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Posts from the ‘Soul music’ Category

The return of Little Steven

Little StevenNeed 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.

“Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell…”

archie-bell-1

Among the select group of great pop singles that last no more than two and a quarter minutes, “Here I Go Again” by Archie Bell and the Drells stands pretty much supreme. From Bobby Eli’s electric sitar opening to the jammed fade, not a single one of its 135 seconds is wasted.

It was written and produced in Philadelphia in 1969 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and arranged by Bobby Martin and Thom Bell. The principal musicians will have been Eli and his fellow guitarist Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker on bass guitar, Earl Young on drums and Vince Montana on vibes (or possibly, in this instance, xylophone). I give them special prominence because the heart of the record is not to be found in the vocal verse and chorus but in the little four-bar instrumental interludes that punctuate the song so memorably.

The record starts with a 12-bar intro featuring Eli’s Danelectro Coral electric sitar before going into the 16-bar verse and the eight-bar chorus, all built on an E flat-A flat-B flat sequence and a blithe backbeat with double-time bass guitar fills. That’s followed by the first of the four-bar interludes, in which the rhythmic emphasis changes subtly but significantly, driving deeper into the “one”, anchored by a grunting baritone saxophone; more important, there’s also a radical harmonic shift from the E flat base (by my amateur musical forensics, which someone more expert might well correct) to a G-B-A-D pattern*. The combined effect of the two elements gives an exhilarating lift to this mini-break, somehow heightened by the absence of a solo instrument.

The effect is like suddenly changing the lighting in a room — and then back again, just as suddenly, when the tension is released by a return to the original mode. They run through the 16-8-4 pattern again, and then the chorus is repeated once more before the instrumental section returns and is played three times, with Archie Bell wailing on top this time, to the fade. And then it’s over, quite abruptly, and you want to play it again.

When it came out on a 45 in the US in 1969 it was as the B-side to “A World Without Music”, which failed to make the US Top 1oo. Three years later, however, it was discovered by Northern Soul dancers, who took it into the UK pop charts, where it peaked at No 11. Archie told Blues & Soul magazine that when he was informed of its belated and unexpected success, he had trouble recalling the song.

It’s included in Let’s Groove: The Archie Bell & the Drells Story, a new 2-CD anthology on Big Break Records. The compilers include the obvious hits, beginning with the first from 1967, introduced thus: “Hi, everybody, I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, from Houston, Texas. We don’t only sing, but we dance just as good as we want.  In Houston, we’ve just started a new dance called the Tighten Up. This is the music we Tighten Up with…” That rough but irresistible debut single, “Tighten Up Pt 1”, duly went to No 1 in the pop and R&B charts.

I confess that I never kept the closest watch on their career, and among the 44 tracks are many that are new to me, including “A Soldier’s Prayer 1967”, a ballad in which Archie — who was wounded in Vietnam — sings about the experience of thinking about his family while preparing to go into combat. (This turns out not to be quite true: see the comment below from Blaise Pascal.) There’s also the charming “Archie’s in Love”, written by Philip Mitchell, produced by Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, and introduced with a nostalgic snatch of a country waltz before snapping into a hip-swinging 1971 disco beat.

The second disc includes a selection of the dancefloor favourites they recorded for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in the second half of the ’70s, many of them produced by John Whitehead and Gene McFadden. In”Let’s Groove”, “The Soul City Walk”, “Dance Your Troubles Away” and the rest, the textures are smoother, the grooves slinkier, and the instrumental breaks much longer. It’s the generic disco music of its time, washed in the spangled rays of a mirror ball, beautifully executed and captured by a great bunch of session musicians and studio engineers. But nothing, I have to say, beats the magical 135 seconds of “Here I Go Again”.

* It’s quite possible that the speed of the track was altered during mixing or even mastering, and that the respective chord sequences might originally have been E-A-B and A flat-C-B flat-E flat.

Moses Boyd at Frieze

moses-boyd-at-tt-bwIt’s Frieze week in London, meaning that the streets of the more fashionable quarters of the city are thronged with art people. Last night some of them made their way to a party thrown by the Timothy Taylor Gallery in a Soho basement beneath the Phonica vinyl record shop on Poland Street, where the music was provided by a quartet under the leadership of the drummer Moses Boyd.

