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Dennis Edwards 1943-2018


The Temptations in 1968 (left to right): Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (front), Dennis Edwards and Eddie Kendricks

Dennis Edwards, who died on February 1, two days before what would have been his 75th birthday, was given an unusually demanding job back in 1969 when he was called upon to replace David Ruffin as one of the Temptations’ lead singers. Ruffin had left the group after being voted out by his colleagues, who were prepared to lose the matchless voice of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” in order to rid themselves of a man whose drug intake contributed to an ego running out of control.

“Eddie (Kendricks) and I first noticed a singer named Dennis Edwards at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., when he was still with the Contours,” group member Otis Williams wrote in his autobiography (Temptations, Fireside Books, 1989). “We watched from the wings as he sang lead on Lou Rawls’s ‘Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing’. Dennis not only had a stirring, soulful voice, but he was a showman with real command of the audience. His style was a little rougher and grittier than David’s, but we could tell that David would be able to handle David’s songs and bring a new sound to the Tempts as well. Eddie looked at me and said, ‘That’s who we should get. If David don’t straighten up, that’s who we should keep in mind.”

In one sense, the transition was easy: a simple matter of a personnel transfer from one Motown group, a mid-level attraction with their best years behind them, to another at the much higher peak of their powers. But it was far from straightforward. Ruffin refused to accept his rejection, turning up at the group’s gigs on several occasions and trying to join them on stage so persistently that for a while they had to hire security guards to keep him away.

Edwards was fortunate in that his arrival coincided with a change in the group’s style, masterminded by their visionary producer, Norman Whitfield, and his co-writer, Barrett Strong. Whitfield yanked Motown into the era of psychedelic soul, expressed in 10-minute tracks with lengthy instrumental interludes and strange sound effects, wah-wah guitar licks and chattering hi-hats, laconically minimal bass riffs and soaring strings, and lyrics with a strong dose of social realism shared around between the contrasting voices, from Kendricks’s falsetto to Melvin Franklin’s bass.

The new singer’s first recording with the group was the one that announced the new approach: “Cloud Nine”, a No. 2 hit on the U.S. pop charts in 1968. The lead is switched around throughout the track, but Edwards kicks it off, his raw, gospel-schooled tenor establishing the unvarnished tone: “The childhood part of my life, it wasn’t very pretty / See, I was born and raised in the slums of the city / It was a one-room shack we slept in, other children beside me / We hardly had enough food or room to sleep / It was hard times, needed something to ease my troubled mind . . . ” Whitfield’s rhythm track made inventive use of Motown studio stalwarts James Jamerson on bass guitar and Uriel Jones on drums, bringing in Melvin “Wah-Wah” Ragin to play rhythm guitar, Spider Webb on a second drum kit, and — so it’s said — Mongo Santamaria on congas.

The record won a Grammy for best performance by an R&B group, confirming the commercial validity of Whitfield’s decision to venture away from Motown’s tried-and-true methods. Again Edwards was the dominant voice as the combination spent the next four years rolling out hits like “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion”. The great run reached its climax in 1973 with the epic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: a 45 with a six-minute A-side but a full 12 minutes on the album. The long instrumental sections featured the jazz trumpet of Maurice Davis, who combined his frequent appearances in the Motown studios with a teaching job in the Detroit public school system, and the guitars of Ragin (wah-wah rhythm, left channel) and the 19-year-old Paul Warren (blues licks, right channel), a Whitfield protégé who went on to long-term road gigs with Joe Cocker, Eros Ramazotti and Rod Stewart. Plus, of course, Jamerson and Jones, and Eddie “Bongo” Brown’s congas, and Paul Riser’s superb arrangement for a contingent of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And the finest double-time handclaps ever committed to record.

In fact this one-chord jam was Whitfield’s Symphony in B Flat Minor, one of the high points of 20th century popular music. And at its centre was Dennis Edwards, the voice of the song’s protagonist: “It was the third of September / That day I’ll always remember (yes I will) / ‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died / I never got a chance to see him / Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him / Mama, I’m depending on you to tell me the truth . . . ”

Maybe a group with so many superb lead singers always contained the seeds of its own destruction. Kendricks had left by the time of “Papa”, disliking the extravagance of Whitfield’s productions and missing Ruffin’s voice alongside him. Paul Williams, the group’s first lead singer until Kendricks and Ruffin took over, left the following year, suffering from a combination of sickle-cell anaemia and alcoholism; he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1973. Ruffin died of a cocaine overdose in 1991. Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer in 1992. Franklin suffered a fatal cerebral seizure in 1995. Otis Williams still leads the Temptations — the last survivor of the original Famous Five and now also of the group who, with Edwards’ arrival, turned the page to begin a brilliant new chapter.

1965: Annus mirabilis

Jon Savage 1965

When Jon Savage compiled his excellent 2-CD sets of hits and curiosities from 1966 and 1967 for Ace Records, he was just clearing his throat. Now, with 1965: The Year the Sixties Ignited, he arrives at the real point of the exercise: a celebration of the best year in the history of popular music. OK, I’m biased: I was 18, which is a pretty important age to be. Jon’s selection of 48 tracks on two discs is characteristically idiosyncratic and stimulating; mine would be very different. I loved 1965 while it was happening, and I’ve felt that way ever since. Twenty years ago I wrote a piece about it for the Independent on Sunday’s Review section, and then expanded it slightly for inclusion in a collection of my music pieces titled Long Distance Call. Here, because you almost certainly won’t have read it in either form, is a truncated version.


