So how long have I been just a click away from the Billboard R&B Chart archive? No matter, I’ve found it now & that sound you hear is my purr of contentment as I cruise the weekly Top 30 or, even better, Top 50 from past years, marvelling at just how many great songs were around at the same time. Let’s start with January 1969, 50 years ago, when Marvin Gaye’s classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” held the #1 spot for the whole month.
There were 3 other Tamla Motown releases in a distinguished Top 10 for January 18th 1969, I’m guessing that it had been pretty much the same every week for the past 5 years. Stevie Wonder was there & so were the Temptations, on their own & again with Diana Ross & the Supremes. 11-20 included the Delfonics’ “Ready Or Not Here I Come” & “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone, both certainties for the 1000 Best Soul records of the decade (not a real list but give me an hour & I’ll get back to you). OK, pick a number between 1 & 50… any one of them will be just fine.
At #3 is Clarence Carter’s “Too Weak To Fight”. We never really got Clarence over here until the sentimental “Patches”, his only UK hit, came around in 1970 but, across 68/9, he was enjoying a consistent run of R&B chart success & crossing over to the mainstream Pop chart. Born without sight Clarence graduated with a degree in Music from Alabama State College in his hometown of Montgomery. He was already a fixture at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals when bigger record labels, hearing that the writers, musicians & producers there had got it going on, sent their own established artists along to grab some of that swampy Southern Country Soul. Carter’s records were picked up by Atlantic & the higher profile led to “Slip Away”, his second 45 on the label, selling a million copies.
My good friend Mitchell kindly gave me his compilation of the “Best of C.C.” because I played it so often & took such delight every single time. “Too Weak…” is one of a string of songs featuring Clarence’s strong baritone, yearning in the heartbreak tunes, a lascivious chuckle in the…er…racier ones. The now famous Alabaman session players made it funky, gritty & sparkling. They made it sound easy too but if it was then everybody would have been doing it. There was a new name in the small print on the back of the album sleeves. Guitarist Duane Allman had shown up at FAME with his band Hour Glass & found himself hired. Duane brought his precocious Blues talent along, check out Clarence’s “The Road To Love”. Further on down that week’s chart, at #16, he was inventing Southern Rock on Wilson Pickett’s blistering “Hey Jude”.
Chicago was well represented in the Top 10 too. Producer Carl Davis, a man who knew what was what, removed Barbara Acklin’s vocals, added piano to the backing track & released “Soulful Strut” (#6) by Young-Holt Unlimited, formed by the rhythm section of the successful Ramsey Lewis Trio. Davis’ newly founded Dakar records discovered a new star in Tyrone Davis. “Can I Change My Mind” (#4 up from #15) was an update of the classic Windy City sound, loping rhythms, vivacious horn & string arrangements, as smooth as Pop-Soul could get. Jerry Butler, a hit-maker for over a decade, went to Philadelphia to work with a hot new writing/production team. “Are You Happy” (#10) was the third single taken from the resulting all killer no filler “The Ice Man Cometh” LP. Jerry enjoyed revived fortunes, Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff had a calling card for their talents which they parleyed into their own Philadelphia International label &, pretty much, world domination in just a few years.
When Jerry Butler left the Impressions for a solo career he maintained his relationship with Curtis Mayfield, the kid he had met in his church choir. Curtis had songs to spare for his pal, the acts at Chicago’s Okeh label & his own vocal trio. The Impressions’ progress from perfectly harmonious Gospel to equally euphonic Soul was as influential as any other African-American music of the time. In Jamaica the 3 Wailin’ Wailers were listening closely while up in Bearsville New York their “Keep On Pushing” album featured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”. Like many young Americans Curtis was affected by & involved in the Civil Rights movement & his lyrics came to reflect the changing times. “This Is My Country”, #8 on the chart, the title track of the first LP released on his own Curtom label, tells it like it was, pertinent then & still is now & is an absolute gem.
OK, that’s the Top 10 pretty much covered. Let’s look further down at the page for the week’s new entries. A big favourite round here, “Grits Ain’t Groceries” by Little Milton, scrapes in at #50. “If I don’t love you, grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry & Mona Lisa was a man!”. Right On! Further up at #41 Arthur “Sweet Soul Music” Conley entered FAME Studios to cover Paul McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” but you don’t want to hear that. I’m afraid there’s very little Soul to be extracted from this piece of cod-Reggae fluff & not even Duane Allman’s guitar contribution can add much value. So then Pop Pickers (heh, heh) in at #44 it’s…
Tammi Terrell experienced great commercial success in 1968 when “You’re All I Need”, her second collection of duets with Marvin Gaye was released. The young Motown Mod was the perfect foil for sharp dressed Marvin, the label’s major solo star solicitous of their ingenue. A clutch of bespoke songs provided by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson added further class to an already classy pairing. Unfortunately Tammi was unable to fully enjoy her hit records, in October 1967 she collapsed onstage with Marvin & a brain tumour was diagnosed. After a first surgery Tammi was able to return to the studio but was never well enough to perform again & her health quickly declined. She died in March 1970 aged just 24. In January 1969 her only solo LP was released. “Irresistible” compiled the 11 tracks, just 30 minutes of music, that she had recorded for Motown between 1965 & 1968. I’m sure that Hitsville had plans for the new star & that with material tailored to her alluring voice & personality more success was inevitable. We’ll never know that now.
Hearing the Isley Brothers’ version of “This Old Heart Of Mine” will always be my youth club madeleine. Dancing until almost bedtime on nothing stronger than a can of Vimto & a packet of Oxo flavoured crisps. Walking that little girl home because well, she lived just round the corner from me. Tammi’s version, recorded in 1966, produced by two of the writers, Brian Holland & Lamont Dozier, will never hold the same resonance but if ever you need a classic, uptempo, floor-filling stomper, “the Sound of Young America”, then you’ve come to the right place.