I’ve written about Boyd’s much-praised duo with the tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and, more recently, about his contribution to Orphy Robinson’s salute to Bobby Hutcherson, but this was something very different. Completing the quartet were Golding, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the keyboardist Niji Adeleye, and they started as they meant to go on: with Moses setting a groove that got the room moving, and the others joining in at full throttle. That’s where they stayed for the best part of an hour of unbroken music, with the groove shifting gears a couple of times but the volume and the intensity staying high.

If you can imagine a cross between the wildly distorted noise of the early Lifetime and the sophisto-funk of those Grant Green albums recorded live in 1970-71 at down-home joints like the Cliché Lounge in Newark, New Jersey and the Club Mozambique in Detroit, you’ll be part of the way to imagining what they sounded like. There were rough edges all over the place, but in a good way. Shirley Tetteh’s playing sound like it might be heading towards an interesting blend of Green’s plain-spoken bluesiness, the fluid rhythmic stutter of Hux Brown from Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One rhythm section, and the floaty lyricism of King Sunny Adé’s guitars. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes it.

Anyway, they blew apart any notion of what a conventional Frieze week social occasion organised by a high-end Mayfair gallery might be. “Party” is what it said on the invitation, and a party is what they made it. If the four of them can get the sense of unstoppable energy on to a record, you’ll be able to have that party in your very own home.

The sound of ’66

The portrait painted in 1966: 50 Years Ago Today, the BBC4 Arena documentary directed by Paul Tickell and based on Jon Savage’s recent book, was full of interesting things (notably a reminder of Jonathan Miller’s sensational quasi-psychedelic TV version of Alice in Wonderland). The mood Tickell strove to evoke, concentrating on a dour, monochrome paranoia, wasn’t the way I remember 1966 — a year only half a notch below its immediate predecessor in terms of cultural stimuli and general euphoria — but at least his programme had a point of view. And it also had, towards the end, a snatch of one of the greatest of all cover versions of a Lennon & McCartney song.

J.J. Barnes would eventually become a Northern Soul hero through tracks such as “Real Humdinger”, “Please Let Me In” and “Our Love (Is in the Pocket)”. His version of “Day Tripper” precedes and surpasses them, in my view. It was arranged and co-produced for Detroit’s Ric-Tic label by Andrew “Mike” Terry, a Motown studio regular whose fruity baritone saxophone solos could be heard on “Heat Wave”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “This Old Heart of Mine” and many others. I love the way Terry takes on the riff from the Beatles’ original and, while keeping the driving 4/4 rhythm and the fuzz guitar, hardens up the groove, those trumpet stabs and flourishes adding an extra dimension behind Barnes’s Wilson Pickettish vocal. And presumably that’s James Jamerson, Paul McCartney’s bass-guitar hero, moonlighting from Hitsville USA to dig into the riff.

What gives the record its special immediacy is the grainy low-fi sound that would never have made it past Berry Gordy Jr’s quality control department. It was there on the original UK Polydor version I bought the week it came out in 1966, and it’s still there today, proudly resistant to any kind of digital clean-up technology.

Since we’re on the subject, there’s another favourite I’d like to mention. It’s Roy Redmond’s soulful version of “Good Day Sunshine”, arranged and produced by Jerry Ragovoy for the Loma label, Warner Bros’ soul subsidiary, in 1967. It has the lot: great laconic guitar intro, heat-drugged slow-drag beat, greasy southern horns, gospel-style female back-up choir, and an excellent lead vocal from another obscure soul-music hero. I believe McCartney himself had nice things to say about it, and no wonder.

* Ace Records have just announced the September release of Let It Be, the second volume in their Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney series. Vol 1 (titled Come Together) included Roy Redmond’s “Good Day Sunshine” among a quantity of other good stuff. J.J. Barnes’s “Day Tripper” isn’t on either volume, sadly. For that reason alone, there is bound to be a Vol 3.

Motown part 2 (of 3): The white guy’s story

Motown Barney AlesThe name of Barney Ales became a familiar one to those who took a close interest in the evolution of Motown Records in the 1960s. Ales didn’t sing, or write songs, or produce sessions. He wasn’t a musician or a choreographer or a voice coach. He was the guy hired by Berry Gordy Jr in 1961 as national sales manager and promotion director. And now he is the co-author, with the music historian Adam White, of Motown: The Sound of Young America, a lavishly produced history of the label.

