Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Soul music’ Category

The Uptown Soul of Teddy Randazzo

Teddy Randazzo

What do we mean when we speak of Uptown Soul? A mixture of early-’60s R&B and lush pop that featured gospel-trained voices, big orchestral arrangements, often a Latin tinge to the rhythm, a hint of girl-group sweetness, and an echo of Broadway craftsmanship in the songwriting, all of it bathed in the neon glow of the city. A kind of grown-up music for teenagers, or possibly vice versa. Its presiding geniuses and their protégés included Burt Bacharach (Dionne Warwick and Lou Johnson ), Jerry Ragovoy (Garnet Mimms and Lorraine Ellison), Bert Berns (Solomon Burke and Barbara Lewis) and Teddy Randazzo, whose work is featured in a new Ace Records compilation called Yesterday Has Gone.

Like Bacharach, Randazzo wrote the melodies, created the arrangements, and produced the records. Other people wrote the words: among his regular collaborators were Bobby Weinstein on Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” and “Goin’ Out of My Head” (the latter heard here in Warwick’s version), Weinstein and Lou Stallman for the Royalettes’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” , and Victoria Pike for Mel Tormé’s “Better Use Your Head”.

Born on Brooklyn in 1935, Alessandro Carmelo Randazzo was a good-looking Italian-American boy who started out as a singer, first with vocal groups and then as a solo artist. He made records under his own name until the late ’60s (one of them, the excellent “You Don’t Need a Heart”, is included here), but he preferred the business of making records and in 1964 the commercial success of his work with Little Anthony Gourdine and the Imperials set him on his way.

The 25 tracks of the Ace album, recorded between 1964 and 1976, for a variety of labels, include nothing that is less than cherishable, from the soulful saloon-bar heartbreak of Derek Martin’s “You Better Go” through the froth of the Kane Triplets’ “Buttercup Days” and the proto-Northern Soul of Porgy and the Monarchs’ “Think Twice Before You Walk Away” to the gorgeous balladry of Frank Sinatra’s “Rain in My Heart”. Timi Yuro, Tony Orlando, Esther Phillips, Billy Fury and the Stylistics are among others to benefit from the attentions of a master of his craft.

At the moment my particular favourites from this set are Howard Guyton’s “I Watched You Slowly Slip Away”, a great 1966 dance track with an undertow of sadness, and the Manhattans’ lovely “A Million to One”, from five years later, both of them demonstrating the composer’s wonderful instinct for building into a song the sort of chord-changes that functioned as hooks. He may have been less overtly ambitious than Bacharach in musical terms, with more of a pop sensibility, but he never lacked sophistication.

Randazzo died in 2003, having retired to Hawaii and Florida with his family. It’s wonderful to have this anthology, compiled by Mick Patrick, as evidence of his contribution to a genre that continues to cast a spell.

* Yesterday Has Gone: The Songs of Teddy Randazzo is out now on the Ace label. The photograph of Randazzo is from the booklet accompanying the CD.

The Hitsville movie

Hitsville

It was good to see Marvin Gaye smiling down on Leicester Square on Monday night. Even better to settle down inside the Odeon and catch a brief clip of him performing “What’s Going On” live with a band including the greatest bass guitarist in history. To watch the index finger of James Jamerson’s right hand roaming the strings of his Fender Precision was like being read a wonderful poem. All his legendary fluid invention of melody and rhythm was present in those few seconds as he stood beside Gaye’s piano, adding his genius to the other man’s.

The clip was included in Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which received its European premiere only a few hours after Berry Gordy Jr, the company’s founder and president, announced his retirement a couple of months before his 90th birthday. The full-length documentary — here’s the trailer — will be shown in selected cinemas on Monday, September 30.

Gordy and his pal Smokey Robinson recreate their foundational double-act as the spine of the narrative, cruising the Detroit avenues in a classic T-Bird, guiding us through Studio A at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, giggling at the tales of the old days, arguing about who was the first to record “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. Other interviewees include the Holland brothers, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, Lamont Dozier, the A&R man Mickey Stevenson, Claudette Robinson, Mary Wilson, the only survivors of the Temptations (Otis Williams) and the Four Tops (Duke Fakir), and Barney Ales, the white sales manager who occasionally had to “get a little Sicilian” on distributors reluctant to pay up. There are a lot of clips from live performances, TV appearances and promo shoots, including a hilarious black and white sequence of the Supremes dodging the Citroën 2CVs and Renault Dauphines on the Champs-Elysées in 1964.

