Midnight Teaser Real Soul Pleaser (Wilson Pickett)

Our summer holiday of 1966, on the intermittently sunny North Yorkshire Riviera, extended that year’s effervescent English exhilaration. Our national football team had given us all the World Cup willies for 3 weeks in July but they had only gone & won the thing (never again). The seaside sojourn’s soundtrack, coming through loud & clear from Radio 270, Yorkshire’s own pirate radio station, was headed by The Beatles’  current double whammy, the ground-breaking “Eleanor Rigby” & the psych-nursery rhyme “Yellow Submarine”. Each week brought a rush & a push of bright shiny new music that demanded your attention. We didn’t know yet that this was a classic time for pop music but we had an idea that it was. Here’s one that was picked to click in August 1966.

Oh Yeah ! 1-2-3 ! Still does it. For the 2nd week of the holiday I was joined by my best friend, brand new teenagers given a pass that we didn’t get at home.(Back then I thought my parents were like, old people, looking back they were pretty cool). We hijacked the family transistor radio, headed for the cliffs, just the two of us, the North Sea & Emperor Rosko’s drive-time show, a little bit of Wolfman Jack, on Radio Caroline. Summer evenings had never been better …up to now. Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a 1000 Dances” consolidated a whole bunch of future possibilities, power, passion, abandon. I didn’t know how to Pony, let alone like Bony Maronie but I sure intended to learn.

It was a familiar path for Wilson Pickett, from Detroit via Alabama. A gospel grounding, hits with the Falcons, his vocal group, before a solo career. An approach to Atlantic Records did not go his way when his song “I Found a Love” was given to Solomon Burke but his talent, his raw, impassioned testification, meant that Atlantic signed him. After a couple of releases recorded in New York Pickett was sent down to Memphis where, at Stax studios, an abrasive, modern soul sound was forged between the singer & musicians.

While we had not yet heard Cannibal & the Headhunters earlier version of  “Land…” we did know about Wilson. The 1st 45 he recorded at Stax was “In the Midnight Hour”, a flawless Pickett/Steve Cropper tune, an instant, enduring soul standard . I think that a law was passed that it had to be played any place anyone danced. Maybe…it was a long time ago. The succeeding run of singles, “Don’t Fight It”, “634-5789” & “99 & a Half (Won’t Do)” established him as a major star. “Land…” was Wilson’s 3rd R&B #1 & it was followed by “Mustang Sally”. Good God Y’all !

Wilson Pickett was officially “Wicked”. His, let’s say, headstrong attitude ruffled the feathers of the tight knit group at Stax but Atlantic (that would be Jerry Wexler) were cultivating another talented coterie at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. The hits just kept on coming. He was never a prolific songwriter, Bobby Womack was around at FAME at this time & had some good songs for Pickett. In September 1967 a cover of Dyke & the Blazers “Funky Broadway” was another R&B #1 between James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” & “Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson. It was Soul’s Golden Age & Wilson Pickett was right up there with all this great music. In person, live, well click on the “99 & a Half” clip…it’s nuts in the best way.

His final single of 1968 was a cover of “Hey Jude”, the Beatles’ current smash, an epic, shrieking vocal, an incendiary guitar solo by young Southern longhair Duane Allman. “Funky Broadway” had been the first chart record to include this new adjective & the leading lights of Soul were introducing innovatory sounds as the 60s ended. Pickett’s muscular cover versions of rock classics, “Born To Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”, seemed a little obvious at the time. Now they sound like psycho-soul juggernauts, heck even “Sugar Sugar”, a bubblegum song I really do not like, sounds good.

Of course Wilson Pickett was still amongst the biggest names. In 1971 he headlined “Soul to Soul”, a major concert in Accra, Ghana which included Santana, the Staples Singers & Ike & Tina Turner. In Africa he was “Soul Brother #2” only headed by James Brown. A workmate of mine, Emmanuel, was at that gig. I loved to hear his stories of a momentous day in that young country’s cultural history. In the same year “Don’t Knock My Love” was his 5th & final #1 R&B hit & in 1972 he recorded “Fire & Water” an imaginative & appropriate version of Free’s British Blues belter. On “Soul Train”, wearing the brightest suit ever made, he gives it plenty. The Midnight Movers, his backing band, are pretty good too. Pickett kept on keeping on even though public taste was for a smoother Soul than his rugged sound. There were still a Grammy award & many accolades before his death in 2006.

