Even after she stopped singing duets with her dad and began sharing a studio microphone instead with a man of her own age, Carla Thomas somehow remained the First Daughter of Soul. Maybe it was something to do with the lingering echoes of her first big hit, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)”, in which she was cast as the sort of perky ingenue to be found in the pop charts in 1961 rather than the mature soul singer she would eventually become.
As the offspring of Rufus Thomas, whose roles as club MC and radio DJ and recording artist made him an important figure on the Memphis music scene in the post-war decades, Carla was born to the calling. Perhaps that, too, was why she was always a little bit taken for granted, even when she and Otis Redding had a hit with Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Tramp” in 1967, a few months after her second big solo success with Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s “B-A-B-Y”.
She had written “Gee Whiz” when she was 15 and recorded it, under her father’s supervision, two years later. Released on the Satellite label, the precursor of Stax, it was noticed by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, who picked it up for national distribution and saw it become a top 10 pop hit. Not even “B-A-B-Y” or “Tramp” could quite match that success.
She made many good records in Memphis during her brief heyday, however, and her story is well told in Let Me Be Good to You, a four-CD box subtitled “The Atlantic & Stax Recordings 1960-68”. Apart from anything else, it functions as a chronicle of a record company’s attempt to find a niche for a talent artist, their solutions ranging from slightly disengaged treatments of country songs like “I Fall to Pieces” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to solid blues performances of “Red Rooster” and “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and covers of current pop-soul hits like “Yes I’m Ready” and “Any Day Now”, girl-group tunes such as “A Lover’s Concerto” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and standards like “The Masquerade Is Over”. The set also features five tracks from the 1967 Stax/Volt European tour, three from the Olympia in Paris, including a driving “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and two from the Astoria in London, including a version of “Yesterday” which, with the aid of Booker T Jones’s Hammond organ, takes Paul McCartney to church.
Three of my favourites can be found in the anthology. One is “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You”, a Hayes/Porter stomper from 1967 with a Motown-influenced 12-bar bridge. Another, from the same year, is the medium-tempo “When Tomorrow Comes”, which evokes her enduring ability to conjure a special pop-soul charm. Third, and best of all, is “I’m For You”, a 1965 Hayes/Porter ballad of spellbinding poise and quiet intensity. More than half a century later, it may be hard to defend a lyric that begins “My job is to please my man / To make him happy, any way I can.” Despite that, it’s a glorious record, summoning the ambiance of old Stax studio down to the vibrato from Steve Cropper’s Fender Esquire/Vibralux combo, the always-slightly-out-of-tune piano and the beautifully economical horn arrangement.
Throughout her career, Carla Thomas succeeded in projecting an engaging vocal personality that perhaps lacked only the tragic dimension lurking just below the surface in such contemporaries as Candi Staton, Dee Dee Warwick and Irma Thomas. Possibly, too, she lacked the hard edge of real ambition: once Stax had gone down the tubes in the mid-’70s, she did not do what others might have done and seek a home elsewhere. Now aged 77, she lives in retirement. Let Me Be Good to You, compiled by David Nathan and scrupulously annotated by Charles Waring, is a fine and warmly recommended tribute to a singer who was always true to herself.
* Let Me Be Good to You is released on October 23 on the SoulMusic label, via Cherry Red.