It would be trut to say the film doesn’t go deep. There’s a very moving montage of memories of life in the road with the Motortown Revue in the mid-’60s, travelling through the segregated South, dodging bullets, sleeping on the tour bus because hotels wouldn’t take them and being denied the use of toilet facilities in gas stations. But the reasons behind Mary Wells’s departure at a key moment in the company’s early history are not explored; ditto the bitter, extensively litigated exit of Holland-Dozier-Holland. There’s no mention of the tragedies of Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, David Ruffin or Benny Benjamin (who is not even name-checked, although he’s momentarily visible, with the other Funk Brothers, in early studio footage). The tense contractual stand-offs with Wonder and Gaye are lightly dismissed, as is the human cost of the company’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. The old rumours of Mob involvement are simply laughed off, which is perhaps more understandable.

Lots of key witnesses to the story are now dead, of course. But in the credits there’s a list of additional interviewees who didn’t make the final cut. They include Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John and Louvain Demps of the Andantes, the in-house backing singers. I’d like to have heard from them. Diana Ross is not in that list. Gordy acknowledges the nature of his relationship with his greatest star, and she’s a considerable presence in the film, but she clearly wasn’t interested in telling her side of the story, at least as part of this project. Relatively minor acts cherished by hard-core fans — the Contours, the Velvelettes, the Originals — don’t get a look-in.

Co-produced by Polygram, an arm of Universal Music, which now owns Motown, this is in effect a two-hour de-luxe corporate promo film. Which is not a reason to avoid it, since it contains many worthwhile things, even in musical terms: there’s a beautiful sequence taking apart and building up Gaye’s layered vocals, and big cinema speakers are a very good way to hear snatches of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Heat Wave”.

But I came away thinking that if Netflix could give Alex Gibney four hours for his Sinatra doc, All or Nothing at All, in 2015, then surely someone could invite Ken Burns or Stanley Nelson to direct a 10-hour series dedicated to a full account of the Motown story, in all its dimensions, from an objective point of view. It would say so much about America, and the world, in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the meantime nothing says more than this, the full version of the piece I began by talking about: Marvin Gaye’s voice and piano with Eli Fontaine’s alto saxophone, Earl Van Dyke on B3, James Jamerson’s bass guitar, Uriel Jones on drums and the sublime congas of Eddie “Bongo” Brown in Chicago in 1972. “What’s Going On” indeed.

A Philadelphia masterpiece

 

A-30144-1402923283-2097.jpeg(1)

At its peak, which lasted for much of the 1970s, the music of the Philadelphia International label found the sweet spot between classic Motown and full-throttle disco. Gospel-schooled singers, vibrant grooves and brilliant arrangements of hook-filled songs combined to make a sound that had a smooth, high-gloss finish but was never merely slick. What stood out was a warmth that still goes right through you as soon as “Back Stabbers”, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” or “The Love I Lost” come on the radio. And if you were paying attention, there were some classics between the cracks and on the albums: the O’Jays “Stairway to Heaven”, Bunny Sigler’s “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, and Billy Paul’s epic version of “Your Song”, which I practically wore out when it appeared on the B-side of “Mr and Mrs Jones” in 1972.

My favourite of the lot is “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, a track from their album To Be True and a Top 20 hit single in 1975, when its six and a half minutes were spread over two sides of a 45. It’s featured on Be for Real, a new three-CD box containing the group’s first four albums — I Miss You, Black & Blue, To Be True and Wake up Everybody, including all their big hits — on two discs, with a third devoted to a selection of disco mixes and live tracks.

“Bad Luck”, produced by label bosses Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and written by the in-house team of Victor Carstarphen, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, is the gloomiest uptempo dancefloor-filler you’ll ever hear, an unrelieved tale of woe delivered by Teddy Pendergrass: “Played a number ’cause that number’s hot / But the bookies get you for every cent you got / Walkin’ round in a daze with your pockets bare / Got to see your woman and she ain’t even there…” And there’s more despair where that came from.

