Percy’s Progress (Percy Sledge)

PERCY SLEDGE…Here it is, you all know this one.

 

 

Related imageOne of the defining moments in the new Soul sound, in 1966 “When A Man Loves A Woman” was a major international hit. Percy’s impassioned, forlorn, powerful vocal is matched by the patiently building arrangement, Spooner Oldham’s perfect organ, those horns at the end. The song has become a classic, covered by many, the original never bettered. It was the first US #1 record for the group of producers, writers & musicians based in Muscle Shoals Alabama. It gave Atlantic Records a much needed mega hit, a platform to them becoming a major sponsor & distributor of this Southern Soul strain.

 

Percy Sledge never repeated the massive success of his debut single & nowadays it is that song for which he is remembered. There were 8 albums & a Greatest Hits package in the next decade. The concord between his fine voice & the creativity of his associates produced much enduring music &, as I don’t do lists, there are too many tracks too mention here. So, here are 3 of my favourites, because I get to pick & OK, I may have steered you wrong in the past but I’m right about how good Percy Sledge is.

 

Image result for percy sledge adsThe singer was a working as a hospital orderly, singing part-time with the Esquires when he hit big. Atlantic were keen to keep their new star busy & 2 LPs were released in 1966. However hastily these 21 tracks were assembled  there’s a consistent quality running across both records. On the one named after the Big One “Thief in the Night”, later a Treasure Isle gem from Jamaica when John Holt recorded it as “Stealing”, sounds like a hit to me. The next releases on 45 were from the 2nd album. A cover of Joe Haywood’s “Warm and Tender Love” was the most similar to “When a Man…”, it & the slightly faster, insistent “It Tears Me Up”, written by two of the new talents at Muscle Shoals, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, both made the US Top 20.

 

 

 

Image result for percy sledge magazine coverThere’s an appropriate title for the third LP because “The Percy Sledge Way” (1967) was certainly a thing. When Sledge covered a song, this is a record full of them, he may not have bettered the source material (“Tell it Like It Is”, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”) but his distinctive brand of heartbreak with uncomplicated, dramatic backing from his regular crew impressed an individual stamp on to anything he recorded. Overseen by producers Quin Ivy & Marlin Greene at Norala Sound Studio, just up the road from the better known FAME studios, they knew how The Percy Sledge Way went & they knew that it worked. “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Empty Arms)” was first recorded in the 1950’s by Stewart & the Arkansas Cowgirls (anyone…?) & a hit for Solomon Burke. I guess that there was little crossover into Country for black artists back then but Percy’s version is a fine piece of work.

 

Image result for percy sledge ads“Take Time To Know Her” (1968) is quite something. The title track did just what it says on the advertisement & provided Percy with his biggest hit since the first one. Over half of the material is contributed by the young guns from Alabama, 3 from Penn/Oldham, 2 by Marlin Greene & Eddie Hinton & a Bobby Womack composition. Affirmed by a string of successful records these guys were at the top of their game & this collection of mid-tempo Soul ballads is a classic of Southern Soul. “Out of Left Field” was released as an early single from these sessions & “It’s All Wrong But It’s Alright” wasn’t, both stunning productions & Percy’s vocals knocking it out of the park. All of these first 4 records are very good . In my opinion, “Take Time…” is the great one & one to have.

 

 

 

The hits were getting harder to find as the musical landscape changed rapidly. Sledge’s brand of Gospel-tinged Country Soul held less appeal to audiences who preferred a brand new funky bag. He cannot have been helped by disruption in Alabama when Marlin Greene & Eddie Hinton split to join the FAME rhythm section at their new Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. “My Special Wish For You” (1969) has cover versions with a couple of Christmas songs thrown in. “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road”, Duane Allman on guitar, stands out but Elvis was cutting that song in Memphis & stealing Percy’s thunder.

 

“Kind Woman” a song from the new-fangled Country Rock, written by Richie Furay for Buffalo Springfield’s “Last Time Around” was ideal material to undergo Sledge-ification. I would have liked to have heard his interpretation of more modern material but this great track did not make the LP & it didn’t trouble the Hot 100 when released as a single. When Percy finally did go to Nashville for “…Sings Country” in 1979 the songs selected were traditional Country standards, nothing out of left field at all.

 

Image result for percy sledge south africaIn 1970 Percy toured South Africa. Initially engaged to perform for non-white audiences the American Soul experience was a sensation, restrictions were relaxed & he stayed for 17 weeks. His final 2 LPs for Atlantic, “…in South Africa” & the film soundtrack “Soul Africa” arose from this trip. I’m not sure how much promotion these records had in the US but Percy Sledge found that in Africa, in Europe, in fact all over the world he was welcomed & appreciated. As long as he brought along “When A Man…”, which he did, then audiences could say that they had seen something pretty special.

 

 

Right, just one more. In 1974 another Southern set up, Capricorn Records, wedged up after the success of the Allman Brothers, got Percy, Quin Ivy & the Muscle Shoals gang back together & sprung for the “I’ll Be Your Everything” LP. (Hit the link & you’ll see Percy lip-synch the title track on a Dutch TV programme). Nothing had been diminished in the 5 year gap & it’s another good record but the commercial Soul sound was now smoother, more urban. Disco was coming up fast on the rails. “Behind Closed Doors” was a Grammy award winner for rocker Charlie Rich who found success with a new Countrypolitan sound. Not really my cup of Lapsang Souchong but Percy’s version, a little bit Gospel, a little bit Country & a whole lot of Soul hits the spot for me every time. It also, unfortunately, brings out my inner pub singer so stand clear if it comes around near me.