In 1966 I voted in the New Musical Express end-of-year poll. Best Group the Beatles, Best Single “Good Vibrations”, Best Male Singer Wilson Pickett. As I said up there music was moving fast back then. The more subtle supplications of Otis Redding, the relentless dedication to the funk by James Brown & Aretha’s unmatched quality were irresistible. In 1968 Atlantic released “This Is Soul”, a ready made collection of super music for just 62.5p ($1). The LP opened with “Mustang Sally”, closed with “Land of a 1000 Dances”. I was glad to have these songs around. Now I’m discovering LP tracks that I’ve not heard before while I’m still dancing to “…Midnight Hour” & still marvelling at the energy of “Land of a 1000 Dances”.

Sweet Soul Music (William Bell)

William Bell never achieved the success of some of his Memphis contemporaries but his contribution as a singer & a songwriter places him at the heart of the enduring soul music created in that city throughout the 1960s. In 1961 Bell, just 21 years old, stepped away from his vocal group, the Del Rios, to record a self-written solo debut for his hometown label Stax Records. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a smooth sliver of country soul before that was even a thing. In 1967 the song was  recorded by Stax’ shining star, Otis Redding & included on his “Otis Blue” LP. The following year The Byrds released their version on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” & Taj Mahal his for “The Natch’l Blues”. 3 distinctive records linked by this immaculate song.

“You Don’t…” made a small dent on the US charts, the following 45, “Any Other Way”, was picked up by established R&B singer Chuck Jackson. For a small label this was a big enough deal for Stax to release a number of  William’s singles. He was away for 2 years in the armed forces which didn’t help with promotion & publicity. On his return to Memphis he began a string of recordings which were R&B hits but which never really matched the crossover success of other studio colleagues. In this golden time the Memphis Soul stew was cooking on gas. Now, over 45 years later, William Bell’s best records take a place alongside all those other Stax solid senders.

Bell’s stock in trade ballads had a sweet gospel tinge. Booker T’s sympathetic productions allowed a lightness not always associated with the trademark attack in the sound of Stax. “The Soul of a Bell” (1967) marked the beginning of a songwriting partnership between the pair. The opening track “Everybody Loves A Winner” is a tragic song of life, a lovely example of the thing that William Bell did so well…”but when you lose, you lose alone”. Ah, Gram Parsons should have gotten hold of this song with the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Eloise (Hang On In There)”, a soul stomp, Motown urgency filtered through the layers of Memphis grit, had to be the one to break on through. Like another muscular Stax release, “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd, “Eloise” made no impression on the charts but it shook my radio whenever it came around. A hit 45 that just never was one.

It was around this time that guitarist Albert King was signed by Stax. Bell & Jones provided a song that captured all the bad luck & trouble of the Blues while putting this folk music on Soul Time. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was an instant classic. Eric Clapton had always checked for Albert & a year later Cream, with encouragement from Atlantic Records, covered the song on their #1 LP “Wheels Of Fire”. King found a new audience for the Blues in America’s concert halls. Up in Chicago the Chess label encouraged Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf to update their sound. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is a landmark song.

When Stax tragically lost it’s greatest star in December 1967 William Bell marked Otis Redding’s death with “A Tribute To A King”. Only a B-side in the US, we Brits were more receptive to this heartfelt elegy from his musical family & it dented the charts. Another Bell- Jones composition, “Private Number”, a sweet, smooth dialogue with Judy Clay, less raucous than the Otis & Carla Thomas duets, made the UK Top 10 with no transatlantic promotion trip (so unfortunately no black & white Top of the Pops clip) & is still a sure fire winner to my ears. The follow up, “My Baby Specializes” (mostly Judy) was an Isaac Hayes-David Porter song. There was an LP of “Duets” with Clay, Carla Thomas & Mavis Staples. William Bell was a busy man in 1968.