Of course it’s the music that really grabs you, as it was always meant to. A boiling rhythm track from the MFSB team features Earl Young’s flying hi-hat, Vince Montana’s vibes and, most of all, Ronnie Baker’s colossal bass guitar lines, featuring Jamerson-level passing notes and register leaps and a two-bar downward run at the end of every eight-bar unit that is the record’s real hook, the turnaround to end them all. (You can hear it even more clearly on the eight-minute Tom Moulton 12-inch mix, at the cost of a de-emphasising of Young’s drums.)

The breakdown is stunning, Bobby Martin’s great arrangement clearing space for Pendergrass to do his thing as the singer riffs on the world’s discontents and turns the tune into a protest song. He brings home the morning paper, sits down and opens it up, and doesn’t like what he reads: “Saw the President of the United States / The man said he was gonna give it up / He’s givin’ us high hopes / But he still turned around and left us poor folks behind / They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think he can satisfy the human race…” And then he glimpses redemption: “The only thing I got that I can hold on to / Is my God, huh, my God / Jesus be with me / Jesus give me good luck / Help me, Jesus…” As he cuts loose in the Sigma Sound vocal booth at the close of this epic, we’re reminded that at the age of 10 Teddy Pendergrass was already an ordained deacon — and also, in the brilliant timing of his half-choked whoops and hollers, that it was as a drummer that he joined the group in 1970, before Melvin spotted his potential as a lead singer.

These three discs are littered with fantastic tracks: “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”, “I Miss You”, “Yesterday I Had the Blues”, “Be for Real”, “It’s All Because of a Woman”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and so on, with a Vegas-lounge version of “Cabaret” virtually the only misstep. They defined a whole scope of feeling: a particular lush anguish that Pendergrass exploited so well. And “Bad Luck” is one of the masterpieces of its era.

* Be for Real: The P. I. R. Recordings 1972-75 is out now on the Soulmusic label.

The return of P.P. Arnold

PP Arnold 2

At a lunch in Barnes a few weeks ago P.P. Arnold got up from her seat — next to Linda Thompson, as it happened — and walked to the other end of the room to sing Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest”, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist and three backing singers. The gathering of music people rose to acclaim her. Whatever it is, I thought to myself, she’s still got it.

But I knew that already. A couple of years ago I’d gone to Cadogan Hall to see the Manfreds, appearing with two guest singers. One was the irrepressible Zoot Money. The other was Ms Arnold, who had half the audience surreptitiously wiping an eye as she delivered another of the songs with which she is associated in the minds of British audiences, Chip Taylor’s “Angel of the Morning”.

When she first arrived in Britain, in the autumn of 1966, the LA-born Pat Arnold was on the road with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, as a member of the Ikettes. During that tour they turned up at the Beachcomber Club in Nottingham, a basement space that probably held 300 people. “River Deep — Mountain High” had been one of the hits of the summer, and plenty of the mods in the audience had “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and “A Fool in Love” in their collections. So it was packed. But not as packed as the small stage, which contained an eight-piece band, the three Ikettes, a warm-up singer named Albert Akens, and Ike and Tina. As part of the preliminaries to Tina’s appearance, the gorgeous Pat Arnold had stepped forward to deliver a rousing version of “Dancing in the Street”.

It was a great show, and afterwards, in my capacity as a diligent 19-year-old reporter for the local evening paper, I went to the dressing room to try and get the names of the musicians. When I knocked on the door, there was a response that sounded like “Come in.” So I did, to be confronted by a flash of black skin and white underwear: the Ikettes were getting changed. I mumbled something apologetic and stumbled backwards, closing the door behind me. Somehow I managed to get the names I wanted, and the report in the paper mentioned the veteran tenorist Clifford Solomon, the trumpeter Jabe Fleming, and the very fine drummer Soko Richardson, as well as Arnold. I didn’t include the glimpse through the dressing room door.

