Friday, May 01, 2015

Ben E. King - It's All Over (Atco 6315)

With the passing of Don Covay in February, and now the great Ben E. King, the entire Soul Clan has been reunited once again...
Rest In Peace Soul Man!

Here's a piece I wrote about King back in 2010:

It's All Over

You know, after I did that post over on the other side about the Soul Clan single, I realized that the only member of the Clan that I hadn't written about was Ben E. King. I guess I just never got around to it... but there's more to it than that, I think. When people talk about the great Atlantic Soul singers, King's name is hardly ever mentioned. As a matter of fact, people have written (myself included), that Ben E. was a last minute addition to the Soul Clan project, recruited to replace Wilson Pickett. Well, as I pointed out a while back, I don't think that was the case. Don Covay, the principal architect of the whole idea, was apparently a big fan, and had hoped to include him all along...

Born in North Carolina, but raised in Harlem, Benjamin Earl Nelson came up singing doo-wop on the street corners, like most kids his age. His group The Four Bs took second place at one of the Apollo Theater's fabled amateur night competitions, and led to his being asked to join the more established Five Crowns. After the Crowns apparently showed up the listless Drifters (who had been reeling ever since Clyde McPhatter left the group three years earlier) on stage at the Apollo in 1958, heavy-handed manager George Treadwell fired what was left of the original members, and from that moment on, The Crowns became The Drifters.

Atlantic assigned the group to their west coast wünderkinds Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who had just delivered three consecutive #1 R&B hits on The Coasters. They were on a roll. Ben brought them a song he had been working on in their live performances, and had written with their lead vocalist Charlie Thomas in mind. At the sessions in March of 1959, Charlie had trouble with the tune, and so Ben E. (who was usually the baritone) took the lead, and just blew everyone away.

Even more astonishing was Leiber & Stoller's decision to add strings to what essentially was a straight ahead doo-wop record, something that had never been tried before. When they played it for Jerry Wexler, he "pronounced it dogmeat... it sounded like a radio caught between two stations, neither one totally tuned." Ahmet Ertegun persuaded them to remix the record with Tom Dowd, but the company was still reluctant to release it. When they finally did put it out that summer, it took the country by storm, going straight to #1 R&B (#2 Pop) and staying on the charts for almost 5 months as it paved the way for just about everything that was to follow.

Wexler had been proven spectacularly wrong - something which, I'm sure, he was loath to admit.

Leiber & Stoller, on the other hand, had proven themselves to be bona-fide hit makers and began to demand things like label credits and producer's royalties, something which had been previously unheard of.

They brought in fellow 'Jewish Mambo-Nicks' like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (who had worked with the group when they were still The Crowns) and created a string of unforgettable Drifters' hits including Dance With Me, This Magic Moment and Save The Last Dance For Me, all of which featured our man Benjamin Nelson on lead vocals. These songs will live forever, and are woven into the very fabric of American Popular Music.

But Leiber & Stoller weren't through.

When Nelson tried to renegotiate the terms of his contract with George Treadwell, it became apparent (just as it had to Clyde McPhatter before him) that he was little more than a hired hand. He left the group at the height of its popularity, and set out on his own as Ben E. King. In October of 1960, with Save The Last Dance For Me at #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts, King entered the studio with Leiber & Stoller and cut two more absolute Soul standards, Young Boy Blues and Spanish Harlem, both of which had been co-written with a new arrival from the left coast, Phil Spector. Released on ATCO, Spanish Harlem would break into the Pop top ten in early 1961 (only to be surpassed ten years later, of course, when Aretha took it and made it forever her own).

Perhaps the most timeless of all the songs that King would record with Leiber & Stoller, however, was cut at those same 1960 sessions. Just as had happened with There Goes My Baby, it was Ben who brought the idea into the studio. Taken loosely from Charles Tindley's Gospel standard (and the Soul Stirrers 1959 adaptation), Stand By Me is just an amazing piece of work. Featuring, once again, that 'Jewish-Latin' beat, and resonating in the heart and soul of everyone who's ever heard it, it spent a month at #1 R&B (#4 Pop) in 1961.

Despite all of this, Atlantic was in trouble. Both Ray Charles and Bobby Darin had walked out on them by then, and things were not looking good. Leiber & Stoller's accountant advised them to perform a 'routine audit' of the royalties the company owed them, and found that they had been underpaid by $18,000. Wexler who (as we've seen) was not their biggest fan to begin with, must have viewed this as the last straw. "I'm deeply offended," he told Leiber. Ahmet Ertegun told them "Fine, I'll pay the eighteen thousand, but I don't ever want to do business with you again..." They backed down, and let Atlantic keep the money they owed them, but the damage was done. By the end of 1961, they were gone.

