Dogs & Chickens In Space.

Up to now, & it has been quite a while, I have avoided slapping a single song on to here, knocking out a couple of sentences about it & throwing it out on to the Internet. That seemed a little easy, even lazy, it didn’t really fit the loosehandlebars template (which anyway happened more by luck than judgement) & it could be the beginning of a slippery slope where I end up posting photos of kittens. I don’t want that, neither do you, no-one wants that, at least no-one I know. But…there is so much great music that I would like to have around the blog. So, here is the first of possibly an endless series, probably one that will run out of steam in the middle of next week.

 

This is the fantastic Five Du-Tones from 1964 & the stratospheric “The Chicken Astronaut”.

 

 

Image result for five du tonesThe Five Du-Tones recorded the original version of “Shake A Tail Feather”, a boisterous variant of “Twist & Shout” which some will remember from James & Bobby Purify & all of us know from “The Blues Brothers”. The group released 9 singles on the One-derful label between 1963-5, most of them expositions of dances that never caught on. “The Flea”, “The Gouster”, “The Woodbine Twine” & “The Cool Bird”, you remember them…no, nor me. Their ragged Doo-Wop, delivered with energy & humour, was never more effective than on this space oddity “The Chicken Astronaut”, a touching tale of a less than intrepid explorer who would prefer to keep both feet on Earth.

 

 

Image result for belka space dog badgeWhilst we are on the subject of Mankind flinging its agents “ever outward…into the colourless, tasteless, weightless sea of outwardness without end” (Kurt Vonnegut), how about this rather desirable enamel badge of Belka, one of the first living animals to orbit the Earth & survive. In August 1960 Belka, along with another doggie cosmonaut, Strelka, had a grand day out aboard Sputnik 5, lived to wag the tail & became a hero of the Soviet Union. One of Strelka’s puppies was presented by Premier Khrushchev to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy & went to live in the White House which seems a much more civilised way of fostering US-Russian relations than being peed on by prostitutes (allegedly).

 

They followed in the pawsteps of the, probably more famous, Laika, the “Muttnik” who, it was reported, died after 6 days in orbit when the oxygen supply ran out. It was over 40 years later that it was revealed that Laika lasted only 6 hours before stress & over-heating proved fatal. Belka & Strelka were much less fazed by their trip to outer space &, from the available photos, seem very happy about the experience. They are immortalised in all sorts of Soviet-era paraphenalia & their preserved bodies are on display at Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts which seems like a better place to visit than Madame Tussaud’s.

 

Image result for belka and strelka space dogsImage result for belka and strelka space dogs

 

Doh! What do you know? I’m posting photos of cute animals already. There is no hope for me!

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Going To Chicago (Tyrone Davis)

For someone who has released 30 albums & enjoyed over 20 Top 20 R&B hits, 3 at #1, Tyrone Davis is not as celebrated & remembered as well as some of his contemporaries. He came to wider public attention in February 1969 when his first successful single replaced Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” at the top of the R&B charts. Two weeks later it was succeeded by “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. You know those two songs & you can see that it took a pretty good record to make it to #1 back then. “Can I Change My Mind” was more than pretty good, it was Soul Dynamite.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis can i change my mindBy 1968 two of the leading lights of the talented group who had gathered at Chicago’s Okeh Records were looking for greater independence & a management takeover by Epic was proving to be an obstacle. Curtis Mayfield made plans to leave his group the Impressions & establish his own label Curtom. Similarly A&R manager/producer Carl Davis struck out for himself & founded Dakar. One of his first signings was a former valet/chauffeur to Blues man Freddie King whose records as Tyrone the Wonder Boy had not made a mark. In the time he took to change his name Tyrone Davis gave the label their first hit. “Can I Change My Mind”, originally a b-side, moved Chicago Soul forward. The punchy, buoyant horns are still there, the bass of Bernard Reed & guitar of “Mighty” Joe Young adding an intriguing modern funkiness which influenced the way Pop-Soul sounded from now on. In Jamaica, after Alton Ellis had a hit at Studio 1, it became a song that great singers, Delroy Wilson, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown & others, all wanted to record.

 

Tyrone’s first LP is the one named after the hit single. Half of the songs are taken from the Atlantic Soul catalogue but this is no set of covers  quickly assembled to cash in while the singer is a hot property. Opening with Wilson Pickett’s “She’s Looking Good” followed by a surprising & effective interpretation of “Knock On Wood” Davis’ strong, bluesy voice is encouraged by immaculate production & arrangements by Willie Henderson & Don Myrick. The Chicago session regulars, equally at home with Blues or Soul are on point too. The LP may not have been as expansive or as ambitious as the greatest of the records made by African-American artists at that time but it’s a finely realised collection of songs that belongs on the top shelf alongside them.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis turn back the hands of timeWithin 18 months Tyrone was back at the top of the R&B charts & crossing over into the Pop Top 10. “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” is a smooth, impeccably crafted hit single while the rest of the LP with that title is a showcase for the singer’s extensive range . On the ballads it’s as if Bobby “Blue” Bland was a Pop singer & that’s a high compliment. This “Soul Train” clip is from December 1972, some time after the song was top of the pops. It’s as good an example of Tyrone in his pomp as there is. By the end of 1970, with the success of other singles taken from this record, Tyrone Davis was a fixture in the US R&B best sellers.