Now there’s a new release called The New Adventures of P.P. Arnold, which I’ve been playing with great enjoyment. She and her producer, Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene, present her familiar voice in new lights, making reference to the way her records sounded in the past without descending to pastiche. There’s no better example than the opening track, “Baby Blue”, written by Cradock with Steve Grizzell: a great pop-soul song which would have been snapped up by Dusty Springfield or Amy Winehouse; it suits Arnold’s delivery perfectly, her heavy vibrato surrounded by lush strings and female backing vocals as she delivers the hook.

The 15-song running order is full of imaginative choices, including outstanding covers of Mike Nesmith’s “Different Drum” (quite different from the versions by Linda Ronstadt with the Stone Poneys or Susanna Hoffs with Matthew Sweet) and Sandy Denny’s “I’m a Dreamer”. A new version of Arnold’s own “Though It Hurts Me Badly”, a beautifully formed ballad first recorded in 1968 on her debut album,  and “I Believe”, co-written with Fuzzy Samuels, the ex-CSN&Y bassist and her former partner, are beauties (you can listen to the latter on the home page of http://www.pparnold.com). So is the intense, gospelly “I Finally Found My Way Back Home”, co-written with Cradock, on which the singer engages in a dialogue with herself. Paul Weller contributes “Shoot the Dove” and “When I Was Part of Your Picture”, on which oboe and strings lightly evoke the decorous neo-baroque mood of late-’60s English psych-pop, as do the string quartet intro and brass fills on Cradock’s “The Magic Hour”. A real highlight is the warm strum-along reading of the lovely “Daltry Street” by Jake Fletcher, formerly of Manchester’s Gramotones: one of those songs in which verse and chorus are so beautifully interlinked that it seems it’s never going to stop, and neither do you want it to.

As if all that were not enough, Arnold and Cradock finish up with two strokes of brilliance. The first is “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”, the long poem Bob Dylan recited at New York’s Town in April 1963, and which, after circulating among collectors, appeared on the first volume of the Bootleg Series in 1991. Arnold handles the extended recitative well, her voice riding on a one-chord jam powered by chattering congas and punctuated by a shifting array of brass and reed interjections, like a meeting of Fela Kuti and Sun Ra in Norman Whitfield’s studio, gathering power as it goes. The finale is Arnold’s “I’ll Always Remember You”, a ballad dedicated to her late daughter, Debbie, recorded in Exeter Cathedral with the cathedral organ and choir, plus cello and harp: a bravura performance, deeply felt, never overwrought, and the perfect finale.

* The Further Adventures of P.P. Arnold is out now on the e.a.r music label as a double vinyl album or a single CD.

Lowrider Soul

Lowrider-Bomb-Classic-300x193

Don’t we all have semi-mythical places and cultures of which we’d like to have been a part? One of mine is East LA, and the Chicano culture of soul music and cars. I probably caught the obsession from listening to the two best records Frank Zappa ever made: “Memories of El Monte” by the Penguins and Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets.

This is Lowrider Soul is an Ace/Kent compilation of the music enjoyed by the current generation of Mexican Americans who take old cars and customise them in a particular style, starting by dropping the suspension. I’m not going to go any further into the automotive side of it. All I need to say is that, to judge from this CD, they have immaculate taste in music.

There are 24 tracks here, put together by Sean Hampsey, all dating from 1962-70, and I’d heard only three of them before. For me, it’s a treasury of brilliant discoveries, unified by mood: these are slow jams from the moment when doo-wop morphed into soul. Mostly pleading and woebegone, they’re wrenching and transcendent in the way the best soul music always has been.

There’s a strong possibility that you’re familiar with “It’s Not That Easy” by Reuben Bell with the Casanovas, since it was on Vol 1 of Dave Godin’s classic Deep Soul Treasures series a few years ago. I already knew the two sides taken from the Stax/Volt catalogue: William Bell’s “Crying All By Myself” and the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You”, a Hayes/Porter ballad that is high on my all-time girl-group chart. But I didn’t know “Shattered Dreams” by the Endeavours, or “As I Sit Here” by the Whispers (cut well before their great run of ’70s hits), Barbara Mason’s “Oh How It Hurts” (a beautiful follow-up to “Yes I’m Ready”), Brenton Wood’s “Where Were You” or the glorious “Why’d You Put Me On” by Bobbi Row and the Englishmen, an outlandish alias for the great Don Julian and the Meadowlarks. Or the rest, most of them from obscure labels such as Popside, Double Shot and Chant, as well as better known soul houses like Atco, Doré, Arctic and Kent. It makes you wonder whether that the great well of soul obscurities is ever going to run dry.