Ales had worked for Capitol Records before joining Motown at the age of 27. His job was to get the records played on the radio and to ensure not just that they were distributed efficiently to record stores around the country but that the invoices got paid. Almost as much as the quality of the music, that was the secret of Gordy’s operation: business had to be taken care of with a different attitude from that of most black-owned labels. He needed someone who could talk to white disc jockeys and record distributors without the barrier, conscious or unconscious, of race.

One can assume that, having worked with the founder almost from the beginning and ending up as a vice-president before leaving in 1978, Ales knows a few secrets behind Gordy’s struggle to establish the label and extend its success beyond the boundaries of black America. Perhaps those with fond memories of Number One With a Bullet, the novelised version of the Motown story written by Elaine Jesmer, a former publicist, and never republished after its original appearance in 1974, will come to Ales’s memoir hoping for true-life confessions. That would be a mistake. This is a version of the tale that passes lightly over the darker episodes, while containing much detail that will be useful to those wanting to know more about Gordy’s triumph.

There are many books about Motown, including the autobiographies of Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams and Mary Wilson. My own favourite is one of the more modest efforts: Susan Whitall’s Women of Motown, an oral history based on interviews with Martha Reeves, Claudette Robinson, Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John, Carolyn “Cal” Gill and others, published in the US by Avon Books in 1998. White and Ales give us a view from a different perspective, and a valuable one.

The narrative begins in an interestingly unorthodox way with a long and well illustrated account of the Detroit riot of 1967, which devastated clubs and record stores as well as homes and other businesses. It came perilously close to the Motown headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, where bullet holes in the flower pots outside the entrance were the only sign of damage to what, with gross income of $20m the previous year, was on the way to becoming America’s biggest black-owned business. The significance is that, only a month after the fires in the ghetto had finally been extinguished, Gordy and Ales had the courage to go ahead with Motown’s first-ever national sales conference, with a gala concert at the Roostertail Club on the banks of the Detroit River featuring the Supremes, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Chris Clark and the Spinners. Fifteen new albums were announced at the conference; on the day of the launch, the sales department was able to count a record $4m in orders, or 20 per cent of the preceding year’s revenue.

That’s typical of the kind of detail Ales provides. His description of his dealings with Morris Levy, the heavily Mob-connected boss of Roulette Records, contains the fascinating story of how Mary Wells’ “My Guy” was bootlegged in the New York area by Gordy’s ex-wife, Raynoma Liles, who had moved to the city to open an office for the company’s song-publishing division, only to have the funding cut off by her former husband. As she told it in her own autobiography (Berry, Me and Motown, published in the US by Contemporary Books in 1990), she had 5,000 copies pressed up and sold them to a distributor for 50 cents apiece in order to raise the money to keep the office open. It was unfortunate for Liles — an important figure in the early days of the company, as an arranger and musical director — that by selling counterfeit copies of the Wells hit, she was depriving Levy of income. Her own account does not mention him, perhaps because he was still alive when she wrote it.

All this, and much more, is extremely well told and to be enjoyed alongside the wonderful illustrations, including contact sheets, album jackets, picture sleeves and advertising material in this large-format publication. My favourite of the many fabulous photographs is one by Bruce Davidson, the great Magnum photographer, who catches the Supremes backstage in New York in 1965, sitting alongside each other in their dressing room, bathed in pink light, surrounded by make-up pots, perfume bottles and ashtrays. Davidson shoots from above and behind the three women, catching their reflections: Flo Ballard using a tissue to blot her mascara and Mary Wilson touching up her hair, both sharing a single mirror, while Diana Ross, with her own individual mirror, stares straight into his lens.

* In the photograph above, Barney Ales (standing, extreme left) is hosting a group of Detroit radio personalities at the Roostertail Club. It can be found in Motown: The Sound of Young America, which is published by Thames & Hudson, price £39.95.

Motown part 1 (of 3): The B-sides

Motown B-sidesOn its opening in London last week, Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown: The Musical drew this comment from the Independent‘s reviewer: “As for the occasional new numbers written to plug emotional gaps — they’re cheesy, clichéd affairs, which wouldn’t pass muster as B-sides.” It reminded me of the endless pleasure afforded in the 1960s by the discovery that on the B-side of the latest Motown purchase could often be found a track just as good as the designated A-side.

