All The Way From Memphis (Soul March 20th 1971)

The Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations for 50 years ago this week was rammed with great records by great artists. The four Tamla Motown singles in the Top 10 by the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 & the Four Tops, were joined by Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin & James Brown. The remaining two, Johnnie Taylor & Z.Z. Hill, are probably not regarded with the same elevation but they were pretty good too. Let’s see what other fine, fine music we can find from the lower reaches of the chart.

The Staple Singers – The Staple Swingers (1970, Vinyl) - Discogs

A good start & how about this clip? For some years the Staple Singers, a family group from Chicago, had been moving towards the mainstream with little success. A reverence for their distinction in the Gospel field had led to a little timidity in both production & choice of material. Their final two records for Epic & those made with Steve Cropper at Stax were interesting but tended to undervalue the rich, emotive voice of Mavis & the individual guitar style of patriarch Pops, reaching back to the Country Blues he heard in Mississippi as a youth, that could distinguish them from the pack. There were some changes in 1970, brother Pervis left to be replaced by sister Yvonne while Al Bell, co-owner of the label, a man with an ear for what got played on the radio, took over production duties.

Press Advert 10x5 The Staple Singers : Be What You Are Album: Amazon.co.uk:  NewspaperClipping: Books

For “The Staple Swingers” LP (1971) Bell, looking to toughen up the testifying, moved the operation to Muscle Shoals. His song choice from the staff writers at Stax was considered. Their lyrics were more socially conscious, more compatible with Pops’ aim of telling it like it should be. On “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry”, an R&B hit in 1965 for O. V. Wright, Mavis sang the Blues & oh my, my. There are songs by Smokey Robinson & the Bee Gees & there is “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom Boom)”, co-written by Pop vet Jeff Barry & Bobby Bloom, lifted from Bloom’s debut album. It’s a surprisingly light choice benefitting greatly from its Stapleised treatment & it achieved just what was intended. Rising 6 places to #19 on the chart “Heavy..” was the first of an unbroken run of R&B Top 20 hits that stretched to 1976. Here on an Anne Murray special for Canadian TV, not yet the major stars they would become, they perform that first hit with the joy & affirmation that gave the Staple Singers a very particular, significant place in 1970s Soul.

Booker T. and the MG's – 64 Quartets

Just as Stax were welcoming new stars on their roster at #33 on the chart, up a lucky 13 places, was the final 45 from a group of musicians who had been absolutely pivotal to the extraordinary success of the label. In 1962 17 year old organist Booker T Jones, 20 year old guitarist Steve Cropper & bassist Lewie Steinberg, all already fixtures of the fledgling Memphis label’s house band, took advantage of a session break to jam on a track that was considered good enough to release. A B-side was needed so, with drummer Al Jackson, they quickly came up with “Green Onions”, a Top 3 US Pop hit, one of the most popular, enduring instrumentals of all time. The record made Booker T & the M.G.’s reputation, they continued to record throughout the decade though it would be 1967 before a photo of the racially integrated group appeared on an album cover. Back in the studio at 926 East McLemore Avenue both Jones, while studying music at Indiana U, & Cropper became indispensable as musicians, writers & producers. Their credits are too long to list here, Steve co-wrote “In the Midnight Hour”, “Knock On Wood” & “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” along with many others. With bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn joining in 1965 the sound of Booker T & the M.G.’s was the sound of Stax.

Booker T. and the MG's | Members, Songs, & Facts | Britannica

That was then this is 1971, the group were no longer young kids happy to be making music. Just as up in Detroit at Hitsville USA key players at Soulsville USA demanded more autonomy & probably a bigger cut of the money they were making for the company. Booker T left for California in 1969, Steve Cropper formed his own production company in the following year. When time came to record the “Melting Pot” album Booker T refused to return to the Memphis studio, the band travelled to New York between gigs. The title track, abbreviated as a 45, is 8.15 of alchemy between Jones, Cropper, Dunn & Jackson. I can’t pick a man of the match, these guys knew when to step forward when to lay off, just how good they sounded when they played together. The track surges, swells & is as funky as anything. An outstanding instrumental & what a way to finish. In the words of Duck Dunn “we had a band powerful enough to turn goat’s piss into gasoline”.

