A Little Bit More Soul (January 1969)

So how long have I been just a click away from the Billboard R&B Chart archive? No matter, I’ve found it now & that sound you hear is my purr of contentment as I cruise the weekly Top 30 or, even better, Top 50 from past years, marvelling at just how many great songs were around at the same time. Let’s start with January 1969, 50 years ago, when Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” held the #1 spot for the whole month.

There were 3 other Tamla Motown releases in a distinguished Top 10 for January 18th 1969, I’m guessing that it had been pretty much the same every week for the past 5 years. Stevie Wonder was there & so were the Temptations, on their own & again with Diana Ross & the Supremes. 11-20 included the Delfonics’ “Ready Or Not Here I Come” & “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone, both certainties for the 1000 Best Soul records of the decade (not a real list but give me an hour & I’ll get back to you). OK, pick a number between 1 & 50… any one of them will be just fine.

 

 

Related imageAt #3 is Clarence Carter’s “Too Weak To Fight”. We never really got Clarence over here until the sentimental “Patches”, his only UK hit, came around in 1970 but, across 68/9, he was enjoying a consistent run of R&B chart success & crossing over to the mainstream Pop chart. Born without sight Clarence graduated with a degree in Music from Alabama State College in his hometown of Montgomery. He was already a fixture at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals when bigger record labels, hearing that the writers, musicians & producers there had got it going on, sent their own established artists along to grab some of that swampy Southern Country Soul. Carter’s records were picked up by Atlantic & the higher profile led to “Slip Away”, his second 45 on the label, selling a million copies.

 

My good friend Mitchell  kindly gave me his compilation of the “Best of C.C.” because I played it so often & took such delight every single time. “Too Weak…” is one of a string of songs featuring Clarence’s strong baritone, yearning in the heartbreak tunes, a lascivious chuckle in the…er…racier ones. The now famous Alabaman session players made it funky, gritty & sparkling. They made it sound easy too but if it was then everybody would have been doing it. There was a new name in the small print on the back of the album sleeves. Guitarist Duane Allman had shown up at FAME with his band Hour Glass & found himself hired. Duane brought his precocious Blues talent along, check out Clarence’s “The Road To Love”. Further on down that week’s chart, at #16, he was inventing Southern Rock on Wilson Pickett’s blistering “Hey Jude”.

 

 

Image result for the impressions this is my countryChicago was well represented in the Top 10 too. Producer Carl Davis, a man who knew what was what, removed Barbara Acklin’s vocals, added piano to the backing track & released “Soulful Strut”  (#6) by Young-Holt Unlimited, formed by the rhythm section of the successful Ramsey Lewis Trio. Davis’ newly founded Dakar records discovered a new star in Tyrone Davis. “Can I Change My Mind” (#4 up from #15) was an update of the classic Windy City sound, loping rhythms, vivacious horn & string arrangements, as smooth as Pop-Soul could get. Jerry Butler, a hit-maker for over a decade, went to Philadelphia to work with a hot new writing/production team.  “Are You Happy” (#10) was the third single taken from the resulting all killer no filler “The Ice Man Cometh” LP. Jerry enjoyed revived fortunes, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff had a calling card for their talents which they parleyed into their own Philadelphia International label &, pretty much, world domination in just a few years.

 

Image result for curtis mayfield civil rightsWhen Jerry Butler left the Impressions for a solo career he maintained his relationship with Curtis Mayfield, the kid he had met in his church choir. Curtis had songs to spare for his pal, the acts at Chicago’s Okeh label & his own vocal trio. The Impressions’ progress from perfectly harmonious Gospel to equally euphonic Soul was as influential as any other African-American music of the time. In Jamaica the 3 Wailin’ Wailers were listening closely while up in Bearsville New York their “Keep On Pushing” album featured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”. Like many young Americans Curtis was affected by & involved in the Civil Rights movement & his lyrics came to reflect the changing times. “This Is My Country”, #8 on the chart, the title track of the first LP released on his own Curtom label, tells it like it was, pertinent then & still is now & is an absolute gem.