He began to produce records for Peachtree Productions. I have a version of “Purple Haze” by Johnny Jones & the King Casuals, a crazy collision of soul & psychedelia. I did not know that it was Bell’s debut production for the company. It’s on the Y-tube, treat yourself. It was in 1968 that he had his biggest hit so far. “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is a gorgeous tender gem. Steve Cropper’s guitar, a cascade of strings, the Memphis Horns…oh yeah ! Down in Jamaica Lee “Scratch” Perry was creating all manner of wonderful dub reggae strangeness at his Black Ark studio. Scratch always had an ear for a well-written song. Through 1976/77 he recorded a number of soul classics with singer George Faith & that’s how William Bell & Booker T Jones’ “To Be A Lover” stands as a reggae classic. The almost 20 minute long version, including Augustus Pablo’s mellifluous melodica, is a desert island disc of mine but, hey, you are busy people.

William Bell moved to Atlanta but stayed with Stax to the end in 1974. Public taste had changed but there are some classy songs from this time. A move to Mercury finally brought him a gold record in 1977 with “Trying To Love Two”, a disco-fication of his trademark ballad sound. Despite the song reaching the top of the R&B charts there seems to be contemporary clip of him performing the song on “Soul Train…if only.

With the formation of Wilbe Records he has continued to record himself & others.There was never the one big breakthrough song for Bell. No “Knock On Wood”, “Sweet Soul Music” Or “When A Man Loves A Woman” that put faces to the names of other singers. He was not on the bill for the momentous Stax/Volt tours of Europe & there is no film of the young William Bell. So this clip, from 2013, gets me buzzing. It’s from a Memphis Soul special, after dinner entertainment at the White House for the Obama’s & a few close friends.  There was a stellar line-up, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Cyndi Lauper (Huh !) for the audience to rattle their jewellery to. Seeing 70-odd year old William Bell singing “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, knocking the song that started it all for him out of the park & sharing the stage with Booker T Jones, his songwriting partner who shared in the inception of so much fine music, just makes me smile.

 

 

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.

I’m Not In Love With T-T-T-Twiggy (Ready Steady Go !)

In 1959 the Royal Cinema, you know it, on Gilliatt St, near my Nana’s, stopped showing films because everyone was at home watching TV. I think it was that year that my family rented our first set. I wonder what we pointed our furniture at before that. The Royal became the Star Bingo Club, a new thing allowed by an Act of Parliament which liberalised gambling. There were lots of new things at the beginning of the decade… a Labour Government, the Twist, bouffant hairdos (well, ding dong !). Philip Larkin knew the score…

” Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP”. (Annus Mirabilis)

Yeah Man ! The Mersey Beatles, they certainly felt like a big new sexy noise for a big new post-war baby boom teenage bulge. That’s why a queue sinuated around the Star Bingo Club on a Saturday afternoon waiting for the “Teen Beat” music session to start. Live bands, records & soft drinks for the under 18’s. All down the line the juveniles, delinquent or otherwise, were chatting about the previous night’s TV programme which brought the best of the new British Beat to a living room near you.

“Ready Steady Go !” began in August 1963. The Stones first single “Come On” was still in the Top 30, the Beatles released “She Loves You”. The commercial & creative surge in British music had not been well served by the 2 TV channels (really !). Groups were shoe-horned awkwardly into light entertainment shows between the  juggler & the mother-in-law jokes. The BBC’s flagship music show played records at a “Juke Box Jury” of 4 know-nothings who decided “hit” or “miss” &…erm…that’s all. RSG surrounded the music with its young, fashionable audience, capturing some of the excitement & informality that a TV studio/schedule still often deflates. This stuff caught on. The Fab Four appeared in October (Paul judged a miming contest !) & the show got its highest audience when they took over the show in March 1964. This clip has received a sound upgrade but “You Can’t Do That” is so good it should be heard at its best. John’s finest Arthur Alexander style songwriting , George’s shiny new Rickenbacker 360 Deluxe 12-string…a B-side as well.

I missed all of this. The vagaries of regional scheduling meant that, in my provincial backwater, the early Friday evening show did not come around until after 10.30 & that was…after my bedtime…hours after! These new bands from that London, the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, the Kinks, playing the Thames Delta Blues, I would not get to see them until they made the charts. The BBC opted for quantity over quality with a new music show based on sales. The discourse on the concourse about “5-4-3-2-1”, the theme tune, or about that group who smash their instruments (the what ? The Who !)  sounded so exciting, proof that the real fun only started when the kids were asleep. Something was happening in 1964, the RSG crew had a handle on what it was. The young production staff ditched the lip-synch & ran with a new national early evening slot which meant that I could finally see the thing.

