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Posts from the ‘Soul music’ Category

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

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Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

Tammi Terrell 1945-1970

Tammi Terrell

Fifty years ago, on March 16, 1970, Tammi Terrell died at the age of 24, following several operations for brain cancer. Her illness had become dramatically apparent on the night, two and a half years earlier, when she collapsed into the arms of her singing partner, Marvin Gaye, on stage at the Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia. Earlier in 1967 the teaming with Gaye had finally given her success: three consecutive Top 20 hits with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love” and “If I Could Build My World Around You”. There would be others in the agonising months between that first collapse and her death, including “If This World Were Mine”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By”.

Neither a diva nor a natural soul sister, Tammi Terrell was hard for the A&R and songwriting teams at Motown Records to place as a solo artist. She turned out to be a girlfriend, which is why her records with Gaye were so effective.

It’s also how she is remembered, which makes it interesting to listen to Come On and See Me: The Complete Solo Collections, a two-CD anthology compiled 10 years ago by Harry Weinger for the Hip-O Select label. Adding pre-Motown material and rare, unreleased and live tracks from her Hitsville USA days to her one solo album (titled Irresistible), the collection leaves the listener wondering why she never achieved success in her own right.

Born Thomasina Montgomery to a middle-class Philadelphia family, she won a talent contest at the age of 11. Four years later the New York producer Luther Dixon signed her to Scepter Records, whose headline artists included the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Scepter shared Motown’s habit of rotating the same backing track among different singers until a combination clicked. So it’s interesting to hear Tammy Montgomery — as she had become — singing to the same track of Dixon’s “If You See Bill” that would turn up on Warwick’s debut album two years later, and revoicing the Shirelles’ “Make the Night a Little Longer”, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. There’s also a version of Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard’s “Sinner’s Devotion” which virtually defines Scepter’s variation on the uptown soul sound.

In 1963 she joined James Brown’s touring company and recorded a couple of his songs, “I Cried” and “If You Don’t Think”, for his Try Me label. The association was ended, according to Daphne Brooks’ excellent sleeve note, when her family discovered that their daughter was in an abusive relationship with Brown. Back in New York she recorded four sides for Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary with the producer Bert Berns, including “If I Would Marry You”, a co-composition by the singer and the producer in which they attempt to reproduce the magic of Inez and Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird”. The anthology includes an unreleased version of the song in which Tammy is joined at the microphone by Jimmy Radcliffe (he of “Long After Tonight Is All Over”) in a pre-echo of her work with Gaye.

Tammy was performing at Detroit’s 20 Grand nightclub, a favourite of Motown artists and staff, when she was heard by Berry Gordy Jr, who promptly signed her up — maybe as a replacement for the recently departed Mary Wells, his first female star, perhaps glimpsing the potential to develop a similar girlish sweetness — and renamed her Tammi Terrell. She was put to work with the producer/songwriter team of the experienced Harvey Fuqua and the novice Johnny Bristol, but first two years with the label, 1965 and 1966, yielded only two singles: “I Can’t Believe That You Love Me” and “Come On and See Me”. Today it seems bizarre that neither was a hit — particularly the second of them, with its irresistible syncopated chorus and every other element of the classic mid-’60s Motown sound present and correct.

The 18 rare, unissued and unfinished studio tracks on the second disc contain plenty of further examples of Motown in its prime years, while demonstrating the efforts being made to establish an identity. On the driving “I Gotta Find a Way (To Get You Back)” the producer Norman Whitfield seems to be trying to cast her as the new Martha Reeves. She was even sent to Los Angeles to record “Oh How I’d Miss You” with Hal Davis and Frank Wilson and an unidentified male singer joining the chorus — another hint of things to come. A song called “Lone Lonely Town”, written and produced by Mickey Gentile and Mickey Stevenson, became a Northern Soul favourite when it escaped the vaults many years later. “Give In, You Just Can’t Win”, another Fuqua/Bristol effort, and “All I Do Is Think About You”, co-written (and later re-recorded) by Stevie Wonder, are such perfect Motown records that it’s hard to believe they didn’t make it past the label’s weekly quality control meeting.

Her time at Motown, however, was disrupted by an affair with David Ruffin, again accompanied by allegations of abuse. In Susan Whitall’s valuable oral history Women of Motown, Brenda Holloway remembered the woman she called her best friend at the label: “She was a very, very sad, sad little person who was looking for love, and she paid the price for the love she didn’t have. She was a beautiful woman, but she was looking for love and she paid the price. Maybe she felt guilty because of her looks. They feel guilty because they can get anyone they want. But once you get them, is this what you really want? After you find out about the person you’ve attracted, you can’t shake loose. And she just got attached to the wrong people. She was vulnerable because her heart was exposed.”