O. V. Wright – When You Took Your Love From Me / I Was Born All Over (1970,  Vinyl) - Discogs

Less than a mile down the road from the Stax set-up is Royal Studios. It’s on Willie Mitchell Boulevard, the name changed in 2004 to honour to honour the trumpeter turned producer who did so much to maintain Memphis as the Southern Soul capital through the 1970s. Further down the chart at #55 “When You Took Your Love From Me” was the latest 45 from O.V. (Overton Vertis) Wright a singer who made a string of albums of the highest quality with Mitchell. O.V.’s first recording “That’s How Strong My Love Is” was withdrawn when a contract signed while with his Gospel group, the Sunset Travellers turned up. That contract was with Don Robey, gambler turned booking agent turned label boss & not a man to be crossed. There are many R&B songs credited to Deadric Malone (a.k.a. Don Robey) that he probably didn’t write. Whoever did when O.V. sang the outcome was often startling. It’s a sad & beautiful world, other singers like Aretha & Mavis gave us joy but no one did yearning & loss like O.V. pouring it all out.

O.V. Wright | Spotify

As a youth I had yet to have my heart broken, I had never walked around with no more than a nickel & a nail in my pocket. I have now & the voice of O.V. Wright articulates these Blues. Like his contemporary Bobby “Blue” Bland, life experiences are an aid to appreciation of the music. Willie Mitchell called O.V. the most honest Blues singer he ever worked with. He had that gliding, still powerful Hi sound, the rhythm section, the horns, Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes on backing vocals but the magic was in waiting for the spirit to move the singer & to capture that special take. “When You Took Your Love…” is one of those records. Have Mercy! O.V. Wright was a troubled man, his career was interrupted by a stretch for narcotics offences then rehab. He returned to recording, his health & his voice affected but not his passion. In 1980, just 41 years old, he died from a heart attack.

This week’s live clip goes back to the Oakland Coliseum on the 31st of January 1970 & inspired by the watching Creedence Clearwater Revival, Booker T & the M.G.’s play, in the opinion of the organist, as well as they had ever done. “Time Is Tight” was written for the film “Up Tight” & a slower single version became their biggest commercial success since the debut hit. Here they have four guns blazing & they are the best band in the world. It’s a great performance underpinned by the metronomic drumming of Al Jackson Jr. Al was older than the rest of the M.G’s. He took a weekly salary from Stax & played sessions for Willie Mitchell where he used a different kit for a lighter touch. For just a moment back then I thought it a coincidence that two great drummers had the same name! His violent death in 1975 was a great loss to Soul music.

What Is It Good For? (Soul August 29th 1970)

OK, is this thing on? I took a break from these reviews of the 1970 Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations (didn’t it used to be Top 50?) because the groundhog days of shielding was good for isolation, not so great for imagination & inspiration. Now I’m getting back in the world, unseen & invisible thanks to the camouflage mask so kindly provided by my lovely sister. You know something, it ain’t so bad out there, I may go again.

 

On my last look at the R&B listings from 50 years ago the Jackson 5 were toppermost of the poppermost with “The Love You Save” & Tamla Motown continued their incredible run of quality & success with #1 records for the Temptations & Stevie Wonder with “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)” & “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” respectively. You know them both, great singles. At the beginning of August James Brown broke the Detroit dominance with “Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like A) Sex Machine), his first chart-topper of the year. For the week of August 29th though half of the Top 10 were from the Motown stable & the order of things was restored with the first #1 hit, a truly resonant, even significant song, for a less celebrated member of the label’s roster.

