Turning It Loose (Soul May 1969)

The higher reaches of the Billboard R&B chart for May 23rd 1969 were packed with legendary names. The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Marvin Gaye & Aretha Franklin were all being denied the top spot by Joe Simon, a singer who is less widely remembered but back then was enjoying his biggest hit. “The Chokin’ Kind”, another song from master tunesmith Harlan Howard, had been a 1967 Country hit for Waylon Jennings. It was picked up by Nashville-based Joe, given a smooth Soul treatment & a crossover smash was inevitable.

Meanwhile at #8 a great band had another great tune.

 

 

Image result for booker t time is tightThis clip has been here before & when we finally get this time machine working then set the controls for the Oakland Coliseum on New Year’s Eve 1970 when Booker T & the M.G.’s opened for Credence Clearwater Revival. The older guys had jammed with CCR & wanted to show just what they could do onstage. The exceptionally talented quartet didn’t get around much anymore, kept busy in the Stax Memphis studios where they played on most of the music made in that label’s ascendant years, writing & producing many of the hits. While Credence watch admiringly from the wings that driving beat from drummer Al Jackson & Duck Dunn’s loping bass lay a solid foundation for Steve Cropper’s stinging guitar lines & Booker T’s swirling Hammond organ. The joy & compatibility of the ensemble is obvious. the trademark sound one of the wonders of the world of Soul Music.

 

Image result for booker t and the mgs poster“Time Is Tight” was written for the soundtrack of “Up Tight”, a film about Black militancy which sits between “In the Heat of the Night” & the upcoming Blaxploitation trend. The group’s albums were often loaded with covers of the hits of the day. This soundtrack, mostly original material written by Booker T Jones, Jazz & Blues influences in the foreground, is one of their most interesting. The single version of “Time Is Tight”, slower, succinct, building to an exciting crescendo, a highlight of a very impressive body of work, is just a click away. ( Here in the UK we hold particular affection for “Soul Limbo”, for many years the intro to TV coverage of cricket).

 

 

Earlier in 1960’s Phil Spector, the Tycoon of Teen, had kept US Pop interesting in the doldrums between Elvis joining the Army & the Fab Four appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Holed up in the echo chambers of Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios with some ace session players & a gang of drummers he & his crew meticulously pieced together a “Wall of Sound” on a string of hits. In 1966 he spent heaps of time & money on getting “River Deep-Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner just how he wanted it. Here in the UK where we got good taste, the song was recognised as a Spector master work, the US didn’t get it & the single stalled at #88 in the Pop charts. We now know that an easily bruised ego was the least of his personality problems but it would be 3 years before Spector re-entered a studio for a Ronettes 45 & then this one at #28 & rising.

 

Related imageCheckmates Ltd, 5 guys from Indiana, had released a few unsuccessful singles & a couple of live albums before attracting the attention of the star producer. Spector’s deal with A&M would get them out there & “Black Pearl” was the first track from an LP that gave frontman Sonny Charles lead billing. I loved the depth, drama & scope of Spector’s teen symphonies & this, like those other ones, sounded great on the radio. Half of the album “Love Is All We Have To Give” is a fine addition to & send-off for the Wall of Sound. There’s a heart-wrenching title track, a dynamic arrangement of “Proud Mary” that Ike Turner was happy to take for himself & a couple of updates from Phil’s New York apprenticeship with Leiber & Stoller. Side 2 is a 20 minute long orchestral selection from the musical “Hair” & no-one wants to hear that.

 

 

Image result for marva whitneyThe influence of last month’s chart-topper was already becoming evident & there are two cover versions of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” among the new entries this week. At #45 was the Hammond organ-heavy Senor Soul. Four of their members would become War & their time, their big time, would come soon enough. The highest newcomer, at #38, is Marva Whitney, Soul Sister #1 with “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who To Sock It To)”, a kind of cover version, a kind of answer record. The Isleys had taken much inspiration from James Brown’s sound & it was only right that he & his band should have their say about it. Live, beautiful in living colour on “The Mike Douglas Show”…marvellous!

 

IImage result for marva whitney it's my thingn 1968 Marva replaced Vicki Anderson as featured female vocalist in the James Brown Revue. Her boss was the money-maker for King Records so she got to make discs with her own name on the label. The records made with Vicki, Marva, Lyn Collins & his various backing musicians are sure enough Funky, brilliant satellites orbiting the star’s own. This incredible clip is tagged as Marva & the J.B.’s. There’s James conducting the hazy figures of the band who were still the Famous Flames on the records & I reckon, the James Brown Orchestra on stage. I’m sure that Maceo Parker is on saxophone, Jimmy Nolen, guitar but I would be wishing & hoping about the other players. No matter, how about that band! The following year Marva & everyone else quit over unresolved grievances with The Godfather of Funk & their replacements, they were the J.B.’s. That group could play a bit too.

