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A talk with Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield

Thirty years ago, on September 13, 1990, during an open-air concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, Curtis Mayfield suffered the accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. Just over three years later I went to his home in Atlanta, Georgia to conduct an interview that I’ll never forget. Here it is.

“There’s not really much to talk about,” Curtis Mayfield said. “It happened, and it happened fast. I never even saw it coming.” And then, gathering momentum, he started to describe the events of a late-summer day in 1990.

“It was the 13th of September,” he began. “I think it was a Monday. I flew into New York from Long Beach, California. I had my driver come and meet us at La Guardia. Everybody was in good shape. We went over to New Jersey. I had decided to stay in a hotel over there — it was a little cheaper. I got on the phone, called my promoter at about eleven o’clock to tell him we were here. He told me he’d call me back, which he did a little later, and he gave me directions to come out to Queens.

“We arrived there at about eight-thirty or nine. It was bigger than I thought — about 10,000 people right out in the park. We pulled up behind the stage. I met a few people, shook a few hands, got my money — my balance in advance. All the normal things. I’m in the safest place in my life, doing my work.

“I was to close the show, but it was running a little late, and I was asked to go on stage a little early so people who were there to see me wouldn’t be disappointed. No problem. I was happy to do that. I tuned my guitar and jumped into my stage clothes. The promoter’s son came out and said, ‘We’re ready for you.’ I sent my band out and they hit the opening number. It was ‘Superfly’.

“I had my guitar on and I’m walking up these sort of ladder steps, a little bit steep but not so steep you couldn’t walk up them. I get to the top of the back of the stage, I take two or three steps, and… I don’t remember anything. I don’t even remember falling.

“The next thing I know, I was lying on my back. So I must have went out for a moment. And then I discovered that neither my hands nor my arms were where I thought they were, and I couldn’t move. I looked about me lying there. I saw myself totally splattered all over the stage.

“Then it began to rain. Big drops. I could hear people screaming and hollering. From what I could observe, all of everything above us had come out of the sky. I chose not to shut my eyes, for fear of dying. The rain was falling. Some of the fellows found me and saw that I was paralysed, so they went and found a big piece of plastic sheeting to protect me in the rain until the paramedics arrived. Luckily, the hospital was right around the corner. Everything else is history.”

And then, lying in the large bed in the front room of his house, Curtis Mayfield fell silent. His brown eyes peered over the top of the white sheet. The tape recorder, propped on the pillow case close to his mouth, turned noiselessly. Nothing else moved. For Mayfield, nothing had moved since that humid night three and a half years earlier when he took the stage, just as he had done countless times throughout a thirty-year performing career, and a lighting rig toppled, paralysing him from the neck down and silencing one of the great poetic voices of post-war America.

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He was born in 1942 and grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side. His father left home when he was four years old and he was raised by his mother. But when he talked about where he had acquired his view of the world, and his means of expressing that view, he kept returning to memories of his grandmother.

“I used to be back and forth between my mother and my grandmother,” he said. “She was the Reverend Annie Bell Mayfield, and she had a little storefront church — the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. We’d have Bible classes there early on Sunday mornings before my grandmother’s sermons, which would go on from nine o’clock in the morning until noon.” Annie Bell Mayfield died some years ago, leaving no evidence of her prowess as a preacher, but it’s easy to believe that, if we were somehow able to retrieve an replay her Sunday morning marathons, we would hear the distinctive patterns that distinguish not only her grandson’s lyrics but also, from time to time, his conversation, in which ghetto vernacular is articulated with a graceful formality that can only have come from early and prolonged exposure to the King James Bible.

He began to sing, too, in her church, where he also heard many styles of gospel music performed by visiting choirs, an experience that augmented a fondness for the recordings of the Sensational Nightingales and the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama — “on that black and white Specialty label, in the days when I had to stand on tiptoe to reach the Victrola.” At home, where his mother kept the family together through welfare payments, there was always a record on the Victrola or something playing on the radio, and he quickly learned to love the grown-up popular music of Billie Holiday as well as the teenage doo-wop of the Spaniels, the Cadillacs and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

At eight or nine he was singing alongside a young friend, Jerry Butler, in a gospel group called the Northern Jubilees. In his early teens, having picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the piano, he started fooling around a guitar that a friend had left at his grandmother’s house. Knowing nothing, he tuned it to the black keys of the piano. The result was an F-sharp open tuning which he discovered was incorrect, or at least unorthodox, when he and the Impressions made their first visit to the Apollo in Harlem and he tried playing along with the house orchestra. “No one else tunes that way,” he said with sadness, the arms that had cradled that guitar lying immobile under the bedsheet. “So it’s a lost art now, a lost tuning.” At eleven or twelve he was singing with schoolboy doo-wop quartets, using housing-project stairwells as echo chambers, and before long he was writing songs for them to sing. His guitar was the vehicle, and his imagination provided the material.