 

 

Edwin Starr, singer, (1970 US No.1 and UK No.3 single 'War') More Info : Edwin  Starr was an American singer and so… | Number one hits, Edwin starr,  American singers“War HUH! YEAH! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Enough said yeah. Edwin Starr, born Charles Hatcher in Nashville Tennessee, raised in Cleveland Ohio, left the army in 1962 & moved to Detroit to do the music thing. His first three hit records, all R&B Top 10, “Agent Double-O-Soul”, “Headline News” & “Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.)” are Motor City classics, co-written by Edwin & released on the Ric-Tic label whose artists were expensively bought out by Motown in 1968. The LP “Soul Master” combines these hits with early Motown 45s (check out his boisterous version of Smokey Robinson’s “Way Over There”) to concoct a pretty damn good collection. In the UK both “Headline…” & “S.O.S.” were dancefloor favourites which just entered our Top 40. In 1968 Tamla re-issued them as a double A-side which made the #11 spot. Edwin Starr was a name on both sides of the Atlantic, he just needed the right material to see this reflected in record sales. The pulsating “25 Miles”, a Top 10 US Pop hit, was certainly a start & in 1970 bigger things were to come.

 

Edwin Starr Discography Belgium - Gallery - 45cat“War” had first appeared earlier in the year on the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” LP. The Tempts were recording tracks with a social commentary & “War” attracted attention but the label & perhaps even the group themselves thought that the its lyrics were too extreme for the sizeable part of their audience who knew them from Ed Sullivan’s show & prime-time TV specials with the Supremes.  Motown, never a company to neglect a commercial opportunity, put writer/producer Norman Whitfield together with Edwin Starr to re-record the song. Whitfield boosted the intense, anthemic quality complimented by Edwin’s emphatic, robust vocals. This classic remodel, an obvious commentary on the USA’s involvement in Vietnam but also one for the ages, sold 3 million copies. The partnership brought more R&B success then, when the hits got smaller, Edwin found love, respect & plenty of work entertaining Soul fans in the UK. Settled in Nottingham he continued to record & in 1979 enjoyed two Top 10 hits with songs he had written & produced. Edwin, always popular here, continued to perform until his death in 2003. Buried in his adopted home town, his headstone says “Our Agent 00 Soul”

 

 

The incomparable Soul Diva Mavis Staples!!In 1968 the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records in Memphis. The family group were already established established as preeminent in Gospel-Folk circles & through father Pops’ close relationship with Martin Luther King their music promoted spirituality & morality through the Civil Rights Movement. The voice of Mavis Staples was recognised as a talent ranked alongside the best in the R&B/Soul field. It was perhaps a plan for Mavis to record her first solo, secular records & this week “Since I Fell For You”, a standard written in 1945, a hit again in 1963, stood at #28 on the R&B chart. The track is taken from “Only For the Lonely”, her upcoming second solo release, smoother than the 1969 eponymous debut produced by guitar ace Steve Cropper. Both albums unite the talents of Memphis, Muscle Shoals & Mavis but a rather unimaginative choice of material didn’t always help. They are good records, listening to Ms Staples is always a particular pleasure, which fail to capture the unique warmth & emotion of a very special voice. Back with her family the world was soon to recognise this about Mavis.

 

Hot Music News - KEYS AND CHORDSIn 1971 the Staple Singers released their third LP on Stax. Steve Cropper had left the company & the co-owner, Al Bell, took over production, The single from “The Staple Swingers” (geddit?), “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” began a 5 year long unbroken run of Top 20 R&B hits. Bell provided a rich framing for Mavis to blossom ahead of the backing harmonies of her father & sisters. The lyrics were positive & uplifting, the sound warm, often based on the simple Blues inflected rhythm guitar of Pops, undoubtedly rooted in Gospel but, moving to the Funk & thoroughly modern. It has become a cliche to reference the enduring relevance of the message of old music. Just as “War” is a great record & war is still good for absolutely nothing, in these turbulent times when a change surely must come the music of the Staple Singers provides a context for an understanding & a moving forward. Remember “If you don’t respect yourself
ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot”. Mavis Staples has continued to perform & to make great records & has achieved a deserved legendary status. When a new collection of hers arrives I’ll be listening.