The first young Modernist magpies about town favoured Italian fashion, New World rhythms, French cigarettes & philosophy. By 1964 Mod was more about dressing sharp, looking good on the dancefloor & while knocking over the local chemist looking for the pharmaceutical amphetamine or giving a rocker a kicking on a Bank Holiday, your getaway scooter waiting. The symbols of the next big youth movement were in place…you’ve seen “Quadrophenia”. “Ready Steady Go !” made the move from Mersey Beat to Mod giving impetus to its spread out of London up the new motorway system to the rest of the UK. I know, those original Mods viewed this dilution & subsequent commercialisation as the end of it all but, in the mid-60s, provincial British youth were better dressed, with better haircuts, than they had ever been.

RSG’s dance lessons & fashion tips were stiff & lame but there was just so much exciting new music around & whoever was booking the turns or picking the sounds was making plenty of good decisions. In March/April 1965 a roster of Tamla Motown artists had toured the UK to sparse audiences. RSG, prompted by producer & fan Vickie Wickham, filmed an hour long special “The Sound of Motown” featuring Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, 14 year old Stevie Wonder, the Temptations &, Motown’s only UK Top 20 act, the Supremes. Wickham’s best friend Dusty Springfield hosted the show. Dusty had been in a faux-folk trio, recorded overdramatic Euro-pop ballads but she had a heart full of soul & she was sheer class. The show was a blast of energy, a blur of hand clapping, foot stomping, funky butt Detroit Soul. We were able to match some faces to some tunes. Tamla Motown was here to stay.

This wonderful clip, Dusty getting some help on “Wishin’ & Hopin'”, her Bacharach & David US Top 10 hit, from Martha Reeves & the Vandellas is what live music TV can be & rarely is. Dusty & Martha seem to have been left to work it out for themselves & are liking what they have done. The gospel boost to finish makes for a unique performance by the Righteous Sisters.

The groups at “Teen Beat” was the first live music I saw. I think that I was a little underwhelmed at first, it was hardly the Swinging Blue Jeans was it ? Now I remember them as good bands from around the North of England who were ahead of those Top 20 fans. The reference point was the first LP by the Rolling Stones, released in April 64 (May in the US as “England’s Newest Hit Makers”). They all played approximate versions of “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” & surprisingly the soul-jazz groove of Phil Upchurch’s “You Can’t Sit Down”. Y’know if you saw a young bar band playing these songs tonight you would be impressed with their good taste. That was then, 1966 was Now ! & every group was expected to play some new songs.

“Knock On Wood”, “Hold On I’m Coming”, “Mr Pitiful”, this was the new canon. Motown was perhaps a touch too much what with the harmonies & the choreography…at the same time. The music made at Stax Records  was raw, even more basic when there was no horn section, just 4 young energetic kids could fill the dance floor with  these tunes. In September 1966 RSG handed over the show to the label’s figurehead Otis Redding. It was a case of light the blue touch paper & retire to a safe distance as Otis, backed by the Bar-Kays, made a compelling case to be considered as the most exciting act in music. Blue-eyed soul Brits, Chris Farlowe & the great Eric Burdon were invited along & joined in this clip of the closing “Shake”, Sam Cooke’s soul stormer. Eric never looked happier & rightly so. Years later I carried a video tape of this show around, ready to share the greatest 30 minutes of music TV ever. When Stax brought their tour to the UK there were full houses everywhere because people wanted a bit of what they had seen on RSG.

Then, in December 1966, the plug was pulled. Mod probably was past its sell-by-date, the Beat Boom was over but British music was as vibrant in 1967 as it had ever been. The commercial TV network were having none of it, having cancelled the other music show “Thank Your Lucky Stars” in June. Just 2 weeks before RSG ended the UK TV debut of Jimi Hendrix tore up the rule book & knocked us sideways. I had seen the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, for the first time on the show, I was going to have to dig a bit deeper to see the Doors or Jefferson Airplane because ITV would be not be helping. I would too, no longer get my weekly fix of Cathy McGowan, the Mod Dolly Bird next door who so successfully replaced the stiff DJs for hire with a naturalness, an enthusiasm & well, take a look, we were all a little in love with Cathy.