“Everything was a song,” he said. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love. If you could feel it, I could feel it. And if I could feel it, I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”

His mother encouraged him to read widely, and introduced him to the work of the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. “My teacher told me I’d never amount to anything,” he said. “I left high school at fifteen, after just one year. But my real teachers were the people around me. And I was a good listener. I used to love to sit and listen to the old people talk about yesterday. There’s a lot of good information there.”

The sharp awareness of social problems came, he said, simply from looking at the world around him. “I was a young black kid. One of the first things I remember, in the early ’50s, was the boy from the north who went to Mississippi to visit and happened to say something or whistle to a white woman. They came and got him out of the night and destroyed him.” He was referring to fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 by white racists for his alleged effrontery. “All of these things come into your head. And of course the popularity of the Reverend Martin Luther King instilled in me the need to join in, to speak in terms of we as a minority finding ways to be a bit more equal in this country.”

The record industry wasn’t exactly thrilled by the notion of a black entertainer trying to say something serious in songs with the Impressions like “We’re a Winner”, “Choice of Colours” and “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)”. “No, no. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t help myself for it. And it was also my own teachings, me talking to myself about my own moral standards. As a kid, sometimes you have nobody to turn to. I could always go back to some of the sermons and talk to myself in a righteous manner and put that in a song.”

I asked him where “People Get Ready” had come from, because it seemed to be one of those songs that had sprung not from a writer’s pen but from the collective unconsciousness. “I don’t know. I just wrote it. Lyrically you could tell it’s from parts of the Bible. ‘There’s no room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own / Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, for there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.’ It’s an ideal. There’s a message there.”

Mayfield had hardly begun writing songs before he realised the value of owning the title to his own work. “My family had been quite poor. We had nothing, really, although I didn’t realise it when I was small. But once I came of an age to understand how little we had, it made me want to own as much of myself as possible.” And at the age of seventeen this Chicago ghetto child wrote off to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, asking how he could protect the rights to his own songs. Form a publishing company, they told him, and this is how you do it. So he did.

“During that time,” he said, “record companies were used to taking people off the street and giving them twenty five bucks for a song. Many a hit came off the street like that. But I was too stubborn, too strong-willed, which they didn’t care for. However, I also understood early on that it’s better to have fifty per cent of something than a hundred per cent of nothing. And at least I had it to bargain with.”

The business side didn’t come naturally to him. “I’m a creative person. And I was just too young. I didn’t have the knowledge. I’m sure that for every dollar I’ve earned, I’ve probably earned someone else ten or twenty dollars.”

The Impressions recorded first for the local Vee Jay label and then for the giant ABC corporation, where their hits ran from “Gypsy Woman” and “It’s All Right” through “I’m So Proud”, “Amen, “Keep on Pushing”, “Meeting over Yonder”, “You’ve Been Cheating” and “I Need You”. But in the late ’60s, inspired by Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise, he and a partner, Eddie Thomas, who had been Jerry Butler’s chauffeur, formed their own label. Like the Isley Brothers’ T-Neck or James Brown’s People label, Mayfield’s Curtom Records never quite managed to outgrow its primary function as a vehicle for the founder’s musical output.

“We were all trying to survive in a big world of business and loopholes and record companies that weren’t giving you all you felt you’d earned,” he said. “I just admired what Berry was doing at Motown. I always had that dream. But it just never happened for me in that manner.” Why not? “I wore too many hats, for one thing. And my face during those days would not allow doors to open for me. As a black man, you don’t get an invitation.”

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Mayfield was in his prime in 1972, aged thirty, when he used the soundtrack to Superfly — one of a series of “blaxpolitation” movies — to deliver a warning against the increasingly violent drug culture of the projects in which he had grown up. I wondered whether it saddened him that although the songs were big hits, the warnings of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” — like those contained in James Brown’s “King Heroin” or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On — had been so totally ignored by the people at whom they were aimed, even though they were also often the people who bought and danced to them.

