Two gentlemen of soul
While I was interviewing Allen Toussaint at length recently, for a piece published in the current (July 2014) issue of Uncut, I asked the great man which of his many songs was his favourite. Well, he replied, he’d have to say “Southern Nights”: “It’s like a little movie to me, every person in it is a real story of what happened then, when I was six or seven years old.” Then, after a pause, he added: “If I have a song that I consider more of a serious song, there’s one that no one would know but me called ‘Transition’. No one would ever know that, but it’s the most serious. If I was going to grade myself on how did you do as a songwriter, I would probably put that down.”
I told him that I’d be looking for it. He shrugged, as if to say, “Don’t bother.” Which, of course, made me all the keener to find it.
The version I discovered — there may be others — is hidden away on an album by Lou Johnson called With You in Mind, released on the Volt label, a Stax subsidiary, in 1970. That made me particularly happy since Johnson has been one of my favourite singers since I first heard his original versions of “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”, “The Last One to Be Loved”, “Reach Out for Me” and “Kentucky Bluebird (A Message to Martha)” in the early ’60s. He’s one of that breed of smooth-but-gritty uptown soul singers — also including Chuck Jackson, Jerry Butler and Jimmy Radcliffe — who could slip into a Bacharach-David song as if it were a made-to-measure suit.
Born in New York City in 1941, Lou Johnson should have been the male Dionne Warwick. He had Bacharach’s songwriting, arranging and producing genius on his side at exactly the right moment. Somehow it didn’t happen, and he remained in relative obscurity. A couple of years ago Ace Records collected his Big Hill/Big Top sides — the Bacharach material and much more, including a stunningly different version of “Walk On By” produced by Toussaint in 1966 — on a CD titled Incomparable Soul Vocalist, and his 1968 album for Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary, Sweet Southern Soul, produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd at Muscle Shoals (with arrangements by Arif Mardin), was reissued in 2004 on the Water label. It’s all worth hearing.
With You in Mind was his last recording. It has never been reissued, either on vinyl or CD, for reasons that — according to Tony Rounce, the world expert on matters pertaining to Lou Johnson — are to do with a dispute over ownership of the tapes. I’d guess that argument has its roots in the original release, which came at a time when Stax had lost its entire back-catalogue to Atlantic Records and was desperate to rebuild. Presumably they leased the master from Sansu Enterprises, the production company Toussaint ran with his partner, Marshall Sehorn, who gets a co-production credit. It would be interesting to see what the contract said.
The first surprise was that “Transition” is eight minutes and 19 seconds long: an unusually epic scale for a songwriter associated throughout his hit-making career, from “Mother-in-Law” to “Lady Marmalade”, with three-minute miracles. It’s a multi-part song, quite heavily arranged and orchestrated, beginning with Toussaint’s solo piano (which shadows Johnson’s voice throughout) but evolving to include elaborate scoring for horns, strings and a backing choir as well as a full rhythm section (including that infallible trademark of quality, the electric sitar). With all its tempo and dynamic changes, it reminds me of a Broadway musical — in a good way, I hasten to add. It’s a song of self-discovery and redemption with the occasional touch of great soul-music lyric-writing: “Can we take the bad times / Just like the glad times / Can we take the bitter with the sweet / In the house on the street of love.” It finishes with an intriguingly enigmatic climax, Johnson in full bebop scat-flow while a trumpeter and the electric sitarist develop a free-jazz jam, leading to a strings-only fade pitched somewhere between Gyorgy Ligeti and “I Am the Walrus”.
The other nine tracks are less ambitious but equally congenial, driven along by Toussaint’s expert house rhythm section (the Meters, basically) and horns. At the other end of the extreme from “Transition” is a tight little song called “Crazy About You” written by the Meters’ guitarist, Leo Nocentelli, a bit of classic ’70s pre-disco soul with fantastic bass-playing (take a bow, George Porter) and a horn-driven breakdown that I’d describe as beautifully reminiscent of Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” were it not for the fact that Kendricks’s dancefloor classic lay a couple of years into the future. Toussaint’s “Who Am I?” is another beauty, sung against a fine New Orleans groove, as is “The Beat”, a laconically funky piece on which the writer/pianist/arranger/co-producer can also be heard double-tracking the backing vocals. The best of the lot might be a tortured southern-style ballad called “Nearer”, which would have been worth a place on one of the late Dave Godin’s Deep Soul anthologies.
Toussaint and the Meters, Bacharach and David, Wexler and Mardin: no one can say that Johnson wasn’t given the platform for a successful career. It just didn’t happen. Apparently he’s spent the last few decades living in Los Angeles, not far from the airport, occasionally playing piano in clubs but refusing all invitations to perform for his fans in Europe (the hip-swivelling “Unsatisfied”, a 1965 Big Top recording, is a Northern Soul favourite).
A peculiarity of With You in Mind is that no one seems to have tuned the piano, which sounds a fraction out. In fact that may be a fault of the vinyl pressing, both of the one I acquired on eBay and of those that people have used to upload on to YouTube. It certainly seems unlikely that Toussaint, such a meticulous man, would have put up with a slightly desafinado instrument on one of his own productions. In my view, however, it only adds to the character of the recording. If I ever have the good fortune to meet him again, I’ll ask him about it.
It’s not at all hard to imagine Toussaint and Johnson getting on well together. The former is a gentleman, and the latter sings like one. It would be great if someone could sort out the legal problems and make their fine and overlooked collaboration available once again.