Diana, Doris And Bobby (Soul April 25th 1970)

The highest new entry on the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B Locations for April 25th 1970 was the debut solo single by a singer for whom her label had the greatest of expectations. In the preceding 10 years Tamla Motown’s commercial, artistic & indeed cultural influence had become the most incredible story in American popular music. The company began the new decade with the launch & instant success of the Jackson 5. It was now the turn of their biggest female star to take centre stage.

 

 

Diana Ross (1970) | THE DIANA ROSS PROJECT

 

Diana Ross : Diana Ross (1970) (LP, Vinyl record album) -- Dusty ...Diana Ross had already sung on 12 US Pop #1 records with the Supremes, a trio that her name had been at the front of since 1967. For her debut LP she was placed with husband & wife writer/producers Nikolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson who provided 10 of the 11 songs, a surprising 6 of which had been previously recorded by other Motown acts. “Reach Out & Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” was the lead single & it sold 500,000 copies, more than respectable for any single. While it’s now one of Ms Ross’ signature songs #20 on the Pop chart & #7 R&B was lower than expected particularly while “Up the Ladder to the Roof”, the first 45 by the Supremes without Diana hit #10 & #5 respectively.

 

The “Diana Ross” LP is undoubtedly a fine record & the next single, a remake of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, a hit for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, put Diana right back at the top, achieving the double whammy of #1 Pop & R&B. Despite this Motown rushed her back into the studio with staffer Deke Richards & another album “Everything Is Everything” was released in November 1970. There were more modern standards, 2 Beatles songs, Bacharach & David, Aretha Franklin & on the cover, after the previous dressed-down, doe-eyed, elfin look Diana was much more glam. Diana Ross was already an American musical icon before she started a solo career. Whether she was singing big, positive, emotional ballads or songs custom-made for her by the Bee Gees & Chic, new music from her was an event anticipated by her millions of fans & she remained a major star for over 30 years.

 

 

 

After a week in the Top 10 Doris Duke’s “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman)”, a top shelf example of Deep Soul, was sliding down the chart to #21. Doris Curry, born in Georgia, had moved to New York to see what opportunities were offered by the music business. In 1966, now Doris Willingham, there was a single & regular gigs as a back-up singer at the Apollo theatre & for recording sessions. A spot as a member of Nina Simone’s touring band was certainly prestigious. In 1969 Doris was introduced to Jerry Williams Jr a performer/songwriter who was re-inventing himself as Swamp Dogg & setting up his own production operation. Mr Dogg made a deal with Phil Walden, the former manager of Otis Redding, so the pair headed off to the new Capricorn studio in Macon Georgia to make an album.

 

Soulful Detroit: Wonder B - 'The Wonder-photo Man' - 1Swamp’s vision was to make Soul “concept” albums & “I’m A Loser” is a collection of lovelorn, love-weary songs from the perspective of a grown woman. With Doris’ strong, Gospel-inflected vocals getting understated support from the talented Capricorn Rhythm Section (that’s got to be Duane Allman on “Ghost of Myself”) it really is Southern Soul at its best. The remarried Doris Logan became Doris Duke & they were ready to go.”To the Other Woman”, written by Swamp & Gary US Bonds, a Rock & Roller from the early 1960s, is a strong almost Country ballad, the lyrics unusual & distinctive enough to be memorable & to stand out when heard on the radio. It & the more upbeat follow up “The Feeling Is Right” both made the R&B chart.Doris objected to having little input in the recording process beyond providing vocals to finished tracks & her relationship with her producer was never a good one. The pair did record another LP together, “A Legend In Her Own Time” & then only because of the previous success. Swamp Dogg had his own thing going on, an album & a single rising up the chart. We’ll get to this in a couple of weeks.

 

 

Eclectic Vibes — Sam Cooke's Widow Marries Bobby Womack 77 Days...Further down the Top 50, stalled at #41, was a singer on the way to restoring his reputation as a significant talent. In 1964 Bobby Womack, with his sister-in-law Shirley wrote “It’s All Over Now” for the family group the Valentinos & a cover version by the Rolling Stones became that group’s first UK #1. Later in the year the untimely death of Sam Cooke, Bobby’s idol & mentor was a great blow. A hurried marriage to Barbara, Sam’s widow, met with disapproval from the Cooke family & a reluctance from radio stations to give airtime to his records. In Memphis Bobby found a place at American Studios where he played on many sessions, having a couple of his songs picked up & put on the chart by Wilson Pickett. “I’m In Love” & “I’m a Midnight Mover” featured on his 1969 debut LP. Covers of “Fly Me To the Moon” (the title track) & California Dreamin'” were R&B Top 20 singles.

