99 Pounds Of Soul (Ann Peebles)

If you ever attended the First Baptist Church in St Louis in the 1950’s & 60’s I’m sure that you were in for a treat. Minister of music Perry Peebles directed the Peebles Choir, founded by his father & which, over the years, included his wife Eula, their 11 children & many of the extended Peebles family. The seventh of the 11 siblings, Ann, was blessed with an outstanding voice. She was a natural performer on the Gospel circuit &, born in 1947, was of a generation where the transfer to secular Soul was easier than it had been for those 10 years older than her.

 

 

Image result for ann peebles willie mitchellAnn Peebles sang with bands in St Louis clubs before, on a trip to Memphis, impressing Gene “Bowlegs” Miller with her take on the Jimmy Hughes ballad “Steal Away, a 1964 hit from FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. “Bowlegs” (great name) referred her to Willie Mitchell, head of A&R at Hi Records, after a run through of the same song Ann found herself with a recording contract before she was 21 years old. Hi was known for its instrumental hits. Trumpeter/band leader/producer Mitchell had his own very groovy success in 1968 with the King Curtis tune “Soul Serenade“. Now Willie was looking to expand the label’s roster, matching new vocal talent to his ideas about how Soul went. As it says in the small print in the ad (trust me it’s there) for Ann’s 1971 45 “Somebody’s On Your Case” “Produced by Willie Mitchell & it’s pure Memphis”.

 

There was no instant success for Peebles. The label took time to school Ann in recording & promotion. Her debut LP “This Is…” (1969) was heavy on cover versions of recent hits. Two fine singles in 1970 made an impression but there was little new material & the “Part Time Love” LP (1971) included 6 tracks from that first record. “Straight From the Heart” was released in the same year &, as can be heard from “Slipped, Tripped & Fell in Love” & “99 Pounds”, she was finding her own strong, individual, mature style. There were others at Mitchell’s Royal Studios who were hitting the spot too.

 

 

“99 Pounds” was written for & about Ann by Don Bryant, a staff member at Hi assigned as her mentor. The pair did not instantly bond. Ann thought that she knew how to sing & Don thought that his own recordings were being neglected. This 3rd LP included 3 songs written by the singer (2 co-written with Bryant). In 1973 they co-operated on the song that defines Ann Peebles career. A year later the couple were married.

 

Image result for ann peeblesAt this time the walls of Hi Records’ office was filling up with gold discs as Al Green, another Mitchell discovery, became the new Soul sensation. The house band, the Hodges brothers, Charles (organ), Leroy (bass) & Teenie (guitar) with drummer Howard Grimes. augmented by the Memphis Horns (over from Stax) found a warm, melodic, still funky groove that became the new hit sound. These musicians are all over every Ann Peebles record, driving the song along, complementing her assertive lyrics. The Hi Rhythm Section are an instantly recognisable unit & Man, they’re good !

 

 

“I Can’t Stand the Rain”, we all know that one, bringing back sweet memories. A Peebles/Bryant composition with assistance from local DJ Bernie Miller it is the title track of a monumental LP, an update on the Southern Country Soul of the late 1960’s, a Hi-point of that label’s fine discography. In 1974 the record was not a major hit, the single just making the US Top 40, the LP #155. It was though recognised as an enduring piece of resistance. In 1978 a German disco version hit the US Top 20 & the UK Top 10, Tina Turner included a version on “Private Dancer” a 20 million selling album & our man Lowell George, off of Little Feat, made a good fist of it on his one solo LP.

 

Image result for ann peeblesThere are 7 Ann Peebles LPs from this period & there’s some high quality moments. “Beware” is from “Tellin’ It” (1975), take a look at that clip, a singer in her prime & how was that not a hit ? Willie Mitchell thought that Ann didn’t fulfill her potential, that she was not committed to becoming a star. I’m sure that as label boss he wanted her to be the female Al Green. The public’s tastes in African-American music were changing, they wanted to dance themselves dizzy. Ann was never as lyrically brazen as Millie Jackson, not as Disco as Donna Summer. There are some great Pop-Soul tracks (“A Love Vibration”, “Dr Love Power”) but she just did that thing she did & never was able to make the connection that transferred into major sales.

 

 

Ann took a break to raise her son in 1978. 10 years later she returned, on Willie Mitchell’s new label, but the electro-Soul sound didn’t really compare with her previous work. In 1989 the Waylo Soul Revue came to Europe. “A Memphis Soul Night” featuring Ann, Otis Clay & others confirms that there was a pretty good gig that I missed. She continued to perform & there are more records. Her reputation endured & her music was sampled by many Hip Hop artists. There’s a version of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” on the Joe Henry project “I Believe In My Soul” (2005) that absolutely does the trick.

 

Ann Peebles didn’t enter the pantheon of female Soul singers like Aretha, Diana & Gladys. She came around a little later than those legends & her brand of Southern Soul was no longer in the 1970’s mainstream. There’s more to her music than “I Can’t Stand the Rain” & “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. The records she made for Hi have all been re-released & if you are tempted by one of the many compilations then make sure it’s a double one because her “Best of” will not fit on the one LP or CD.

 

 

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I’m Gonna Cool You Cooks To Something (Joe Tex)

Joe Tex (Joseph Arrington Jr from down in Texas) was a sweet talking guy & he sure could sing. It took him 10 years of making records before his first big hit. “Hold  What You’ve Got” (1964) features 2 recitations, one to men, the other to women, with some down-to-earth advice about appreciating what’s at home. Joe was ready, there were 11 Top 20 R&B hits in the next 2 years. For the rest of the 1960s his music incorporated the changing styles & sounds of Soul music alongside his distinctive vocals & his good-humoured, congenial lyrics.