Bob Dylan 1965 ticket

IT’S A FRIDAY evening in the spring of 1965. In a house in the Midlands, an 18-year-old boy is waiting to take a 17-year-girl to the opening night of Bob Dylan’s first British concert tour. He has two tickets in his pocket. Sheffield City Hall, grand circle, second row, seven shillings and sixpence each.

The television is on as they prepare to leave her parents’ house. It’s Ready Steady Go!, live from London, the weekly hotline to the heart of whatever’s hip. One of the presenters — either the dollybird Cathy McGowan or the incongruously avuncular Keith Fordyce — announces the appearance of a new group. They’re from America, they’re called the Walker Brothers, and this is their first time on British TV. Their song is called “Love Her”.

On the small black and white screen, the face of a fallen angel appears. The boy and the girl are already cutting things fine for Dylan, but still the girl freezes in the act of putting on her coat and, as if in slow motion, sits down to watch the 21-year-old Scott Engel, clutching the microphone as though it were a crucifix, delivering the straining, heavily orchestrated teen ballad in a dark brown voice borrowed from the romantic hero of a comic strip in Romeo or Valentine.

As the song ends and the image fades, the girl shakes herself lightly, refocuses on her surroundings and pulls on her coat. OK, she says. Ready to go.

A COUPLE OF hours later they would be among the first people in Britain to feel the impact of the new songs that were still a fortnight away from release on Dylan’s fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. With “It’s Alright Ma”, “Gates of Eden”, “Love Minus Zero”, “Mr Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a flood of dazzling images and ideas was released. “The lamp post stands with folded arms, its iron claws attached…” “He not busy being born is busy dying…” “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free… ” He was bringing the unformed thoughts of his audience into focus, inventing new emotions and redefining old ones.

Reeling out into the night, speechless with awe, saturated by those visions, they couldn’t know that Dylan was already bored with the way he’d been presenting himself up. The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals may have worshipped him, but he wanted what they’d got. Less than two months after opening that tour in Sheffield, he would convene a full-tilt rock and roll band in a New York studio to record “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first six-minute 45. In July he took a band with him on to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, where he had been a hero in previous years but was now reviled for his supposed act of heresy. Highway 61 Revisited and “Positively 4th Street” followed, in all their ornate mystery.

But although his change of direction was a shock, it was not a surprise. Because in 1965 change was expected: every month, every week, almost every day. Every time you walked into a record shop, opened a book, bought a magazine, turned on the TV. Between picking up your coat and putting it on.

THE YEAR 1965 started with the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'” (the greatest of all orchestral pop records) and ended with the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (their most satisfying album) and contained so much great music that it would take a year to listen to it, even now. In the sense that pop musicians were still waking up to the reality of their own economic power, and had not yet taken the logical step of attempting to control the means of production, this was also the last year of innocence.

It was filled with perfect examples of what we think of as ’60s moments. David Bailey wore a crewneck sweater to marry Catherine Deneuve. Mods and rockers spent the Easter holiday hurling deckchairs at each other on the Brighton seafront. Marianne Faithfull, much to her own surprise, turned down Bob Dylan’s advances (she was pregnant and about to marry a man who owned a bookshop and art gallery). Julie Christie starred in John Schlesinger’s Darling and Jane Birkin flitted in and out of Richard Lester’s The Knack, giving us two defining images of Swinging London. The Beatles reunited with Lester to make Help!, played Shea Stadium, visited Elvis at home in Beverly Hills, and went to Buckingham Palace to receive their MBEs and smoke dope in the lavatories — not quite all on the same day, but almost. Liverpool, probably not coincidentally, won the FA Cup for the first time. Jean Shrimpton (whose sister was going out with Mick Jagger) lived with Terence Stamp (whose brother was managing the Who) and horrified Australian society by turning up to the Melbourne Cup in a simple shift dress that terminated four inches above her knees.

That’s how easy it was to shock people in those days. When a small rip opened up in the weakened crotch seam of the American singer P. J. Proby’s velvet trousers on stage in Croydon in January, he was banned by the ABC theatre chain and excoriated by the newspapers. When three of the Stones — Jagger, Richards and Wyman — were reported to have urinated against a wall at a petrol station on the way home from a show in Romford, they made the front pages and were fined £5 each. There was a fuss about these incidents but under the outrage, much of it bogus, there was a sense that they were adding to the gaiety of the nation.

In what was left of the real world of Great Britain, the Kray twins were being remanded, the Moors Murderers were charged, Harold Wilson’s government announced an “experimental” 70mph speed limit, legal blood-alcohol limits for drivers were brought in, and incitement to racial hatred was banned. Heath succeeded Home as Tory leader and declared his intention to take Britain into the Common Market — to which, in any case, the government had just applied for a £500 million loan. Internationally, the big issues were the Vietnam war and civil rights, both of which spilled over the frontiers of the United States and commanded the attention and concern of young people throughout the world.

