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.

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Singing Sweet And Soulful (Dusty Springfield)

A double whammy here. A win-win combo of two things I will never get tired of, Dusty Springfield, the Queen of British Pop & the emotional Soul ballads written & produced by Bert Berns & Jerry Ragovoy. “It Was Easier to Hurt Her” was originally recorded in New York in March 1965 by Garnett Mimms. The song was picked up as the debut solo single for Wayne Fontana, a British Invasion hitmaker fronting the Mindbenders who never repeated that group’s international success. Later in the same year Dusty’s version was included on her 2nd UK LP “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty” (US releases get a little complicated). This clip, from her BBC TV show in September 1967, matches Soul & elegant inspiration, that thing that Dusty did better than anyone & I love it.

 

 

Image result for dusty springfield 1966Ms Springfield’s transition from the prim, pre-Beatle Pop-Folk of her group the Springfields to Beat Boom aristocrat was seamless. Her continuing relationship with producer Johnny Franz & orchestra director Ivor Raymonde at Phillips records kept the hits coming. Whether it was the pure Pop of  “I Only Want to be With You” & “Stay Awhile”, the sophisticated interpretations of Bacharach & David (“Wishin’ & Hopin'” & “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”) or the big ballads, a little syrupy & overwrought for my taste but very popular, there was a string of UK Top 20 entries beginning in 1963. If this wasn’t enough Dusty was an early adopter & supporter of Soul music. There’s a Holland-Dozier-Holland track on her first LP, another on an early EP (ask your grandma). She was always in our telly in the Sixties & never looked happier than when duetting with Martha Reeves (“Wishin’ & Hopin'”) on the “Ready Steady Go” showcase which introduced Tamla Motown to a prime time TV audience.

 

A hook up with Atlantic Records seemed to be a natural move. Changes in the music scene meant that Dusty was becoming a cabaret act, gigging in working men’s clubs. A re-invigoration was needed & her new heavyweight producers took her to American Sound Studios to make the classic “Dusty In Memphis” LP. “Son of a Preacher Man”, you know it, it’s in “Pulp Fiction”, was an international success but the album was not the sure-fire breakout smash it deserved to be. It is her masterpiece, makes it on to the all-time lists but Dusty continued to make some blue-eyed, blonde-wigged Soul that didn’t get the same exposure.

 

 

 

Related imageThe follow up 1970 LP wasn’t, but could have been, called Dusty In Philadelphia. “A Brand New Me” (US title), “From Dusty With Love” in the UK (this fractured marketing didn’t really help) was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios with producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, a team who were honing their own hit sound which would soon flood the charts on their Philadelphia International label. G&H had a terrific 4 album Pop-Soul streak with “The Ice Man” Jerry Butler. The title track & “Lost” were both taken from that catalogue & Dusty’s record has the same uptown smooth quality. If anything her assured, husky voice is more suited to these songs than to swampy Memphis Soul. “A Brand New Me” was a hit 45 but album sales disappointed both artist & label. It’s a very classy record, a forewarning that Sigma would become a new Hit Factory.

 

 

Image result for dusty springfield magazine coverAnother year another producer for Dusty. This time around she was in New York with Jeff Barry, a stalwart of American Pop through the Sixties. Barry, with his wife Ellie Greenwich & producer Phil Spector pretty much defined the Girl Group sound. “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby”, Baby I Love You”, “Then He Kissed Me”, It’s a list & an impressive one so let’s add “River Deep Mountain High” & hits for the Dixie Cups & the Shangri-Las. Later he produced the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” then wrote & produced “Sugar Sugar” for the Archies. “Faithful” was recorded in the first half of of 1971. Dusty, never the most confident person, was unhappy in both her private & professional situations. The 2 lead singles from the LP sold poorly & Dusty chose to end her contract with Atlantic. The album was shelved, the tapes were thought to have been destroyed in a fire before Barry he still had the mixes. “Faithful” was finally released in 2015 & that’s a great pity because, don’t you just know it, it’s a damn fine record.

 

“Faithful” does steer Dusty back towards the middle of the road, she was probably just as comfortable there, singing the standards of the day (“You’ve Got A Friend”, “Make It With You”) than she was accentuating the Soul Sensation angle. Of course there are still uptempo tracks like the single “Haunted” but the album has a little more variety, brings back the drama & is beautifully arranged & played. “Faithful” would have completed Dusty’s trilogy of Atlantic LPs, it seems crazy that we never got to hear it at the time.