 

 

That first million seller was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the Southern Soul sound was being forged. It was a smart move by label owner-producer Buddy Killen & so was hitching his Dial Records to a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Joe’s records were in the shops & his name linked with the other members of the soul clan on that emerging major. He could write & perform those loquacious, folksy but never preaching,  ballads as well as anyone. Check “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”, that’s a great one. “The Love You Save” (see above) is the track chosen by Butterfly from a very cool jukebox in QT’s “Death Proof”. Joe could go with the flow, the swinging “S.Y.S.L.J.F.M.” recalls the Wicked Wilson’s “634-5789”, “Papa Was Too” takes it’s cue from King Otis & Queen Carla’s (Lowell Fulson’s ?) “Tramp”. His songwriting nous & brightness ensured that he kept it fresh.

 

Joe’s first release of 1967 missed the R&B Top 20. “Show Me” is a dancefloor ripper, the most basic of his songs. Along with “Knock On Wood” it was in the repertoire of every  bar & youth club band in the UK. Not a one of them was as tight as the opening number of the Joe Tex Show. Here’s the evidence…

 

 

1967 ended with Joe Tex’s 2nd million seller. “Skinny Legs & All” was from “Live & Lively”, a faux-live LP recorded at American Studio, Memphis. The added novelty element brought a crossover to the mainstream. Joe was a big deal with a reputation for a dynamic, hit-filled live show. It was 1969 before he crossed the Atlantic with his 9-piece band. Both Spanish & Swedish TV pointed cameras at the them &, while there may not be the electricity of the earlier Stax/Volt European tours, they preserved a pretty good record of a 1960s soul revue.

 

Joe was a big enough deal to continue a public feud with James Brown. Back in 1955 they were both on the King label & their paths often crossed. If it wasn’t a dispute about writing credits it was women or the stealing of stage moves by one or the other. When JB adopted the title “Soul Brother #1”, Joe called him out. In 1955 that title was held by Little Willie John & Joe saw no reason to recognise the new contender. In 1966 he became involved with The Soul Clan, initiated by Solomon Burke as an attempt to build an autonomous African-American business concern. The project lost impetus with the death of Otis Redding & Atlantic wanted hit records not to bankroll real estate deals. By the time any recordings were released Tex, Burke, Don Covay, Arthur Conley & Ben E King were not that close.

 

 

Joe recorded at all 3 points of the Southern music triangle. In 1968 he was in Nashville for his “Soul Country” LP. There’s just one of his own songs & some of the covers are a little uninspired. “Buying a Book” (1969) is more like it. A brilliant slice of Southern Country Soul, my personal choice of all his tracks & I wish I still had that Soul mixtape it was on.

 

In 1970 Joe was standing on the verge with getting it on with the Funk & George Clinton was listening to the groove of “You’re Right Ray Charles”, a song about the advice Brother Ray gave him back then. His final LP on the Dial/Atlantic deal was 1971’s “From the Roots Came the Rapper”, before roots & rappers were even invented. “I Gotcha” an Isley Brothers inflected slab of a song which made the “Reservoir Dogs” soundtrack, found him at #2 on the pop charts, dancing up a storm with a girl & a microphone stand on “Soul Train”.

 

 

Then Joe abruptly quit the music business. He had embraced Islam, following the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, adopting the name Yusuf Hazziez. He returned to the studio with Buddy Killen after the death of Elijah &, in 1976, enjoyed a disco hit with “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)”. I don’t know the 1978 LP “He Who Is Without Funk Cast the First Stone” (1978) but that’s a good title. In 1980 there was an ill-planned reunion of the Soul Clan & unfortunately the next clan gathering was at Joe Tex’s funeral after a fatal heart attack in 1982, aged just 47.

 

Joe Tex was more than just the Clown Prince of Soul. His conversational, quick-witted singles sounded great on the radio at a time when there was a lot of fine Soul music around. His collected work, there are 25 on “The All Time Greatest Hits”, he wrote 24 of them, reflect the fast-changing times & taste of the audience. In a business which uses up & wears out the talent from 1965 to 1972 & then some more Joe was always around, always current & down with his bad self.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, Y’all Prepare Yourself (The Spinners)

The Spinners, a 5 piece vocal group from the Detroit suburbs, was formed by school friends in the mid-1950s. There were some personnel changes before their first record, “That’s What Girls Are Made For”, was a US Top 40 hit in 1961. Through the next decade they were in the Tamla Motown orbit which made the sound of Detroit a wonder of 1960s popular music. In 1972 a change of record label & a move to the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia produced immediate success, a string of hit singles, 5 consecutive gold LPs & being chosen as the opening turn at the 1975 Grammy Awards ceremony.