Much has been made of Solomon Burke's arrival at Atlantic as signaling the beginning of the 'soul era', and perhaps that's true. Wexler himself called it "the infusion of fresh energy I needed," and went on to produce Burke's first single for the label, Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms), in September of '61. A sweet remake of a Country standard, it made the top ten R&B, and even broke into the Pop top forty. It was around this time that Wexler latched on to another Brill building regular, and began using him as a producer to try and replace the work Leiber & Stoller (and the recently departed Phil Spector) had been doing for the label.

Bert Russell Berns was yet another New Yorker with a feel for the Latin rhythms he had heard growing up in The Bronx. After a couple of 45s that didn't do much, Bert had decided to concentrate on his songwriting and production. Like Leiber & Stoller before him, he had been doing freelance work for New York area labels like Wand and Big Top when Wexler enlisted him to work with Solomon Burke. They would take a song Berns had written, Cry To Me, all the way to #5 R&B in early 1962, and set the stage for the dozens of records he would produce on Solomon over the next few years. Perhaps the song that gets the most attention nowadays as one of the archetypes of Soul music (even though it only made it to #58 R&B at the time) is 1964's Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which Berns had co-written with Wexler and Burke.

Right... so, what does this have to do with Ben E. King? Well, Berns had begun producing him as well in 1963, and this incredible number we have here (written by Berns and Mike Leander) was actually recorded two weeks earlier than Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, with the same studio band - a band that featured Wild Jimmy Spruill on electric guitar. Check out King's soulful vocals here, man... I mean, whoa! It's hard to believe that this 45 only managed to crawl to #72 R&B when it was released (two months after the Burke single) in September of 1964. The follow-up, Seven Letters, made it to #11, but is much more middle of the road... a place which Atlantic seemed to have reserved for King from then on.

Despite 1967's ambitious What Is Soul? (whose B side, They Don't Give Medals To Yesterday's Heroes, may have cut a little too close for comfort), and a trip to Muscle Shoals to record later that year - despite sessions held with Don Davis in Detroit and at American Sound in Memphis in 1968 (as well as his inclusion in the Soul Clan) somehow King was unable to claim his rightful place as one of Soul's true pioneers. 1969's prophetically titled Til I Can't Take It Anymore would be his last ATCO single to make the charts. "It was just a sign of the times, really..." King has been quoted as saying, "You have to accept that you are not going to stay on top forever."

As the story goes, Ahmet Ertegun heard him singing in some night club in Miami in the mid-seventies, and was so impressed that he re-signed him to Atlantic on the spot. His tremendous dance record, Supernatural Thing, would become his biggest hit since Stand By Me, going all the way to #1 R&B (#5 Pop) in early 1975. Incredibly, Ben E. King was back, scoring bigger hits in the 'disco era' than any of his fellow Soul Clan members had been able to. His follow-up, Do It In The Name of Love, cruised to #4, and led to his collaboration with the Average White Band, with whom he would chart twice in 1977. After one more chart appearance for the label in 1980, King moved on once more. "I think the saddest thing I've seen happen is the black music section of Atlantic disappear almost completely..." he said, "It shouldn't be like that, everybody should listen to the music, and if the music is good, put it out - whatever the hell it is."

The release of Rob Reiner's Stand By Me sent Ben E. King's original 1961 version of the song back into the top ten in 1986. It would actually hit #1 on the U.K. singles chart the following year, after it was used in an advert for Levi's. Not bad for a 25 year old recording! Stand By Me continues to live on, and was selected as number four out of the top 100 songs of the twentieth century by BMI. It's been covered by everyone from John Lennon to Maurice White (not to mention being sampled by Sean Kingston for the odious Beautiful Girls in 2007), and shows no signs of slowing down.

In 2005, a non-profit group named Playing For Change created this amazing global video based on Ben's song of songs:

How very cool is that?

Ben E. King, who will turn 72 in September, isn't slowing down either. He continues to perform, and is the head of his own Stand By Me Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for countless children who have been impacted by poverty, and further their education by providing much needed financial assistance. A veteran of over fifty years in the entertainment business, King's unique voice is truly one of the cornerstones of American Music.

