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Posts from the ‘Soul music’ Category

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

gladys knight and the pips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swing Out Sister in Islington

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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.

Ry Cooder at Cadogan Hall

Ry Cooder Cadogan Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue shadows, etc

Chuck-Jackson-LP

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

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

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

Shirley Ellis and ‘The Nitty Gritty’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Lavette, protest singer

Betty Lavette

Which activist was it who remarked, sometime in the early ’70s, that he’d forgive Bob Dylan everything if he’d just write one more good song against the Vietnam war? I forget, and it doesn’t really matter. Dylan, of course, never responded to the plea. That phase of his life was done. And I guess that when Patti Smith sings “Hard Rain” at the Nobel ceremony in the time of Trump and Putin, a 50-year-old song is as good as new.

So if we can’t have new songs that rail against injustice with the kind of resonance that Dylan’s early efforts achieved, then maybe revisiting the old ones is the best we can hope for. The fine soul singer Betty LaVette does that to an extent on her new album, Things Have Changed, where she and her producer, Steve Jordan, reinterpret a dozen Dylan songs of varying vintages.

Most of them are non-political, either early (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mama You Been on My Mind”), mid-period (“Going Going Gone”) or more recent (“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Emotionally Yours”, “Seeing the Real You at Last”). But the saw-toothed, low-slung version of the title track which opens the album sounds like an elliptical state-of-the-nation address delivered from the back table of some anonymous small-town bar, and it sets the tone and trajectory for what follows.

Much credit for the album’s considerable success must go to the guitar of Larry Campbell (one of Dylan’s most faithful sidemen), the keyboards of Leon Pendarvis, the bass guitar of Pino Palladino and Jordan’s drums, whose collective nailing of a kind of grunge-funk mode is discreetly compelling throughout. It took skill, imagination and guts to devise a new groove for “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, in which LaVette pays as little attention to the sheet music as Dylan himself would, cutting herself loose from the melody to locate what she needs within such a well-worn song. “Political World” rides on a lean displaced-backbeat riff that nods to War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness”, which suits me fine, and the exquisitely restrained treatment of “Going, Going, Gone” lifts it straight into the upper reaches of my list of favourite Dylan covers.

Now I come to think about it, there’s isn’t actually much explicit protest in this album — certainly not as much as in Mavis Staples’ recent If All I Was Was Black. But somehow the mood still feels insurrectionary. As Bob wrote and Betty sings, “This is a political world, where peace ain’t welcome at all / It’s turned away from the door to wander some more / Or put up against the wall…”

* Things Have Changed is out now on the Impulse label. The photograph of Betty LaVette is by Mark Seliger.

 

Terry Evans 1938-2018

The Mississippi-born soul singer Terry Evans, who died earlier this year at the age of 80, was responsible for one of the greatest vocal moments I ever heard in my life. As one of the singers who travelled with Ry Cooder and his band in the 1970s, he was given the second verse of “(At the) Dark End of the Street”, the great deep-soul ballad written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and made famous by James Carr. What he made of the second line of that verse was what did it for me. I witnessed it live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1977, and luckily the moment was recaptured in the studio of BBC2’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Each of the singers — the other two are Bobby King and Eldridge King — gets a verse, but Terry Evans’s moment (1:28-1:35 in the clip) is beyond sublime. He made some nice records under his own name — notably the Cooder-produced Blues for Thought (1994), containing a lovely version of another Carr-related song, “That’s the Way Love Turned Out For Me” — but these few seconds are his testament. Rest in peace, Mr Evans.

The story of Al Duncan

Al Duncan

Long before I knew his name, I was hooked on Al Duncan’s playing. In the autumn of 1963 the Impressions’ “It’s All Right” came on the radio, with its beautiful drum fills. Over the next couple of years there followed a procession of Curtis Mayfield-written songs by the Impressions and Major Lance, driven — like “Delilah” and “I Need You” — by that very distinctive drumming, so clean and relaxed.

Along with Motown’s Benny Benjamin in Detroit and Stax’s Al Jackson Jr in Memphis, Duncan propelled the cream of mid-’60s soul. Eventually I discovered his name, along with the information that he played a lot of blues, R&B and soul sessions in Chicago for Vee-Jay, Chess and other labels before being supplanted by a younger man, Maurice White (later, of course, the co-founder of Earth Wind & Fire). But I didn’t know anything else until this week, when I bought the new issue of Blues & Rhythm, the fine British monthly magazine, and there he was on the cover.

The story is an interview taped in 1975 in Santa Monica by the writer Bill Greensmith, and never previously published. Duncan talks at length about his entire career, from his early days as an aspirant jazz drummer in Texas and Kansas City, playing with the bandleaders Ernie Fields and Jay McShann, to his collaborations with Mayfield, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Phil Upchurch and many others, and his move in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where he played with people like Red Holloway but seemingly failed to break into the session scene.

He died on January 3, 1995, aged 68. For me, this interview is priceless testimony from a man whose playing has been part of my life for more than half a century. So thanks, Bill Greensmith, for disinterring it, and to the editors of Blues & Rhythm for not only publishing it but making Al Duncan their cover star.

Dennis Edwards 1943-2018

Temptations

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.