 

 

Holy Moly ! How great is that ? The Detroit Spinners, as they were known in the UK to avoid confusion with a cable-knit sweatered folk group, made their early records, Sam Cooke-influenced pop R&B, with Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi label. Harvey’s  lead vocal on The Moonglows’ Doo Wop classic “Ten Commandments of Love” is something to hear. He ran his labels with his wife Gwen, sister of Berry Gordy, the founder of Tamla Motown. When the couple moved across to the more successful branch of the family business they took their acts along too. The Spinners were never able to break into the Motown A-team. Their 1965 Top 40 hit “I’ll Always Love You” is a Funk Brothers’ formula floor-filler (so it’s a cracker) but they never received the Temptations treatment, working with a number of  staff producers, playing down the bill on the star-studded Motortown Revues. The 2nd of their Detroit LPs, on the subsidiary VIP label, included the first track that Stevie Wonder produced for another act. “It’s A Shame” was a Top 20 hit in the US & the UK  raising the group’s profile just as their contract was ending &  life after Motown was being considered.

 

The Spinners transferred to Atlantic in 1972. 4 of the group, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, Billy Henderson & lead vocal Bobby Smith had been around from the very beginning. They had adapted to the many changes of style & fashion in African-American vocal groups, were a consummate, smooth professional act. After a decade of sporadic success they were about to find their place in the spotlight & they were ready to make the most of it. Thom Bell had set the benchmark for sweet, symphonic soul with the Delfonics. Together with producer/songwriters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff his arrangements for the horns & strings of the Sigma Studios house band MFSB made Philadelphia a new hit factory for the new decade. With his associate Linda Creed, Bell established the Stylistics at the forefront of the city’s lush but still funky proto-Disco sound. Hooking him up with the Spinners was a very smart move.

 

 

G.C. Cameron, the lead on “It’s A Shame”, stayed with Motown as a solo act. He recommended his cousin Philippe Wynne as his replacement. Phil is the guy taking the Grammys to church on “Mighty Love”, his urgent, individual voice lifted the Spinners to another level, his ebullient stage presence gave the group a distinctive edge that they had perhaps lacked. Thom Bell’s studio craft, using Wynne & Bobby Smith on lead, ensured that after the success of the “Spinners” LP & “I’ll Be Around”, the group’s 1st million selling single, the world-class pop-soul kept on coming. When “I’ll Be…” was nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Group Performance it was alongside “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (The Temptations), “I’ll Take You There” (Staples Singers), another Philly hit “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (Harold Melvin/Blue Notes) & “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Gladys Knight/Pips). The O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” didn’t even make the list ! The Golden Age of American Soul music was not over yet.

 

It’s a strain to select just 3 highlights from the Spinners’ winners. “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love”, you know that one. The rather sublime “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was recently highlighted on The Blue Moment, Richard Williams’ fine blog. On a live version of  “How Could I Let You Get Away” Phillipe sings impressions of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding & Al Green, perfect soul-cabaret. At the 3 day festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, held to promote the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle (see the movie “Soul Power”) the band tore the place up. Bell hooked them up with Dionne Warwick & “Then Came You” became their only US #1. You know where to find all of these. The live clips are fine, the guys dance up a storm & do the thing they had been doing for 20 years. However capable the backing band, it’s tough to match the shimmering gloss of the studio versions.

 

 

“Wake Up Susan” was not the biggest hit but is a personal favourite. It’s an uptempo, sweet 3.22 minutes, a Friday, 5 to 5, the weekend starts here, crackerjack that never misses. In 1977 Phillipe left the group for a solo career. “Starting All Over” is a self-produced LP, his own songs with Philly’s & New York’s finest musicians, which failed to find an audience. He hooked up & toured with Funkadelic which seemed unlikely but Wynne had sung with Bootsy Collins back in the day. He sang on “(Not Just) Knee Deep” & George Clinton produced the “Wynne Jammin'” (1980). The voice is still a lovely thing but even the best songs still serve as a reminder of just how good the Spinners were. Unfortunately Philippe suffered a heart attack onstage in 1984 & a great talent was lost at just 43 years old. This is him in full P-Funk flow…

 

 

Of course the Spinners kept on keeping on with replacement John Edwards. They stuck with Thom Bell until 1979, their version of “Are You Ready For Love”, recorded by Elton John on a visit to Sigma Sound, is a disco-tastic delight. The group’s biggest later hits were crossover revivals of old hits by the 4 Seasons & Sam Cooke. Those 4 life-long Spinners remained with the group for 50 years. Billy Henderson left in 2004 when he had asked his lawyers to investigate their financial affairs. Both Pervis Jackson & Bobby Smith, a consummate singer & frontman, were members until they passed away in 2008 & 2013 respectively. Now Henry Fambrough remains as the keeper of the flame. The Spinners remained a popular & welcome live act, a great show with oldies that were truly golden from that time when they were one of a kind.

Whoo- Hoo ! Does Gladys Knight Have Pips ?

By the time Gladys Knight & the Pips signed for Tamla Motown in 1966 the family group were an established live attraction with 2 US Top 20 hits to their name. Gladys had 2 small children, her husband was the group’s MD. They were ready to take care of their own business &  independence was not always a good fit with Berry Gordy’s Motown manifesto. A case can be made that they did not always get a fair shake at the Detroit label. The Pips were never at the front of the queue for the sure-fire hit songs from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production line, their records were released on the label’s Soul subsidiary. They knew what worked & worked what came their way. Their breakthrough hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, in 1967 was TM’s biggest selling 45 to date. Their last hit for the label in 1973, the Grammy award winning “Neither One of Us” made #2. In between they made some music which sits comfortably alongside the headline acts on any Motown anthology.