What the great B-sides of the 1960s often did was show you another dimension of the featured artist. In the case of Motown, whose A-sides were usually aimed at dancers, the songs on the flip were frequently ballads. The work ethic of Gordy’s songwriters, producers, musicians and singers meant that they were often every bit as good as the “plug sides”. Here are half a dozen of my favourites.

The Miracles: “A Fork in the Road” (1965)  What are the chances of the greatest record ever made — “The Tracks of My Tears”, of course — having an almost equally distinguished B-side? This is one of Smokey Robinson’s deepest ballads: “Seems like love should be easier to bear / But it’s such a heavy load / Worldwide traveller, you ain’t been nowhere / Till you’ve travelled down love’s road.” Voices, strings, vibes and Marvin Tarplin’s liquid guitar set up a mood of entrancement. But beware, danger’s there. Midway there’s a pause, while Smokey gathers himself in preparation for these lines of warning: “If there is something that you don’t see eye-to-eye / You’d better think before you tell your love goodbye / ‘Cause your paths may never cross again / Make sure you take the same bend / At the fork in love’s road…” Just listen to the way he delivers the word “’cause” at 2:41, with an ascending four-note phrase that is a lesson in the proper deployment of vocal virtuosity.

Kim Weston: “Don’t Compare Me With Her” (1965)  If I had too choose one record to represent Motown’s dancefloor magic, it would probably be Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”. And here on the B-side is an utterly glorious ballad from Eddie Holland, Lamond Dozier and James Bradford. Apparently Kim didn’t like being given sad songs all the time, even when the tempo was up. But that bitter-sweetness was a Motown speciality.

The Temptations: “You’ll Lose a Precious Love” (1966)  Released on the flip of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, this gorgeous Smokey Robinson ballad was cut in 1964 and harks back to the streetcorner doo-wop roots of the composer and the group. David Ruffin reins in his customary gospel rasp to make a delicate job of the lead vocal, with bassman Melvin Franklin stepping forward for a brief solo contribution.

The Supremes: “Remove This Doubt” (1966)  Another B-side from 1964 coupled to a ’66 hit, this time “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”. Here’s the sweeter side of Holland-Dozier-Holland: a proper swoonerama for Diane Ross to get her teeth into. “Be more tender / Completely surrender your love to me / Be sweet and not discreet…” The swirly sound works better on a battered mono 45 than on this remastered stereo version.

The Isley Brothers: “There’s No Love Left” (1966)  The B-side of the floor-filling “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”, and I always preferred its combination of a heartbroken song with a deliberate mid-tempo 4/4, a small half-hidden masterpiece of the H-D-H oeuvre. Hear Ronald Isley cry as the melody hauls itself upwards: “Wondering what am I gonna do? Where can I go?” Answer came there none.

Four Tops: “If You Don’t Want My Love” (1967)  The flip of “You Keep Running Away”, the last of the their great run of hits penned by the H-D-H team before the producers turned to brilliant covers of Tim Hardin and the Left Banke. This one isn’t quite like anything else: it’s a gospel take on doo-wop, with Levi Stubbs wailing over a short chord cycle. Brilliant use of harpsichord to italicise the changes, too. And it has one of the great trademarks of the Tops’ hits: the keening sound of the Andantes (Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow), Motown’s regular female session singers, layered above the male voices: somehow, the pure sound of love in despair.

Many others could be added to that list. The Miracles’ sublime “(You Can) Depend on Me”, for instance, which appeared on the flip first of the unsuccessful “The Feeling Is So Fine” in 1959 and then coupled with the local hit “Way Over There” the following year. The Supremes’ delightfully winsome “He Holds His Own”. The Temptations’ Smokey-penned tragedies “Fading Away” and “Don’t Look Back” (on which Paul Williams sang lead). Martha and the Vandellas’ “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”. Brenda Holloway’s “I’ve Been Good to You” and “Starting the Hurt All Over Again”. The Elgins’ “Darling Baby”. Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Stepping Closer to Your Heart”. In those days at Hitsville USA, they really did have songs to burn.