In January, Lyndon Johnson sent the B-52s to bomb North Vietnam. In June, the first American troops went into action on the ground against Vietcong bases near Saigon; by the time they got there, the VC had vanished. The President’s answer: send more troops. the Rev Dr Martin Luther King was arrested during a voter-registration protest in Selma, Alabama; eight weeks later he marched back into town at the head of 25,000 people, protected by 3,000 federal troops and the camera crews of the world’s television networks. Between times, Malcolm X had met an assassin’s bullet in New York. In August, 28 people died and 676 were injured when Watts exploded in three days of rioting.

Everything seemed connected, somehow or other. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight championship of the world, even that was part of the bigger deal: the youthquake, black power, the generalised feeling that the Establishment was there for the taking. Liston and Floyd Patterson, against whom Clay subsequently defended his title, were black, too, but other, older kinds of black. Clay was Dylan’s age, Jagger’s age, Lennon’s age. Our age.

And ours was also a visual age. Coming between the studied sloppiness of the Beat generation — sandals and shapeless sweaters — and the romantic self-indulgence of the hippies, it was the time of the mods, whose aesthetic may have ended up with the skinheads of the British Movement but had begun with better intentions in the jazz clubs of Soho, the tailors of Whitechapel and the liberal atmosphere of the London art colleges, among people who knew about Fellini and Jasper Johns.

Much of that came together in the Who, who began the year with the terse, staccato chords of their first single, “I Can’t Explain”. They ended it with the thrillingly anarchic feedback of “My Generation”. In between came “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”, described by Pete Townshend, its composer, as “anti-middle age, anti-boss class, and anti-young marrieds”. If the Who had packed it all in at Christmas, after those three 45s, they’d have been regarded as the greatest rock group of all time, no contest.

British rock music, high on its own huge success in the US and fuelled by a profound admiration of Bob Dylan’s wilful unpredictability, was moving away from covers of Chess and Motown records and beginning to explore its creative potential. The Beatles started to enter the regions beyond two-dimensional love songs, distilling the darker complexities of “Help!” and “Norwegian Wood”, both indelibly marked by Dylan’s influence on Lennon, while George Martin’s experience enabled Paul McCartney to achieve the imaginative leap that led to “Yesterday”.

The Stones, with Jagger and Richards forced into the role of composers by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who recognised the value of copyrights, used the influence of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to create the template for riff-based rock music with “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, benefitting from Keith’s acquisition of something called a fuzz box and from the funkier ambiance of American studios. The Animals built a denser sound, more conscious of dynamics, with “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life”. The Yardbirds were experimenting with mood and structure on “For Your Love” and the quasi-liturgical “Still I’m Sad”. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames emerged from the Flamingo all-nighters with the finger-popping “Yeh Yeh”, the sound of an Ivy League jacket and a French crop. The Kinks progressed from the kinetic power chords of “Tired of Waiting for You” to the prophetic quasi-oriental drone of “See My Friends”, which anticipated raga-rock and a certain strand of psychedelia. The Small Faces (real, rather than art-school, mods) made their debut with the pugnacious “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?”, a healthy plundering of the chord-riff from Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”. Out of Belfast came the incomparably surly Them with “Baby Please Don’t Go”, a devastatingly supercharged version of a country-blues text, followed by “Here Comes the Night” and the opening chapter of the Van Morrison legend.

“Gloria”, the B-side of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, may have been the first punk-rock record. Or perhaps that was the pounding “I Want Candy” by the Strangeloves, a non-existent group created to counter the British invasion by a bunch of New York studio-hack writer-producers. Or possibly it was the magnificently silly “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, or the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover”, out of Texas. Or, from New York once more, the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”, a kind of punk-bubblegum hybrid based on the Vibrations’ vastly superior “My Girl Sloopy”. The year was full of one-offs like these as American groups (and the commercial interests behind them) fought back, producing guitar-driven music to counter that coming from the other side of the ocean.

The Byrds — not a one-off — took an electric 12-string guitar to his “Mr Tambourine Man” and invented jangling folk-rock (refined later in the year with “Turn Turn Turn”, their version of Pete Seeger’s take on the Book of Ecclesiastes). Music producer Lou Adler bought his staff songwriter Phil Sloan a corduroy Dylan cap, handed him a copy of Highway 61 Revisited and an acoustic guitar, and locked him in a Hollywood bungalow for a weekend. On the Monday morning Sloan handed Adler the demo tape of “Eve of Destruction”, an instant worldwide No 1 for the hoarse-voiced Barry McGuire.

Harold Battiste, a veteran of the New Orleans R&B scene, helped a couple of Hollywood brats, Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn LaPier, to become Sonny and Cher with “I Got You Babe”, a folk-rock minuet with an oboe where most records would have a guitar or a saxophone. Brian Wilson, fiddling about in his studio while the rest of the Beach Boys toured the world, pushed the enrichment button on surf music so hard that it turned into the sunlit symphonies of “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls”. The Everly Brothers, relics of pop’s first golden age, a duo with roots in the music of the Appalachian chain, were reborn with the crunching drive of “Love Is Strange”, as powerful a sound as any in the whole year,

In cities around America, soul music had reached its mature phase. Detroit’s Hitsville USA was in top gear with Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”, Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms”, Jr Walker’s “Shotgun”, the Marvelettes’ “I’ll Keep Holding On”, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”, the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s the Same Old Song”, the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again”, and half a dozen Smokey Robinson masterpieces: three for the Temptations (“My Girl”, “It’s Growing” and “Since I Lost My Baby”) and three for his own group, the Miracles (“Ooo Baby Baby”, “Goin’ to A Go-Go” and the incomparable “Tracks of My Tears”). In Chicago, Curtis Mayfield was using the memory of his grandmother’s Sunday morning church sermons to create “People Get Ready”. In Memphis, the Stax house band was launching Wilson Pickett into “In the Midnight Hour” and Otis Redding into “Respect”. James Brown stopped off while touring to record “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in Charlotte, North Carolina and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in Miami, Florida.

