Just Blew In From The Windy City (Soul May 2nd 1970)

The #1 record in the Cash Box Top 50 in R&B locations for the whole of the month of May was “Love On A Two Way Street” by the Moments. Such a smash was keeping a couple of discs made in Chicago from the top spot. Tyrone Davis was hoping to repeat the success of last year’s “Can I Change Your Mind” but “Turn Back the Hands of Time” was stalled at #2 for the third week running while at #3, up a massive jump from #19 & surely a contender to replace the Moments, were the mighty, mighty Dells.

 

 

 

Northern Soul/Tamla Motown - Gladys Knight/The Dells Repro Concert ...The Dells had their first million-selling record in 1956. A decade later, the seasoned vocal group, with a line-up that would not change for almost 50 years, brought their expertise & talent to the great Chicago label Chess & pretty soon the Dells’ name was back in the R&B chart frame. Remakes of “Stay In My Corner” & their original hit “Oh What A Night” were both #1 records. New songs were provided by producer Bobby Miller & ace arranger Charles Stepney, at this time pushing the boundaries with Rotary Connection, did his thing with the blend of strings & brass that they did so well in Chicago. Between 1968 & 1970 the Dells had 10 Top 20 R&B hits. “Open Up My Heart” is one of that run, as finely tuned & classy as the rest.

 

The Dells, an American R&B vocal group, five men performing on ...There were many fine singers around in Soul music but the powerful, versatile baritone of Marvin Junior, a big man with a big voice, was a special thing. It’s Marvin’s voice that let’s you hear a song for the first time & know it’s the Dells. He was a great influence on Teddy Pendergrass whose time would soon come as the lead with Harold Melvin’s group but the Blue Notes didn’t have what the Dells had. Johnny Carter’s tenor-falsetto, a remarkable range, provided the perfect counterpoint to Marvin. The pair had sung together for a long time & knew exactly how it worked. Marvin’s son later said, “Johnny would set it up with the lightning, then Marvin would come with the thunder” & that’s perfect. When Miller left for Motown Stepney took over production & the hits just kept on coming. When they split with Chess they kept on going & going. There’s a lot more to the Dells than their remarkable longevity, pick up any of the 12 albums they made with the Chicago label & you’ll be on the right track.

 

 

 

little milton | TumblrMeanwhile at the same Ter-Mar Studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue Little Milton was recording “If Walls Could Talk”, his fourth LP for Chess’ Checker imprint. Milton had been around so long that, after being spotted by Ike Turner, he had recorded at Sun Records in Memphis before Elvis Presley made the place world famous. He combined performing with production & management at his own Bobbin label where a distribution deal with Chess led to him moving over in 1961. It would be four years before “We’re Gonna Make It” was an R&B #1 & he was able to release his first album. Little Milton was a Blues man, as much a guitarist as a great singer. His next record was “…Sings Big Blues” but he knew what was commercial & the title track of “Grits Ain’t Groceries (All Around the World)” is a brassy Soul stomper. “Grits ain’t grocery, eggs ain’t poultry & Mona Lisa was a man!”, one of the best lyrics ever.

 

Little Milton (The Blues is Alright) - YouTube | Blues music, Jazz ...“Baby I Love You” was Little Milton’s highest charting R&B hit since 1965. It’s the most commercial track from an album that favours Soul rather than Blues. I don’t know who makes those guitar stabs in the middle eight but they sound good. When Milton slows it down he can mix the gruff with the smooth in the style of Bobby “Blue” Bland & when he ups the pace, ably supported by the nameless & immaculate Chess house band, he gets down with the best. When his label hit problems after the death of founder Leonard Chess Milton’s former protege, Albert King, found him a gig at Stax. The Blues were now running the game & Little Milton’s reputation was sustained as much for his instrumental work than by his vocals.

 

 

 

Curtis Mayfield Finally Gets a Definitive Biography. What Took So ...Across town The Impressions had a new entry on the chart, at #35 with “Check Out Your Mind”, the title track of their latest LP. This was probably no surprise for one of American music’s greatest vocal groups. They were a fixture of Soul’s rich tapestry & since 1967’s smash “We’re A Winner” the majority of their 45’s made the R&B Top 20. From 1964 to 68, on six Top 20, R&B albums the group had moved through simple Gospel truths, honeyed love songs to social commentary reflecting the changing aspirations of African-Americans, all marked by Curtis Mayfield’s great songs, his sweet high voice & melodious vocal harmonies. The last of these records, “This Is My Country” (1968) was released on Curtis’ own Curtom label. He had learned his trade in Chicago with producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate at Okeh Records & now, just 26, he was ready to take care of his own business.