 

 

 

 

THE VANDALS / IN MY OPINION (45's) - Breakwell RecordsThe Isley Brothers’ latest 45, “Girls Will Be Girls, Boys Will Be Boys”, not one of their best, was at #19 in this week’s chart. A distribution deal with Buddah for their label T-Neck meant that through 1970-71 the brothers were able to record & release a number of other artists. One of these groups was, making use of the extended Cash Box listing, a new entry at #53. The Isleys had signed a high school band from Baltimore calling themselves The Young Tempts after their idols the Temptations. The Y.T.s recorded a couple of Motown covers, including “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”, before the Detroit label put their legal department on to the kids. “Too Busy…” was re-released under the name the Young Vandals. The Y.V.s were still in their teens but the next records were credited to just the Vandals. “In My Opinion” is written & produced by Ronald, Rudolph & O’Kelly Isley & it’s a predecessor of the slow jams, the “Quiet Storm” that provided contrast to the mighty Funk on the brothers subsequent, massively successful, albums. The lovely falsetto lead for the Vandals was provided by Damon Harris.

 

The Vandals broke up when Damon was looking to college as an alternative to music. The following year, 1971, his role model Eddie Kendricks left the Temptations & was replaced by Ricky Owens who, it was soon discovered, ha problems remembering the words in live performance. Damon Harris auditioned for the group & for the next five years worked in the job he had dreamt about as a kid. The Vandals may be as new to you as they are to myself but you have heard Damon’s falsetto on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”.  Well’ I was aiming for a varied selection this time around now I’m back with “The Sound of Young America”. On the 1970 R&B scene Tamla Motown ran the game.

Loosehandlebars’ Cool Chicks For Black History Month

 

Zora Neale Hurston   January 7 1891 – January 28 1960

 

“I love myself when I am laughing. . . and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.”…now that’s a long but irresistible title for a book. In 1975, 7 years before “The Color Purple” made her name, Alice Walker wrote “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” for Ms magazine. In 1979 she edited an anthology of Hurston’s work & blessed it with this eye-catching tongue-twister of a title. It’s a selection of autobiography, fiction & folklore from between 1920 & 1950, writing of great energy, individuality & integrity. Who the heck was Zora Neale Hurston ? Where had she been all my life ?

 

Zora is connected to the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American blossoming of culture, philosophy & politics in the years between the World Wars, between days of slavery & the change that gonna come. By the time she arrived on this vibrant scene in 1925, as the sole black student at Barnard College, she had seen & done some things for herself. Raised in Eatonville Florida, one of the first self-governing all black municipalities in the USA, her experience of self-determination, independent of white society, influenced her strongly held views which often found her at at odds with her contemporaries. Aged 26 Zora, in order to finish high school before enrolling in college, adjusted her age down by 10 years. With those cheekbones it seems that she got away with it.

 

Her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942) took liberties with the truth too but is an individual, funny, poignant story, Apparently Zora was quite something back in the day. You don’t hear the word “sassy” much today, “when Zora was there, she was the party.”, her spirit & her intellect show in her writing. As an anthropologist she studied obeah in Jamaica, voodoo in Haiti, the stories of the South in the US. The best known of her 4 novels, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) makes use of a vernacular which can look awkward today, the story of Janie Crawford, a woman finding her own voice at a time when people didn’t want to hear it, abides as a story that we should know.

 

Zora spent her later years back in Florida, in bad health, working as a maid, dying in poverty. She remains significant & to be celebrated in her own write, as an influence & inspiration to those who followed, preparing the way for Toni Morrison, the blessed Maya & others. Alice Walker, posing as a niece (Zora would have approved), located the unmarked grave in Fort Pierce & placed a headstone inscribed “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South” Amen !