That’s to say nothing of Barbara Mason’s swooning “Yes I’m Ready”, the Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and Shirley Ellis’s “The Clapping Song” (which both found new uses for children’s playground songs), Lou Christie’s falsetto tour de force on “Lightning Strikes”, Betty Everett’s “Getting Mighty Crowded”, Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual”, the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any More”, the Ronettes’ “Born to Be Together” (their finest moment), the Drifters’ “At the Club”, Dusty Springfield’s glowing “Some of Your Loving”, Petula Clark’s “Downtown”, and the boiling, gospel-driven “Heartbeat Pts 1 and 2” by Gloria Jones. Or Dionne Warwick’s staggering “(Here I Go Again) Looking With My Eyes (Seeing With My Heart)”, the Searchers’ “What Have They Done to the Rain”, Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”, Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me”, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”, Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”, Little Richard’s utterly magnificent “I Don’t Know What You Go But It’s Got Me Pts 1 and 2”, and, to get back to where we started, two further Walker Brothers classics, “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “My Ship Is Coming In”. All of them — and many others — still played and recognised today.

MOST SIGNIFICANTLY, though, and paradoxically in the light of all this frantic activity, 1965 was the year in which pop music started to slow down. First there was the way in which the working process itself became more leisurely, a result of increasing affluence among musicians who had started out two or three years earlier traipsing up and down the M1 crammed into Transit vans, and the freedom it gave those who had previously been the slaves of managers and record companies. And there was the accompanying desire to spend more time creating records in the studio, exploring the potential of both the developing technology and the musicians’ own imaginations.

In 1965 the Beatles, as they had every year since signing with EMI, released two albums, Help! and Rubber Soul. The Stones released No. 2 and Out of Our Heads. The Beach Boys released Today and Summer Days (and Summer Nights!). That was the standard working schedule. But in 1965 the sense of artistic competitiveness was growing fast. The Beatles would hear the new Beach Boys single and know they had to top it. The only way was to spend more time in the laboratory. The following year, there would be only one album from each of these three leading bands: Revolver, Aftermath and Pet Sounds. And that would remain the pattern.

The music also slowed down in a more literal and far-reaching sense, thanks to the combined influence of James Brown and Andy Warhol. Together, the effect of Brown’s one-chord funk in the clubs and the influence of Warhol’s image-repetition in the art colleges began to thin out the music’s layers, simplifying its structure and reducing the density of its content. This was the birth of pop minimalism, and it also led directly to the inversion of what might be called the music’s weight distribution. Where the aural focus had been on the lead voice(s) — an emphasis reflecting the old “Vocal with rhythm accompaniment” tag that used to be printed on the labels of pre-war 78s, under the singer’s name — now the bottom end of the rhythm section began to take greater prominence. This shift of balance arrived hand in hand with technological developments allowing discothèques to install sound systems which played extra emphasis on the elements of the music that made people dance: the bass and drums. In that sense the most important records of 1965 were not “Satisfaction”, “Ticket to Ride” or “My Generation”, but “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, whose long-term effect on the time-frame and event-horizon of popular music is all around us today — in disco and house music, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, trance, and just about everything else.

Buried within 1965, then, were the seeds of 1966, which also included the debut of Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix in San Francisco and of the Grateful Dead at the first Acid Tests. In November, the two bands shared the bill at the opening night of Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium. That same month, on the east coast, Lou Reed and John Cale gave their new band a name under which they played their first gigs in a New Jersey high school auditorium. Around the corner of the new year lay Cream, Pet Sounds, “Paint It Black”, “Eleanor Rigby”, the aloof visions of Blonde on Blonde and the tumultuous tour that prefaced Dylan’s motorcycle crash. And The Velvet Underground and Nico, with which another future would begin.

Mavis Staples goes high

030913_mavisstaples_2685As soon as she made her first record with her family’s gospel-singing group in the early 1950s, Mavis Staples made it clear that she occupied a vocal and emotional register of her very own. At the age of 14, already she could invest the lines “Won’t be the water / But the fire next time” with an almighty dread. Today, at 78, she may have lost some of the range and raw power of her youth but she retains every ounce of the visceral impact. And in terms of its relevance to the state of the world, her new album, If All I Was Was Black, takes its place among the year’s most essential recordings.

It’s her third album with Jeff Tweedy, the leader of Wilco. Tweedy wrote all 10 songs, three of them in collaboration with Mavis, and plays in the small band assembled for the project. The songwriting is superbly sensitive and appropriate, using various forms of primal guitar-led R&B as settings for lyrics dealing with the racism that has refused to go away in the 50 years since the Staple Singers recorded “Freedom Highway” and played their part in the civil rights struggle.

