There are a lot of good & interesting R&B entries in the Cash Box album chart for the first day of April 1972. Some, Al Green, Denise La Salle, Honey Cone, were selling on the back of their smash hit singles, “Pain” by the Ohio Players was eventually to become the first of a run of big-selling collections & Stevie Wonder had the significant “Music of My Mind”, a coming-of-age record that we had all been waiting for. Oh look, there’s a Bobby Womack album & anything Quincy Jones released under his own name is surely worth checking out. But wait this is Cash Box R&B Top 60 week not albums,& a new entry at #57 on that chart is the lead 45 from a very high class 33 and a third .
“Little Esther” Phillips, mentored by bandleader Johnny Otis, had her first R&B #1 in 1950 when she was just 14 years old. It was a momentous year for the teenager, two more chart-toppers in a run of seven Top 10s ended when a dispute over royalties led to Esther leaving the Otis band & signing to Federal where there was just one more R&B hit two years later. The singer’s addiction to heroin meant that recording & performing was sporadic for the next decade before “Release Me”, a Country Soul ballad in the current style of Ray Charles, found her high in the Hot 100. In a couple of spells at Atlantic Records they couldn’t decide if Esther was a Blues, Jazz or Soul singer. “And I Love Her”, a classy cabaret Beatles cover attracted deserved attention & for “Burnin'” (1970) King Curtis brought along his saxophone & his band for a live album that consistently showcased her mature range & ability to sing the heck out of her set of chosen songs. It was Esther’s last album for Atlantic but Creed Taylor, boss of CTI Records, had plans for her.
“Home Is Where The Hatred Is” had been written & recorded in 1971 by rap-poet Gil Scott-Heron. It’s a harrowing story of ghetto addiction, unflinching & the truth, a brave, inspired choice for Esther who sings it like she knows it – because she does. Creed Taylor was a Jazz guy who, with his new Kudo imprint, wanted to set a standard for a new, polished Jazz-Funk sound. He had access to the finest New York session men & had hired the saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, former musical director with James Brown, as arranger & conductor. Pee Wee is a Jazz guy with a co-writer’s credit on, among others, “Cold Sweat” & “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud”, he was around when Funk was invented. The combination of Esther’s voice, great playing, well-chosen songs matched to sumptuous, empathic arrangements made “From A Whisper To A Scream”, the atmospheric title track one of two songs by Allen Toussaint, an outstanding album. Esther & Pee Wee were involved in some fine, fine music in their long careers & this is a highlight for both of them. The story goes that at the following year’s Grammy Awards Aretha Franklin, winner of Best Female R&B Performance for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, handed over her trophy to the also nominated, deserving Esther. You know that I hope this story is true.
The Isley Brothers in two paragraphs – that’s not gonna happen! Ronald, Rudolph & O’Kelly made their first record in 1957, had their first hit “Shout” two years later. The mid-60s were spent at Tamla Motown where the quality of releases like “This Old Heart Of Mine”, “I Guess I’ll Always Love You”, “Behind A Painted Smile” & others was not reflected in higher chart placings. In 1969 the trio’s first post-Motown 45, “It’s Your Thing”, an influential Funk anthem, established their independence & them as a force in the new music. With full control over their recordings for their own T-Neck label “Giving It Back” (1971), a collection of contemporary covers, had included a hit version of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One Your With”. “Lay Away”, the first single from their upcoming record rose a healthy 12 places to #29 in the R&B chart this week.
“Brother, Brother, Brother” has its share of Soft Rock covers too, three from Carole King (a 10 minute take on “It’s Too Late”) & Jackie DeShannon’s “Put A Little Love In Your Heart”. It’s the three self-written tracks that stand out, “Work To Do” an insistent classic, the rumbling “Pop That Thang” & the Soul-Rock of “Lay Away”, performed on “Soul Train” by a group who don’t have dance moves – they just groove. “Brother…” is a significant progression of a long-held, well thought out strategy by the Isleys. Two younger brothers, guitarist Ernie & bass player Marvin, along with brother-in-law Chris Jasper had been more involved in the studio, the young guns had probably put the older guys on to the more current songs they had covered. Now, for the first time, these three appeared on the sleeve credits of a record that still featured Ronald, Rudolph & O’Kelly on the cover. Chris had one of his songs on the album. Everything was in place for a big move, T-Neck’s distribution was moved from Buddah to the bigger Epic & the expanded group recorded “3+3” (1973) with the smash hit “That Lady”. It was the first of a run of 12 LPs to make the R&B Top 3, eight of them in the Pop Top20. For the rest of the decade it was gold & platinum albums all the way for one of the most popular, most enduring groups in the world.
We didn’t get to see “Soul Train” here in the UK. Starting in Chicago in October 1971, shown in just eight cities, a black music programme produced by black people quickly proved to be something to see. It was also a great opportunity for artists to get the kind of national TV exposure they had never had before. So here’s Millie Jackson promoting “Ask Me What You Want”, her second single taken from her eponymous debut album, rising 11 places to #18 on this week’s chart & on its way to the Top 10. Working with producer Raeford Gerard there’s a variety of styles on Millie’s record, “Ask…” & the next hit “My Man, A Sweet Man” both have more than a touch of Motown melodicism & danceability. After a fine start the following year she recorded “It Hurts So Good”, included in the blaxploitation movie “Cleopatra Jones” & her biggest hit yet, crossing over to the Pop chart.
Millie had always talked to her audience between songs. Initially it helped her nervousness but she was good at it, she would say what she liked & people liked what she said. The chat, about how women were treated, how they expected & deserved to be treated, became a bigger part of her show. After three quality albums that tended to follow current styles, with “Caught Up” (1974) Ms Jackson played to her strengths & hit her stride. The songs suited this strong, opinionated woman, a side from the other woman’s viewpoint, another from the wife’s, both of them taking no crap from their man. The Muscle Shoals crew were as strong or as silky as necessary & Millie had the first of her gold records. More were to follow, her tours were a sell out, she was a Soul superstar. I may not be the biggest fan of Millie Jackson though plenty were, anyway she wasn’t talking to me she was talking about me!