned how a hit record went. Now I can hear that Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time” & “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” (really!) are Mayfield songs. All I knew in the mid-60’s was that I liked them. With the start-up, along with his manager Eddie Thomas, of Curtom Records in 1968 the Impressions moved to Curtis’ own label & their leader made plans for a solo career. Having his own studio & greater independence allowed him to expand his commentaries on the American situation & to embrace the new Funk. Curtis Mayfield was moving on up & we could do worse than go along with him.

 

 

Image result for five stairstepsThe Five Stairsteps, teenagers, four brothers & their sister from Chicago, were dubbed the “First Family of Soul”. The quintet had been produced by Curtis for an album on Windy City, an earlier Mayfield enterprise. The group were the first to be signed to Curtom, the LP “Love’s Happening” the second full-length release on the label & the boss was all over it. “Love’s Happening” really is a notable record. Curtis’ songs, fresh vocals matched to effervescent arrangements by another new recruit, the multi-talented Donny Hathaway, make for some very enjoyable Chicago Pop-Soul. The five were joined by their three year old brother & billed as the Five Stairsteps & Cubie though the infant was only heard on the throwaway “The New Dance Craze”. Infectious floor-fillers like “Stay Close To Me” extended their consistent run of Top 20 R&B hits.

 

“Madame Mary” is an odd one. I found it in the low 30’s of that disappearing Billboard chart but it’s nowhere to be found on the Cashbox list. A non-album track it was obviously recorded at a later date than the other Curtom releases, busier & funkier, a turn up the road  Curtis Mayfield would be taking in his solo career. In 1970 the Impressions included their own version of the song on the “Check Out Your Mind” LP, the final one that Curtis made with the group. It was in this year, now away from Curtom, that the Five Stairsteps enjoyed & deserved their biggest success with the damned near perfect original of the much-covered “O-o-h Child”.

 

 

Image result for jerry butler moody womanAt #12 in the chart, it had been as high as #5, was “Moody Woman” by Jerry Butler, another artist with a strong connection to Curtis Mayfield. Church choir-mates, the first Impressions records were released as Jerry Butler & the… When Jerry left for a solo career several of his chart hits were written & featured backing vocals by his friend. His smooth confident style earned him “The Iceman” soubriquet, his biggest hits were with songs that are now regarded as standards (though he was the first to get to Bacharach & David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself”). This facility & wide range could mean that his albums, while sounding fine, were padded with cover version filler. In 1968 Mercury Records made the inspired decision to pair Jerry with a young hot-shot producer/writing team from Philadelphia.

 

Image result for jerry butler ice on iceKenny Gamble & Leon Huff had already enjoyed some success & now, with a full album to do, they were more than able to take their chance. On the resulting “The Iceman Cometh” LP of the 11 tracks, all credited to the trio, 4 entered the R&B Top 10 (2 made #1) & Jerry Butler was as big a name as he had ever been. “Moody Woman” is the opening track on the following “Ice On Ice”, a track which may not match the peerless “Only the Strong Survive” but the first of another 4 successful 45’s from the record. The producers retained Jerry’s refinement, adding fluent, uptempo, innovative arrangements using a string section in ways that hadn’t been heard before. This wasn’t just a new contemporary Soul it was the future. Jerry Butler went on to make more fine records, with their Philadelphia International label Gamble & Huff’s would soon become the dominant sound of commercial Black music. It was here, in collaboration with Butler, that this sound first came together & to our notice.

 

If I’m still looking back to 50 years ago in the early 2020’s (& I hope that I am) & you’re still hanging around I’m sure that you will be hearing plenty more from Curtis Mayfield & from Gamble & Huff.

It’s like being on soul train

Over here in the U.K. we never got to see “Soul Train” on our TVs. There would be an occasional clip on “Top of the Pops” if an act was not coming over to Europe but there has never even been any retrospective compilation of a show which seemed to get all the acts you needed in a very creative period for American black music. I know there was a lot of lip-synching going on & those dancers were all “look at me, look at me” but it looked to be a pretty cool show when we were afforded a glimpse.