Back To The !!!! Beat (Atlantic Soul)

When it comes to music on TV the British show “Ready, Steady Go” has been #1 in my heart for so long that it now holds the title belt in perpetuity. In 1966, while the just turned teenage me was waiting for the monochromatic Mod Mistress of Ceremonies Cathy McGowan to introduce the latest from Zoot Money & his Big Roll Band, half a world away in Dallas Texas, Bill “Hoss”  Allen, a Nashville DJ, was rolling out some great acts, backed by a great band to make some great music (seems to be an adjective shortage around here). “The !!!! Beat” showcased Soul, Rhythm, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, artists who needed a crossover hit before the networks helped out. The show did this in that new fandangled televisual gimmick…colour.

I’ve mined this seam before both here & there. “There” has a Garnett Mimms clip which, if we could get enough people to watch, could quite possibly bring about world peace. I’m back around “The !!!! Beat” because these nuggets are pure Platonic gold giving  “a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”  Seriously, that good. On the final show of the series, which ran for just one year, Otis Redding came down from Memphis to host & perform on the show. He brought along some of the outstanding Southern Soul acts which the Atlantic label were promoting as an earthier, more raw alternative to the Motown hits.

In 1966 the esteemed critic Dave Marsh listed his favoured songs of the year. After “Reach Out & I’ll Be There” #s 2, 3 & 4 were all by Atlantic artists. “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge was one of these 3. Just months before the song’s March release Percy was still a part-time singer.His impassioned pleading, backed by the patiently building Muscle Shoals arrangement (no horns until the very end, Spooner Oldham’s perfect organ) was a nailed on, unstoppable hit. Here the horns drive the song & young Percy gives it the full soul belter treatment but he tries a little tenderness & this is how it was done in 1966. Surely there has never been a deeper soul sound at #1 in the charts. “When A Man Loves A Woman” is a classic, has become a standard but no-one has ever improved on this Sledge’s original. (He, unfortunately, gave the publishing rights to a couple of musicians who helped with the song).

Percy kept on chooglin’ with his yelping songs of heartbreak. He got some fine Dan Penn songs to record including the original of the heart-rending “It Tears Me Up”. Like many soul artists Percy re-recorded his catalogue for CD release. I have a feeling that on my Greatest Hits that the drums are not being played by Roger Hawkins, that the Shoals are less Muscular. Now, as a rule, this would, at least, irk my not so inner purist. Y’know’ the songs & the vocals are so good, Percy Sledge never just goes through the motions. It’s a fine, well used collection.

Well ! Just look at these moving pictures of Carla 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.

“Comfort Me”, a 45 & the title track of her 1966 LP is a product of some of that talent. Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd & Al Bell are the writers. The Stax houseband, the MG’s/Mar-Keys the players &, surprisingly, the backing vocals courtesy of Motown’s Gladys Knight & the Pips. This is a Pip-free performance but it lacks nothing else. This is a Carla Thomas thing, a Stax Records joint, an every which way slice of enjoyable.

The record was not a hit but Carla had a good 1966. Paired with the David Porter/Isaac Hayes team she hit with the  Tamla-ish “B-A-B-Y”. The next year Stax looked to cut into the Marvin/Tammi duet action. Carla made an LP with Otis Redding, “King & Queen”, which is as light, as pop, as anything the label recorded. It stands 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.

There is great footage, some of the greatest, of Sam & Dave. Their 2 European tours were filmed, audiences, unused to such uninhibited physical & vocal gymnastics, were transfixed then transported. We know what a great live act the duo were but who knew that their suits were red ? Sam Moore & Dave Prater joined Stax in 1965, Hayes/Porter delivered the tailor-made songs. I’ve checked for their singles discography, the quality keeps on coming right into 1969. ( The 3rd wheel on “I Take What I Want” was Mabon Hodges who co-wrote “Take Me To The River” & “Love & Happiness” with the Reverend Green…bloody hell !). The great house band on “The !!!! Beat!, led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown raise thir already considerable game. The go-go dancers have an extra shake in their tail feathers. Man, Otis is having to stop himself making the act a trio. It is what these men did.

I bought a Greatest Hits of Sam & Dave which gave me no indication that I was not handing over my hard earned for the Atlantic classics. On my first listen I knew that Booker T & his Memphis Group had not been involved in this CD’s production. In the case of Percy Sledge I could bite it, accept the odd false step. Now I even became convinced that one or other of the most successful soul duo ever could be different blokes. These revisions were cut in 1978. It was the same guys but it was impossible to reproduce the energy, the Double Dynamite of the Stax originals. “Soul Man”, you know it, has a drum track by Al Jackson which convinced me that I was listening to the greatest exponent of the instrument ever. This was missing from my new purchase…I binned it…pronto.