* Parts 2 and 3 will look at Adam White’s new book, Motown: The Sound of Young America, and at One Track Mind, a new Ace Records compilation of material from the Motown vaults.

James Jamerson at 80

James Jamerson 2Had he lived, the most influential of all bass guitarists would have been 80 years old this week: on January 29, to be precise. Many of us will never stop marvelling at the creativity shown by the one and only James Jamerson during an era when session musicians who played his instrument were expected to do little more than mark the song’s chord changes and keep in step with the drummer.

Luckily, Jamerson (who died in 1983) played on so many records during his time as the No 1 bass player in Motown’s Detroit studio — roughly from 1960 to 1972 — that fans like me can spend a lifetime discovering half-buried examples of his artistry. A couple of years ago I wrote here about his contribution to Martha and the Vandellas’ “No More Tear Stained Make Up”. The latest one I can’t stop playing is a Mary Wells obscurity called “I’ve Got a Story”, recorded in 1962 and released a couple of years ago on a Hip-O Select from-the-vaults compilation called Something New: Original Recordings 1961-64.

An irresistibly catchy song by Marvin Gaye and two of Motown’s top backroom boys in the early years, Mickey Stevenson and Hank Cosby, its lyric has Mary telling us about a friend who’s made a disastrous decision to turn love aside before admitting that the fool is, in fact, her (“Now it was me… it was me who lost a real true lover”). It gets a fine Stevenson production featuring a chorus of grainy horns and an ace performance by the Funk Brothers, with a starring role for the bass.

A rattle of the snare and toms from Benny Benjamin’s mix ‘n’ match studio kit introduces a strutting medium-tempo rhythm entirely driven by Jamerson. He makes his Fender Precision sound almost as fruity as a tuba in a New Orleans marching band as he sits on top of the 4/4, adding his own distinctive hook to the track by inserting little descending 16th-note runs on the fourth beat of each bar, occasionally adding variation by switching the run to the second beat, and in the bridge — as the drummer adds a subtle Latin accent — sometimes extending the motif into a run across both the third and fourth beats.

The choice of notes in these beautifully articulated 16th-note flurries could only have come from someone with a jazz background, someone used to searching the chords for the most interesting variations. That’s what Jamerson had, and this is an example of how it could put it to creative use in the service of a pretty little pop song, probably something he’d already forgotten by the time he got into his car that evening and headed away from 2648 West Grand Blvd.

I’ve also been listening to his playing on the Four Tops’ hits, specifically “Bernadette”, on which he spins an amazing variety of figures around Richard “Pistol” Allen’s imperturbable four-to-the-bar snare drum beat with astonishing flexibility and imagination, and “Ask the Lonely”, where he does the opposite: by dropping anchor on the tonic while the chords shift, avoiding any hint of decoration, he underscores the song’s piercing melancholy.

But back to “I’ve Got a Story”. Recorded on June 28, 1962, it remained unheard for more than 30 years. Obviously it didn’t get past Berry Gordy Jr’s celebrated quality control committee. Could that be because, at 1:40 and 1:47, in the course of this virtuoso display, Jamerson hits two of the very few unconvincing notes of his career? Unlikely. They’re not wrong. They’re just not the perfect choices by a man to whom, in the dozen years that counted. perfection was an everyday matter of fact.

Love Don’t Love Nobody

As long as Boz Scaggs goes on making records, I imagine I’ll keep buying them. Although his new one, A Fool to Care, has its pleasant moments, it isn’t up there with the very best of his work. And, unusually for Boz, it also contains a serious misstep, one that’s worth noting because of its nature.

It’s a cover version, and when Scaggs chooses to cover a song, you can tell it’s because he loved the original. He never moves far from the way it first fell on his ears. And a man who can deliver a decent cover of something as extraordinary as Mable John’s “Your Real Good Thing (Is About to End)”, as he did on Come on Home in 1997, is not to be disrespected. With one song on the new album, however, he overreached himself before he even got started.

The Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” was one of the finest soul records of the 1970s, and still sounds to me like one of the greatest deep-soul ballads of all time. It was written by Charles Simmons and Joseph Jefferson, whose credits appeared on many Philadephia records of the era; the arrangement and production came from the extremely great Thom Bell, who moulded the hits of the Delfonics and the Stylistics as well those of the Spinners. It also has a lead vocal that shows what was lost to the art of soul singing when Philippé Wynne died in 1984 at the age of 43, after suffering a heart attack on stage in Oakland, Calfornia.