 

“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

 

Mavis Staples   July 10, 1939

 

From all the great voices I could have chosen Billie Holiday, Nina Simone (Gigi Mac beat me to it !) or Aretha Franklin. The word “underrated” is banned at this blog, none of the people I choose to celebrate are overlooked round our house. Mavis Staples is there in the pantheon of with all those women singers who made living in the 20th century better than it could have been.

 

Of course we are not the only ones to hold Mavis in such high regard. Her last 3 records (there’s a new one I’ve yet to investigate) were produced by Ry Cooder & Jeff Tweedy. In the late 1980s she was signed to Paisley Park records by Prince. Her group, the Staple Singers are featured singing “The Weight” in the Band’s movie “The Last Waltz”. Then there was her friendship with Bob Dylan who, back in the day, asked her father if he could marry his young, beautiful daughter. You may not have heard Mavis sing in 1963 but she was as fresh & joyous as this photograph. What’s not to love ?

 

Patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples led his family on quite a journey in the 1960s. Mavis had been singing with her siblings since she was 11 years old & their gospel-folk sound found them work beyond the parochial church circuit. Pops had a good ear, just as the mystery of “Uncloudy Day” impressed Dylan the Staple Singers recorded “Blowing in the Wind” & then Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”. His friendship with Martin Luther King led to songs of freedom & redemption. The first LP released on signing to Stax Records in 1968 was titled “Soul Folk in Action”. Stax had an eye on making a star out of Mavis, there were solo records, a double LP of duets but the family ties that bind were stronger than the lure of putting herself out there.

 

And she was right. By 1971 the Staples Singers were ready for their close-up. Wattstax, Soul Train, the toppermost of the poppermost. In a Golden Age of Soul Music Pops & his young, gifted & black daughters, Cleotha, Yvonne & Mavis, didn’t say it loud, they stated their case clearly, considerately & consciously.”Respect Yourself”, “I’ll Take You There”, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” & many others, music for the head & heart. At the centre was lead singer Mavis, soulful, spiritual & gorgeous, taking us to church, keeping us on the right path. When Curtis Mayfield wanted to record the more secular “Let’s Do It Again” with the group Pops had some reservations. Praise be to your chosen deity that the record exists.Here’s another good one…”got to get up as soon as you get down”.

 

 

Mavis is 76 now, so lovely, still performing & a legend. Her work with Jeff Tweedy rewards a listen & she is by no means on the golden oldie circuit. Those images of her, with her sisters, are exalting & exhilarating. The message, “Respect Yourself” keeps on keeping on

 

“I’m singing these songs to inspire you, to keep you going, to lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning.”

 

 

Bessie “BB” Stringfield. 1911-1993

 

Born in Kingston Jamaica, moved to Boston but orphaned at 5 years old, Bessie Stringfield was given her first motorcycle, an Indian, by her adoptive mother when she was 16. Before she was out of her teens she had developed a taste for Harley Davidsons, was looking for adventure & hoped to find it on the road. She began the first of 8 trips across the USA, crossing 48 states. Can you imagine what it was like for a young woman travelling solo on a hog in 1930s America ? You can try but you won’t get near to the stories that Bessie could have told us.

 

Often there was no place for her to sleep out in the Wild West & the segregated South. With her jacket across the handlebars as a pillow she would spend the night with her bike. To make a few bucks she entered hill-climbing races, performed stunts & acrobatics at carnivals & fairs. In World War II she served as a civilian courier for the US Army for 4 years, crossing the country on her blue Harley. After the war she settled in Florida, becoming known as “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami”, founding the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club while working as a nurse, acknowledged as a “Hero of Harley Davidson” & riding to the end of her life. Bessie Stringfield’s  unlikely & audacious experiences would make a great fictional character. She was for real & she rocked.

“I was somethin’.