 

The Impressions - Check Out Your Mind / Can't You See (1970, Vinyl ...“Check Out Your Mind” was to be the final LP that Curtis made with the Sam Gooden & Fred Cash & from the bustling Psychedelic Soul of the title track onward the trio went out on a high. Curtis’ songwriting was becoming more complex, & so were the sinuous arrangements, that Windy City brass/string driven thing again, with the rhythms of percussionist “Master” Henry Gibson prominent. The Impressions, Mayfield replaced by Leroy Hutson, stayed at Curtom & made more hit records. The records Curtis, Sam & Fred had made together are the soundtrack to the 1960’s. In May 1970 Curtis entered Chicago’s RCA Studios to begin work on his debut solo LP. The Impressions had always been about affirmation & moving on up, now he was free to embrace the Funk, to pull no punches & to get right on for the darkness. In November 1970 when we first heard the ominous bass, the spoken Biblical intro & the scream of ” (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go we not only knew that Curtis Mayfield had changed but Soul music had too.

 

This week’s lockdown bonus is taken from the treasure trove that is “The !!!! Beat”, a TV show that, for 26 episodes in 1966, brought the Soul stars of the day to Dallas to perform their latest songs, capturing them, many for the only time, in glorious colour. Here’s Little Milton with his big hit “We’re Gonna Make It”, performing live in front of a great band led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown & along with a couple of Go-Go dancers. As I said…Glorious!

 

Temptations Bout To Get You (Soul March 1969)

`OK, the Billboard R&B chart from 50 years ago. The first two weeks of the month found James Brown, “Soul Brother Number One”, “Mr Dynamite” or, my favourite,” the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk”, enjoying yet another #1 record. “Give It Up Or Turnit Loose” marked the 8th time he had made the top of the R&B chart & there were to be 9 more,  incredible. The next chart toppers were The Temptations & “Runaway Child Running Wild” was their 9th single to do so. A striking thing about the listings for the 22nd of March was that at #2 was a singer who had played a major part in the previous success of the Motown vocal group.

 

 

Image result for david ruffin magazine coverThe authentic star power of David Ruffin, a man comfortable in the spotlight, & the dramatic swirling “My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me)”. David was fired by the Temptations in June 1968. The story of the split has been told by many sides (books of varying quality, an awful TV movie) & he never comes out too well in the telling. Money, drugs & ego are all well & good but do tend to be a volatile mix. Wanting to alter the name of the group to “David Ruffin & the…” was never going to fly with the 4 other members who had all been Temptations longer than he had. He was the featured vocalist on “My Girl”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” & others you know, so that’s who he is, a great talent & he had made his contribution.

 

Image result for david ruffin magazineAfter an awkward standoff between David, who announced he was fronting a new group, & Tamla Motown blocking appearances by them, he signed to the label as a solo artist. The whistles & bells were pulled out for the debut single & “My Whole World…” is from the top rank of Motown Chartbusters. The subsequent LP is a great showcase for Ruffin’s unique rough-hewn voice, earthy, still sweet & never too harsh. There are plenty of echoes of past glories, songs & stories of thwarted & lost loves, though not by Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield. The label’s fabled quality control could have insisted on a little more work on them. Things were changing in Detroit, Marvin & Stevie were taking control in the studio, Whitfield & the Temptations had their “Psychedelic Soul”. A little extra was needed now & the next 45 from the record, “I’ve Lost Everything I’ve Ever Loved”, was not as successful.

 

 

Eugene Record had been plying his musical trade in Chicago for a decade. His group, the Hi-Lites became the Chi-Lites & the patronage of producer/label head Carl Davis placed his compositions with other artists from the Windy City. Eugene had co-written & produced the hit instrumental “Soulful Strut” for Young Holt Unlimited & March 1969 was the month that things really started going right for him. At #10 “Give It Away” was the first hit for the Chi-Lites. They were able to maintain this success &, a couple of years later, were right up there with those new groups from Philadelphia. This wasn’t the only reason for celebration. A couple of rungs higher, at #8, was another of Eugene’s songs.

 

Image result for betty everett there'll come a timeBetty Everett made enough of an impression between 1963-65 for her label Vee Jay to issue a “Very Best of…” LP. “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)”, that’s the one that everyone knows but there were other notable ones, popular Soul dance hits, delicious duets with Jerry Butler. Vee Jay’s financial troubles left her stranded & it wasn’t until 1969 that she could do it properly again. The lush, swaying “There’ll Come A Time” & the rest of an album packed with good tunes & arrangements, shows Betty to be assured, effortless & versatile. She may not have been as distinctive as some of the more prominent female singers of the day but she did everything with class & caught your attention every time.

 

 

The highest new entry this week was “I’ll Try Something New”, the second single from the high profile (a TV special!) collaboration by Diana Ross & the Supremes & those Temptations again, in at #23. There were other entries from big hitters Gladys Knight & the Pips, Aretha Franklin & Sam & Dave. You got me when it comes to Debbie Taylor, Vernon Garrett, Laura Greene & Johnny McKinnis but I’m getting on it. All very good I’m sure. In at #44 was another enduring, talented vocal group & I never miss a chance to listen to the Dells.

 

Image result for the dells hallways of my mindAfter having their first hit in 1956 the five piece Dells barely troubled the charts while establishing a reputation as a live act. Signing with the Chicago label Chess they were matched with songwriter/producer Bobby Miller, the outstanding, innovative arranger Charles Stepney & their fortunes changed. The guys in the backroom brought the best out of the powerful baritone of Marvin Junior, the startling range, from tenor to falsetto, of Johnny Carter & three others who had known just how the backing vocals went since the days of Doo-Wop.  The uptempo, uplifting “Hallways of My Mind”, an intoxicating Chi-town mix of brass, strings & voices, is from a chain of fine records, Soul belters, last dance smoochers, imaginative takes on the  classics. Whatever the Dells turned their voices to worked. I have an e-friend who rates the Dells alongside any of the great American vocal groups & she’s not usually wrong about most things.