A Band Powerful Enough To Turn Goat Piss Into Gasoline! (Booker T and the MGs)

I really should find the time to watch the film of the Stax-Volt  1967 tour of Europe every week.  This recording of the Oslo concert is only an hour long & never fails to delight. Otis Redding defines charisma, the dynamism of Sam & Dave is still startling, Eddie Floyd & Arthur Conley do their thing too. On stage for the whole of the gig is the heartbeat of Stax, 4 musicians who usually stayed in the East McLemore Ave studio in Memphis, creating & playing great music & generally being the best band in the world.

Booker T & the M.G.’s were the opening act & part of the backing band on the tour. They, of course, had to play their 1962 surefire smash “Green Onions”,the tough, irresistible blues instrumental which just everyone knows & which still sounds great 50 years later. The song, written when Booker T was still in high school, is part of the culture. Only this weekend I saw a documentary on Mott the Hoople in which guitarist Mick Ralphs said that he did not play until he heard “Green Onions” &  thought that he wanted to have some of that.

The Y-tube says that this clip is “Red Beans & Rice”, a 1965 B-side. It is in fact “Tic-Tac-Toe” a 45 from 1964. It’s not included in the concert film that I know so watching these young, sharp dressed men walk out on to the stage & play this really is, to me, a thing of wonder. It is a cliche that the best groups are greater than the sum of their parts but have those constituents ever been as accomplished & inspired as these 4 musicians ? Man, a tune like this gets played first up & you know you are in for a good night.

This tour was a coming out for the group. It’s disingenuous to claim that fans did not know that the M.G.’s were an integrated combo. While there are very few early photographs, the billing for the tour says “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”. In Europe there was less reason to obscure the group’s racial mix. Damn, it made them cooler still. On the whole the fans were white boys with a love of the very same music that had gotten Cropper & Duck Dunn into this. It was though, the first time that all the musicians on tour had experienced adulation & appreciation on such a scale. It was also, I guess, the first time they could all go to eat or drink together just any place they wanted without checking that the vibe was right & the coast was clear. There was no going back from this, that’s for sure.

So just the next year, 1968, & the group are back in Europe, in, I think, France. One year on & the dress code is a little more relaxed. Duck could use a hair cut & a shave but the looseness of “Booker Loo”, a 6 minute Memphis blues & soul & rhythm stew, is just perfect. Cool cat Booker T, an Indiana U music student during the week while writing “Born A Bad Sign” at the weekend, takes it to church just for a while before Al Jackson Jr brings it back to the dirty boulevard with just a couple of firm strikes. I could listen to Mr Jackson play the drums on every day of my life. Whether it’s the drive of his work with this group or his silkier sessions at the Hi Studios of Willie Mitchell he is always absolutely doing it right. When I get to see him do what he does it gets a little too much & I need a sit down.

This clip, to these ears & eyes is so, so good. Whatever way up you want to look at the music of Booker T & the M.G.’s it is a groove to dance to. The beau monde here are giving it their best moves. I hope they now remember it & know how lucky they were to be there

1970 & the M.G.’s are the support act for the most popular group of the day, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hmm…ever get the feeling you were  in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a gig ! The headline act look on from the side of the stage, they do not want to miss “Time Is Tight”. This worldwide hit is from the movie “Uptight”, a crime drama made a year before “blaxploitation” & soul soundtracks became the current thing. There’s a tense logic to the progression of the song, an effortless restraint which gives it a clarity which the more ornate instrumentalists of the day kind of ignored. “Time Is Tight”…I think that the word is “cohesion”. Creedence liked to keep it simple too. In 1970, looking to enhance their bayou blues-rock their LP “Pendulum” made extensive use of a Hammond organ. That’s why John Fogarty has a close eye on Booker T in this clip.

By this time there was, just as there had been at Motown, the realization that while making music was fun maybe it was time to get paid. Despite being under contract Booker T upped & moved to California. Steve followed suit, starting his own studio in Memphis before, eventually leaving for the West Coast. Duck & Jackson stayed on, in 1975 the 3 of them were playing together & making plans. The unfortunate murder of “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” (Steve Cropper) closed this particular chapter of our music’s story. Now Booker T, a man with little to prove to anyone, gets to play with whoever he chooses  while Cropper & Dunn are beloved Blues Brothers. We have those wonderful instrumental records made by ambitious, confident & talented young men. I look around for the best available clips for these things I do. These 3 are all music of the highest quality. Right I’m away to throw some shapes to “Booker Loo”.

