Ian Levine: The Northern Soul Men.

Ian Levine has extensive music credentials. His D.J. residency at the Blackpool Mecca, a Northern Soul temple in the Seventies, involved musical archeology & devotion to excavate the rare, forgotten grooves which became dancers’ favourites a decade after they were recorded. His Eighties productions, pioneering Euro Hi-NRG, was, in my opinion, dance music which was a little short on the funk but he had hit records. He seems to be obsessive about most things. He contacted 600 of his mother’s relatives for the biggest family reunion ever before re-assembling  an entire 1960s class from his school. A double nightmare…really ! His fascination with the music though has been of benefit to us all. Well, to me anyway.

So, this is what Billy Butler looks like. I included a track of his in the Okeh records post. In the 1960s a soul artist  had to crossover to the pop charts before any TV station would point a camera at them. The collection of video clips in my computer is an enchanting & addictive thing but the odds on finding those R&B legends-to-be are pretty long. And here is Billy flipping Butler singing the dancetastic “The Right Track”, July 1966, Okeh 7245, #24 on the R&B charts. I know this stuff & I don’t consider myself a Northern Soul geek though I know some men (it is a guy thing) who are. Billy kept on keeping on recording until 1983. There is a solo LP from 1976 on Curtis’s Curtom label which must be worth a listen but his day job was playing in big brother Jerry’s band.

In 1987 Levine began a small collection of former Motown  artists, recording new sessions with these seasoned performers. By the mid-80s this Motorcity project (folly…in the best, most respectful sense) had 108 acts, over 850 songs ! He then moved on to producing & directing “The Strange World of Northern Soul”, a documentary, an anthology, which, once he got started was difficult to stop & became 12 hours of footage with 131 performances. Ian Levine’s You Tube channel is a treasure trove of some familiar, mostly not, faces performing their re-recordings of soul songs which you may have heard but there is a great deal of “where did all this great stuff come from ?” going on.

“If You Ask Me (Because I Love You)” by Jerry Williams, the Swamp Dogg. 1966 again, the first 45 after Jerry dropped the “Little” in the front of his name. Now the Doggfather is a soul legend. He quit his job as the first African-American producer at Atlantic Records just as the Acid kicked in. The psychedelic tinged soul of “Total Destruction To Your Mind”, his solo LP, was matched by the inventiveness of recordings he made with Irma Thomas & Z.Z. Hill among others. Mr Dogg’s brand of Southern Soul was not a grand commercial success but now, at 40 years’ distance, it retains a distinct individuality which makes you go Hmmm. His (deliberately ?) absurd LP covers are classics too. “Rat On !” wins awards but “Surfin’ In Harlem” is a cool one.

Mr Swamp kept hold of his publishing & his masters & he now directs his own small music empire If anybody wants to sample his music (& that would be nothing but a smart move) then they have to show him the money. If labels show interest licensing his tracks he can do a quick deal to re-release a couple of albums. It’s all worth checking out, music like this does not get made anymore. Jerry Williams has more stories than the Burj Khalifa, hilarious & salacious. It is the music that he is about & this 1998 re-recording of a Northern Soul classic is a joy.

Here’s a tune that became more than a floor-filler at the Blackpool Mecca where a teenage Ian Levine was the only DJ to champion “Love On A Mountain Top” by Robert Knight. Robert’s first record, the dramatic “Everlasting Love”, was a Top 20 US hit. In the UK he was gazumped by Love Affair, a teen band later nicked for not playing on their records, who had the #1 smash with an inferior blue-eyed copy. Soul, Northern or otherwise, never went away in Britain. Artists considered one-hit wonders in the US like Edwin Starr & Jimmy Ruffin, moved here because we knew ALL their songs. You did not have to be pilled-up all night at the Casino, the Mecca or the Twisted Wheel to be on this music. Dancers were swinging their Oxford Bags to Motown & Philly in youth clubs & pubs all over. So, around Xmas 40 years ago “Love..” was a big UK hit. This lovely clip of Robert is a fine tribute to a man with a very sweet voice. Here is a grainy version from 1973 with an impressive afro & a suit that is louder than the music.

I cannot give enough props to Ian Levine for his labour of love. Really, I have been spoiled for choice in finding just 3 clips for this. There are Motown memories, Stax stalwarts, Chicago choristers…just get to his Y-tube channel or buy the DVDs for some serious, properly curated, soul history. next time around & soon it’s the distaff side of soul. I can’t wait.