“In some ways. Not really, because although sometimes all the bad things seem to be in a majority, it’s still really a small minority. The majority still has high hopes and reasons, and wants to do the right things and be about success stories. The poverty may hold them back, but the dreams are still there. People have reasons to be pessimistic, but this world is still of value.”

But wasn’t he nevertheless glad that he had grown up in the Chicago of the ’40s and ’50s, where black people were still streaming in from the South, fleeing the plantations in the hope of a better life, rather than the crack-culture Chicago of the ’90s, where the only solution to the hopelessness of the Cabrini-Green projects was to raze them to the ground? Weren’t things just getting worse?

“It’s hard to say who lived the better life. However, those who live today would probably prefer today’s life, and tomorrow’s beginning. We laid the ground, our sacrifices were big. But prior to that it was even worse. And look at the people who laid a platform for us. I understand what you’re saying. It seems that it’s not respected or appreciated by many of the young. But I still say it’s a minority of a minority. It’s not the majority.”

Mayfield has eleven children. Six of them were living with him and his wife, Altheida, in the big house in the Atlanta suburbs that he bought in 1980. What did he think of the music that had soundtracked the growing years of his own kids — the brutal frankness of hip-hop and gangsta rap?

“I listen to it, and it hurts me. A lot of the stuff, as a grown adult and a father… well, you do have to lay down your own laws and not allow too much of it to infiltrate the home and family.” Is it really corrupting? “Oh yeah. Children are very impressionable. You do have to set standards and lay a foundation of rights and wrongs, and then live a certain way so that they can see that what you say is also what you do. And if your children have any strength and an admiration for their parents, and if you teach them to be strong-willed, then maybe — just maybe — you have a chance. That is still not to say that as they leave this home and go out into the world they may not be smothered with all the negatives — knowing that black boys especially have less than a fighting chance to learn the things they need to make a livelihood. All that’s out there for them is jail.”

Lying there in his enforced silence, would he like to be writing about those matters today?

“No. It’s all been said. And I don’t like to repeat myself.”

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He had surgery straight after the accident, and again once he was back home in Atlanta. But nothing had improved his condition, which appeared like to be unchanged for the rest of his life. He relied on his wife and children to feed him, to fetch for him, and for every movement of his limbs. All he had left were his eyes, his speech, his brain, and his enormous spiritual and philosophical resources.

“We’re taught to keep high hopes,” he said when I asked him about a prognosis. “Which I have. But I must deal with the realities of today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. I’m lucky to still have my mind. Many things are possible. But if I have a thought, I can’t write it down. I even have a computer over there. But I can’t get up to use it. So there are those frustrations.”

Could he still sing? “Not in the manner as you once knew me. I’m strongest lying down like this. I don’t have a diaphragm any more. So when I sit up, I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto voice, and I tire very fast.”

But did he still sing inside his own head? “Yes, I do. I still come up with ideas and melodies. But they’re like dreams. If you can’t jot them down immediately, they vanish.”

His medical bills had been horrendous. To help defray them, a tribute album featured performances of his songs by singers from Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Gladys Knight to Elton John, Rod Stewart, B. B. King and the Isley Brothers. He expressed gratitude to BMI, one of the two big US royalty-collection agencies, which helped out by paying him an advance against each year’s earnings. Surely, I suggested, they must have done pretty well out of him over the years? “I hope so. But, you know, people don’t have to. In my case lots of people have in their own ways been ready to come to my aid. I try not to ask. I don’t wish for charity. But I must still realise that I’m in need of everybody.”

A young man came into the room: Todd Mayfield, aged twenty seven, his second son, wanting to see if his father needed anything.

“My family has been fantastic,” said the quiet voice from the bed. “My son here is my legs and my arms and part of my mind as well.” A pause. “So… so far, so good.”

* Curtis Mayfield died on December 29, 1999, aged fifty seven. Three years earlier, helped by various musicians and producers, he had made one last album, the superb New World Order, released by Warner Brothers, from which the portrait photograph by Dana Lixenburg is borrowed. Traveling Soul, Todd Mayfield’s excellent biography of his father, was published in 2017 by the Chicago Review Press. My piece originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday and is slightly abridged from the version included in Long Distance Call, a collection of my music pieces, published in 2000 by Aurum Press.