So in this dream I’m in a maroon ’49 Mercury lead sled, chopped, channeled and lowered, heading east down Pomona Blvd towards El Monte Legion Stadium, away from the neon sunset. And on top of the growl from the car’s flathead V8, This is Lowrider Soul is the soundtrack.

 

Signed Gladys

gladys knight and the pips

It’s Gladys Knight’s business why she accepted an invitation to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at last weekend’s Super Bowl after several prominent artists, acting in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, had turned down the half-time show. Gladys started her performing career in 1952, when she was seven years old. She’s known a long lifetime of ups and downs. As far as I’m concerned, she’s entitled to make her own arrangements.

Like Aretha, Gladys can move me to tears. But I feel something about her that I don’t feel about Aretha. Where Aretha sang from the top of Mount Olympus, somehow untouchable if not invulnerable, Gladys sings from across the kitchen table. Her triumphs and troubles are yours, and vice versa.

I have a special playlist of recordings by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Most of them are from her Motown era, which lasted from 1966 to 1973. They start with the beautiful remakes of her earlier hits with the Pips: “Every Beat of My Heart”, “Letter Full of Tears” and “Giving Up”. They continue with “Just Walk in My Shoes”, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)”, “If I Were Your Woman” and “Make Me the Woman You Go Home To”. They also include album tracks like “The Look of Love”, “Can You Give Me Love With a Guarantee”, “If You’re Gonna Leave (Just Leave)”, “No One Could Love You More”, “Here Are the Pieces of My Broken Heart” and “Signed Gladys”. The writing, playing and production on each of them lives up to the standard set by her singing.

She and the Pips left Motown because they didn’t feel they were getting the sort of priority treatment they believed Berry Gordy had promised them. Over the next few years they were occasionally able to show him what he was missing. With Buddah (1973-78) and Columbia (1980-85), they recorded the hits that are most likely to turn up on daytime radio.

Those years are the subject of a new 2CD compilation called On and On: The Buddah/Columbia Anthology. The 20 tracks on the Buddah disc show them veering perilously close to the middle of the road, but they include two of the most perfect pop records ever made in “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”, plus soulful sides like “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination”, “On and On”, “The Makings of You”, “Make Yours a Happy Home” and “Part Time Love”. The disco boom was in full flood when they arrived at Columbia, who teamed them with Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson for the elegantly devastating “Taste of Bitter Love” and several other fine tracks, including “Landlord” and “Bourgie Bourgie”.

The best of the songwriters and arrangers who worked with them understood the special relationship between Gladys and the Pips, who could be used not just to underline what she was saying but to issue reminders or warnings, and sometimes answer her back. But mostly the producers cleared a space for her artistry, for the way she got directly to the heart of a lyric, opening up her own heart in the process, adding the occasional unforced “ooh” or “mmm” that sounded like she was talking to herself.

Maybe my favourite of all her great moments is when she starts “If You’re Gonna Leave (Just Leave)” with a hesitation over the very first word of the opening line. It feels exactly like the way you might begin the hardest conversation of your life. Signed Gladys, as always.

* On and On: The Buddah/Columbia Anthology is released in Soul Music Records’ Classics series.

Swing Out Sister in Islington

Swing Out Sister 3

Since they made one of my favourite albums of the year so far, I was keen to see Swing Out Sister at Islington Assembly Hall last night. It turned out to be just what I needed: an hour combining the exhilarating grooves of soul music with the warmth of something home-spun and hand-finished, made by enthusiasts.

I’d expected to hear a higher proportion of songs from the new album, Almost Persuaded, but this was more of a greatest-hits night, which certainly suited the capacity crowd. It suited me, too, when they fired up their lovely version of Barbara Acklin’s “Am I the Same Girl”, which could have gone on all night. The arrangement of “Stoned Soul Picnic” was quite beautifully conceived and executed, Corinne Drewery sharing the lead vocals with Gina Michele in a rare example of a Laura Nyro cover not paling by comparison with the composer’s original.