And what you’ve done: was it for reason or for rhyme? Was it just for fun? (Chip Taylor)

Chip Taylor is the composer of “Wild Thing”, the proto-punk surefire smash by the Troggs. If this was his only contribution to our music then it would be enough. He made everything groovy. Of course there are so many more great songs, some I am still discovering. In the 1960s he worked in that hothouse of creativity & dodgy deal-making around the Brill Building in New York. Chip has stories about the great & not-so-good of the record business which make it sound like a branch of disorganized crime. He seems to have survived because he is a dude & he could write hit songs. Chip Taylor, born James Wesley Voight, is the brother of the actor Jon & is Angelina Jolie’s uncle…a dude. Here’s one of his top tunes.

Oh Yes ! How great is this ? Very. The wonderful Evie Sands singing the equally fine “I Can’t Let Go”. Chip was writing in New York but there was always a Memphis influence. Down in Nashville Chet Atkins, pivotal guitarist turned influential producer, had signed a deal where he pretty much took any songs that Taylor wrote. With that kind of track record our man got to make his own records too. Evie Sands was unlucky. The first 45 that was Taylor-made for her was blind-sided by a rush released cover from a hotter artist. Her original recording of “Angel Of The Morning” was overshadowed by Merrilee Rush who had the world wide hit. She has that East Coast cool, a solo Shangri-La. Evie should have come to the UK. We love our blue-eyed soul women over here. She would have given her admirer Dusty Springfield a run for her money. Instead Ron Richards, a production associate of George Martin, took the song for his own band of British Invasion hit-makers, the Hollies. “I Can’t Let Go” became one of the run of impeccable, harmonious classics released by that fine Manchester band.

Chip Taylor had quite a routine through the 60s. He had a young family to support & needed a regular source of income so for the first couple of hours in his day he studied the racing form. He called his bookie with his selections & then the music world passed through his office in search of a song or a deal. He seems to have never been too precious about his songs, getting them recorded was the thing. He is one of a small band of writers who’s songs could be rock, pop, country or soul. Really, Chip wrote songs that you know even if you don’t know him. He even, along with the Abba guys, has a credit on the title track of the Ali/Foreman movie “Rumble In The Jungle”.

Well O to the M to the G ! When I started this post I had another favourite soul song planned. I knew that Chip Taylor wrote “Welcome Home” but I thought that I knew that there was no video of Walter Jackson promoting his 1965 R&B Top 20 hit. So here it is, my new favourite musical thing. used as the title track of Walter’s Okeh collection. I do like my soul singers to be raw but the Chicago duo of Jerry Butler & Walter Jackson are the nonpareils of the smooth soul serenade…resistance is futile. The one that got away is “Country Girl, City Man” the terrific follow up to “Storybook Children” by the hit soul/country duo billy Vera & Judy Clay. it’s a treat.

Through the 1970s Chip Taylor began to record his own records. They are lovely country records filled with simple, direct, mature songs. Man, there were so many awful middle of the road singer-songwriters hanging about in the middle of the road at this time. Chip’s LPs really did deserve a wider audience, we would never have had to listen to Neil Diamond or Dr Hook. By 1979 Chip had added blackjack to his track gambling skills. There were no records for 15 years & he made a living as a professional gambler.  “Sometimes there’s a man— I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? This is Dudeness of a Newman or McQueen order.

Chip did come back to music of course, writing songs was one of the things he did better than many. In 2001 he met Carrie Rodriguez & for the last 10 years they have collaborated on a lot of music. I suppose it gets called “Americana”, a term which I think means that it sounds like The Band. Chip has such a facility , the songs are just so listenable. Last year he released an LP with the New Ukrainians which is dark but still warm. A man in his 70s if not raging against the passing of time then getting a little cranky about it. “F**k All The Perfect People” is the title track &, y’know, we could adopt less fitting theme songs than this. If you are offended by the lyrics then here is a little beauty for you from the very same man.

Yep Chip gets 4 clips because his contribution to the music is just bigger than most. He is a true legend who could & should be telling us his great stories of all the artists, movers, shaker & sharks who have crossed his path. Over at his website, rock and roll joe, there are appreciations of unsung heroes. It is precisely what the Interwebs are for. Of course, the stories about the villains would be just as interesting but Chip strikes me as being about the positive after over 50 years in the music business. That’s good yeah ?