 

I’m going to be repeating myself here because listening to “I Had It All the Time” (1972) is another fine experience. Willie Henderson still directs, making use of 3 different arrangers. The short stabs of the horns, the swirl of strings, the female backing vocals, the inventive bass & guitar lines, all contributed to an individual & popular sound. Changes in style & taste were reflected back with an innovative Chicago twist for good measure. At the forefront was Tyrone’s rich, assured voice.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis michael ochsTyrone Davis was Dakar’s star artist & there was an album from him every year until 1975. When his friend, Leo Graham, who had co-written the b-side of “Turn Back…, became his producer Tyrone returned to #1 in the R&B charts with “Turning Point” in 1976. It is a sign of the changing times that such a successful record made no impression on the Pop charts. Deep Soul music no longer got played on the radio, the days of Disco were upon us. “Turning Point” was his last LP for Dakar & Tyrone signed for Columbia where he continued his partnership with Graham.

 

It’s maybe another time for Tyrone’s Columbia years. The 7 LPs he made at Dakar are the ones that keep me coming back to him. The Greatest Hits compilations from these years are indeed great. Songs such as “What Goes Up (Must Come Down)” (1974) were made to be played on the radio & to keep Tyrone’s name in the frame. The 2 CD “Ultimate” & the 3 CD “Ladies Choice” reissues include album tracks, lesser known gems, like “Was It Just a Feeling” which push things a little further & are a delight to discover. There’s a roster of outstanding Chicago Soul singers, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Walter Jackson, Billy Stewart, Jackie Wilson.  (I’m not forgetting Etta James, Barbara Acklin, Chaka Khan), it’s a list & it’s not complete (oh blimey…Lou Rawls!). Tyrone Davis continued this fine timeline into the 1970s & if you like those singers then you will love the music he made at that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sixties Soul Sisters

These clips from “Beat Club”, a German TV series which ran from 1965 to 1972, are some of the best preserved appearances by artists from the 1960’s. The quality of sound & vision of the American series (“American Bandstand”, “Shindig”, “Hullabaloo”, it’s a list) is often too poor for repeated viewing while the BBC had a cavalier attitude to all of their archive, not just music, which bordered on disdain. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Here are 3 fine examples of singers who travelled over to Germany to have their performances captured in sharp monochrome.

 

 

Related imageCarla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul. Her Daddy, Rufus, when he was not walking the dog, was a DJ & mentor of local black talent. His beautiful teenage daughter was recording for Satellite Records before it became Stax. It was her Top 10 hit “Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes)” in 1961, when she was 18 years old, which alerted Atlantic Records to the talent to be found at East McLemore Ave in South Memphis. In 1966 “B-A-B-Y”, a production with more than a touch of Tamla Motown, was her most successful recording since then. The song was written by Isaac Hayes & David Porter, a young team who were just getting the knack of how a hit Soul tune went. I’m told by a young person that the song appears in the film “Baby Driver” (2017), an entertainment designed for those whose attention span has been worn to the nub by technology & which I found mildly irritating.

 

The following year Carla made an LP of duets with Otis Redding, “King & Queen”, which is as light, as pop, as anything the label recorded. It endures as an entertaining one-off, the final LP recorded by Otis. The stand out track, “Tramp” crackles & fizzes with chemistry & wit. I loved it on the radio in 1967, still do. Aretha was the undisputed “Queen Of Soul” but when she came to Memphis there was r-e-s-p-e-c-t & fealty to be paid to Rufus Thomas’ little girl Carla.

 

 

 

 

Image result for madeline bell picture me goneMadeline Bell from Newark, New Jersey came to the UK in 1962 as a performer in the Gospel musical “Black Nativity” & stayed. She became friends with Dusty Springfield, the best of our female singers & added backing vocals on many sessions. She got a deal with Phillips, Dusty’s label, & recorded 2 LP’s there in the 1960’s. The material chosen for her was a mix of Pop-Soul & supper club sophistication & as a result she never really found her own audience. There are clips on the Y-tube that all display her range & facility with any style. We’ll go for “Picture Me Gone” from the “Bell’s a Poppin'” LP (1967) because I love this song. Songwriter Chip Taylor & session guitarist Al Gorgoni combined to write & produce the song for Evie Sands (that’s the fabulous…), just one of the many of her records that should have been but weren’t.

 

Madeline became more visible as one of the singers in Blue Mink, a group that had 6 Top 20 hits in the UK between 1969-73. Her success gave her more control & the next 2 solo LPs, “Madeline Bell” (1971) & “Comin’ Atcha” (1973), the latter produced by John Paul Jones off of Led Zeppelin, were funkier, jazzier & better,

 

 

 

 

Image result for felice taylor i feel love comin onRight (gulp!), stop me if I’m oversharing here. In 1969 I lost my virginity in the back of a friend’s father’s Ford Cortina Estate car (cue Ian Dury). The back seat was down, I am not an animal. When we returned to the church hall the first record that the lovely mini-skirted Modette who was my companion & I danced to was this one. So, excuse the silly smile on my dial whenever I hear “I Feel Love Comin’ On” by Felice Taylor. I did, honestly, already like the song when it was a UK hit in 1967.

 

In California Felice was matched with Barry White & his partner Paul Politi. Later, when Barry got big, the “Walrus of Love” re-recorded her other 2 singles “It May Be Winter Outside” &  “I’m Under The Influence of Love” with his backing group Love Unlimited. “I Feel…” was leased for the UK by President Records & as Felice had not much going on back home she made a record with the label’s hit group the Equals. “Suree Surrender” is not his best work but if you are an Eddy Grant completist, as I know some of you are, then this meaty, beaty tune is just a click away.

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.

 

 

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.