 

 

OK, that’s the Top 10 pretty much covered. Let’s look further down at the page for the week’s new entries. A big favourite round here, “Grits Ain’t Groceries” by Little Milton, scrapes in at #50. “If I don’t love you, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry & Mona Lisa was a man!”. Right On! Further up at #41 Arthur “Sweet Soul Music” Conley entered FAME Studios to cover Paul McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” but you don’t want to hear that. I’m afraid there’s very little Soul to be extracted from this piece of cod-Reggae fluff & not even Duane Allman’s guitar contribution can add much value. So then Pop Pickers (heh, heh) in at #44 it’s…

 

Related imageTammi Terrell experienced great commercial success in 1968 when “You’re All I Need”, her second collection of duets with Marvin Gaye was released. The young Motown Mod was the perfect foil for sharp dressed Marvin, the label’s major solo star solicitous of their ingenue. A clutch of bespoke songs provided by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson added further class to an already classy pairing. Unfortunately Tammi was unable to fully enjoy her hit records, in October 1967 she collapsed onstage with Marvin & a brain tumour was diagnosed. After a first surgery Tammi was able to return to the studio but was never well enough to perform again & her health quickly declined. She died in March 1970 aged just 24. In January 1969 her only solo LP was released. “Irresistible” compiled the 11 tracks, just 30 minutes of music, that she had recorded for Motown between 1965 & 1968. I’m sure that Hitsville had plans for the new star & that with material tailored to her alluring voice & personality more success was inevitable. We’ll never know that now.

 

Image result for tammi terrell this old heart of mineHearing the Isley Brothers’ version of “This Old Heart Of Mine” will always be my youth club madeleine. Dancing until almost bedtime on nothing stronger than a can of Vimto & a packet of Oxo flavoured crisps. Walking that little girl home because well, she lived just round the corner from me. Tammi’s version, recorded in 1966, produced by two of the writers, Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier, will never hold the same resonance but if ever you need a classic, uptempo, floor-filling stomper, “the Sound of Young America”, then you’ve come to the right place.

 

 

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Percy’s Progress (Percy Sledge)

PERCY SLEDGE…Here it is, you all know this one.

 

 

Related imageOne of the defining moments in the new Soul sound, in 1966 “When A Man Loves A Woman” was a major international hit. Percy’s impassioned, forlorn, powerful vocal is matched by the patiently building arrangement, Spooner Oldham’s perfect organ, those horns at the end. The song has become a classic, covered by many, the original never bettered. It was the first US #1 record for the group of producers, writers & musicians based in Muscle Shoals Alabama. It gave Atlantic Records a much needed mega hit, a platform to them becoming a major sponsor & distributor of this Southern Soul strain.

 

Percy Sledge never repeated the massive success of his debut single & nowadays it is that song for which he is remembered. There were 8 albums & a Greatest Hits package in the next decade. The concord between his fine voice & the creativity of his associates produced much enduring music &, as I don’t do lists, there are too many tracks too mention here. So, here are 3 of my favourites, because I get to pick & OK, I may have steered you wrong in the past but I’m right about how good Percy Sledge is.

 

Image result for percy sledge adsThe singer was a working as a hospital orderly, singing part-time with the Esquires when he hit big. Atlantic were keen to keep their new star busy & 2 LPs were released in 1966. However hastily these 21 tracks were assembled  there’s a consistent quality running across both records. On the one named after the Big One “Thief in the Night”, later a Treasure Isle gem from Jamaica when John Holt recorded it as “Stealing”, sounds like a hit to me. The next releases on 45 were from the 2nd album. A cover of Joe Haywood’s “Warm and Tender Love” was the most similar to “When a Man…”, it & the slightly faster, insistent “It Tears Me Up”, written by two of the new talents at Muscle Shoals, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, both made the US Top 20.