The wisdom of Solomon

Solomon Burke

“I’m so happy to be here tonight, so glad to be in your wonderful city, and I have a little message for you. I want to tell every woman and every man here tonight that’s ever needed someone to love, that’s ever had somebody to love them, that’s ever had somebody to understand them, that’s ever had someone to need their love all the time — someone that’s with them when they’re up, somebody that’s with them when they’re down. If you had yourself somebody like this, you’d better hold on to them. Let me tell you something: sometimes you get what you want, and you lose what you had. There’s a song I sing, and I believe if everybody could sing this song, we could save the whole world. Listen to me…”

Solomon Burke, of course, not on stage or in church but in a New York studio in 1964, urged on by the exhortations of his backing singers — probably including Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston — as he recreated the vibe of a live performance, expertly mixing the sacred and the secular. I loved that record so much that when I was in a band, in 1964-65, I used to carry a copy of the 45 to gigs, persuading the DJ to play it immediately before we went on.

“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” comes in the middle of the 79 tracks making up a new 3-CD compilation called The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul: The Atlantic Recordings (1962-1968) and feels very much like its centrepiece. Around it are arrayed the many recordings in which, assisted by the producers Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and the arrangers Garry Sherman, Phil Medley, Gene Page and Bert Keyes, Burke achieved a sublime combination of gospel, R&B, Latin and country music.

Has any soul singer ever covered a country song more exquisitely than Solomon’s take on Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go”? Has anyone ever made a more powerful use of gospel cadences in pop music than “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”? Has anybody made a funnier and more irresistible sub-two-minute teenage dance-craze record than “Stupidity”? Didn’t Burke, with the spoken intros to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “The Price”, pave the way for Isaac Hayes’s monologues and the arrival of rap?

Apart from his wonderfully warm, rich and flexible voice, the records are distinguished by arrangements that feature Berns’s signature use of Spanish guitars and Latin rhythms and the playing of great session men: guitarists including Al Shackman and Eric Gale are given room to interpolate little blues fills, the baritone saxophone of Heywood Henry anchors the reeds, the drummers include Panama Francis, Gary Chester, Bobby Donaldson and Herbie Lovelle, there is the piano of the great Paul Griffin, the stand-up bassists include Joe Benjamin and Leonard Gaskin. Jazz musicians earning the rent, most of them, but contributing to something that today sounds like a wonderfully natural way to make music.

The set opens with three pre-Atlantic sides and concludes with an album session produced by Tom Dowd at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis in 1968, including the classic version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)”, one of the anthems of the civil rights era. The last of those tracks, a lovely treatment of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby”, also appears on The Soul of the Memphis Boys, a compilation of recordings made at American in the late ’60s by singers including James Carr, Ben E. King, Oscar Toney Jr, James & Bobby Purify and Arthur Alexander.

My favourites are Joe Tex’s glorious version of “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”, Ella Washington’s “He Called Me Baby” (nearly the equal of Candi Staton’s later version), Lattimore Brown’s “Every Day I Have to Cry Some”, Bobby Marchan’s wonderfully smug “Someone to Take Your Place” and Roy Hamilton’s dramatic “100 Years”. There are also the hits: the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (with the great Reggie Young playing Danelectro electric sitar), Elvis’s “Kentucky Rain” and Dusty’s “So Much Love”, actually a B-side, taken from the Dusty in Memphis sessions. The collection provides a great soundtrack to Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys, a thorough history of Moman’s studio, the musicians who plied their trade there — Young, the pianists Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood, the bassist Tommy Cogbill and the drummer Gene Chrisman — and the many memorable sessions that took place in the former North Memphis grocery store.

Unlike the rhythm sections on Solomon Burke’s New York sessions, these were not jazz musicians. They were country boys, and it’s interesting to compare the results. Approaching similar material, both groups found their own pocket. The Memphis musicians are so comfortable with what they’re doing that you hardly notice them. The New York players use their chops in a slightly more assertive way that gives the music an extra edge. Those Burke sessions were something special at the time, and sound even better today.

Solomon went on to make more great records before his death in 2010. Soul Alive!, two hours of music recorded at a Washington DC club in 1981 with a band including the guitarist Marc Ribot, is one of the great live albums. Don’t Give Up on Me, a studio album produced in 2002 by Joe Henry, with the ace team of David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums, has an elegiac beauty.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, Solomon Burke never updated his approach. He stayed with what he did, and he did it perhaps better than anyone.

* Solomon Burke’s The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul is on SoulMusic Records. The Soul of the Memphis Boys is on the Ace label. Soul Alive! is on Rouder Records. Don’t Give Up on Me is on Fat Possum.  Roben Jones’s Memphis Boys was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2010.