“Little Bit”, structured on a wiry riff reminiscent of the early Magic Band, deals with the deaths of boys and young men at the hands of the police. “Who Told You That” is similarly stripped-back, putting Mavis and her backing singers firmly in the spotlight as they reject advice not to “rock the boat” and to “stop acting up”. Mavis is at her most urgent on “No Time For Crying”, which hits a relentless groove like a cross between Tinariwen’s desert blues and Otis Taylor’s one-chord chants. “We Go High” marries a famous phrase from Michelle Obama’s speech in support of Hillary Clinton — “When they go low, we go high” — to a gentle, soulful tune that could have come from Curtis Mayfield. “Try Harder” is another exhortation; fuelled by a couple of fuzz guitars and a crunching riff, it could have come from the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” era. The album closes with the meditative “All Over Again”, in which the duet between Mavis and Tweedy’s finger-picked acoustic guitar reminds us that her dad, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta, listening to Charley Patton and Son House.

That’s one of the things I love about this deceptively simple-sounding album: in its search for a language with which to express its very immediate concerns, it makes connections with important traditions. Nourished by the deepest roots, it makes a direct and poignant address our own perplexing, disturbing time.

* The photograph of Mavis Staples is by Chris Strong.

Otis Blue

Otis Blue 1Otis Redding died 50 years ago today, on December 10, 1967, when his light plane crashed into a lake near Madison, Wisconsin. Six others — the pilot, Otis’s valet, and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays — also lost their lives. A fifth musician, the trumpeter Ben Cauley, was the only survivor.

Two years earlier, one Saturday in the late autumn of 1965, I’d bought his album Otis Blue. It’s the same copy that you see in the picture above, and it came from Rediffusion Records in Nottingham, where I’d had a Saturday job the previous year. What I remember about that day is taking it out of its bag, throwing the bag away, and walking around town with the record under my arm, so that people could see what I’d bought. I was 18, and that sort of thing mattered. (Distressingly, perhaps it still does.)

You could argue, and I might agree, that his peak came the following year with the studio version of “Try a Little Tenderness”, an epic beyond compare, and that “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, completed only three days before his death and released posthumously, is a wholly original piece suggesting fresh directions his music might have followed had he not been taken at the age of 26.

But Otis Blue is the goods, the work that defines him at his most immaculate. Naturally its 11 tracks contain examples of the transcendental fervour that inspired a thousand imitators, the songs that soaked his sharkskin suits with sweat on stage in clubs and concert halls. That’s what you get in “Respect”, “Shake” and his famously frantic cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.

But an unusual tone has already been set by the first track, a self-penned blues-ballad called “Ole Man Trouble”. It’s a strange way to start a soul album, although it fools you for a moment when it opens with two hits from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire and Al Jackson Jr’s snare drum that sound like the fanfare for a fast song. Instead there’s a half-beat pause before the guitar, Jackson’s bass drum and Duck Dunn’s bass guitar release the tension with the start of the backing to a slow song in which Redding mourns his problems and pleads for a change of luck. The arrival of the B3 organ (Isaac Hayes, I think) and the four-piece horn section emphasise the lifts built into the song as it works to its climax, but they do nothing to get in the way of a mood that is almost austere.

This carefully judged economy of means and approach is maintained in the album’s other outstanding slow songs: a version of “My Girl” that rivals the Temptations’ original; a deep-soul treatment of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”; the classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; a conversation with Cropper on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” that shows what a bluesman he would have been, had soul music never been invented; and, maybe best of all, a reading of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” that gives us a second great version of one of the key songs of the civil rights era.

All the way through, he delivers his lines with a fine control of tone and phrasing as well as the expected commitment. There is no hint here of the stereotyped soul man — a caricature from which “The Dock of the Bay” promised, in vain, to deliver him. He is simply magnificent. And if you had to choose half a dozen great albums from the 1960s, Otis Blue would be one of them.

Isaac Hayes in full

Isaac HayesI wish I’d had longer to talk to Isaac Hayes back in January 1971, and that I’d been able to get him to talk in more detail about his childhood and his family background, which involved picking cotton and extreme poverty. That day in Memphis, in his extraordinary office in the Stax corporate HQ, white-hot from the success of Hot Buttered Soul and To Be Continued, sitting in a white egg-shaped chair suspended by a chain from the ceiling, he talked about his plans for the imminent recording of what would become Black Moses, the double album released at the end of that year, with its extraordinary cruciform fold-out cover art.

He talked about making it a big production, mentioning George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as an inspiration and giving me the impression that it would be based on gospel music and spirituals. “But I’m going do it in a commercial fashion,” he explained. “I hope I haven’t waited too long to do it, because sometimes the trend changes so fast and I feel I can really get right to the roots of it. I know I can from recollecting my own experiences, from being in those small country churches that are no larger than this office, where people didn’t have no piano or anything, just feet on the floor. It’s so beautiful, man, and things like that are what I’m going to try and capture.”

