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.