 

Bobby Womack Soul Funk Art Poster | Etsy“More Than I Can Stand” is taken from the “My Prescription” album, a disc I don’t own but I know every song. Bobby was hitting his soulful stride with a mix of original songs & sometimes unlikely covers (“Everyone’s Gone To the Moon” & “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”) with great backing from his friends the session men at American. “Communication” (1971) &, after a move to Muscle Shoals, the self-produced “Understanding” (1972), with “I Can Understand It” & “Harry Hippie”, continued the run. I have a “best of…” from these first 4 records & it’s a double album. In the future Bobby’s title track for the “Across 110th St” movie became an instant & abiding classic. In 1981 the LP “The Poet” was something of a revival & while his subsequent recordings reflected changing times & styles he kept his essential qualities. The self-styled & justifiable “only survivor left in town” kept on until his passing in 2014. In 1970 Bobby Womack had already laid the foundation of his reputation, by the time he was done he was a legend.

Ian Levine: The Northern Soul Men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irma Thomas (Soul Queen)

Irma Thomas was “The Soul Queen 0f  New Orleans” before we were talking about soul music. The songs she recorded in the early 1960s were pivotal in shaping the young sound of America which made African-American music a worldwide success later in the decade. The quality of young Irma’s work is so high that it’s tough to choose just one but I’m the king around here and this is the one for me.

“Ruler Of My Heart” was written and produced, like all Ms Thomas’s early 45s, by Allen Toussaint, the mastermind of so much thrilling music from New Orleans. Otis Redding pinched the tune for “Pain In My Heart”. Toussaint successfully sued the Stax label for compensation. It has a charm,a power and an almost stateliness that marked all her songs. “It’s Raining”, so effectively used in the Jim Jarmusch 1986 film “Down By Law”, and the later “Time Is On My Side”, covered by the Rolling Stones, have a similar effect. When I checked out the timeline for these records (I don’t just make this stuff up) I was surprised to find that none of these were major hit records. You have got to be joking me, these are classics.

Irma moved labels and did have more success with emotive ballads. Come 1965 , 1963 was so over and everything had to be new. She was signed to some big labels, Chess & Atlantic,  but the material and the times were against her.

In 1970 Irma began a record with writer/producer Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams Jr at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. Mr Dogg was a prolific producer of “deep soul” music and when he got it right he was unrivalled. “In Between Tears” is the title track of the record which was eventually released in 1973 on the Fungus label (no, me neither). Irma is all grown up now, her voice huskier and stronger. Her confidence is reflected in the material, the arrangements showcase the voice and the LP is a masterpiece. At the time it made no real impression.

On “In Between Tears” there is a 12 minute track which I would not presume to include here. A monologue about, y’know, men and women, “”Comin’ From Behind” is similar to those that Millie Jackson sold bundles of just a few years later, only it is funnier and better. This segues into a remake of her biggest hit, “I Wish Someone Would Care”. The climax of the song is precisely that, orgasmic for the singer and the listener. Swamp Dogg has spoken of the sexuality in Irma’s voice and he captured it in this track. There is also evidence of the ability of the session guitarist Duane Allman and what a great loss to music his early death was at the age of 24. If you do have 12.34 to spare and you love soul music then seek this track out.

Irma made fewer records, opened a club in New Orleans and continued to perform and to be highly respected. It took the terrible events of 2005 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to remind us what we had been missing for so long. Irma Thomas’s personality, her humour and strength, became a symbol of the resilience of New Orleans. To see her, as cameras capture the devastation to the city was an inspiration. This interpretation of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” is from a concert to honour and benefit New Orleans.

Her 2006 LP “After The Rain” won her a Grammy. Her current standing is higher than ever. Her early music is still being discovered by new listeners. All I can add is that she deserves it all.