I asked him if he’d heard work songs during his upbringing in Covington, a rural town outside Memphis. “Yeah, I can vaguely remember… I’m sure my grandmother would know them, because her mother was a slave. She tells me about those experiences. I used to sing spirituals in the rural areas of Mississippi and Tennessee and Arkansas. Also I started out playing blues. I used to play with a little blues band — I think it was Valentino and the Swing Cats, or something… I played a little tenor sax, and we’d play on a store porch sometimes. On Friday evenings, man, everybody’s coming in from the fields, they fry the fish here and they’re gambling there and selling corn liquor there and drinking wine right across the tracks. You know, one side of the tracks is white and the other is black. We’d play right out in the porches of the stores, those country blues. I’m going back to those places… I’ve been away from it so long. All this will help in putting this album together, because I’m not only going to include spirituals, I’m going to go the whole bit. It’ll be a picture.”

Well, Black Moses didn’t quite turn out like that. In some ways the strangest thing about Hayes’s career is that, having made his name as one of the great soul-music songwriting partnerships of the 1960s (with David Porter), once he became successful as an artist it was via other people’s songs: his protracted boudoir-friendly versions of pieces from the pens of superior pop song writers, in particular Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love” and “Walk On By”. Such things, not gospel songs or spirituals, would be the basis of the double album he recorded between that March and October.

Hayes was a fascinating musician, and all his facets are displayed in The Spirit of Memphis 1962-76, a thoughtfully compiled and beautifully presented four-CD anthology of his material for the Stax family of labels. There’s a first CD containing 26 examples of his early work as a writer, producer and keyboard player for Stax, including tracks by Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Johnnie Taylor and William Bell, the highlights for me being Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing”, the Soul Children’s “The Sweeter He Is” and, perhaps most of all, Judy Clay’s glorious “You Can’t Run Away From Your Heart”. The second disc has his own hit singles for Volt and Enterprise, including “Phoenix” and the theme from Shaft.

Half of the third disc (which opens with some of his cover versions) is devoted to a mostly unreleased set from an Operation PUSH concert in Chicago in 1972. He exposes his blues, R&B and gospel roots to tremendous effect in a great big-band version of “Stormy Monday”, an epic “If Loving You Is Wrong”, and a heartfelt voice and piano treatment of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, the gospel classic which Hayes says he heard his grandfather sing, his spoken introduction reprising some of the things he had said to me almost two years earlier.

The fourth disc throws together several fine and again mostly unreleased funk jams featuring his excellent band, the Movement, with Willie Hall on drums, James Alexander on bass, Sidney Kirk and Lester Snell on keys, and Michael Toles, Harold Beane and Skip Pitts on guitars. The 19-minute “Groove-a-thon” and the 33-minute version of “Do Your Thing”, expanded from the one heard on the Shaft soundtrack, remind us of the place Hayes’s music occupied alongside Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul and Miles Davis’s psych-jazz in an era when stretching out seemed to be the natural mode of musical life.

Bunny Sigler 1941-2017

Bunny Sigler.jpgIn the world of Philadelphia soul music, Bunny Sigler was a backroom boy who occasionally made it into the spotlight. A writer, producer and backing singer (on Harold Melvin’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, for instance), he also made a handful of interesting singles. Among them, in 1967, was an expanded version of a Shirley and Lee hit retitled “Let the Good Times Roll / Feel So Good”, which became a Northern Soul favourite. The one I love, however, is his 1973 retread of “Tossin’ and Turnin'”, Bobby Lewis’s 1961 smash, which he subjects to the full Philadelphia International treatment: the great MFSB rhythm cooking at maximum heat in Sigma Sound studios, almost certainly with Earl Young on drums, Ronnie Baker on bass, Roland Chambers on guitar and — most gloriously of all — Harold Ivory Williams on delirious gospel keyboards. And there’s a divine moment at 1:50 when Sigler, listing the things that are keeping him awake, wails “There’s a phone out there ringin’ / There’s a group out on the corner singin’… hallelujah!” Enjoy. And read the nice New York Times obit here. RIP, Mr Sigler.

Remembering Major Lance

When I met Major Lance he was living near Southend, of all places. This was January 1973 and it was not quite a decade since he had raced into the US Top 10 with his first hit, “The Monkey Time”. Now he had just signed with an English company, Contempo Records, run by John Abbey, the proprietor and editor of Blues & Soul magazine. The idea was to capitalise on his hero status with Northern Soul fans by issuing his new cover version of an established dancefloor favourite, Billy Butler’s “The Right Track”, as the label’s first release.

His biggest hits had been cut in Chicago and issued on the OKeh label. Subsequently he had recorded for Dakar, Curtom and Stax, with mixed results. And now he had found his way to Contempo, which was also providing a home for Otis Leavill, his fellow Chicagoan, whom he planned to produce. “I don’t sign long contracts now,” Lance said. “I go for a year, with an option, and if nothing happens, I move on somewhere else.”

He told me how he had found his way into show business as a dancer on the Bandstand Matinee TV show in Chicago. “The dances changed so fast,” he said. “Every month we’d invent something new, and they came and went so quickly that we didn’t even have time to give names to most of them.”

“The Monkey Time” was one that got a name. It was also one of those records that came out of the radio in the autumn of 1963 and changed everything. Others were Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”. This was before the term “soul music” had come into widespread use; for a while these records and others like them were referred to by UK fans as “new wave r&b”.