 

Related imagePercy recorded more sporadically in his later career. His range was never as broad as the greatest Soul singers but what he did was still pretty great & he recorded some of the best music that came out of Muscle Shoals. He continued to perform, retaining the goodwill of audiences & his peers. Accolades came his way, his acceptance speech on his induction at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 is that of a humble, happy & successful man. He died at his home in Baton Rouge in 2015 & his music will always be around.

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Back To The !!!! Beat (Atlantic Soul)

When it comes to music on TV the British show “Ready, Steady Go” has been #1 in my heart for so long that it now holds the title belt in perpetuity. In 1966, while the just turned teenage me was waiting for the monochromatic Mod Mistress of Ceremonies Cathy McGowan to introduce the latest from Zoot Money & his Big Roll Band, half a world away in Dallas Texas, Bill “Hoss”  Allen, a Nashville DJ, was rolling out some great acts, backed by a great band to make some great music (seems to be an adjective shortage around here). “The !!!! Beat” showcased Soul, Rhythm, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, artists who needed a crossover hit before the networks helped out. The show did this in that new fandangled televisual gimmick…colour.

I’ve mined this seam before both here & there. “There” has a Garnett Mimms clip which, if we could get enough people to watch, could quite possibly bring about world peace. I’m back around “The !!!! Beat” because these nuggets are pure Platonic gold giving  “a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”  Seriously, that good. On the final show of the series, which ran for just one year, Otis Redding came down from Memphis to host & perform on the show. He brought along some of the outstanding Southern Soul acts which the Atlantic label were promoting as an earthier, more raw alternative to the Motown hits.

In 1966 the esteemed critic Dave Marsh listed his favoured songs of the year. After “Reach Out & I’ll Be There” #s 2, 3 & 4 were all by Atlantic artists. “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge was one of these 3. Just months before the song’s March release Percy was still a part-time singer.His impassioned pleading, backed by the patiently building Muscle Shoals arrangement (no horns until the very end, Spooner Oldham’s perfect organ) was a nailed on, unstoppable hit. Here the horns drive the song & young Percy gives it the full soul belter treatment but he tries a little tenderness & this is how it was done in 1966. Surely there has never been a deeper soul sound at #1 in the charts. “When A Man Loves A Woman” is a classic, has become a standard but no-one has ever improved on this Sledge’s original. (He, unfortunately, gave the publishing rights to a couple of musicians who helped with the song).

Percy kept on chooglin’ with his yelping songs of heartbreak. He got some fine Dan Penn songs to record including the original of the heart-rending “It Tears Me Up”. Like many soul artists Percy re-recorded his catalogue for CD release. I have a feeling that on my Greatest Hits that the drums are not being played by Roger Hawkins, that the Shoals are less Muscular. Now, as a rule, this would, at least, irk my not so inner purist. Y’know’ the songs & the vocals are so good, Percy Sledge never just goes through the motions. It’s a fine, well used collection.

Well ! Just look at these moving pictures of Carla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul. Her Daddy, Rufus, when he was not walking the dog, was a DJ & mentor of local black talent.His beautiful teenage daughter was recording for Satellite Records before it became Stax. It was her Top 10 hit “Gee Whizz (Look At His Eyes)” in 1961, when she was 18 years old, which alerted Atlantic Records to the talent to be found at East McLemore Ave in South Memphis.

“Comfort Me”, a 45 & the title track of her 1966 LP is a product of some of that talent. Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd & Al Bell are the writers. The Stax houseband, the MG’s/Mar-Keys the players &, surprisingly, the backing vocals courtesy of Motown’s Gladys Knight & the Pips. This is a Pip-free performance but it lacks nothing else. This is a Carla Thomas thing, a Stax Records joint, an every which way slice of enjoyable.

The record was not a hit but Carla had a good 1966. Paired with the David Porter/Isaac Hayes team she hit with the  Tamla-ish “B-A-B-Y”. The next year Stax looked to cut into the Marvin/Tammi duet action. Carla made an LP with Otis Redding, “King & Queen”, which is as light, as pop, as anything the label recorded. It stands as an entertaining one-off, the final LP recorded by Otis. The stand out track, “Tramp” crackles & fizzes with chemistry & wit. I loved it on the radio in 1967, still do. Aretha was the undisputed “Queen Of Soul” but when she came to Memphis there was r-e-s-p-e-c-t & fealty to be paid to Rufus Thomas’ little girl Carla.

There is great footage, some of the greatest, of Sam & Dave. Their 2 European tours were filmed, audiences, unused to such uninhibited physical & vocal gymnastics, were transfixed then transported. We know what a great live act the duo were but who knew that their suits were red ? Sam Moore & Dave Prater joined Stax in 1965, Hayes/Porter delivered the tailor-made songs. I’ve checked for their singles discography, the quality keeps on coming right into 1969. ( The 3rd wheel on “I Take What I Want” was Mabon Hodges who co-wrote “Take Me To The River” & “Love & Happiness” with the Reverend Green…bloody hell !). The great house band on “The !!!! Beat!, led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown raise thir already considerable game. The go-go dancers have an extra shake in their tail feathers. Man, Otis is having to stop himself making the act a trio. It is what these men did.

I bought a Greatest Hits of Sam & Dave which gave me no indication that I was not handing over my hard earned for the Atlantic classics. On my first listen I knew that Booker T & his Memphis Group had not been involved in this CD’s production. In the case of Percy Sledge I could bite it, accept the odd false step. Now I even became convinced that one or other of the most successful soul duo ever could be different blokes. These revisions were cut in 1978. It was the same guys but it was impossible to reproduce the energy, the Double Dynamite of the Stax originals. “Soul Man”, you know it, has a drum track by Al Jackson which convinced me that I was listening to the greatest exponent of the instrument ever. This was missing from my new purchase…I binned it…pronto.