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!

 

A Better Day Is Coming (Soul August 1969)

Well OK, the good people at Billboard magazine have removed their chart archive from the Interwebs. No doubt the listings will return once those kind folk have figured out a way of getting interested parties (that would be me) to hand over some of their hard-earned to access the inspiration information required for these monthly posts. I just might do that, probably not. Fortunately just a few clicks away are the Cash Box R&B weekly rankings for 1969, pretty much the same discs in a slightly different order. So, for now, I’m a Cash Box guy & let’s get to the August selection (Blimey, is it August already?).

 

At the beginning of the month there was a second #1 of the year for “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”, “Mr Please, Please, Please”, James Brown. The double-bracketed “Mother Popcorn (You Got To Have a Mother For Me) (Part 1)” is a groovalicious invocation to dance ’till you feel better , co-written by James & bandleader/saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, featuring the band’s other sax ace Maceo Parker. Doing the Popcorn, if I knew how, will have to wait. The song that replaced JB at the top spot is a landmark by a significant artist.

 

 

Image result for impressions choice of colorsFor over a decade the Impressions had been making impressive, intelligent, influential music. A trio since 1963, under the guidance of Curtis Mayfield the group transitioned through Doo Wop to sweet Gospel & equally pleasing romantic Soul, honest sentiments expressed in spectacular harmonies. As early as 1964 Curtis’ involvement with the Civil Rights movement was reflected in his music. “Keep On Pushing” is an anthem to empowerment & 1967’s “We’re A Winner”, the group’s biggest hit in almost 4 years, an assertion of Black pride before that became a thing in Soul music. “Choice of Colors”, another affirmation of Mayfield’s idealism & hope for progress. has a lyrical maturity & the vocals, shared between Curtis, Fred & Sam, are the very thing. Three sharp-dressed young Black men singing “How long have you hated your white teacher?” must have caused a stir. Taken from their latest LP “The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story”, a pairing with the funky, equally pertinent, “Mighty Mighty Spade & Whitey” made for a substantial 7″ of plastic. Of course the song is Panglossian, you may say that he’s a dreamer but he was not the only one in 1969 & perhaps a little optimistic reflection regarding race relations in the US would still not go amiss 50 years later.

 

Image result for impressions choice of colorsCurtis, in parallel with his day job as an Impression, had an education in the music business at Okeh Records in Chicago with producer/executive  Billy Davis & arranger Jerry Pate, respectively 10 & 20 years older. He wrote songs for many of the artists on the label & he learned how a hit record went. Now I can hear that Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time” & “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” (really!) are Mayfield songs. All I knew in the mid-60’s was that I liked them. With the start-up, along with his manager Eddie Thomas, of Curtom Records in 1968 the Impressions moved to Curtis’ own label & their leader made plans for a solo career. Having his own studio & greater independence allowed him to expand his commentaries on the American situation & to embrace the new Funk. Curtis Mayfield was moving on up & we could do worse than go along with him.

 

 

Image result for five stairstepsThe Five Stairsteps, teenagers, four brothers & their sister from Chicago, were dubbed the “First Family of Soul”. The quintet had been produced by Curtis for an album on Windy City, an earlier Mayfield enterprise. The group were the first to be signed to Curtom, the LP “Love’s Happening” the second full-length release on the label & the boss was all over it. “Love’s Happening” really is a notable record. Curtis’ songs, fresh vocals matched to effervescent arrangements by another new recruit, the multi-talented Donny Hathaway, make for some very enjoyable Chicago Pop-Soul. The five were joined by their three year old brother & billed as the Five Stairsteps & Cubie though the infant was only heard on the throwaway “The New Dance Craze”. Infectious floor-fillers like “Stay Close To Me” extended their consistent run of Top 20 R&B hits.

 

“Madame Mary” is an odd one. I found it in the low 30’s of that disappearing Billboard chart but it’s nowhere to be found on the Cashbox list. A non-album track it was obviously recorded at a later date than the other Curtom releases, busier & funkier, a turn up the road  Curtis Mayfield would be taking in his solo career. In 1970 the Impressions included their own version of the song on the “Check Out Your Mind” LP, the final one that Curtis made with the group. It was in this year, now away from Curtom, that the Five Stairsteps enjoyed & deserved their biggest success with the damned near perfect original of the much-covered “O-o-h Child”.

 

 

Image result for jerry butler moody womanAt #12 in the chart, it had been as high as #5, was “Moody Woman” by Jerry Butler, another artist with a strong connection to Curtis Mayfield. Church choir-mates, the first Impressions records were released as Jerry Butler & the… When Jerry left for a solo career several of his chart hits were written & featured backing vocals by his friend. His smooth confident style earned him “The Iceman” soubriquet, his biggest hits were with songs that are now regarded as standards (though he was the first to get to Bacharach & David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself”). This facility & wide range could mean that his albums, while sounding fine, were padded with cover version filler. In 1968 Mercury Records made the inspired decision to pair Jerry with a young hot-shot producer/writing team from Philadelphia.