Before the hits with Gaye – written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson — finally brought her into focus, Motown had certainly put some promotional muscle behind her solo career. The Hip-O Select set finishes with a recording made of part of her showcase appearance at the Roostertail, another popular Detroit night spot, on September 19, 1966. By opening with Lerner and Lowe’s “Almost Like Being in Love”, from the 1940s musical Brigadoon, she reminds us of Gordy’s desire to guide his female singers towards the middle of the road. A medley including “What a Difference a Day Makes”, “Runnin’ Out of Fools” and “Baby Love”, saluting Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin and her labelmate Diana Ross, is also intended to show her versatility. But the live versions of her first two singles have the Motown road band and backing singers operating at full power behind a 21-year-old Tammi Terrell whose poised delivery suggests what she might have achieved, given time.

Booker T’s tale

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Back in the 1980s, living in California, Booker T Jones was having so much trouble getting work as a musician that he and his wife took classes to become real-estate agents. Booker T Jones. That one. The one from Booker T and the MGs. The one who produced Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Whose Hammond B3 was a signature sound of ’60s R&B. Whose simple little 12-bar riff, titled “Green Onions”, still stands, 57 years later, as one of popular music’s moments of absolute perfection.

The tale about the real estate business is one of the surprises in Time Is Tight: My Life in Music, a new autobiography in which Booker T takes us on a pretty extraordinary journey. He tells the story — without the aid of a ghostwriter — in short chapters, sometimes shuffling the time sequence in a way that suggests he might have taken Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1 as an example. The mosaic effect is never intrusive: it works on the level of a man musing about his past and making connections that skip back and forth across time.

There’s an evocative portrait of his childhood as a multi-instrumental prodigy in Memphis, which included playing piano with Mahalia Jackson in church at the age of 12, making his first session at Stax Records on baritone saxophone behind Carla Thomas at 16 and playing organ behind William Bell on “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at 17. “Green Onions” arrived when he was 18, propelling him and his three fellow band members — Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr — to national prominence. But by then he could not be deflected from his plan to study music at the University of Indiana, which meant a 400-mile round trip to play sessions at weekends. It also put a dent in whatever touring plans the MGs might have had.

Tensions between Jones and the other band members simmer throughout the narrative, reaching one or two flashpoints as they go through various reunions and re-estrangements over the decades. The author seems to shy away from providing his deepest thoughts on his colleagues (including Duck Dunn, brought in by Cropper to replace Steinberg in 1964), and he provides no new information on the mysterious 1975 murder of Jackson, to whom he was close. There is a telling moment when, after spending a joyful time in Paris meeting beautiful women and writing the soundtrack to Jules Dassin’s 1968 movie Uptight, he re-records the theme tune, “Time Is Tight”, with the MGs for a single release. When it comes out, he discovers — “much to my dismay” — that the names of the other three have been added to the composer credits, as if this were just another session.

Jones has an enquiring mind and seemed to work out very early on that the deck was stacked against musicians when it came to royalties and song-publishing. He was on a salary at Stax, which paid minute royalties for the recordings and took complete ownership of his (very valuable) publishing rights. When the label was sold to the Gulf & Western corporation in 1969, prefacing its eventual collapse, he took it as his cue to move to Los Angeles, where he encountered a very different crowd from the one he had known in Memphis.

Before long he was befriending Leon Russell, playing bass-guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and living with Priscilla Coolidge, the sister of Rita, whose solo hits he produced. The nightmare of his eventual 10-year marriage to the hard-partying, wrist-slashing Priscilla is recounted in detail, balanced by the subsequent description of his blissful family life with Nan Warhurst, who became his third wife in 1985 (and gave her name to a track on Potato Hole, his great instrumental album of 2009).

There are some passages of effective prose: “The hills of Malibu could be every bit as lonely as a cell-like room in Manhattan. At night, the hills became quiet and seemed to close in so tight on you that you’d swear you were going crazy. Just like the noise in New York. Especially if you were alone, or with the wrong person.” Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole book comes when Nan’s mother corners him at their wedding to tell him how disappointed she is that her daughter has married across the line of colour: “The unthinkable had happened in her family and she stood shaking, glaring into my eyes. No one noticed or knew what was going on.” If the last few pages contain sentimental passages on how well his kids have turned out, we can cut him some slack there.

As well as the absorbing descriptions of working with Nelson, Otis Redding, Neil Young and many others, and of playing for the Obamas at the White House, long-term admirers will enjoy the analysis of how a few of the MGs’ best known pieces were created, particularly in terms of their chord structures. Anyone who is currently listening to the recently released first volume of their collected singles and B-sides will find their enjoyment enhanced by reading his accounts of the making of “Green Onions” (its voicing inspired, it turns out, by Booker’s early lessons in Bachian counterpoint), “Soul Dressing”, “Booker-Loo” and others, including Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Eddie Floyd’s extraordinary “Big Bird” (“We had moved into the Age of Aquarius”), as well as by that of later pieces such as “Hang ’em High” and “Melting Pot”.

Booker T Jones is one of my musical heroes, and an hour spent in his company in 2009, for a Guardian interview, left me with the impression of a deeply thoughtful and naturally open-minded man. His autobiography tells me a great deal I didn’t know and makes me respect him even more.

* Booker T Jones’s Time Is Tight: My Life in Music is published in the USA by Little, Brown and in the UK by Omnibus Press. The Complete Stax Singles Vol 1 (1962-67) is out now on the Stax/Real Gone label.

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 true 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

 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.