The Five Stairsteps, out of Chicago, a family group who were originally arranged in descending order of size & had a kind of Platters deal which was already out-dated. The first single had a Curtis Mayfield written B-side which swung a little more. They tried out a more Motown sound (James Burke did a fair Smokey impression)  before hooking up with Curtis again at his label, Curtom. The next singles were R&B hits, produced by Curtis & often covers of Impressions songs. They would sit really well alongside Baby Huey, Sister Love & Major Lance on a Curtom mix which should exist if it already doesn’t.

“Ooh Child” is the Top 10, gold record moment for the Burke family & what a lovely, optimistic song it is. The boys had been down to the Superfly boutique to get some new threads for their TV appearance. Alohe went for the jumper & slacks combo. She looks and sounds as beautiful as her name. Clarence Jr & James do their bit but this is Alohe’s song…wonderful.

At this time the Stairsteps were handing over the title of “first family of soul” to the boys from Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5. It was of no consequence because the true first family were these guys…

By 1972 the Isley Brothers, Ronald, Kelly & Rudy, had been making records for 15 years. “Shout” & “Twist and Shout” were known to everyone who listened to pop music even if they did not know the original versions. They joined Tamla Motown, made some records that were more popular in the UK than in the US. Man, I hear the intro to “This Old Heart Of Mine”, I am back in that scout-hut youth club & a dancing fool again. Wanting more freedom than Motown would allow they left to write and produce for their own label T-Neck. The first single “It’s Your Thing” cleaned up.

The new sound served them well & 10 more singles used this winning formula. However the brothers were not just listening to James Brown. Covers of songs by Buffalo Springfield, War & Dylan got them airplay outside of the R&B stations. There were some young Isleys around, brothers Ernie & Marvin, brother-in-law Chris Jasper, who were putting the old hands on to these rock tunes. “Pop That Thang” comes from the 1972 LP “Brother, Brother, Brother” the first the new boys played on.

This is a confident performance of the song. The Isleys had made the move from soul to funk and were more popular than ever. They had some new sounds coming & they were ready to shake some action. The next LP “3 + 3” was by the new sextet. It was distributed by Epic & had the weight of major label promotion behind it. The brothers had been around the block & were ready for this new success. In the next 5 years they were one of the biggest black music acts around. I have favourite Isley tracks from all their long career. “Pop That Thang” is da funk with no frills and Ronald’s unmistakable lead vocal…love it…bang, bang, bang !

Gladys Knight, and her Pips, came late to Motown after some success elsewhere. Ms Knight always thought she got the short end of the stick from the label, being given songs that bigger acts had turned down. Her producer, Norman Whitfield, did give her first shake at “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” but it was Marvin who had the worldwide hit 2 years later. Whitfield had, in 1969, taken over production of the Temptations. Looking for a piece of Sly Stone’s action he developed a “psychedelic soul” sound. If  “Friendship Train” was rejected by the Tempts then Gladys got lucky this time.

This clip is from episode 1 of the syndicated “Soul Train” . The Pips have hardly pimped their strides but despite the odd leisure wear are as swinging & as dancing as Don Cornelius promises. Gladys is just stunning. The song, obviously linked to “Cloud Nine” & “Papa Was…” benefits from only having the two lead voices & not being over-complicated. The early attempts by Motown at socially conscious lyrics (selling records came first) could be clumsy. By this time they were getting it right. If you want a less pop version of this song check for Whitfield’s extended edition by the Undisputed Truth…suitably nuts.

Gladys brought a country tinge to her music with, among others, a cover of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It”. It proved commercial, when she left Motown for Buddah she mined a very successful seam & became the star Motown never made her.

You know, maybe “Soul Train” was not always all that. In the UK we had the late night “Old Grey Whistle Test”. There are some great highlights from that show but it could often be flat and worthy. You needed a cup of tea, a fat one & some decent music after too many of the episodes. “Soul Train” is not like that in my imagination & from the clips I love to watch.

In the 80s two friends and myself were having the sort of weekend that only the finest pharmaceutical amphetamine made possible. A Friday night/Saturday morning session, a visit to Upton Park to see the Hammers, topped off with a Nigerian christening party. The living room of the house was dark and was now a dance floor. The room was filled with beautiful African princesses dressed in those sparkling dresses you saw in the market and wondered who wore them. The room was moving as one to the fine, fine music. My bug-eyed friend bobbed towards me with a big smile. He leaned into me & shouted “This is like being on Soul Train !”. I laughed because it was as close as we were ever going to get to it.