 

Image result for jerry butler ice on iceKenny Gamble & Leon Huff had already enjoyed some success & now, with a full album to do, they were more than able to take their chance. On the resulting “The Iceman Cometh” LP of the 11 tracks, all credited to the trio, 4 entered the R&B Top 10 (2 made #1) & Jerry Butler was as big a name as he had ever been. “Moody Woman” is the opening track on the following “Ice On Ice”, a track which may not match the peerless “Only the Strong Survive” but the first of another 4 successful 45’s from the record. The producers retained Jerry’s refinement, adding fluent, uptempo, innovative arrangements using a string section in ways that hadn’t been heard before. This wasn’t just a new contemporary Soul it was the future. Jerry Butler went on to make more fine records, with their Philadelphia International label Gamble & Huff’s would soon become the dominant sound of commercial Black music. It was here, in collaboration with Butler, that this sound first came together & to our notice.

 

If I’m still looking back to 50 years ago in the early 2020’s (& I hope that I am) & you’re still hanging around I’m sure that you will be hearing plenty more from Curtis Mayfield & from Gamble & Huff.

A Little Bit More Soul (January 1969)

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.

 

 

Related imageAt #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”.

 

 

Image result for the impressions this is my countryChicago 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.

 

Image result for curtis mayfield civil rightsWhen 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…

 

Related imageTammi 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.

 

Image result for tammi terrell this old heart of mineHearing 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.

 

 

Don’t Need No Baggage You Just Get On Board (The Impressions)

Curtis Mayfield dropped out of high school  when he was 14 years old to make music. In the next 20 years he composed, performed & produced a Himalayan body of work which would suggest that he rarely left the recording studio. The progression to be found in his music clearly shows that Curtis knew what was going down not only in his studio & his hometown Chicago but in the shifting social attitudes across 1960s America. Throughout the decade if his group, The Impressions, were not setting the pace both lyrically & musically then they were right on the shoulder of those who were.

The Impressions (as Jerry Butler & the…) had a hit record in 1958. Jerry left for a solo career, still writing with Curtis & justifying his nickname “The Ice Man” with the coolest of  pop-soul recorded in Philadelphia with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. 3 years later the group hit again with the classic “Gypsy Woman”. Curtis was working at Okeh records in Chicago. He was learning his craft, writing simple dance tunes or love songs. There were hits with Major Lance, Gene Chandler & Jerry’s brother Billy. By 1963 he found a template for his own group that would keep them around until the end of the decade.

The Impressions were now, Curtis, Sam Gooden & Fred Cash. They took the gospel songs of their church choirs, aided by the  productions of Johnny Pate, and recorded a string of positive, affirming tunes. “It’s All Right” was a signature of theirs. This, “Amen” & “Meeting Over Yonder” were pure gospel soul. Others, “I’m So Proud”, “I’m The One Who Loves You” & the gorgeous “Minstrel & Queen” have a touch of the secular about them but the roots are still showing. This was “message music”, a soundtrack to the development of the Civil Rights movement & the leadership of Martin Luther King. The confident, sweet falsetto of Curtis Mayfield perfectly aligned with the non-violent assertiveness of Dr King.

In 1965 The Impressions perfected this style. Mojo magazine polled some heavy hitters (McCartney, Brian Wilson, you know) & “People Get Ready” made the Top 10 Best Songs of All Time list.

WOW ! SUBLIME ! The first Impressions tune to use Curtis’ guitar as lead has been recorded by the greatest stars of Rock & Soul & Reggae (Joss Stone…kiss this !). These covers are a tribute, a tipping of the hat, the original has never been bettered.

The biggest soul groups of the 1960s were the 2 Motown giants, the 4 Tops & the Temptations. The Impressions did not have the same huge pop hits but were always around the R&B charts. One place where they were regarded as the leading American vocal group was in Jamaica & it was not just the young Wailers who were listening. The twin Jamaican traditions of harmony trios & music which, if not political, had a moral consciousness, were reinforced and encouraged by the same qualities in the Impressions’ music. From the Heptones, the Uniques through to Burning Spear & Black Uhuru the influence of the Impressions can be heard.

As the Civil Rights Movement progressed in the 1960s there was a greater assertiveness. New leaders, Stokeley Carmicheal, Malcolm X, advocated black pride, a celebration of heritage & of personal worth. It was Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions who provided the anthem for this developing confidence.

“We’re A Winner” was recorded months before James was saying it loud. It’s not a strident call to action but its lyrical prompts to “keep on pushing” , “moving on up”, to do “like your leaders tell you to” leaves no doubt that the message is changing. The blend of a social conscience with wonderful soul music set a standard for & a challenge to many great American artists which resulted in some of the finest music I have ever heard.

Curtis kept the flame alight. “This Is My Country” & “Choice of Colours” followed. His own Curtom label had started in 1968 & he knew that the confines of the 3 minute single were a limit on his ambition & ability. He did not officially leave the Impressions until 1971 but the first solo LP was released in 1970. He knew exactly what he was doing, the very first track is an ominous warning of trouble ahead & an absolute stone classic. Curtis had incredible artistic & commercial success in his solo career. His records with the Impressions are beautiful & affirming. A “best of” or the 1969 LP “A Young Mod’s Forgotten Story” look good in any collection.