There was a lot to enjoy, notably the guitarist Tim Cansfield’s discreet Philly-style octave riffs and fills, the presence of the wonderful Jody Linscott on congas, tambourine and other percussion (if I were ever putting together a soul band, Jody would be my first call), and the way Andy Connell integrates quotes from Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder into the backgrounds. When they finished off with “Breakout”, most of the audience — particularly the women – sang along with what had clearly been a personal dancefloor anthem.

The merchandise stall was selling an instrumental-only remix of Almost Persuaded, an album-length exclusive for the people who attended the gig. It’s a great companion piece to the original album. I don’t know how you’d get your hands on a copy, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Ry Cooder at Cadogan Hall

Ry Cooder Cadogan Hall

It was quite enough of a thrill to hear Ry Cooder, having temporarily banished his excellent band, singing Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”, long a staple of his repertoire, at Cadogan Hall last night. But a couple of minutes in, he took a left turn with some new words:

Trayvon Martin was only 17 years old when he took a little trip down to the grocery store / Well, he might have gone on to be President / But that’s something we’ll never know / Because he ran into a vigilante man…

In the handful of seconds that it took to sing those words, the temperature of the room changed. Channeling the menacing throb of one of John Lee Hooker’s talking blues, Cooder sang about the killing of Trayvon Martin and followed the thought into a rap about Brett Kavanaugh, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. And the audience went with him, all the way.

Once upon a time, Cooder could fill Hammersmith Odeon eight nights in a row. Enough of us are left to have filled Cadogan Hall at least as many times. This, however, was the only show, and I was lucky to get a ticket at the last moment. And how glad I was to be given the chance to hear him, in his 72nd year, singing and playing and organising musicians with as much zest and enthusiasm as you could wish for.

The band featured his son Joachim on drums, Mark Fain on bass guitar, Sam Gandell on alto and bass saxophones, and three singers known as the Hamiltones, from North Carolina: Toni Lelo, 2E and J. Vito. The material was a combination of old favourites — “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”, “Jesus on the Mainline”, “Go on Home, Girl”, “Down in the Boondocks”, “Little Sister” — and songs from his new gospel-based album, The Prodigal Son.

That emphasis thrust the singers into the spotlight, and they thrived in it. Their own featured spot included a song called “Highway 74” (with Lelo on Mayfield-style guitar)  that showed them to be in the tradition of groups like the Spinners and the Manhattans. The gospel power was turned to full beam for “99 and a Half” and a gorgeous treatment of Carter Stanley’s “Harbour of Love”, much richer and more resonant than the album version.

Cooder played some fine solos on a number of instruments, including an electric mandolin. He gave several spots to Gandell, who produced a house-wrecking bass sax solo on “The Very Thing That Made You Rich” as well as using a harmoniser and other effects on his alto — its bell muted with a cloth — to provide atmospheric backgrounds.

“See you next time or in heaven, whichever comes first,” Ry said at the end. For the final encore, concluding a two-hour show, he wisely shone the light back on to the singers, inviting them to deliver “I Can’t Win” with an intensity that left the hall drained. As long as there are still people who can sing like that, all is not lost.

* If anyone knows who took the very nice photograph above, which comes from the promotional material, I’ll add a credit.

Blue shadows, etc

Chuck-Jackson-LP

Sometimes I think Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” must be the greatest pop record ever made. What could better the elegant turns of Burt Bacharach’s melody, the striking imagery of Bob Hilliard’s lyric (those “blue shadows” falling all over town), the piping organ, muffled tympani and grieving femme chorale of Bert Keyes’ imaginative arrangement, and the deep emotion of Jackson’s restrained baritone, the instrument that made him the epitome of the male mid-’60s uptown soul singer?

The excuse for mentioning it, if one were needed, is the vinyl release of Chuck Jackson: The Best of the Wand Years, an Ady Croasdell compilation for Ace Records, in which “Any Day Now” is just one of 14 treats. “I Keep Forgetting”, with Teacho Wiltshire arranging the staccato boo-bams and tuba on behalf of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, leads the way, and other well known tracks include the beautifully poised “Since I Don’t Have You”, the operatic “Tell Him I’m Not Home” (with Doris Troy singing the title line), and “I Don’t Want to Cry”, Jackson’s first Wand single from 1961, with its sprightly Carole King string arrangement.