No wonder Don Covay wanted him in the Soul Clan!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bobby Emmons - Blue Organ (Hi 2090)

Blue Organ

"First of all, he was a dear friend of mine for 56 years. We were very close... We started with the Bill Black Combo, we did those early years at Hi, and all the stuff at American, then came to Nashville. He had success forever, wherever he went. And we had it together. So it’s hard right now. I’m dealing with it - I’m trying... He was an amazing musician, but I can’t stress how decent a person he was as well. That came through in everything he did." - Reggie Young

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Charles Brown - Merry Christmas Baby (Kent 501)

Merry Christmas, Baby

Well, folks, it's that time of year again... time to check out yet another rendition of Charles Brown's Merry Christmas, Baby! As you may recall, we started talking about all of this a couple of years ago because it seemed that the only version of this song you ever heard on those 'streaming services' was the latter-day 1994 Bullseye Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues album track, which certainly seems a shame.

Brown recorded what many consider to be the definitive version for King Records in Cincinnati in August of 1968, shortly after Syd Nathan died. By October, King had been taken over by Don Pierce and Hal Neely, who apparently chose not to renew Brown's contract. Upon returning home to Los Angeles (where he had cut the original Johnny Moore's Three Blazers version over twenty years before), Charles was ushered into the studio by Jules Bihari to cut this bluesy rendition we have here today in time for Christmas - any guesses as to who the guitarist might be? Arthur Adams perhaps?

Both records would hit the streets at the same time, but the King version has overshadowed the Kent one, despite the Biharis ambitious annual re-release program...

Merry Christmas, Everybody!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tony Owens - I Know You Don't Love Me No More (Soulin' 148)

I Know You Don't Love Me No More

As we were saying over on The B Side, Cosimo Matassa's studio on Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter continued to play a pivotal role in the development of the New Orleans Sound as the sixties progressed. Home to both Allen Toussaint and Wardell Quezerque, the sheer quantity of music they (and countless others) cut there just boggles the mind. In 1964, Cosimo started a company named Dover Records that helped local and regional labels with mastering, pressing and national distribution of their records. At last count, there were over forty labels we know of that were under the Dover umbrella. As the 'third wave' of New Orleans' popularity in the charts began to take off in 1966 and 1967, Dover was positioned to cash in and finally bring some well-deserved dollars back home where they belonged.

Only it didn't happen.

The unprecedented success of Robert Parker's Barefootin' had stretched Dover's resources (and credit with out-of-town pressing plants and distributors) to the limit. Once Aaron Neville's Tell It Like It Is went positively viral in early 1967, Matassa placed himself seriously in debt to try and keep up with demand. As the creditors (and later the IRS) came knocking on the door, Dover began to unravel in 1968, taking most of those small local labels along with it. Although this might not say much about Cosimo's business acumen, it shows just how great New Orleans music continued to be.

This powerhouse of a record we have here was apparently released in the midst of the Dover collapse and promptly disappeared. It's existence had remained unknown for over 45 years until Sir Shambling dug it out of his vaults literally the day before Cosimo left us. Not helped by the fact that Isaac Bolden had re-released Soulin' 148 (as Confessin' A Feeling, which was later picked up by Atlantic), nobody even knew there had been an earlier incarnation of it until now. Tony is just cranking it out on here, and I can't say enough about how much I love this record...

The fact that, at this late date, the scope and breadth of Cosimo Matassa's work in the studio continues to be discovered says it all...
He was a true legend!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bobby Womack - How I Miss You Baby (Minit 32081)

How I Miss You Baby

When Reggie Young came back home to Memphis in 1959, after having backed up Johnny Horton out on the Louisiana Hayride, Elvis' erstwhile bass player Bill Black snapped him up as the cornerstone of the new instrumental combo he was forming.

Within a few months The Combo had broken things wide open with the groundbreaking Smokie, Part 2. This bulldog of a record would shoot straight to the top of Billboard's R&B chart, and stay there for a full month, as would the follow-up White Silver Sands. The fact that this all-white band from Memphis could just own the R&B chart for eight weeks in early 1960 is simply amazing, and set the stage for much of what was to follow.

Reggie would spend those two months (and many more) in the Army, and so Black recruited a series of guitar players to fill in for him during his absence. As you can see in this great photo from the cover of a January, 1960 Cashbox, one of those guitarists was Chips Moman. We asked Chips a couple of years ago if he actually was a member of the group... "Hell, everybody was in Bill Black's Combo!" he said. Named Billboard's 'Number One Instrumental Group' three years in a row, creating and refining what would come to be known as The Sound of Memphis.

Meanwhile, across the big pond, there was another group that was paying attention. Much to their credit, when they asked The Beatles who they wanted as an opening act on their first American tour in 1964, they asked for Bill Black's Combo right off the bat. Black himself was in declining health, and so it was up to Reggie to put together a version of The Combo to take out on the road. With a young George Harrison just soaking it all in (both on this tour and a subsequent tour of England in 1965), it's hard to overstate the influence Young's 'untouchable' guitar had on the future of Rock & Roll.