 

 

In 1968 Bert Berns was dead & Jerry Ragovoy was making big plans to put his royalties towards ownership of the means of production with his own studio. Berns had provided Atlantic with one of their first big Soul hits, “Cry To Me” by Solomon Burke, Ragovoy, a master of emotion & drama, did great work with female vocalists like Erma Franklin & Lorraine Ellison. Imagine if Dusty could have worked with those 2 New York mavericks. There’s a record I would liked to have heard. Ah well, let’s finish with one of the clips from “Dusty In Germany” a TV show shot in 1969 just after the release of “…In Memphis”. Dusty is back to performing her repertoire in a confusing clutter of faux-psychedelic effects. The song is her cover of the Sand Pebbles’ rambunctious “Love Power”. Dusty Springfield looks great, moves better than the gyrating dancers &, as always, delivers the goods. The best of the British girl singers.

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.

They Smile In Your Face…(The O’Jays)

The O’Jays, originally a 5 man vocal group from Canton Ohio, came together as teenagers in high school in 1958. They made their first records, as the Mascots, in 1960. For the next 10 years there were regular single releases, 6 LPs, each on a different label. Their music followed the signs of the times, from Doo-Wop through Soul to Funk, always led by the strong, impassioned vocals of Eddie Levert, never finding a distinctive song or sound to capture a wider audience. Bill Isles left before the group’s biggest hit of the decade, 1967’s “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today). Subsequent releases barely troubled the Hot 100 & when Bobby Massey handed in his notice the remaining trio, Levert, Walter Williams & William Powell, were looking for yet another record label. Their next move had people all over the world joining hands & made them one of the most successful groups of the 1970s. “What they do !”

 

 

Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, an ambitious songwriting/production team based at Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia, were doing great things for Atlantic Records (“A Brand New Me” Dusty Springfield, “Gonna Take A Miracle” Laura Nyro/Labelle). Atlantic wouldn’t bankroll their plans for their own operation but CBS would & in 1972 Philadelphia International Records was busting out with hit singles & LPs for Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes & the O’Jays. The dramatic “Back Stabbers” is the title track of the O’Jays LP, written by Huff with Gene McFadden & John Whitehead, just two of a very talented team assembled in Philly. It & the uplifting “Love Train” became international hits. Gamble & Huff’s version of modern soul music, sweeping, swooping orchestral arrangements, sweet & still funky, supplanted Motown & Stax as the new Hit Factory of African-American music.

 

“Back Stabbers” is quite an achievement. Besides the 2 smashes the 6 minute long “992 Arguments”, cut to around 2.20 for radio play, & the smooth “Time To Get Down” sounded pretty good on the dancefloor & on the radio. The next time around there was no resting on their laurels, no more of the same formula from the production team. The title track of “Ship Ahoy” (1973) is almost 10 minutes long. Opening with crashing waves & cracking whips the dark & ominous theme is the transportation of slaves from Africa to America. This was 3 years before Alex Haley’s epic “Roots” became a literary sensation.

 

 

The LP is a mix of the political & the romantic. It opens with “Put Your Hands Together”, an exhortation to get on down to the dancefloor & get on up with the positivity. On “For the Love of Money” session man Anthony Jackson contributed a bassline of such definitive, irresistible funkiness that he gained a songwriting co-credit & the enduring gratitude of the listening public. The 9 minute long “Don’t Call Me Brother”, a warning against hypocritical backstabbers, is a dramatic triumph of orchestral  soul arrangement. Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff were responsible for 22 Gold albums. “Ship Ahoy” by the O’Jays is their masterpiece.

Throughout the 1970s the group continued with Philadelphia International & there were 6 more gold or platinum LPs on the spin. There were some fine single releases. “I Love Music” (1975) & “Used Ta Be My Girl” (1978) both reached the US Top 10. The 2 LPs from 1975, “Survival” & “Family Reunion”, are good records which fall short of the dynamism & imagination of their 2 great records.

 

 

The growing influence of Disco, with it’s fuck Art & Politics, let’s dance credo, meant that the message in the music became less pronounced. Kenny Gamble’s lyrics were positive social commentary but often platitudinous. An exception is the urgent “Rich Get Richer”, based on the writings of Ferdinand Lundeberg. In his books about American wealth Lundeberg repeated his theories that America was really a plutocracy managed by oligarchs. Sounds familiar ? This great song is 40 years old !

 

While you’re here please check out the Philadelphia International All-Stars (Including O’Jays Eddie & Walter) & “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto”, a compelling classic groove.

 

The combination of the vocal strength of the O’Jays with the multi-talented production team at Sigma Sound Studios carried the soul swing in the early 1970s. In 1977 William Powell unfortunately died from cancer aged just 35. Sammy Strain joined the group & they continued to record into the 21st century. Regular reissues & compilations kept the great songs around, if you hear them on the radio they make you smile. The Philadelphia International anthology is titled “Love Train..”. The O’Jays have their place in the premier league of American vocal groups & that Eddie Levert, boy he sure could sing !