 

 

This clip is, despite the sound quality, pretty special. Shot in 1970 on a hospital ward for soldiers wounded in Vietnam, Gladys looks stunning & sings wonderfully. The Pips, brother Merald, cousins William & Edward, look sharp & dance up a storm. There’s a rocking band over in the corner so let’s do the show right here. The healing power of music. I feel better watching a film of it over 40 years later.

Of course “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is Marvin Gaye’s song now. Producer  Norman Whitfield had co-written it with Barrett Strong then recorded versions with Smokey Robinson & Marvin which didn’t pass Motown’s weekly quality control meetings.(Must have been a good week !). It was a faster, more urgent take on the song by Gladys Knight & the Pips that was released & became a hit. This was the style favoured for their singles, in fact an earlier song, “Take Me In Your Arms & Love Me, a hit in the UK, was edited for a US LP because it was too darned hot ! Motown were moving to the West Coast, busy making Diana Ross a movie star & bigging up the Jackson 5. The label missed that Gladys & the Pips’ smooth take on songs with a country feel,  Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night” & the hit “Neither One…”  was bubbling up & breaking through.

 

 

Leaving Motown was the best thing that ever happened to the group. At Buddah there was better promotion, a greater freedom to choose their own material, a growing maturity & sophistication & Gladys blossomed as a singer & as a star.”The Empress of Soul” led her group to a run of Top 5 singles & gold record sales for their LPs. “Neither One Of Us” had been written by country songwriter Jim Weatherly & “Imagination”, the first post-Motown LP employed 5 more of his songs. This music was not the earthy country soul of Muscle Shoals & the Southern USA, it was the Sound of Young America growing up with its audience. An audience that had always liked Gladys Knight & the Pips.

On one of Weatherley’s songs “Midnight Train To Georgia” (originally “Midnight Plane To Houston”) Gladys’ swelling vocal is complemented by perfectly arranged backing vocals from the Pips. This is the group’s signature song & while I like to stray from the beaten path on these things I know a classic when I hear one. “Midnight Train…” has got to be included here. The group was riding high. At the 1975 Grammy awards they were impressive & charming when they sang the nominees for Song of the Year. “And the Pips” appeared on the short-lived Richard Pryor TV show performing backing vocals with an empty microphone stage left.

 

 

In 1974 they recorded a soundtrack LP for the film “Claudine” with the great Curtis Mayfield. The film starred Darth Vader & Diahann Carroll (oh my !). Carroll hooked a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as a welfare mother of 6 children. It was not a typical blaxploitation movie. No superfly, black private dick risking his life for fellow man across 110th St. For the soundtrack Gladys & the Pips’ smooth assurance meets Curtis’ Chicago funk & lyrical social commentary to create, in my opinion, the best LP of a long career. Over on “Soul Train” they know that they have got it going on with “On & On”, the Pips getting down with their bad selves & no-one to edit beautiful Gladys now. Even the normally self-absorbed dancers know that they are in the land of the good groove. Fantastic.

At the time these records were made I liked more ham-hock in my cornflakes when it came to African American music, some funk in the trunk. Now I watch the clips & they make me smile. A class act at a time when Soul music was moving towards disco & the mainstream. Gladys went on to continued success with the Pips & as a solo artist. That’s a lot of music to sort through. A good start would be to compare those 7 years at Motown with the hits in the 3 years after 1973. You may not be able to decide which you prefer but you will have a damn good time trying.

The Music Endures, The Harmony Endears (The Dells)

I’m a fool for a  male-vocal soul group. There’s the Motown giants, the 4 Tops, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo, Sugar Pie & Honeybunch. Those Temptations had 2 star singers in David Ruffin & Eddie Kendricks. At Philadelphia International the Intruders, the symphonic Delfonics, Harold Melvin & his Blue Notes & the Stylistics were all great while the O’Jays were probably greater. In Chicago the Impressions presented us with songs which collect into my long-time favourite “Greatest Hits” playlist. To this illustrious list I must add another Chicagoan combo. As one of the originals The Dells are often noted for their longevity. I’ve been around a long time too, longevity is overrated… believe. The Dells make the major leagues because they made an individual contribution to a fine tradition. Here’s the proof…

Phee-yew ! That’s phee-you get me ? How great is that ? “Stay In My Corner”, one of the finest slow jams, was originally released in 1965 then re-recorded in 1968 when it was a #1 R&B hit & the group’s most successful crossover to the pop charts. This performance is from the New York PBS TV series Soul! in March 1972, Also on the show was Chester Himes, the great American crime fiction writer. Man, I’ve just found an episode list of this series…I need those tapes. The Dells were a pretty well-oiled machine by this time. They knew how much is in this song & knew exactly how to get it all out. That powerful baritone is Marvin Junior….Johnny Carter’s smooth change from tenor to falsetto is almost unlikely. There are 2 soloists in the Dells.

The group made their first record in 1954, Is that true ? Were records invented then ? Those were the Doo-wop days, street corner symphonies or the cabaret precision of the Platters. These Illinois boys got a gold record in 1956 with “Oh What A Nite”, a song which became their calling card. The Dells…who ? “Oh What A…”…oh yeah. A near fatal car accident in 1958 stalled their progress, the group disbanded then reformed, with a significant team change, in 1960. These same guys performed together for the next 50 years !

In 1966 the Dells signed with Chess, Chicago’s premier label. Consolidating a reputation as a vital live act there was immediately more commercial success. They worked on the Cadet label, an imprint of Chess, with the production/arrangement team of Bobby Miller & Charles Stepney. “There Is” is the title track of this combination’s 1st LP, a collection of solid, varied, consistent tunes. I have no idea who made this early promo, the song has a martial urgency, the boys sure don’t dance like the Temptations but Marvin sings the heck out of it. Mr Junior has one of those outstanding soul voices that you need to get to know better.