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.)

If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck (Albert King)

Well…being ill for 3 weeks really sucked. Spending the Easter Holiday in hospital was a shock but the wonderful members of the National Health Service prodded & probed, gave care & consideration & reassured me that I was receiving the best attention. Any time your body gives out then self-absorption is, I suppose, inevitable. Perfect for some crappy blog post about me, me. me. So… fuck that noise ! I have heard too much of it & there are others who have it worse. The hospital has helped me to recover & the nicotine withdrawal, after 40 years of addiction, is too dull to write about. Man ! it is good to be well enough to be writing this thing again. Back to the music.

Albert King is known as one of the “3 Kings of the Blues”. B.B., the most established of the 3 had many hits in the 1950s, enough to claim the title for himself. Freddie was selling records too though “Freddie King Goes Surfin” was hardly for the purist. By the mid-1960s Albert was in his 40s, had some success with 45s but had released just the one LP.All 3 had worked the “chitlin circuit” for years but the Blues was hardly the current thing. If it was then it was the Blues as interpreted by the young long-haired British boys. Albert had  a fine reputation, a lovely Gibson Flying V & the killer nickname of “The Velvet Bulldozer”. In 1966 he made a very smart though surprising career move when he signed with the Stax label in Memphis.

The resulting LP was many things, every one of them good. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is recorded with the Stax house band Booker T & the MGs, young men who were proving to have a facility for writing, producing & playing on records which had a heart full of soul & sold by the truck load. They rose to the challenge of making a Blues LP & I am sure that Albert King knew that these guys intended to do his music right. The title track, written by William Bell & Booker T Jones, is either Soul/Blues or Blues/Soul. No matter…it is a stone dead monster classic of a track, a solid slab of rhythm which moved Blues music into 1967. The sessions were originally recorded as singles, “Bad Sign” was the 4th to be released, It was this concentration on quality along with a respectful & inspired selection of standards which made the LP a breakthrough in electric Blues & really made Albert King’s career.

By 1969 the Blues were back in the foreground of popular music. There was a new “Blues Boom” in Great Britain as the graduates of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers began to form their own bands. Cream, Jimi Hendrix (honorary Brit…no doubt !) & the wonderful Free all made their own stabs at Albert’s songs. In the US Canned Heat were listening while Led Zeppelin lifted a chunk of the lyrics from “The Hunter” for “How Many More Times”. Record labels contorted themselves to position their bluesmen in to the youth market. “Electric Mud” (1968) is a startling re-imagining of Muddy Waters as a psychedelic musician. The records made when players were sent to London to play with the young guys were less successful.

Albert King was already there with a cool label & the best studio band in the world. This gig at the Fillmore East shows his confidence, his great touring band &, above all, the style of the man as a singer & player. He was probably happy to be with a label which got his records into the shops & could even get radio play. He certainly stayed with Stax until the final financial meltdown of 1975.

He was not immune to the “let’s make this shit modern” syndrome (Rick Rubin did not invent this lame-ass notion). There’s a “King Plays the King” LP of Elvis covers. The early R&B hits at least, not the post-Army awfulness. Don Nix produced a record at Muscle Shoals with new songs, Taj Mahal covers & such. It was, however, when Albert played the blues straight that it really came together. In 1972 “I’ll Play The Blues For You”, a record made with the Movement, the studio band on the massive hits of Isaac Hayes, he made his other essential record & enjoyed his biggest hit. This clip of the title track is from the momentous 1972 Wattstax concert when the entire Stax roster played in L.A. for just $1 entrance fee.

So, this “Velvet Bulldozer” tag ? Wiki claims that Albert drove such a vehicle in the 1950s when the music was not full-time. I am just not buying that. Albert King just played his Blues. He did not, as Bill Graham said, jive & shuck his audience with tricks & showmanship. His smooth runs, a beautiful tone & technique,  kept on coming & would get to you inevitably. Albert kept on doing it until his passing in 1992 & there were always young guitarists willing to collaborate & to pay tribute to his influence. It is these records he made for Stax which stand as the first time the Blues met the 1960s head-on & produced some serious relevance to match these young white boys who were stealing their shit.