It’s Okeh Because It’s Alright. (More Curtis)

In 1920 a New York independent record label had a surprise super solid smash hit with “Crazy Blues” by Marnie Smith. Here was a new little-tapped market for discs by African-American artists & Okeh Records hired musical directors in N.Y. & in Chicago to supervise the 8000 series of “Race” records released between 1921 & 1934. This all-star catalogue is now legendary & in 1926 Columbia bought a controlling interest in the company. Okeh’s light flickered intermittently over the years & in 1953 it became exclusively an R&B outlet. Then, in 1962 Carl Davis (that’s the “legendary”…), a Chicago producer, was employed as the head of the label. Davis was a talented & successful man himself. He assembled a group of singers, musicians & writers who, until 1965, made Okeh a creative & commercial hub for Chicagoan soul music.

OH-OH ! What’s that sound ? That’s “Rhythm” by Major Lance. “The Monkey Time” was a simple R&B dance record (in 1963 just everyone was Twisting the night away) which gave Okeh its first hit record for 10 years. Major had 4 Top 20 hits with this sweet soul which took that Brazilian baion rhythm off of the Drifters  & added a little cha-cha shuffle. The good Major, a former boxer & dancer, had the moves & was able to sell the crap out of these songs when he appeared on”Shindig”, “Bandstand” or whatever the black & white TV pop show of the day was called. I could have chosen any one of 5 clips of these hits.”Rhythm” gets the shout because I get to pick & I love this track. The “Best Of” is a cracking, dance around the house thing. The expanded 40 track, 2 CD collection maintains the quality. “The Monkey Time” was created by the team of Davis, Johnny Pate & Curtis Mayfield. “That was my introduction with working with Carl Davis” Pate said, ” We had a ball, making some very great music.” And so they did.

All but one of Lance’s 45s were written by his friend Curtis Mayfield. Curtis’ own group, the Impressions, were signed to ABC but it was at Okeh where he served his apprenticeship. With his school friends the Butler brothers, Jerry & Billy, he worked out how the simple gospel tunes from their church worked just fine when transposed to idealized teen romance or imagined dances. From the more experienced Davis & Pate he learned stuff, music stuff & business stuff. He was provided with an environment where he did not have to tout his songs around, where he got paid & where he had to sell some records. The glorious “Rhythm” was Okeh 7203 & here is #7204.

Now I don’t want to overstate my case here but Walter Jackson has never failed to hit the spot since that first Okeh selection I bought in the olden days. In the 60s alone there were so many outstanding voices, those obvious ones you take for granted like Otis, Marvin, Aretha & Al Green. Walter Jackson’s smooth, dramatic & powerful vocals are distinctive &, in these golden Okeh years, were of a quality to match the greats. Walter was a crooner with soul. When I first heard his version of “My Ship Is Comin’ In” (a hit for the Walker Brothers) it was like…so that’s how that song goes…perfect. His later work does drift to the middle of the road but the Okeh team ensured that his ballads had balls & while the songs were not hits they are classics. “Welcome Home”, a best of collection from these years will make your life better.

I did not know that Walter had suffered polio as a child & had to use crutches. The only Y-Tube clip is from the late-70s & has no sound. At a time when Chicago soul was young & quite wonderfully gauche he brought a polish & authority to songs like “It’s All Over” while the budding “Iceman”, Jerry Butler, was watching carefully & taking notes.

Billy Butler & the Enchanters were the Junior Impressions of the label. Billy was signed as a teenager. While his older brother was over at Vee Jay Records, recording a mix of Mayfield & standards, he was happy to go with the sweet harmonies, the uptempo, punchy Latin touches that were coming to be recognised as the trademarks of Chicago soul. “I Can’t Work No Longer” was the biggest of a number of releases that were almost trial runs for Curtis, checking out what worked & what didn’t. However successful you can dance to every second of every one of them.

Okeh was never going to be a true rival to Motown or Stax because the major players were on contract & had an eye on their futures. In 1965 Carl Davis, who had continued to work with Gene Chandler, another Chicago great, joined Brunswick where he orchestrated the comeback of Jackie Wilson (Davis produced “Higher & Higher”) & had other hits. Curtis & Pate were now confident that the Impressions were ready for prime time. They concentrated on & succeeded in making the band one of the most influential African American acts of the decade. Later both Davis & Mayfield ran their own labels out of their home city.

Okeh survived for a couple of more years. Walter Jackson hung around & there was a new infusion of energy from rock and roller Larry Williams. Williams, writer of some classic songs brought old hand Little Richard along with young gun Johnny Guitar Watson. The Williams/Watson collaborations are fine examples of energetic soul. It was though, impossible to emulate that short, special period when young men with music on their minds created the soul sound we now associate with their sweet home Chicago.