The group stayed with Chess until 1975, recording a string of R&B hits. When Bobby Miller left Chess for Motown Charles Stepney took over production duties. Stepney, a classically trained jazz musician was pushing the symphonic soul envelope with the Rotary Connection. He produced electric Blues records with Howlin’ Wolf & Muddy Waters, a bunch of records for the Ramsey Lewis Trio. His 4 LPs with the Dells are the most commercial of his work, all imaginative, interesting pieces. “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)”, seen here on that same Soul! show, was co-written by another Stepney acolyte, the individually talented Terry Callier. The right song, the right producer, the right group, everyone’s a winner.
Oh oh, that clip seems to have gone from the Y-tube so here are the boys on the “Soul Train” in 1974.

The Dells could handle Northern Soul belters, smooth last dance smoochers & often recorded the standards of  the day. The LP “The Dells Sing The Hits Of Dionne Warwick” is one I have to check.  Here in the UK their only hit record was a medley, “Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue”, a couple of middle of the road melodies improved by the quality of Stepney’s arrangement. The group’s work has come to me a little randomly. Even now I can hear something new to me that is unmistakably Marvin & Johnny doing that thing they do. The group adapted to the changes in soul music, sometimes following, sometimes setting the bar for harmony vocals. “Wear It On Your Face”, “Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation”, “Learning to Love You Was Easy”, just a sample  & all good stuff.

In 1980, with disco carrying the swing, the Dells worked with Carl Davis, a Chicago Soul legend & Eugene Record off of the Chi-Lites. The LP “I Touched A Dream” is probably the group’s last significant work. I can’t leave this thing without including “All About The Paper”, a late example of the energy & class of some exceptional singers.

Coming To You On A Dust Road (Sam and Dave Double Dynamite)

So where the heck did this come from ? The Y-tube clips of Sam & Dave’s turbo-charged live act are just the greatest thing. The dynamic duo’s great run of hit singles received plenty of exposure at the time which we are lucky enough to still have around. Then there’s this gem, a promo for a song that was never actually promoted.

As Mod as anything ! “I Don’t Need Nobody (To Tell Me About My Baby)” is a track from “Double Dynamite”,  Sam & Dave’s 2nd LP for Stax Records. The record was not as successful as their debut “Hold On  I’m Coming” or the succeeding “Soul Men” but it included 3  high quality 45s (“When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”…oh my !) which kept their name in the frame. This track was not 1 of the 3, not even, I think, a B-side. Written by Randle Catron, a Memphis personality, a future king of the local Cotton Jubilee, it’s not the usual dynamic call & response belter rather a sweet soul swinger. The guys look as sharp as a winter’s morning & the girls, dancing barefoot, are just the epitome of 1966/67 chic. 6 months later there would be dashikis, afros & a liquid light show. I think that I prefer this cool, casual look. Straight from the fridge.

Sam Moore & Dave Prater hooked up in Miami & were recording for Roulette Records before they were signed to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler who already had a connection to Stax Records in Memphis. The duo, like most every R&B act in the early 1960s, were on that Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Little Willie John thing but Atlantic wanted the raw, harder recipe that Booker T & the M.Gs were cooking up. They were lloaned to Stax,  assigned to the young staff songwriters Isaac Hayes & David Porter & once the 3rd single, “Hold On I’m Coming” reached the Top 30 there was a string of thoroughbred hit songs tailored to their new distinctive, urgent style.

Of course “Soul Man” was the big one in 1967. I would play that 45 on repeat. There’s a little drum break in there that still rocks me, so that’s Al Jackson. As the song says “Play it Steve !”, so that’s Steve Cropper. Earlier that year the Stax Volt Review had toured Europe & thrilled audiences. Similarly the artists were galvanized by an exposure to a, mostly white, audience they had previously been unaware of. After “Soul Man” Sam & Dave were in the major league back home. Here they bring the soul revue experience to the Ed Sullivan Show & how much fun is this ? “I Thank You”, the most basic of their singles was another big hit. Prime time TV could never capture the lightning of their live show but the fanciest horn section, all 9 of them, give it plenty & make their appearance special.

The loss of Stax’ superstar Otis Redding hit the label hard. Musicians & writers, especially Steve Cropper & Booker T Jones, were less content to live in the studio at East Macklemore Avenue, judged by the quantity of records sold rather than the quality of the music. The next  year, 1968, the “gentleman’s agreement” between Stax & Atlantic was revealed to be weighed against the good guys. As a consequence  Sam & Dave’s loan period ended . They returned to Atlantic & were never as popular with a wider audience again. The Sullivan Show gig was to promote “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar” which, despite being their biggest UK hit, always seemed to me to be one of the weakest of their releases. Still, what do I know ? The storming 1968 single “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me” , written by Cropper & Eddie Floyd, was#1 in my heart in a time when there were plenty of rivals for my affections. The song came nowhere in Britain & just made Top 50 in the US.