Once they came in off the road, The Combo (which would include Bobby Emmons, Tommy Cogbill and Mike Leech at one time or another) stayed close to home, evolving into the 'house band' at Hi Records. Instrumental chart hits by Ace Cannon and Willie Mitchell were in actuality cut by that same core group of musicians, and took that 'Bill Black (who would die of a brain tumor in 1965) Sound' to the next level. Howard Grimes told me that when he heard 20-75 on a Memphis jukebox in 1964, he knew that someday he wanted to be in a band like that...

As Hi began to move away from being strictly an instrumental label, it was this Reggie Young led rhythm section that played on elemental Soul records by folks like Don Bryant, Norman West, George Jackson and the great O.V. Wright. Once Al Jackson, Jr. left Willie Mitchell's road band for good, he went through five drummers before he hired Howard Grimes. It was a dream come true when Willie invited Howard to work on the session for Eight Men, Four Women in 1967.

Mitchell also brought along a 16 year old guitar player he had taken under his wing, a kid named Teenie Hodges. Just like George Harrison before him, Hodges was in awe of Reggie, and considered him his mentor. He told me a few years ago that he loved Reggie so much that he named his first born son after him... When Young moved on later that year, the baton at Hi was passed to Teenie who would take it and go on to create his own unique style. Reggie's influence on him, and his role in the evolution of Willie Mitchell's Hi Sound, is a part of the story that's often overlooked.

When Chips Moman decided to finally get serious and put together a studio band at American in 1967, there was no doubt in his mind about who it was he wanted. He had already been working with Tommy Cogbill on sessions for Atlantic at Fame, and was able to lure what was left of 'The Combo' from South Lauderdale over to Thomas Street by offering them a better deal (which was none too difficult, seeing as how they were being paid next to nothing). With the addition of Sam Phillips' regulars Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood, The American Group was born.

In 2012, when we were lucky enough to get to hang out with Reggie Young for the first time, John Broven asked him "Who was the greatest influence on your own guitar playing?" I think he expected him to say somebody like Chet Atkins or Les Paul... "Bobby Womack," Reggie answered without hesitation... When Womack showed up at American with Wilson Pickett in July of 1967, it ushered in one of the most soulful and creative periods in Memphis music history. With Womack's 'upside down and backward' left handed style of playing, he and Reggie were like a 'mirror-image', and challenged each other to ever greater heights.

Soul was definitely in the house and, in addition to Bobby's collaborations with Darryl Carter on great songs like this one we have here today (taken from his superb Moman produced My Prescription LP), the interplay of their two guitars can be heard on great records by former 'Gospel Highway' colleagues who cut there like Roscoe Robinson, LeRoy Crume and L.C. Cooke, as well as those by a host of other Atlantic and Sound Stage 7 artists. By the time Womack moved on in 1968, he had left his mark. "Just about everything that I play has something to do with Bobby Womack," Reggie said when Bobby passed away last month, "He was a large influence on me."

When I reposted that piece about Bobby last month, I received a comment that read; "...great info, but no mention of the fact that all of 'Communication' and most of 'Understanding' was cut at Muscle Shoals Sound with guitar work by the unsung Tippy Armstrong..." SO, please allow me set the record straight here (thanks, Mark). All I can say is that there was no mention of that fact in the liner notes to the Stateside 'twofer' CD I bought those albums on ten years ago. I will, however, underscore the fact that Womack snagged his first Number One hit by returning to American (and compatriot Darryl Carter) in 1972, and including Woman's Gotta Have It on 'Understanding'.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love me some Muscle Shoals, you know I do... but I just feel like, now that the movie is all over Netflix and everything, there's a big part of the Southern Soul story that remains untold. Roben Jones interviewed 'The Swampers' for her great book The Memphis Boys, and here's what they had to say:

"We were in awe of the rhythm section at American," said Jimmy Johnson... "Man per man, it was just invincible." "We all looked up to the guys at American," said Jimmy's colleague David Hood, "Those guys seemed so accomplished; they played so well." "We were trying to be what the American rhythm section was... We looked up to 'em as guys who had a lot more experience than we did," commented Roger Hawkins. "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, when it came to the American guys, we'd just stand back and say 'Gol-leee'," said Jimmy Johnson respectfully, "When they walked in, everybody got the best from their music. It was real cool to look at them and figure out how to do it..."

