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Uptown soul masters

Gene Burks

If you’ve been reading these pieces for a while, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for heavily orchestrated male soul balladeers from the first half of the 1960s. Much of this kind of music came out of the Brill Building in New York, but as Ady Croasdell points out in his notes to an excellent new compilation called Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads, it was a style that migrated to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and elsewhere.

Its great producers and songwriters included Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Ragovoy, Bert Berns, Teddy Randazzo and Van McCoy. Among the most expressive voices were numbered Chuck Jackson, Garnet Mimms and Ben E. King, who were big names back then, and such cult favourites as Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe, Walter Jackson, Tommy Hunt and Tony Mason. All those luminaries are to be found among these tracks, together with such lesser known singers (to me, anyway) as Clarence Pinckney, Garrett Saunders, Gene Burks and Brooks O’Dell. Be assured of this: they all have something to say, and something worth listening to.

One way of looking at this album, admittedly in a slightly reductive way, is to see it as a 24-track publishers’ demo for the next Walker Brothers album in, say, 1966. It’s possible to imagine Scott Walker recording almost any of these songs with Ivor Raymonde arrangements in the old Philips studios on the Bayswater Road near Marble Arch, as he did with “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “My Ship Is Coming In”, “Stand By Me” and “Stay With Me Baby”.

But the results wouldn’t have been as good. Apart from the great songwriting, arrangements and production, what makes these sides so powerful is the quality shared by all the singers: a certain dignified ardour, usually resigned, occasionally optimistic, generally suave, always grown-up. A compilation that chooses to start with Walter Jackson’s sombre “Forget the Girl”, a wonderful Chicago record with marvellous Floyd Morris piano octaves tinkling through the Riley Hampton arrangement, is setting itself a challenge, but the standard never drops.

Sometimes it reaches the heights. Those moments certainly include Chuck Jackson’s “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, a Van McCoy masterpiece worth listening to all the way through again, once you’ve had your heart satisfactorily torn apart by Jackson’s lead vocal, just for the quality of Gary Chester’s drumming. Equally magnificent is Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Through a Long and Sleepless Night”, a classic Bert Berns production arranged for Spanish guitar, double bass and, I’d guess, the Greek chorus of Cissy Houston and Dee Dee Warwick.

Sometimes the individual components of the style make themselves obvious, like the gospel influence on Garnet Mimms’ “Anytime You Want Me”, produced by Jerry Ragovoy, or the Latin tinge of James Carr’s “Lover’s Competition”, or the southern soul of Gene Burks’s “Can’t Stand Your Fooling Around” or the Spectorish sweep of Jimmy Beaumont’s “You Got Too Much Going For You”. Elsewhere there’s the mellifluous strength of Roy Hamilton on “Heartache (Hurry on By)”, the striking tuba intro to Kenny Carter’s “Like a Big Bad Rain”, Al Hibbler’s gentle crooning on Randazzo’s “Good For a Lifetime”, the ice-rink Wurlitzer intro to Junior Lewis’s unreleased “I Love You So Much”, and a lot more besides, including two slices of prime Bacharach: Lou Johnson’s original version of “Reach Out For Me” and Tommy Hunt’s unreleased remake of “Don’t Make Me Over”, which uses the Dionne Warwick backing track.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slip a gaberdine raincoat over a navy mohair suit and go out and walk the tear-stained streets. This isn’t the weather for it, but the soundtrack never gets old.

* The photograph above is of Gene Burks. Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads is on Ace Records.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Crowe #

    An early post-lockdown present, methinks ……

    June 22, 2020
  2. Sounds great. For information: there’s a 6 track ‘sampler’ of the album on Spotify.

    June 23, 2020
  3. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    This sounds like another unmissable Ace/Kent compilation; thanks for drawing it to our attention, Richard. Top tip – of the lesser known singers referred to, there is a quite wonderful single artist release on Kent Soul by Brooks O’Dell, ‘I’m Your Man: The Anthology1963-1972’. It’s all good, but particularly valuable for the tracks he recorded with Jerry Williams Jr aka Swamp Dogg; well worth a place in any collection.

    June 23, 2020
  4. Thanks… from a fellow uptown fan.

    I just ordered the Thom Bell anthology from Ace. Might have to get this too.

    Hope you’re well.

    BH

    ––––––––––––– Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, The online library of music writing

    >

    June 23, 2020
  5. adycroasdell #

    I’m glad it hit the spot Richard. Seven of the recordings were not issued at the time but match the ones that were in quality; an indication of the riches of that era.

    June 23, 2020
  6. Steve Eaton #

    I love your own expressive writing! That period in music was very deep and rich!

    June 23, 2020
  7. GuitarSlinger #

    Off topic a bit . Read your review in the Guardian of the Seaman bio . With any luck that’ll come to this side o’ the pond as well . And yeah …. guilty as charged I’m a GearHead of old ( F1 WRC etc )

    But then …. holy ( bleep ) … I read the popup the Guardian had below your review on the state of the world and especially the demented state of my hardly United States . All I can say is … they hit the nail on the head in their assessment of us … and a few dollars more wound up in the Guardians account

    FYI ; My current soundtrack for the times – Les McCann and Eddie Harris’s ; ” Compared to What ?” Christmas …. its more relevant today then it was when written … shame on us ( US )

    June 26, 2020

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