A place in my heart

Perhaps you, like me, found yourself beguiled by a TV ad for the new Range Rover last year — the one with the dog staring out of the window of a loft apartment and a female voice singing what sounded like the opening 30 seconds of best ’60s Southern Soul ballad that never made it out of the vaults. I wasn’t alone in trying to track it down, only to discover that there was no more to it than those few lines.

They turned out to have been written by Dom James (melody) and Tommy Antonio (words) and recorded in London with the singer Emma Smith, formerly of the Puppini Sisters. It was created to order by people who do that sort of thing for a living, and that’s all of it that there was. But James noticed the interest it created, and he promised to finish it. Now he has.

Here it is, lip-synched by Emma on YouTube and available via Bandcamp as a fine slice of balm for this bizarre summer. Apart from a couple of lines of the lyric that could have stood a bit more work, it lives up to the promise of the original snippet. I can hear Gladys Knight singing it now. But the original will do just fine.

* Here’s the Bandcamp link: http://www.emmasmithmusic.bandcamp.com/

Uptown soul masters

Gene Burks

If you’ve been reading these pieces for a while, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for heavily orchestrated male soul balladeers from the first half of the 1960s. Much of this kind of music came out of the Brill Building in New York, but as Ady Croasdell points out in his notes to an excellent new compilation called Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads, it was a style that migrated to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and elsewhere.

Its great producers and songwriters included Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Ragovoy, Bert Berns, Teddy Randazzo and Van McCoy. Among the most expressive voices were numbered Chuck Jackson, Garnet Mimms and Ben E. King, who were big names back then, and such cult favourites as Lou Johnson, Jimmy Radcliffe, Walter Jackson, Tommy Hunt and Tony Mason. All those luminaries are to be found among these tracks, together with such lesser known singers (to me, anyway) as Clarence Pinckney, Garrett Saunders, Gene Burks and Brooks O’Dell. Be assured of this: they all have something to say, and something worth listening to.

One way of looking at this album, admittedly in a slightly reductive way, is to see it as a 24-track publishers’ demo for the next Walker Brothers album in, say, 1966. It’s possible to imagine Scott Walker recording almost any of these songs with Ivor Raymonde arrangements in the old Philips studios on the Bayswater Road near Marble Arch, as he did with “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “My Ship Is Coming In”, “Stand By Me” and “Stay With Me Baby”.

But the results wouldn’t have been as good. Apart from the great songwriting, arrangements and production, what makes these sides so powerful is the quality shared by all the singers: a certain dignified ardour, usually resigned, occasionally optimistic, generally suave, always grown-up. A compilation that chooses to start with Walter Jackson’s sombre “Forget the Girl”, a wonderful Chicago record with marvellous Floyd Morris piano octaves tinkling through the Riley Hampton arrangement, is setting itself a challenge, but the standard never drops.

Sometimes it reaches the heights. Those moments certainly include Chuck Jackson’s “I Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, a Van McCoy masterpiece worth listening to all the way through again, once you’ve had your heart satisfactorily torn apart by Jackson’s lead vocal, just for the quality of Gary Chester’s drumming. Equally magnificent is Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Through a Long and Sleepless Night”, a classic Bert Berns production arranged for Spanish guitar, double bass and, I’d guess, the Greek chorus of Cissy Houston and Dee Dee Warwick.

Sometimes the individual components of the style make themselves obvious, like the gospel influence on Garnet Mimms’ “Anytime You Want Me”, produced by Jerry Ragovoy, or the Latin tinge of James Carr’s “Lover’s Competition”, or the southern soul of Gene Burks’s “Can’t Stand Your Fooling Around” or the Spectorish sweep of Jimmy Beaumont’s “You Got Too Much Going For You”. Elsewhere there’s the mellifluous strength of Roy Hamilton on “Heartache (Hurry on By)”, the striking tuba intro to Kenny Carter’s “Like a Big Bad Rain”, Al Hibbler’s gentle crooning on Randazzo’s “Good For a Lifetime”, the ice-rink Wurlitzer intro to Junior Lewis’s unreleased “I Love You So Much”, and a lot more besides, including two slices of prime Bacharach: Lou Johnson’s original version of “Reach Out For Me” and Tommy Hunt’s unreleased remake of “Don’t Make Me Over”, which uses the Dionne Warwick backing track.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to slip a gaberdine raincoat over a navy mohair suit and go out and walk the tear-stained streets. This isn’t the weather for it, but the soundtrack never gets old.

* The photograph above is of Gene Burks. Soul Voices: 60s Big Ballads is on Ace Records.

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

Isley Bacharach 1

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

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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

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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.