My other favourites are a magnificent King/Gerry Goffin song, “I Need You”, which I wrote about here, Van McCoy’s stately “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, and the unutterably groovy “Two Stupid Feet”, a song whose writers, Cara Browne and Luther Dixon, manage to feed Jackson the phrase “comfy and cozy” without disturbing his credibility. But really there isn’t a track here that isn’t outstanding, nothing that doesn’t make the world a better place.

Shirley Ellis and ‘The Nitty Gritty’

A-144660-1130444311.jpeg

It starts with the buzz of a crowd, a splash of cymbal, and a snare-drum roll. For a second or two, it sounds like a circus warming up. But then a deep rhythm kicks in, with a heavy emphasis on the “one” and a double handclap on the backbeat. And a no-nonsense female voice speaks up: “Some folks know about it, some don’t / Some folks learn to shout it, some won’t.” In response, a bass voice provides an echo, doo-wop style: “Some don’t… some won’t.” Then you get the female backing singers, the double-time soul clapping under strict instruction: “Double beatin’, keep repeatin’, right down to the real nitty gritty.” South-of-the-border trumpets join in with Latin triplets, and the crowd noise rises until there’s a kind of delirium going on as the track fades after a mere two minutes and 14 seconds.

That’s Shirley Ellis’s “The Nitty Gritty”, one of the most intriguing singles of the ’60s: a whole tribal rite contained in a 45rpm side. It doesn’t matter whether or not the crowd noise was overdubbed. I remember its electrifying effect on me when I heard it in September 1963, at a time when a new wave of soul music was breaking out of Detroit, Chicago and New York. And yet it seemed different, perhaps because it was an independent production that wasn’t part of a specific “sound”.

Born in 1929 in New York to parents from Montserrat and the Bahamas, Shirley Ellis grew up in the Bronx and began her career as a singer and songwriter in her teens, winning the celebrated talent contest for amateurs at the Apollo Theatre. In 1959 she met Lincoln Chase, another New Yorker of Caribbean parentage, who became her co-writer and manager. “The Nitty Gritty” was their first US hit, reaching the US top 10 on the Congress label, and it was followed in 1964 by “The Name Game”, which made the top three, and 1965 by “The Clapping Song”, which made the top 10 in both the US and the UK.

“The Name Game” and “The Clapping Song” were based — like the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” (1963) and the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” (1965) — on children’s playground rhymes. Ellis and Chase emphasised the syncopations inherent in both songs, helped by magnificent playing from their New York session men, under the baton of the great Charlie Calello, who arranged and produced both sides (“The Nitty Gritty” had been supervised by Hutch Davie). In “The Clapping Song”, the rhythm was in the stressed words: “Three six nine, the goose drank wine / The monkey chewed tobacco on the street-car line / The line broke, the monkey got choked / And they all went to heaven in a little row boat…” Any child who learnt that rhyme was absorbing a sophisticated groove, a variant of the hambone (Bo Diddley) beat.

Ellis made a number of other singles, only one of which, the hard-driving “Soul Time” (1967), was in the class of those first three hits. Nevertheless before she retired from performing in 1968 she had recorded enough sides of sufficient quality for Ace Records’ Mick Patrick to compile a 24-track CD titled Three Six Nine: The Best of Shirley Ellis. Comprehensively annotated by Harry Young, it gives a good all-round view of a singer who began by wanting to emulate Sarah Vaughan and ended up becoming famous for her high-grade novelty hits. “The Puzzle Song” and one or two others may have stretched the formula beyond its useful limits, but there’s a great up-tempo version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me”, a hip-swinging uptown soul arrangement of Lou Christie’s “Back Track”, and a nice treatment of Barbara Mason’s swooning “Yes I’m Ready”.

She died in 2005, aged 76, having left a small but lasting mark on one of pop music’s golden ages. And “The Nitty Gritty” still sounds like nothing else you ever heard.