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.

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.

Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work (Chicago Soul Men)

As a teenage boy I was just beginning to differentiate between the the stabs of energetic soul of Stax Records  & the sweeter pop soul of Tamla Motown. You could get a handle on it when Wilson Pickett’s frenetic “Land of a 1,000 Dances” was played alongside “Baby Love”, the Supremes’ honeyed hit but when the 4 Tops shouted/sang  “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, hey, Memphis or Motown, this Soul Music was a thing ! In that year of Levi Stubbs, 1966, I heard a record which made me sit up & pay some serious attention.

“Unbelievable” that was the title of the LP & the vocal pyrotechnics of Billy Stewart seemed to be just that. I didn’t know Porgy & Bess from Adam & Eve. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” is like the most covered song ever. Whatever the template I did know that this version was over the top of it. I loved Billy’s “brrrrrr-a-cha” & the blazing brass backing. The record was a big hit in the US but here you had to take it where you found it. At a time when pop music was innovative & causing a commotion Billy Stewart’s “Summertime” had a style & an energy unlike anything else around.

Billy had come to Chicago & Chess records from Washington DC at the behest of Bo Diddley. The chunky crooner was known as the “Fat Man”. It was the creative head at Chess, Billy Davis, a former cohort of Berry Gordy & later a big wheel in advertising, who moved Stewart towards these classic covers. There are 2 LPs of them & they do try a little too hard to impress you with the same trick. However, there were earlier recordings by Billy which showed just what a talent he was. A year earlier “Sitting In The Park”, a straight from the fridge soul ballad which can be best described as groovy had national success. This song, a favourite of & an influence on that greatest of Jamaican rock steady trios the Heptones, was not the only classy cut. The 1965 LP “I Do Love You” is the one to seek out for a showcase of his ability.

Billy Stewart stayed in Chicago with Chess for the rest of his career. Unfortunately this was all too short as he was killed in a car accident in January 1970. A great loss of a unique voice.

Spotlight on Lou Rawls y’all. As a young Chicagoan Lou was connected with the burnished star of the city’s gospel scene Sam Cooke. When Sam left for Los Angeles it was Lou who replaced him in the Highway QC’s. After a spell as a paratrooper he was touring with Cooke when he was almost killed in a car accident. On his recovery he recorded with the star & began his own solo career. In the early 60s the  other role model for Afro-American singers was Nat “King” Cole, Lou’s first records were jazz oriented but his smooth assured chops could be turned to any style. In 1966 2 LPs, “Live” & “Soulin'”, found an audience. As Lou says, “Soul is truth, … no matter where it comes from, no matter how it is presented”.

“Dead End Street” is a hit from 1967 & my favourite of Lou’s singles. It’s a song about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the “Windy City” & it convinces this Englishman who has never been there. This clip is from the Playboy mansion. I have seen a few of these clips & they all seem a little incongruous. None of the acts have actually spat at the desperate hanger-on scum in the audience but maybe that is wishful thinking on my part. Hey, for Lou it is just another gig I am sure. He continued to have hits for 20 years & won 3 Grammys for best Male R&B vocal. His stuff is not part of the classic Soul canon but when you hear it you know who is singing & you sure do like it.

Oh yes, I love me some Jerry Butler ! Jerry grew up & sang with the other great Chicago Soul legend Curtis Mayfield. He wrote & sang lead on the Impressions first hit “For Your Precious Love”  when he was just 19 & Curtis 16. He left the Impressions for a solo career but he did not leave a partnership of great commercial & artistic merit. Jerry had hits all through the 60s. The early run was split between crooned classics, “Moon River”, “Make It Easy On Yourself” & the simple, sweet Curtis Mayfield soul songs, “He Will Break Your Heart”, “Find Another Girl”, “Need To Belong”. He was known as the “Iceman”, a suitably cool sobriquet.

He hooked up with producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, young guns from Philadelphia who would go on to form their own label, Philadelphia International. The string of inventive pop-soul singles this team created over the next 3 years makes for a quality “Greatest Hits” collection. The LP “The Ice Man Cometh” hits you bang, bang, bang. The biggest hit was “Only The Strong Survive” but plenty of others hit the spot & “What’s the Use of Breaking Up” is one of them. Jerry continued to have hits but he did not return to work with Curtis when his friend formed Curtom records. Curtis was getting deeper & funkier while Jerry was getting smoother. In 1985 Jerry Butler was elected as a Commissioner for Cook County Illinois. He has served Chicago well as a man & as an artist.