The three men who created “The Monkey Time” were Curtis Mayfield, the leader of the Impressions and Lance’s friend from their teenage years in the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side, who wrote the song; Johnny Pate, the jazz bassist turned arranger, whose chart made such powerfully rhythmic use of brass; and the shrewd producer Carl Davis, whose first hit had come a year earlier with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”. But it was Major’s modest, almost homespun tone that made it so distinctive; he sounded like an ordinary kid having a good time with a new dance craze.

That team was behind a string of hits, all of which are included among the 53 tracks on Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes), a new 2-CD set released by RPM and subtitled “The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1967”. They include “Hey Little Girl”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “The Matador”, “Rhythm” and “Come See”, as well as great non-hits and B-sides like “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Mama Didn’t Know”, “Gonna Get Married” and “You Don’t Want Me No More”, and a handful of covers of current hits such as “Pride and Joy” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”.

He told me that the good times at OKeh ended when Columbia, the parent label, wanted Carl Davis and his artists to move their operation to New York. Davis refused, stayed put, and started his own label, Dakar (which would do well with Tyrone Davis and Hamilton Bohannon). “It had a lot to do with jealousy inside the company,” Lance said, “and problems that could have been solved but weren’t.”

My favourite of all Major’s OKeh tracks, however, is one I didn’t discover until the early ’70s, when I bought a US promo copy at the original Selectadisc shop on the now-demolished Arkwright Street in Nottingham. It was the singer’s first release on OKeh, and it made so little impact on its home market in the spring of 1963 that it wasn’t even released in Britain. But “Delilah” is one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest little story-songs, a typical tale of a country boy trying to charm a city girl with humility and sincerity, perfectly suited to Major’s characteristic tone: “I ain’t got much money / Just a farm on the the outskirts of town / Please don’t think that this is funny / But with you I’d like to settle down…”

Later in his life, Major hit hard times. He stayed with Contempo for a couple of years, touring the Northern Soul clubs, and then went home, where he recorded for Playboy, his own Osiris imprint and Soul, the Motown subsidiary. He served a jail term for cocaine possession, lost most of his sight, and died in 1994.

The new compilation is a good way to remember him. “Delilah” leads it off, and what has always drawn me back to it is the combination of Major’s voice, Curtis’s song, and an irresistible rhythm track, with Al Duncan’s lovely tom-tom figures and Floyd Morris’s jaunty Latin-accented piano fills, hammered in octaves in the upper register and particularly prominent on the fade. It’s just a scrap of a thing, really, but I’d hate to be without it.

‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’


Nick Broomfield’s documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston is both profoundly affecting and rather disappointing. What Whitney: Can I Be Me does have to recommend it is a quantity of intimate backstage film shot (by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-director credit) during a tour of Germany in 1999, when the singer was on the brink of disaster: still in her ultimately catastrophic marriage to the singer Bobby Brown (with whom she shared addictions), bringing their small daughter on stage to perform in a gruesome cameo, and surrounded by laughing sycophants and worried-looking assistants in charge of make-up, hair, and so on. That daughter, Bobbi Kristina, would died of an overdose in 2015 at the age of 22, three years after her mother was found dead in her bath at the Beverly Hilton, and to read that information in a caption before the closing credits is to experience perhaps the most dismaying of the many sad moments punctuating the film’s 105 minutes.

Early on we are shown Houston as a 12-year-old prodigy singing a solo with a New Jersey gospel choir, encouraged by her mother, the session singer Cissy Houston, and then as the 19-year-old protégée of Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, who — as one of his former employees attests — found in her the kind of malleable diva material that Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick had been simply too old and set in their styles and images to provide when he signed them in their middle years. The film holds up Davis’s decision to groom her as a black pop star for white people as a factor in her tragedy, which makes it odd that — during a Q&A session after a screening in London this week — the director said that he had chosen not to interview the  veteran executive because he had not wanted to make a controversial film. Those familiar with Broomfield’s previous output will find this a curious claim.

It’s clear, of course, that he can’t wait to get the short years of golden success — the hugely successful debut album, the starring role in Bodyguard, the worldwide smash with “I Will Always Love You” from that film’s soundtrack, the countless awards — out of the way in order to reach the stuff of tragedy, and there is certainly no shortage of that. Her mother’s desire that her daughter should fulfil her own thwarted ambitions is a subtext; Cissy appears in the film, as do the two older brothers with whom Whitney is said to have shared drugs during adolescence. We are told about her close relationship with her father — but when we learn towards the end that John Houston was suing his daughter for $100m shortly before he died, we are not told that he and Whitney’s mother had already gone through an unpleasant divorce.

It’s a classic story of success tearing a family apart, but the emotional heart of the film is its portrayal of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, the schoolfriend who became her companion and probably her lover until being removed from the picture during the Brown years. Again, Bloomfield claims that although he had Crawford’s number, and although she knew about the film, he declined to talk to her out of feelings of discretion.

The most dramatic testimony comes from David Roberts, a Welsh former policeman who was her bodyguard from 1988 to 1995 (we glimpse him in the background in several sequences), and who claims to have tried to get people to do something about her addictions, without success. Several of her musicians and backing singers, notably the saxophonist Kirk Whalum, speak movingly about her prodigious qualities as a singer and her warmth as a woman. All of them would like to have seen a different outcome but were powerless to intervene.