Till Steve Cropper Plays A Bum Note (Stax)

From that very first time I heard the brassy blare, the rock solid rhythm and Wilson “Wicked” Pickett strutting through the Midnight Hour the sound of Memphis soul has shaken more than my tailfeathers. In 1966 I dutifully posted my vote for Wilson as the best singer in the world to a music paper (I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause). A year later, just turned 15 years old, I waited on my bike to meet my best friend and share the shock of the morning news. Our new favourite, Otis Redding, had been killed in a plane crash. The world carried on with little regard but for Wink & I it was a big loss.

I did not know the hows and the whys, the whos and the wheres of the Stax/Atlantic legends then like I do now. I just knew that the raw, deep soul sound sure did it for me.

In 1967 Stax brought their artists to Europe for a tour which galvanised both performers and audiences. The Beatles, busy recording “Sgt Pepper”, sent a limo to meet them at Heathrow. The mainly black performers had not played to mainly white audiences before. The attention & interest alerted the label to not just a European market. Later in the year Otis Redding tore up the Monterey Pop Festival before the hippie “love crowd”. We are very lucky that one of these concerts, in Oslo, was filmed. Every second of the film is packed with quality, energy and soul.

Eddie Floyd is singing “Raise Your Hand” the follow up to his biggest record “Knock On Wood”. This simple call and response sits on a bed of pure Stax music. You could sing the telephone book and it would sound good. (Wilson Pickett started to do so on  “634-5789”). Eddie made some great records, he’s looking fine and singing strong here. He will always be remembered for the classic “Knock On Wood”.

Behind Floyd is the powerhouse band who backed all the acts on this legendary show and were the house band back in the Memphis studio. In the horn section there is Wayne Jackson and, I think, Packy Axton, son of Estelle, the AX in Stax. The other four are Booker T and the M.Gs, stars in their own right. Booker T Jones, played organ, arranged and composed songs while studying classical composition. His 2007 Grammy for lifetime achievement is deserved. Two childhood friends, Duck Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar) were young men who grew up loving R&B, they knew how it went, knew where it was going and were helping to take it there. Cropper co-wrote this song, “Knock On Wood” and many others in his years at Stax. On drums is Al Jackson Jr and he is simply the best exponent of this instrument I have ever heard or seen. Eddie Floyd is great in this clip. Watch it again, see and listen to the best band in the world…The Mar-Keys.

Stax was not only the honking, stomping shots of energy, when they tried a little tenderness they got the job done too.William Bell, like Eddie Floyd, wrote and recorded many memorable songs without great commercial success. In 1967 he released ” A Tribute to a King”, the label’s eulogy for Otis. A year later the near-perfect soul duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number” was a big UK hit. In the same year “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” set new standards in sweet soul music. From the opening restraint of Steve Cropper’s guitar, the strings, yes strings, before the horns move in and Bell’s impassioned regret. Man, producer Booker T does a fine job on this. Like the run of 1960s singles by the Impressions this song just ends too quickly.

The song has often been covered (Billy Idol…anyone ?) and sampled. In Jamaica in 1977 Lee Perry produced a version by George Faith which is a highpoint of sweet reggae and is well worth a listen.

The story goes that Otis Redding returned from Europe and said he didn’t want to tour with Sam and Dave anymore. The all-singing, all-dancing, all-energy duo were one of the great live acts of the 1960s. Sam Moore and Dave Prater enjoyed massive success with their records too. A run of hits, many written by the team of Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter, established them as the biggest soul pairing in the US. Here they just wreck “Soul Man” with the Stax B-line. The A team were back making hits in Memphis but there is no visible or aural drop in quality. I could try and encapsulate Sam and Dave’s appeal but there are what, about 150 videos on Y-Tube and there are not 3 better than this. Just watch the clip, it’s great.

With international success, the tragic and premature loss of their greatest star and the machinations of the music industry the travails of the Stax label are labyrinthine and a little sad. Led by Isaac Hayes they recovered from the loss of their magnificent catalogue but the story still ended in bankruptcy. A cottage industry out of a converted cinema set the standard for great soul music which still endures. I still listen to and love the music that Stax made. I guess that once you’re a soul boy you end up a soul man.