This story does not have a happy ending. The duo’s records made in New York never recaptured the Memphis magic. Their often volatile relationship led to a temporary split, the punters wanted Sam & Dave not Sam OR Dave. Sam Moore’s affection for heroin didn’t help. When he added coke to the mix his $400 dollar a day habit meant that he was working for the monkey on his back. There was always work. They opened for the Clash on a 1979 tour, Jake & Elwood Blues, a Sam & Dave tribute act revived interest too. By the time Sam did clean up Dave had hired another Sam & a lot of lawyers became involved. Dave was prematurely killed in a car accident in 1988. Sam has stuck around & he is just great.

I’m going to end this with something I found on like page 9 of a “Sam & Dave live” Y-tube trawl (you have got to go deep, just in case). It’s film of the most successful soul duo ever doing what they did better than anyone else, performing live. It is shot, I think, on that first Stax tour of Europe when the acts were backed by Booker T & the M.Gs & the Mar Keys, Stax’ A-team. I’ve never seen this before (33 views…that’s nuts !). A small sweaty club, the cameraman apparently sat in Booker T’s lap.  “Of all the R & B cats, nobody steams up a place like Sam & Dave ” (Time). “Unless my body reaches a certain temperature, starts to liquefy, I just don’t feel right without it.” (Sam Moore). The clip is 10 minutes long & I know that you are all busy people but it’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know”, “Hold On I’m Coming” & it really is a wonderful, relentless & irresistible thing.

Through Our Voice The World Knows There’s No Choice (Curtis Mayfield)

Curtis Mayfield had a good 1960s. He & his boys from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green hood, the Impressions, had a run of 7 successive Top 20 hits with graceful gospel-soul songs of elevation & empathy. Over at Okeh Records Curtis learned about making records from 2 accomplished talents, producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate. This prolific trio cultivated a crop of Chicago artists which included Jerry Butler, Major Lance & Walter Jackson. They styled some snazzy, bespoke soul for these singers, at the outset catching whatever commercial way the wind blew before gaining the confidence to set their own course.

By 1968 Curtis had founded, with associate Eddie Thomas, his own record label, Curtom. His best songs for the Impressions, “People Get Ready”, “It’s Alright” & the sublime “I’m So Proud”, were modern hymns, endorsing & encouraging the positivity of Martin Luther King  & the Civil Rights Movement. Now Dr King had been murdered by racists, the war in Vietnam had become, in his words “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” Expectations of civil & economic progress remained unfulfilled. At the beginning of a new decade Curtis Mayfield left his group & began a solo career. He was 28 years old, he had something to say about America & his eloquence was matched by his vision for the music that would accompany the message.

“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go “…Hot Damn ! The opening track of “Curtis” is an apocalyptic symphony. An everything including the kitchen sink drama almost 8 minutes long, the Book of Revelations for Jah’s sake. This first solo LP, “Curtis”, came in like gangbusters & kept on keeping on. Curtis was so ready for his new artistic freedom. Whether he was using a full orchestra to elegant effect or allowing “Master” Henry Gibson to drive the songs along with his sensational congas, everything was in the right place at the right time. There are still romantic songs, there’s the poetic “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” & not a wasted note in 8 minutes 40 seconds of “Move On Up”. The “Sgt Pepper’s” of 70s Soul ? You decide. Both singles were severely edited for the radio, not an improvement.

In 1971 you had to be either legendary or the Jackson 5 to score a #1 R&B LP. “Curtis” swapped this spot with Isaac Hayes before Aretha had 5 weeks there. Marvin’s  “What’s Going On” prevailed for 8 weeks before  Hayes returned with “Shaft” for an amazing 3 months at the top. Stuff I still listen to. It had taken a while for the longer form record to stand predominate in R&B. In 1969 Isaac Hayes’ ” Hot Buttered Soul”, just 4 expansive tracks, was a landmark in terms of sales & creative artistic control. Curtis Mayfield, with his own Curtom studio, was right on for this & ready to get busy.

Well…here we are then. It’s the aforementioned Henry Gibson on congas, Joseph “Lucky” Scott rocking the bass & some other very cool cats. How about that band ! Curtom Records was rocked by the premature death of Baby Huey in 1970. Just 26 years old, already a Chicago legend, Baby H was ready for national success. There were other productions, Mayfield made a final record with the Impressions, but it was his own work that was getting heard. “Curtis/Live!” (1971) is a double LP recorded at the small Bitter End club in New York, a perfect blend of his past with the present. From “Gypsy Woman” to “If There’s A Hell…”, it’s all Curtis & it’s all good. In the same year “Roots” was a set of new material including “We Got To Have Peace”. I don’t know if these songs were from a stockpile or if they were all new. Whatever the case this was a major creative outpouring.

Curtis was never going to shake off his religion, his romance & uncomplicated emotional exposition. I have seen his viewpoint described as “middle brow”, of being that of the “Black middle class”. I think this is meant as a criticism.Curtis may never have been down with Amiri Baraka “up against the wall motherf***er” or as raucous as the Last Poets but I’m sure he was a supporter of the Panthers 10 Point Programme just as he would endorse anything which helped black people move on up. There could be an element of love being the answer, of children being the future but Curtis was about self-advancement, about a brother helping a brother, being an achiever not a victim. If you are too cynical for those things then you are too cynical.

Curtis’ next move was perfect as a musical choice & as a business option. In the early 1970s blaxploitation movies were reaching beyond Quentin Tarantino & the urban black target audience. Whether it was “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” or, more likely “Shaft”, both from 1971, which set the trend, these films needed a funked-up soundtrack. “Super Fly” (1972) is the story of a cocaine dealer’s one last score, a $1 million deal for his pension. It’s a gritty, grainy, low-budget movie which anticipates Scorsese’s kings of New York  & the street-smart soliloquies of Rap. “Super Fly” made money, it was an influential film which was helped  then outgrossed by Curtis Mayfield’s perfect soundtrack.