The music itself is barely discussed. I always found her voice technically impressive rather than emotionally moving, but that may have been a consequence of the decisions taken early on by Davis and his chosen studio operatives. It would have been interesting to know what an old-school soul/R&B producer like Jerry Wexler, Dave Crawford or Allen Toussaint would have made of her.

There are so many holes in the narrative that I began to think only an eight-hour multi-part treatment like the recent O. J.: Made in America would do proper justice to the many facets of Houston’s story. (There’s not a word, for instance, on what she did in the five years between her divorce from Brown and her death.) But I’m grateful to Bloomfield for unearthing — via the testimony of the record producer David Foster — that the decision to get her to sing the first verse of “I Will Always Love You” without accompaniment was made at the suggestion of The Bodyguard‘s other star, Kevin Costner. Maybe everyone else in the world already knew that, but I didn’t.

* Whitney: Can I Be Me is in UK cinemas from June 16.

The return of Little Steven

Little Steven

Need cheering up in these dark times? Look no further. Little Steven’s Soulfire — in which Steve Van Zandt returns to his true vocation after his adventures with The Sopranos and Lilyhammer — is a record that could start a party in an empty house.

This October it’ll be 35 years since Van Zandt brought his Disciples of Soul to London, promoting his first solo album, Men Without Women. Their appearance at the Marquee was not just one of the best gigs of a very good year but one of the most exhilarating nights I can remember in the old Wardour Street premises. A 10-piece band, with Dino Danelli, the former Young Rascal, on drums, they kicked through great songs like “Forever”, “Until the Good is Gone” and “Angel Eyes”, with an encore of “Can I Get a Witness”. Van Zandt’s singing reminded me then, as it does now, of Keith Richards and Pete Townshend: he might not possess the power or technique of a real lead singer, but there’s an honesty and a directness in his delivery that has its own special value.

Soulfire is the first album under his own name in 18 years, and mostly it sticks to the horns-and-Hammond template of the E Street Band. Some of the dozen songs are familiar: they include “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” from the repertoire of Southside Johnny, and “Standing in the Line of Fire”, written with Bruce Springsteen for Gary U. S. Bonds, now with a great spaghetti-western intro. Others are new, like “The City Weeps Tonight”, a meticulous evocation of East Coast doowop with the Persuasions providing support. “Down and Out in New York City” is a surprise cover of a song written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon in 1973 for James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack album, riding a laconic street-funk rhythm with wah-wah and chicken-scratch rhythm guitars, a Rhodes with its mirror shades on, and violins voiced in octaves: the full blaxploitation menu, in fact, and very well executed. Steve also gives us a howling Dylanesque version of “Saint Valentine’s Day”, first recorded by a Norwegian band called the Cocktail Slippers in 2009 and more recently heard in David Chase’s film Not Fade Away.

I started loving this album as soon as I put it on. It’s not bursting with originality, to say the least, but sometimes that’s not what you need. It’s good-time music with a heart and a human voice, made by a man with a profound love and understanding of rock and soul, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

In the groove with Dennis Coffey

denniscoffey1_courtesy-of-clarence-avant---interior-music-corpDennis Coffey is still playing Tuesday nights at a Detroit club called the Northern Lights Lounge. It’s what he and his 1963 Gibson Birdland have been doing for the best part of 50 years. He started making a local reputation as a session man in the mid-’60s when he played on Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart” and the classic sides on the Golden World label by J. J. Barnes and others. Later in the decade he was absorbed into the Motown studio band, adding the rock-influenced sounds of a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to the more classic approaches of the established Hitsville USA guitarists: Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.

It was Coffey who played on Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul productions, like the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War”, as the Motown Sound updated itself to suit a new era. He had his own hit, the funky instrumental “Scorpio”, which highlighted his interest in effects. But he was still playing in the clubs, as we can hear from the rather wonderful product of the latest piece of successful treasure-hunting among previously unknown tapes by the Resonance label: an album titled Hot Coffee in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, recorded in 1968 with a trio completed by the Hammond organist Lyman Woodard and the drummer Melvin Davis.

Woodard and Davis were musicians with local reputations. The organist went on the road with Martha and the the Vandellas as their musical director. The drummer also toured with Vandellas, and with the Temptations. Like many of the members of the Funk Brothers, they could also be found in the night spots, entertaining their predominantly black listeners with a style of jazz that was heavy on the groove and on the feeling of the blues.

So what we have here is just under an hour of what you’d have heard if you’d wandered into this particular club in 1968: a brand of social music mixing jazz, funk and R&B, completely devoid of pretension, being delivered by highly sophisticated players with a wonderful directness and without any hint of strain. This recording features a handful of lively originals, ultra-cool instrumental versions of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, and a nice reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The rhythms are deep in the pocket and the solos aren’t about showing off.

Whenever you’re lucky enough to find yourself in such an environment, you  know that no boundaries are being stretched and no rules are being rewritten. But it doesn’t matter. There are truths in this kind of music that are no less valuable for being relatively simple. And while it’s happening you want it to go on for ever.

* The photograph of Dennis Coffey is from the booklet accompanying Hot Coffey in the D, which includes valuable interviews and background material.