 

A couple of years later Bobby Miller moved across to Tamla Motown to ride shotgun on the next record by David Ruffin. David had become something of a problem for the label &, in 1971, a perfectly good collection of songs, all sequenced & with a catalogue number, was shelved. (It wasn’t released for over 30 years). The resulting eponymously titled LP, his third, matched his voice with tailor-made material that did justice to Ruffin’s growing maturity. See what I did there, I finished this thing by bringing it back to the beginning. I don’t just make this stuff up as I go along y’know, I said I don’t just…

 

 

The Music Endures, The Harmony Endears (The Dells)

I’m a fool for a  male-vocal soul group. There’s the Motown giants, the 4 Tops, Levi Stubbs, Renaldo, Sugar Pie & Honeybunch. Those Temptations had 2 star singers in David Ruffin & Eddie Kendricks. At Philadelphia International the Intruders, the symphonic Delfonics, Harold Melvin & his Blue Notes & the Stylistics were all great while the O’Jays were probably greater. In Chicago the Impressions presented us with songs which collect into my long-time favourite “Greatest Hits” playlist. To this illustrious list I must add another Chicagoan combo. As one of the originals The Dells are often noted for their longevity. I’ve been around a long time too, longevity is overrated… believe. The Dells make the major leagues because they made an individual contribution to a fine tradition. Here’s the proof…

Phee-yew ! That’s phee-you get me ? How great is that ? “Stay In My Corner”, one of the finest slow jams, was originally released in 1965 then re-recorded in 1968 when it was a #1 R&B hit & the group’s most successful crossover to the pop charts. This performance is from the New York PBS TV series Soul! in March 1972, Also on the show was Chester Himes, the great American crime fiction writer. Man, I’ve just found an episode list of this series…I need those tapes. The Dells were a pretty well-oiled machine by this time. They knew how much is in this song & knew exactly how to get it all out. That powerful baritone is Marvin Junior….Johnny Carter’s smooth change from tenor to falsetto is almost unlikely. There are 2 soloists in the Dells.

The group made their first record in 1954, Is that true ? Were records invented then ? Those were the Doo-wop days, street corner symphonies or the cabaret precision of the Platters. These Illinois boys got a gold record in 1956 with “Oh What A Nite”, a song which became their calling card. The Dells…who ? “Oh What A…”…oh yeah. A near fatal car accident in 1958 stalled their progress, the group disbanded then reformed, with a significant team change, in 1960. These same guys performed together for the next 50 years !

In 1966 the Dells signed with Chess, Chicago’s premier label. Consolidating a reputation as a vital live act there was immediately more commercial success. They worked on the Cadet label, an imprint of Chess, with the production/arrangement team of Bobby Miller & Charles Stepney. “There Is” is the title track of this combination’s 1st LP, a collection of solid, varied, consistent tunes. I have no idea who made this early promo, the song has a martial urgency, the boys sure don’t dance like the Temptations but Marvin sings the heck out of it. Mr Junior has one of those outstanding soul voices that you need to get to know better.

The group stayed with Chess until 1975, recording a string of R&B hits. When Bobby Miller left Chess for Motown Charles Stepney took over production duties. Stepney, a classically trained jazz musician was pushing the symphonic soul envelope with the Rotary Connection. He produced electric Blues records with Howlin’ Wolf & Muddy Waters, a bunch of records for the Ramsey Lewis Trio. His 4 LPs with the Dells are the most commercial of his work, all imaginative, interesting pieces. “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)”, seen here on that same Soul! show, was co-written by another Stepney acolyte, the individually talented Terry Callier. The right song, the right producer, the right group, everyone’s a winner.
Oh oh, that clip seems to have gone from the Y-tube so here are the boys on the “Soul Train” in 1974.

The Dells could handle Northern Soul belters, smooth last dance smoochers & often recorded the standards of  the day. The LP “The Dells Sing The Hits Of Dionne Warwick” is one I have to check.  Here in the UK their only hit record was a medley, “Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue”, a couple of middle of the road melodies improved by the quality of Stepney’s arrangement. The group’s work has come to me a little randomly. Even now I can hear something new to me that is unmistakably Marvin & Johnny doing that thing they do. The group adapted to the changes in soul music, sometimes following, sometimes setting the bar for harmony vocals. “Wear It On Your Face”, “Give Your Baby A Standing Ovation”, “Learning to Love You Was Easy”, just a sample  & all good stuff.

In 1980, with disco carrying the swing, the Dells worked with Carl Davis, a Chicago Soul legend & Eugene Record off of the Chi-Lites. The LP “I Touched A Dream” is probably the group’s last significant work. I can’t leave this thing without including “All About The Paper”, a late example of the energy & class of some exceptional singers.