 

 

 

Image result for percy sledge magazine coverThere’s an appropriate title for the third LP because “The Percy Sledge Way” (1967) was certainly a thing. When Sledge covered a song, this is a record full of them, he may not have bettered the source material (“Tell it Like It Is”, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”) but his distinctive brand of heartbreak with uncomplicated, dramatic backing from his regular crew impressed an individual stamp on to anything he recorded. Overseen by producers Quin Ivy & Marlin Greene at Norala Sound Studio, just up the road from the better known FAME studios, they knew how The Percy Sledge Way went & they knew that it worked. “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms)” was first recorded in the 1950’s by Stewart & the Arkansas Cowgirls (anyone…?) & a hit for Solomon Burke. I guess that there was little crossover into Country for black artists back then but Percy’s version is a fine piece of work.

 

Image result for percy sledge ads“Take Time To Know Her” (1968) is quite something. The title track did just what it says on the advertisement & provided Percy with his biggest hit since the first one. Over half of the material is contributed by the young guns from Alabama, 3 from Penn/Oldham, 2 by Marlin Greene & Eddie Hinton & a Bobby Womack composition. Affirmed by a string of successful records these guys were at the top of their game & this collection of mid-tempo Soul ballads is a classic of Southern Soul. “Out of Left Field” was released as an early single from these sessions & “It’s All Wrong But It’s Alright” wasn’t, both stunning productions & Percy’s vocals knocking it out of the park. All of these first 4 records are very good . In my opinion, “Take Time…” is the great one & one to have.

 

 

 

The hits were getting harder to find as the musical landscape changed rapidly. Sledge’s brand of Gospel-tinged Country Soul held less appeal to audiences who preferred a brand new funky bag. He cannot have been helped by disruption in Alabama when Marlin Greene & Eddie Hinton split to join the FAME rhythm section at their new Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. “My Special Wish For You” (1969) has cover versions with a couple of Christmas songs thrown in. “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road”, Duane Allman on guitar, stands out but Elvis was cutting that song in Memphis & stealing Percy’s thunder.

 

“Kind Woman” a song from the new-fangled Country Rock, written by Richie Furay for Buffalo Springfield’s “Last Time Around” was ideal material to undergo Sledge-ification. I would have liked to have heard his interpretation of more modern material but this great track did not make the LP & it didn’t trouble the Hot 100 when released as a single. When Percy finally did go to Nashville for “…Sings Country” in 1979 the songs selected were traditional Country standards, nothing out of left field at all.

 

Image result for percy sledge south africaIn 1970 Percy toured South Africa. Initially engaged to perform for non-white audiences the American Soul experience was a sensation, restrictions were relaxed & he stayed for 17 weeks. His final 2 LPs for Atlantic, “…in South Africa” & the film soundtrack “Soul Africa” arose from this trip. I’m not sure how much promotion these records had in the US but Percy Sledge found that in Africa, in Europe, in fact all over the world he was welcomed & appreciated. As long as he brought along “When A Man…”, which he did, then audiences could say that they had seen something pretty special.

 

 

Right, just one more. In 1974 another Southern set up, Capricorn Records, wedged up after the success of the Allman Brothers, got Percy, Quin Ivy & the Muscle Shoals gang back together & sprung for the “I’ll Be Your Everything” LP. (Hit the link & you’ll see Percy lip-synch the title track on a Dutch TV programme). Nothing had been diminished in the 5 year gap & it’s another good record but the commercial Soul sound was now smoother, more urban. Disco was coming up fast on the rails. “Behind Closed Doors” was a Grammy award winner for rocker Charlie Rich who found success with a new Countrypolitan sound. Not really my cup of Lapsang Souchong but Percy’s version, a little bit Gospel, a little bit Country & a whole lot of Soul hits the spot for me every time. It also, unfortunately, brings out my inner pub singer so stand clear if it comes around near me.

 

Related imagePercy recorded more sporadically in his later career. His range was never as broad as the greatest Soul singers but what he did was still pretty great & he recorded some of the best music that came out of Muscle Shoals. He continued to perform, retaining the goodwill of audiences & his peers. Accolades came his way, his acceptance speech on his induction at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 is that of a humble, happy & successful man. He died at his home in Baton Rouge in 2015 & his music will always be around.

