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.

 

 

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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.