I don't think that is conveyed adequately in the film...

I don't know, maybe it's because American was demolished over twenty years ago (there's a Family Dollar store on the site where it once stood), while Fame has continued to operate, same as it ever was, and Muscle Shoals Sound is undergoing extensive renovations in the wake of the movie. In any event, the legend of the studio lives on.

There will be a Historical Marker placed on the corner of Chelsea and Thomas in North Memphis, where so much great music was recorded, on August 13th at 2pm. Chips, Reggie and the rest of 'the Boys' are scheduled to attend. I'm happy to report that my cohort John Broven and I will also be on hand, as well as at The Memphis Boys Salute at Graceland that evening in celebration of the 45th anniversary of Elvis' landmark sessions there.

I wouldn't miss it for the world...

Friday, May 30, 2014

Paul Kelly - Stealing In The Name Of The Lord (Happy Tiger 541)

Stealing In The Name Of The Lord

This is, quite simply, one of the greatest records of all-time. In addition to its ground-breaking subject matter (which certainly still rings true today), it just plain COOKS!

For some reason, in my mind, I always associated this song with Woodland Studios in Nashville, and thought that, very possibly, that was our hero Reggie Young on guitar. It sure sounds like, him doesn't it? Well, as fate would have it, I finally got the chance to ask Reggie point blank. "Not Me," he said. Hmmm... so what about the rest of my brilliant theory? Well, as it turns out, I was half-right.

If I had been paying attention, I might have noted that Sir Shambling, on his excellent Paul Kelly page, places this one squarely in Muscle Shoals. After asking around, no less an authority than David Hood confirmed that it was indeed recorded out there on the Jackson Highway, and listed the personnel as himself, Roger Hawkins, Clayton Ivey, Barry Beckett and Eddie Hinton.

Even though it is Duane Allman who gets all the press, Eddie Hinton was the go-to guitar player in Muscle Shoals for years. Although he (sadly) doesn't get mentioned in the otherwise excellent Muscle Shoals documentary (which is now streaming on Netflix!), Eddie was The Shoals' 'secret weapon', and his tasteful guitar chops show up in all kinds of unexpected places - like this one. How great is that churning Telecaster riff, man? With Clayton Ivey's piano taking things straight to Church, they just don't come much better than this, y'all.

So what about my Woodland Sound theory? Well, as it turns out, Buddy Killen had a secret weapon of his own, a young engineer who had come up listening to John R on WLAC, and knew how to forge 'that sound'. Ernie Winfrey had been the drummer for Nashville Frat-Rock band The Monarchs, and been around the block a couple of times before he got in on the ground floor at Woodland soon after they opened their doors in 1968. He cut his teeth, if you will, cutting great Gospel records for Shannon Williams on Creed and Nashboro, and straight ahead Blues and R&B on Excello (think Slim Harpo), A-Bet and Mankind.

Buddy Killen, who knew talent when he heard it, began using Winfrey exclusively around this time as the re-mix and overdub engineer on the Dial 45s he was recording on Joe Tex. After he had taken prodigal son Paul Kelly to Muscle Shoals in 1969 to cut the record they both knew could be a major hit, they brought it to Ernie at Woodland, who left no doubt that it would become one. Building Paul and his wife Juanita's 'mass-choir' background vocals, and adding percussion (like the 'slide-tom' he played himself), Winfrey helped Killen turn a good record into a great one. 'Stealing' spent three months on the charts in the Summer of 1970, rising as high as #14 R&B.

When Buddy built the fabled Soundshop Studio shortly after that, he took Ernie with him. His work with Killen's R&B roster continued, as he brought in old friends The Memphis Boys to record with folks like Annette Snell and King Floyd, in addition to continuing the work they had begun at American with Kelly and Joe Tex. As the reputation of the studio (and its topflight engineer) grew, clients lined up from far and wide to cut there.

Behind the board for everyone from Paul McCartney to Dolly Parton, to Millie Jackson, Grand Funk Railroad and everyone in between, Ernie Winfrey brought his unique touch to a massive body of work that cuts across all genres and, if this great 45 we have here is any indication, will live on forever. He is being honored this weekend with a well-deserved Audio Engineering Society Lifetime Achievement Award:

Sunday, June 1st - 2pm
Ford Theater
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
225 5th Ave South
Nashville, TN

The event is free and open to the public, and if I wasn't a thousand miles away, I'd be there! Congratulations Ernie, and Thank You!

A couple of years back, there was a report that Paul Kelly had left us. So far, I have been unable to confirm that. Paul, are you out there? Thanks... -red