We Got To Have It, Soul Power

I discovered this weekend’s top tune while listening to a selection by Arthur Alexander, a favourite of mine from those pre-Motown days. Times when Sam Cooke & Jackie Wilson carried the R&B swing. I posted some of Arthur’s great songs here but “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way” was written & recorded in 1992, 30 years after his effective & affecting ballads had influenced young Lennon, McCartney, Jagger & Richard to record their own cover versions. His biggest song “You Better Move On” was the first hit to be recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals & it was his friends from back in that day, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham & Donnie Fritts (who co-wrote “If It’s…”) who helped him make his first LP for 21 years. I hope that our man saw some of the money which is surely generated when the Beatles & the Stones use your songs but Arthur had been driving a bus for a living. It was only a matter of months after the release of the LP “Lonely Just Like Me” (1993) & his return to performing that he suffered a fatal heart attack. The world would be a better place with more beautiful country-soul songs like this one from an innovative & influential man.

There is a generation of performers who never made it in front of the movie or TV cameras so are not around the Y-tube for our (OK, my) enjoyment.  No tape around of Arthur Alexander performing live or even lip-synching any of his songs. Another Muscle Shoals master, Clarence Carter, was only filmed when he had a worldwide hit with “Patches” in 1970 even though there was a run of R&B hits spanning 1968-71. Some of these crossed over, 2 of them sold a million & “Slip Away” was one of that golden pair.

Clarence, who was blind from birth, is remembered for that big hit but “Patches” has always seemed a little extravagant, too heavy on the schmaltz for my taste. A Greatest Hits collection captures the liquified, flexuous pulse that places the Muscle Shoals sound firmly on the soul side of country-soul & is a very good thing. His rich baritone incorporates a salacious chuckle which adds a pleasant humour to his testifying. The hits stopped coming when African-American music started on the path that ended up in Disco but he continued to perform & you know you will have a good night, with some good songs, at a Clarence Carter show.

This wonderful clip is from a hometown gig at the Shoals Theatre in Florence Alabama in 2011. Clarence is 75 years old here…really. “Too Weak To Fight”, the follow up to “Slip Away,” was another big seller & another great song. It’s not just the song & the ribald showmanship which makes this performance a delight. Mr Carter’s exhibition of how a Southern Soul rhythm guitar part is played is just immaculate & splendid. I love this music.

OK…are you ready for Star Time ?…I  said…We move to Memphis in the meantime to check for my Uncle Overton. O.V.Wright was a nonpareil of brooding, impassioned soul singing. He may have said that the difference between his gospel & his secular music was no more than the substitution of the word “Jesus” by the word “baby” but O.V. never really came to terms with his choice of the profane over the sacred. In Tennessee in the mid-60s a musician had to be wholly holy, Rock & Roll was still the Devil’s music. O.V. Wright’s blues are right there on his records.

“Eight Men & Four Women” was one of the first songs O.V.  recorded with producer Willie Mitchell. An earlier contract meant that the records were released through a Texan label, Backbeat but the music is pure Memphis, home of the Blues. Mitchell’s set-up at Hi Records flourished with the brilliant success of Al Green & his partnership with Wright lasted for 10 years. There was no great commercial success as public taste moved to a sweeter, slicker sound which did not always complement the singer’s more traditional style. He remained though, a star in the Southern states & those earlier Backbeat records are something to hear. Unfortunately O.V. Wright’s taste for the high life got him into something that he couldn’t shake loose.

This amazing film is from May 1979 when O.V. visited Japan where he was still a big deal. Heroin addiction had wrecked his health & his finances, had put him in hospital & in jail. This frail man is just 40 years old. There’s a short excerpt from a 1975 show of his on the Y-tube where he is a stocky, smart-dressed man singing & dancing up a storm. He can’t do that anymore, those last 4 years must have seemed like 20.  O.V.Wright’s medley of “God Blessed Our Love” & “When A Man Loves A Woman”, performed with Teenie Hodges , Teenie’s 2 brothers & the rest of the Hi Rhythm section is stunning & chilling. His control, his delivery…ah, man, just watch & then watch again Within 18 months O.V. was dead from a heart attack. We are lucky that this great artist, this great piece of American art is here for us to watch & admire.