“Super Fly” the record brought Curtis to a whole new audience. It topped the national charts, included 2 million-selling Top 10 singles. Curtis was not about the glorification of drug culture & was reticent about taking on the project. Of course he would never abandon long-held & heartfelt principles but the discipline of composing to a fixed brief & a deadline worked a treat. So, the title track, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Pusherman”, “Little Child Running Wild” ah… it’s a list & I could include the whole LP. Here, have another…

In the last clip Curtis is playing bigger gigs now. He is in the Premier League of R&B, Grammy Awards & more money than he could spend according to Jet magazine. There is a little loss of subtlety in having to please a larger audience but there is still an individual voice with something to say, a great band & some of the sweetest soul music ever made.

 

 

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.

 

Taking Care Of Business (Jerry Ragovoy)

It took Jerry Ragovoy 10 years to find a place where his talents as a songwriter, arranger & record producer were appreciated & put to proper use. In 1963 Ragovoy, initially an R&B guy, was working in Philadelphia for Chancellor Records, a label struggling to replace anodyne fading teen idols with novelty dance records.After contacting Bert Berns, a dynamic freelance producer working in New York. he helped Berns finish “Cry Baby”, a song which sold a million copies when recorded by Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters.The following year another of Ragovoy’s songs, “Time Is On My Side”, gave the Rolling Stones their first US Top 10 success. A man’s reputation can be secured by such a double whammy. New York gave Jerry his ticket to ride. As you know, if you can make it there…

Jerry was set to work with Garnet Mimms & the partnership recorded a string of emotional soul-gospel ballads which kept the singer around the R&B charts until 1966. Garnet was a  proper talent. In this fantastic clip he is introduced by Otis Redding to sing “I’ll Take Good Care of You”, a Berns-Ragovoy tune that crossed over to the Top 30…this is pure soul satisfaction, enchanting.

For the rest of the decade Jerry spent a lot of time in a recording studio making a lot of music. His trademark was a slow fuse balladry, solid songs with lush imaginative orchestration. He brought gospel Uptown but he liked his vocalists to be impassioned rather than overwrought. For some time it was his records that defined New York soul music. He was hooked up with the right guy. Bert Berns was a real Record Man whose street smarts got songs written, recorded, released & knew that the music business was as much about the business as the…you get me. He got deals made where he got paid. Bert replaced the legendary Leiber & Stoller as staff producer at Atlantic Records before making a mark running Bang, an Atlantic subsidiary. That first hit, “Cry Baby”, was credited to Bert Russell (Berns) & Neville Meade (Ragovoy). Sometimes, when big money is being made fast, it is better to cover your tracks.

Jerry made his own move in 1965 when he took over Warner Brothers’ East Coast operations releasing tracks on the Loma label. He recorded with Mimms, now solo, his old backing group the Enchanters, Lorraine Ellison. With  Howard Tate the partnership created a run of bright, bluesy R&B hits. Ragevoy’s artists benefitted from his arranging talents & the use of the best of the New York session players including Richard Tee, Eric Gale & Chuck Rainey. On one fortuitous occasion a Frank Sinatra no-show left a full orchestra at a loose end. Our man put them on to “Stay With Me” by Lorraine Ellison for a one take, all guns blazing, instant classic. It is not my favourite of his productions, epic Spectoresque ballads may have been the current thing but…I’m being too critical. It’s the histrionics of less talented singers that have clouded my view of this great record.

There was some great work for Loma. Check for the 3 singles by Carl Hall. Listening to “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love” is a great way to spend 3 minutes & 15 seconds. Deep Soul that doesn’t quite let it all hang out & is probably the better for it. In 1967 he produced a Top 20 hit for South African singer Miriam Makeba. “Pata Pata”, sung in the Xhosa language, was originally recorded by Makeba 10 years earlier. The writing credit was now Makeba/Ragovoy, so it went in the music industry.

Dusty Springfield, the Queen of British Pop, was sent to New York to record with the master. It was an idea before its time. “What’s It Gonna Be” was released as a single by Phillips but not before smearing the song in some incongruous orchestral additions. When Dusty signed for Atlantic she was back in a US studio, smashing it with “Dusty In Memphis”. Most of her LPs had included a song by Jerry & this cover of a Garnet Mimms song from 1965’s “Ev’rything’s Coming Up Dusty” is the best example I have seen of just why this woman was a cut above.

One of Ragovoy’s songs, “Piece Of My Heart” failed to hit with Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, then became a stand-out track for Big Brother & the Holding Company. When singer, Janis Joplin, left for a solo career her music moved from hard rock to blues-soul. Janis’ individual voice provided the blues, the soul came from the 5 Jerry Ragovoy’s songs she recorded. 3 are on “Pearl”, the posthumous LP, 4 on the “Greatest Hits” which sold 7 million copies. The Ragovoy Music Corporation received some serious royalty cheques in the early 1970s as poor Janis’ small body of work was re-hashed & re-released.

