During the golden age of soul music we were able to revel not just in great voices and wonderful playing but in the quality of the imagination and inventiveness shown by the best songwriters, and the lyricists in particular. They didn’t have to get fancy about it, either. Introduced to me was Delilah / Right away I reached for her hand / Suddenly a thrill went through me / Made me feel as though I was king of the land — Curtis Mayfield (for Major Lance). A simple touch upon my face / A tender kiss and a warm embrace / A few kind words, spoken sincere / These things will keep me loving you, dear — Harvey Fuqua, Sylvia Moy and Johnny Bristol (for the Velvelettes). Simple emotions, expressed with a succinct directness.
I’ve been listening to Give the People What They Want, the new album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. There’s so much to like about it. As usual, Sharon proves herself to be an outstanding soul singer, worthy of consideration alongside the likes of Betty Wright, Jean Knight and Ann Peebles. The musicians are terrific: they and their producers demonstrate a perfect understanding of the relevant styles and textures of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The singer and her band are so good at what they do that you never even stop to think that you’re listening to a recreation.
Only in one area can it be said that they fail to do themselves justice, and unfortunately it’s an important one: the songwriting. Once again all their material comes from inside the collective, mostly from the pens of bassist Bosco Mann, drummer Homer Steinweiss and saxophonist Cochemea Gastelum. Idiomatically speaking, it’s all fine. The funky swing of “We Get Along”, by Steinweiss and guitarist Joseph Crispiano, the walking bass line and great horn chart of Steinweiss’s “Now I See”, punctuated by tympani, and the sweet uptown soul of Mann’s “Making Up and Breaking Up” are extremely pleasant to the ear, but none of them contains the sort of hook, were these songs released as A-sides, that would make you put the needle back to the beginning over and over again until the whole thing had burned itself into your brain.
For me, the closest they got to that was in 2007 with “Tell Me”, a track written by guitarist Neil Sugarman for their third album, 100 Days 100 Nights. Now that had everything: not just a groove that grabs you and won’t let go, the smeary horns, the great lead vocal and the essential Northern Soul ingredient of vibes like broken milk-bottles, but a chorus that sticks to the ribs. I wish they had a few more of those.
What’s the problem? Almost certainly that, unlike the songwriters of the 1960s, they’re not engaged in fierce daily competition with rivals in other cities for the national hits that would keep them in a job. They’re not subjected to the kind of critical scrutiny that forced Smokey Robinson to keep his similes sharp and made Curtis Mayfield ensure that each song painted its own little picture. It’s a system that maintained its grip on country music but disappeared from soul and R&B some time in the 1970s. It didn’t matter whether it was “Seven Rooms of Gloom” or “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me)”, each song needed to start with a distinctive idea of its own. And those hits weren’t made without hard work.
I admire the people at Daptone Records a great deal. But if I were them, I’d locate one of the survivors of the golden age — someone like Benny Latimore, Phillip Mitchell or Paul Kelly — and put them on the payroll, working with Mann, Steinweiss and the others to ensure that each song they write has its own identity and earns its place. Because, as I say, they’ve got everything else down.
* The photographs of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is from the cover of their new CD, and was taken by Kyle Dean Reinford.