Wynne could decorate a song with wonderfully inventive ornamentation which, by contrast with the work of the narcissists of today’s so-called R&B, never called undue attention to itself but was always in the service of the song, the arrangement, and the production. In that respect he was the peer of Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass. And he was at his exalted best on “Love Don’t Love Nobody”: seven minutes and 13 seconds of soul heaven.

The record begins with Bell’s piano, discreetly shadowed by a bass guitar and vibes, quietly commanding attention. There’s gospel in the cadences, but also a grave delicacy in Bell’s keyboard voicings and a pensive elegance in his touch. It’s the sound of introspection, even the sound of sadness itself, setting Wynne up for his entrance with that heart-rending opening verse: “Sometimes a girl will come and go / You reach for love, but life won’t let you know / That in the end you’ll still be loving her / But then she’s gone, you’re all alone…”

As the track builds, Wynne adds his characteristic inventions to the song but firmly resists the temptation to overdo it. He’s listening to Bell’s arrangement, so spare, so subtly sophisticated as it adds strings and backing voices, and he’s making himself a part of it, even when he jams over the long fade.

One other thing. I was doing some remixing at Sigma Sound in 1974 when I fell into conversation with an engineer, and asked him about Thom Bell. When I told him how much I admired “Love Don’t Love Nobody”, he said that he’d worked on that session a year or so earlier. He told me that the rhythm track had been done in a single take, and that Bell had finished it in tears. That knowledge doesn’t make me listen to it in a different way, but perhaps it does help to explain the very deep connection that it can make.

Boz Scaggs does a decent job on a song of which he is obviously very fond. But I can’t help wondering if, had he known about Thom Bell’s tears, he’d still have decided to take it on.

R&B in Chinatown

Mar-Keys 1The next piece of central London to be threatened by homogenisation and/or development, according to last Sunday’s Observer, is Chinatown. It’s a small area bounded by Gerrard Street to the north, a short section of Wardour Street to the west (including the bit that once housed the Flamingo), Lisle Street to the south and Newport Place to the east. The original Ronnie Scott’s Club was housed from 1959 to 1965 in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street; after the move to Wardour Street, it was kept open for a while as the Old Place.

My fondest memory of Chinatown comes from the time when Lisle Street still mostly consisted of shops selling electrical equipment. In the 1970s it would become — and still is — the location of restaurants favoured by those who were really knowledgeable about Chinese food and followed the best chefs from kitchen to kitchen. But in the mid-’60s the basement of No 27 opened on Saturday mornings to sell American soul and R&B records.

The shop was called Transat Imports, and there are some nice reminiscences of it here on the British Record Shop Archive. You have to remember that back then British fans of black American popular music still felt like members of a secret society. On a visit in 1964, during a day trip down to London, I remember seeing boxes full of stuff I wanted so badly that I could hardly breathe. I could only afford one 45, so I bought the Mar-Keys’ “Bush Bash”.

Following their huge success with “Last Night” in 1961, the Mar-Keys had stopped having hits, which meant that “Bush Bash” was unlikely to get a British release. That’s almost certainly why I chose it. It’s a minor but nevertheless snappy example of how good the Stax rhythm section (the MGs) and their friends sounded, with a particularly crisp Latin beat from Al Jackson Jr’s drums. There’s a short but pungently soulful tenor saxophone solo — probably by Gilbert Caple, who is listed as a co-writer, along with Booker T. Jones and Floyd Newman, who more usually played tenor but is probably on baritone on this tune.

(Three years earlier Caple and Newman, who were friends, had come up with the riff for “Last Night”, Stax’s first big hit and one of the all-time great instrumentals, but found themselves sharing the publishing with three others, including the producer and the record company owner’s son. When a band called the Mar-Keys went out on the road to promote it, neither of them was included. “I never thought that fair, not at all,” Newman said in Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s history of Stax, “because Gilbert and I was a part of that group, but we were black.”)

Maybe “Bush Bash” wasn’t the best record I bought in 1964, which was, after all, a very good year. But I liked it enough — and the memory of visiting Transat Imports — to have kept it with me all these years, in its original brown paper sleeve, just the way it came from the US.