In 1969 the CEO of RMC  built his own studio, the Hit Factory, in New York. There were 2 more facilities opened the next year. Me & Karl Marx guess that when the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of the producers then things are both hunky & dory. Jerry Ragovoy was his own boss now, he stepped away from that day-to-day recording process & took some time to enjoy his new circumstances. He kept his hand in, working with the Staple Singers, Bonnie Raitt & Dionne Warwick.His reputation was made by the durability of his work in the 1960s. Anyone with any interest in soul music could not avoid his name on so many great records. It was 30 years later that an opportunity arose for closure on some unfinished business.

Ragevoy & Howard Tate were a fine partnership. The singer’s ability to handle emotion & wit brought the best out of the arranger. The 1966 LP “Get It While You Can” is as good a soul collection as there was at the time. The pair worked together in 1972 when Jerry’s songs were less sharp though the Dylan & The Band covers were interesting. Tate never found his audience, struggled with personal tragedy before drifting out of music into addiction & homelessness. After his recovery he was preaching around Philadelphia then found in 2001 by a DJ. Howard’s legend had grown &, wonderfully, his agile voice was intact. In 2003 Jerry Ragevoy joined with his old favourite for the LP “Rediscovered”.

This new version of “Get It While You Can” is so, so great. Not even the Reverend Green’s pipes were in this shape at 64 years old. Howard is doing what he was born to do & it’s a beautiful thing. Behind him, unseen until the end, is the veteran producer/songwriter, now 72. That piano progression strips the song to a solid foundation. The little push before the last chorus is all you need, a horn section would be cool, the song stands up without it. Jerry Ragovoy, who passed away in 2011, as did Howard Tate, was a great American songwriter.

Extra Extra Read All About It (Edwin Starr)

Edwin Starr is rightly remembered for his one prodigious hit record. “War” (1970) is a landmark single, its assertive energy & steadfast message makes it distinct in a tsunami of Detroit soul. The song was originally recorded by the Temptations on the “Psychedelic Shack” (that’s where it’s at !) LP, Motown boss Berry Gordy was reluctant to release the track as a single but did put producer Norman Whitfield on to a re-recording with Edwin. Over 40 years later it is part of the culture. “War ! What is it good for ?” We all know the answer to that.

Edwin was based in Detroit but did not join Motown until 1968 when the Ric-Tic label was acquired by its bigger neighbour. It was at Ric-Tic he made the 45s that established a big reputation in the UK. Songs that even now make men of a certain age ignore their arthritic hip & wonder if their old dexedrine dealer is still around. First “(S.O.S.) Stop Her On Sight ” then “Headline News” just smacked it for anyone near a dance floor. I thought they were Motown jams, surely some of the Funk Brothers were moonlighting on these tunes. They certainly fit right in with “This Old Heart Of Mine”, “Third Finger Left Hand”, “My Guy”, that great smooth, smart & sassy early stuff

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The hook up with Motown was an immediate charm. The title track of the LP “25 Miles”, a flagrant lift of “Mojo Mama” was a US Top 10 hit, the follow up, “I’m Still A Strugglin’ Man” bombed but…it’s great. Hitsville’s second wave of writers & producers, Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua, Paul Riser & others contributed but it is Edwin’s powerful & exuberant vocal stylings that work the trick. Of course a worldwide hit like “War” seriously raised the stakes & I’m not convinced that the label reacted to this success too well. There must have been more appropriate songs to cover than “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” but it was 1970, an album was needed pretty sharpish & that song was everywhere. Significantly Edwin, who had composition credits on most of his singles, had just one co-credit on this rushed LP.

Edwin followed the funk flow. “Stop The War Now” is a pretty obvious successor to the big hit. It has its appeal because “War” still comes around & this one has been forgotten. In 1974 he got his very own blaxploitation soundtrack. The music for “Hell Up In Harlem” was by ace producer/writers Freddie Perron & Fonze Mizell. Starr just blasted it with “Big Papa”. This was the last LP with Motown & it was some time before, in 1979, his records were getting heard again. “Contact” was a #1 Disco song in the US. This & “H.A.P.P.Y Radio” were both Top 10 in the UK, a country that Edwin now called home.

By 1973 the singer was spending more time in England where the Soul scene was still running hot. Northern Soul honoured the perquisition of obscure riches but Edwin’s gems needed little excavation. In 1968 a double header re-issue of “S.O.S.”/”Headline News” was a chartbound sound, bigger than before. His music was a gateway into a whole scene going on across the country. In the USA, with no backing from his label, he was facing travelling around a big country as a golden oldie. In Britain he was possibly the biggest attraction on a club circuit where audiences knew stuff about his songs that he had forgotten.

Edwin Starr stayed around for 30 years living in Nottingham at the time of a fatal heart attack in 2003.  That revival in 1979 was hitched to the Disco bandwagon but so was all pop music at that time. I am sure that he got knocked about by the music business. He helped to write hit songs that continued to find a market. I hope that the royalties found their way to him. Tamla Motown never properly supported a popular, distinctive singer, preferring singles with a touch of novelty to artistic development. In the UK he was more than valued. A lot of fans got  to meet him, DJs & promoters hung out with him. I have never heard or read a bad word about Edwin Starr. A younger generation of artists often called to remix old tunes & to record new ones.

He was more than a singer whose biggest hit was in the olden days. We value classic music round here & Edwin was a Soul Master. A proper compilation of his songs goes long on quality. Here is Track 1, “Agent Double-0 Soul” a pop hit from 1965. It was written & sung by a young, sharp, handsome Starr at a time when Jackie Wilson was the sweetest feeling around. It was a great beginning.