 

 

I’m not trying to tell you how to do it I’m only saying put some thought into it (Staple Singers)

The early 1970s was a momentous time for African-American music as the soul stars of the previous decade confidently articulated the challenges facing the US after the tumult of the previous decade. They did so by experimenting, pushing & shoving the sound that took their message around the world to see where they were coming from, what’s going on & what’s happening brother. The Psychedelic Soul of  Funkadelic & Sly Stone freed our minds while our asses followed  the sweaty funk of Isaac Hayes & the Isley Brothers. Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye ? Well, the Motown masters just picked up the title belt dropped by the Beatles & produced the best music you could wish to hear.

Included in that group of  Funk Soul Brothers, from a time of conspicuous fashion, hairstyles & drug use, is an avuncular man who was already in his late-50s when his music took up residence in the US R&B charts. His understated & wonderful guitar playing accompanied the harmonies of his 3 beautiful daughters on some of the sweetest funk, songs of life-affirming positivity. Man, “Pops” Staples & the Staple Singers were really saying something back then.

WELL ! Don’t read this…watch that ! In May 1972 this call & response beauty was the #1 hit in America. Written & produced by Al Bell, the co-owner of Stax Records,  created with the array of talent at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, “I’ll  Take You There” is popular music as Art. I am proud to be a member of the species that can achieve something so radiant…really.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples had a preacherly air about him &, of course, the Staple Singers could only have developed in the church. They were a successful Gospel-Folk act with an eye and an ear on the changing world. They recorded “Blowing In the Wind” just after Peter,Paul & Mary. They were on Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” in 1967 when their label Epic tried to change it up a little. The family group stayed with Gospel longer than many of their contemporaries. Even when they signed with Stax the music was, at first, clumsily tagged “Soul Folk”. It was in 1970 when brother Purvis left the group & sister Yvonne joined Cleotha & Mavis. The  move was made to Funky Street & boy, was the world ready for the Staple Singers.

Pops was a friend of Dr King during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s & his group now sang a message of self-empowerment.  “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Dr King said that. The Staple Singers spread the word by way of an unhurried insistent groove. Pops’ guitar had hints of his Mississippi upbringing but, he contended, he did not play the Blues. His talented daughters perfectly linked the rhythm & the rhyme. Aretha was still the Queen but Mavis Staples was a stunning new Soul Princess.

“We The People” is from the first LP produced by Al Bell. It is a personal favourite but there are so many tunes that were so perfectly Staplified at this time. I have left “Respect Yourself” off of this but if you really do only know the Bruce Willis version then get ye to the Y-tube right now ! In 1975 the group hooked up with fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield, another musician who had mastered the shift from spiritual to secular. Pops was reluctant to let his girls sing the more sensual lyrics of “Let’s Do It Again”, the title track of the soundtrack LP they recorded. On his 61st birthday the record (a pretty damn lubricious one) was #1 in the US charts.

Some of the Staples’ songs are less successful because the insistence on a positive message could lead to simplification. While Curtis sang “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go)” the Staple Singers counselled “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend”. It was though, a memo that needed to be sent. Black Pride had to be about more than confrontation with white society. Anyway, these were the radio-friendly singles, on the LPs there are still songs of protest & anger when the group shows that they still know the score.

“When Will We Paid” is a litany of the sufferings & the contribution made by Black people in America. It is a sophisticated & dignified demand for recognition & reparation which never fails to affect me. This clip is taken from “Soul to Soul” a film of a concert held in Accra, Ghana in 1971 when a raft of black American acts went back to Africa. In the 1980s I worked with a wonderful Ghanaian man, Emmanuel. Manny had attended this concert, it was a very big deal in Accra. I spent more than a few lunch breaks when I asked him about the time he saw the Staple Singers play & just let him tell his stories. Good memories for both of us.

(Just a sidebar here. In “I’ll Take You There” when Mavis entreats “Daddy…” to do his thing it is not Pop who plays the guitar solo but the Muscle Shoals session dude Eddie Hinton. If you don’t know too much about this talented but troubled man then click here. He made some great music.)