 

 

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A Band Powerful Enough To Turn Goat Piss Into Gasoline! (Booker T and the MGs)

I really should find the time to watch the film of the Stax-Volt  1967 tour of Europe every week.  This recording of the Oslo concert is only an hour long & never fails to delight. Otis Redding defines charisma, the dynamism of Sam & Dave is still startling, Eddie Floyd & Arthur Conley do their thing too. On stage for the whole of the gig is the heartbeat of Stax, 4 musicians who usually stayed in the East McLemore Ave studio in Memphis, creating & playing great music & generally being the best band in the world.

Booker T & the M.G.’s were the opening act & part of the backing band on the tour. They, of course, had to play their 1962 surefire smash “Green Onions”,the tough, irresistible blues instrumental which just everyone knows & which still sounds great 50 years later. The song, written when Booker T was still in high school, is part of the culture. Only this weekend I saw a documentary on Mott the Hoople in which guitarist Mick Ralphs said that he did not play until he heard “Green Onions” &  thought that he wanted to have some of that.

The Y-tube says that this clip is “Red Beans & Rice”, a 1965 B-side. It is in fact “Tic-Tac-Toe” a 45 from 1964. It’s not included in the concert film that I know so watching these young, sharp dressed men walk out on to the stage & play this really is, to me, a thing of wonder. It is a cliche that the best groups are greater than the sum of their parts but have those constituents ever been as accomplished & inspired as these 4 musicians ? Man, a tune like this gets played first up & you know you are in for a good night.

This tour was a coming out for the group. It’s disingenuous to claim that fans did not know that the M.G.’s were an integrated combo. While there are very few early photographs, the billing for the tour says “featuring the fantastic guitar of Steve Cropper”. In Europe there was less reason to obscure the group’s racial mix. Damn, it made them cooler still. On the whole the fans were white boys with a love of the very same music that had gotten Cropper & Duck Dunn into this. It was though, the first time that all the musicians on tour had experienced adulation & appreciation on such a scale. It was also, I guess, the first time they could all go to eat or drink together just any place they wanted without checking that the vibe was right & the coast was clear. There was no going back from this, that’s for sure.

So just the next year, 1968, & the group are back in Europe, in, I think, France. One year on & the dress code is a little more relaxed. Duck could use a hair cut & a shave but the looseness of “Booker Loo”, a 6 minute Memphis blues & soul & rhythm stew, is just perfect. Cool cat Booker T, an Indiana U music student during the week while writing “Born A Bad Sign” at the weekend, takes it to church just for a while before Al Jackson Jr brings it back to the dirty boulevard with just a couple of firm strikes. I could listen to Mr Jackson play the drums on every day of my life. Whether it’s the drive of his work with this group or his silkier sessions at the Hi Studios of Willie Mitchell he is always absolutely doing it right. When I get to see him do what he does it gets a little too much & I need a sit down.

This clip, to these ears & eyes is so, so good. Whatever way up you want to look at the music of Booker T & the M.G.’s it is a groove to dance to. The beau monde here are giving it their best moves. I hope they now remember it & know how lucky they were to be there

1970 & the M.G.’s are the support act for the most popular group of the day, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hmm…ever get the feeling you were  in the wrong place at the wrong time. What a gig ! The headline act look on from the side of the stage, they do not want to miss “Time Is Tight”. This worldwide hit is from the movie “Uptight”, a crime drama made a year before “blaxploitation” & soul soundtracks became the current thing. There’s a tense logic to the progression of the song, an effortless restraint which gives it a clarity which the more ornate instrumentalists of the day kind of ignored. “Time Is Tight”…I think that the word is “cohesion”. Creedence liked to keep it simple too. In 1970, looking to enhance their bayou blues-rock their LP “Pendulum” made extensive use of a Hammond organ. That’s why John Fogarty has a close eye on Booker T in this clip.

By this time there was, just as there had been at Motown, the realization that while making music was fun maybe it was time to get paid. Despite being under contract Booker T upped & moved to California. Steve followed suit, starting his own studio in Memphis before, eventually leaving for the West Coast. Duck & Jackson stayed on, in 1975 the 3 of them were playing together & making plans. The unfortunate murder of “the greatest drummer to ever walk the earth,” (Steve Cropper) closed this particular chapter of our music’s story. Now Booker T, a man with little to prove to anyone, gets to play with whoever he chooses  while Cropper & Dunn are beloved Blues Brothers. We have those wonderful instrumental records made by ambitious, confident & talented young men. I look around for the best available clips for these things I do. These 3 are all music of the highest quality. Right I’m away to throw some shapes to “Booker Loo”.