Sondra "Blinky" Williams, who was born on this day in 1944 in Oakland, is probably best known for her duets with Edwin Starr and for being the female voice in the theme for the TV show Good Times. But to me she is best known for her killer funky-blues version of "Money" which proved to be quite popular on the Sugar Town dance floor in the depths of the Great Recession. Of course, with the wealth gap widening, the middle class disappearing, and the influx of wealthy people migrating to Portland and pushing out those less fortunate, I have a feeling this record will ring true to the struggling population of Portland for a long time to come. CRANK IT UP and so that the people in the shiny new condos can hear it.
I would like to use this space to congratulate Bill Withers on his induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Though the RnRHoF is imperfect in its selection process, I'm happy to use this excuse to give a nod to my favorite live soul LP. Mr. Withers has long been in the DJ Action Slacks Favorite Artist Hall of Fame, which is maybe not quite as prestigious, but includes some really great company.
I think I could easily say that I follow the ethical philosophy of the School of Bill Withers. I've been listening to him since my formative years, and his music message is burned into my psyche. This man was much more than a singer to me. As someone who found his voice a little later than most famous musicians(in his 30s), he was an inspiration for me as I struggled to find my own creative path.
The Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall LP represents everything I love about Mr. Withers. It clearly shows Withers as the soul representation of the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s and as a soul-folk troubadour he sings every hue of emotion.
This album has it all: songs of celebration, songs of the deepest sorrow and hopelessness, inspirational message songs about togetherness and overcoming adversity, protest songs about Vietnam and inequality, soul-folk story songs, entertaining stage patter, a lady percussionist, and funky dance grooves. And because it travels across such a wide range of emotion, I can't recommend just one song off of this album. I simply must recommend the entire thing.
I've listened to this album at least a kabillion times and I NEVER get tired of it. He takes me on a journey EVERY time, bringing me to tears one moment and celebrating humanity the next. Check it out. You won't be sorry.
I would like to extend an enormous HAPPY 75th BIRTHDAY to Lester Chambers of the Chamber Brothers, who's still out there playing music.
Lester launched an online campaign a couple of years ago to increase awareness of the unfair business practices of record labels that were experienced by artists throughout the 20th century. The Chambers Brothers, whose record "Time Has Come Today" remains a classic of the psych-soul era still heard regularly today, did not receive any royalties from 1967 - 1994 - A shameful way to treat a band who used their music to create positive change.
The Chambers Brothers started out as a gospel group, but soon took to the stages of the folk scene of the early 1960s. By the end of the decade they were electrified and had pioneered a sound unlike any other. Like much of the music I have come to love, it's hard to draw boundaries around the music of the Chambers Brothers. They are all at once rock n roll, psych-rock, psych-soul, gospel, blues, folk. Perhaps this is why their record label was never able to repeat the success of "Time Has Come Today", for there was no lack of interesting output by this band. Perhaps the label didn't really know how to promote them.
Since it's Lester's birthday, I've chosen to highlight a song written by him. This has been a staple in my collection since the very beginning of my live DJ career. It's the perfect bridge into Latin soul and one of my all-time favorite summertime songs. Almost a guaranteed floor-filler.
Happy Birthday Lester! Thank you for your gift!
Today, I started loving Bonnie Owens & Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again" all over again. It really is one of the most perfect unrequited love songs ever written. I have to admit that my favorite version of this song is not available on vinyl. It's from 2003 by Texas soul-blues artist Miss Lavelle White. It's definitely worth a few listens.
For the purposes of this blog though (I have vowed to stick strictly to recordings available on vinyl), I'll be featuring the more uptempo version by Bettye Swann. Still excellent. She actually released a couple of versions of this song, but this is the one I prefer.
I think it's fair to say that this song is one of the primary reasons I started to dive deeper into classic country in the first place. It's so exquisite, I just needed to hear more and more. I never get tired of this song, whether it's Merle's version, or Sammi Smith, or Miss Lavelle, or anybody. It's just that good. It's the reason I stood and stared at the written words in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville for a good 2 solid minutes. To see this masterpiece in Bonnie Owens' handwriting, it was like viewing a classic painting in an art gallery. Truly a wonder to behold.
Happy Birthday Merle!
Preeminent soul singer Laura Lee (Rundless) turns 70 today! It's certainly apropos that Laura Lee's birthday falls within Women's History Month given that her hits of the early 70s like "Women's Love Rights," "Love & Liberty" and "Wedlock Is a Padlock" are strongly associated with the Women's Liberation Movement. But Laura Lee's career and influence stretches back to the mid-1950s when as a teenager she replaced the legendary Della Reese in the Detroit gospel group, The Mediation Singers. It was Laura Lee's mother, Earnestine Rundless who in the 1940s founded this "golden age gospel" group that deeply inspired a host of young soon-to-be soul singers of Detroit.
Her secular career was launched in 1965 and after a couple of singles on Detroit's Ric-Tic label, she landed on Chess. She was eventually sent by the label to Muscle Shoals where she recorded some defining late-1960s deep soul records like "Dirty Man,: and "Upright Good Man".
It was during her stint with Detroit label HotWax/Invictus (run by Holland, Dozier, Holland) that Laura Lee struck a chord with Women's Lib Movement. Her songs became anthems demanding gender equality and respect on a number of levels.
Though, my favorite Laura Lee record is from the years just after that period. It's a more subtle Laura Lee, perhaps inspired by Al Green (whom she had been reportedly dating). This is a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition (they too recorded a version of it) and is presumably produced by them. For me, this is the sweetest 70s soul gets. At the time of this recording Laura Lee would have been 34, a bit more worldly and wise, perhaps a bit broken by the travails of love. Her brilliant performance as a wearied women desperate to save a fading relationship coupled with the gorgeous multi-layered HDH production (complete with strings, congas, shimmery keyboards, and a subtle psychedelic effect) make with record absolutely irresistible to me.
While I LOVE and appreciate Laura Lee's previous respect-demanding records, there's something about the vulnerability revealed in this performance that really grabs my heart. Perhaps it's reassuring to know that even seemingly strong women are susceptible to heartaches too, and that's ok.
I can imagine what it must have been like when Roberta Flack stepped onto the scene, a breath of fresh air unlike no other. Like so many other greats I've written about on this blog, she seemed to defy categorization. She was kind of a cross between Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Barbara Lewis, Nancy Wilson, and Nina Simone. She fit perfectly within the aesthetic of the singer-songwriter and yet she recorded mostly compositions written by others. Perhaps it was her individualized interpretations of those songs that made them seem like they were her own.
Take for example my selection of the day. Flack's minimalist version of a song made famous by Little Willie John as a bold power ballad. She has stripped it down to pure sentiment. It's a quiet late night conversation between forbidden lovers, rather than the declaration from a mountaintop given by Little Willie (I love both versions btw).
Roberta Flack's massive crossover success opened new roads for soul music, roads that were softer and quieter. The pathway to the music of someone like Sade seems like a straight line from "Killing Me Softly". She certainly made a lasting impact.
On another note, when I listen to this song I can't help but reflect on how much has changed for gay people in the past 20 years. Just two decades ago I was playing various versions of "Let Them Talk" on my radio show, using it as a veiled message song, a comment on gay love as an act of defiance in a less-than-tolerant world. No one had "come out" on tv yet. Society at large was happy to have us hide in the shadows.
These days the concept of "forbidden love" almost seems like a faded memory. But, of course there are still a lot of dangerous homophobes out there. There are still tv hosts who think we won all of our rights "too quickly". There is a still a judge in Alabama taking a stand against equality like a new George Wallace. There are still so many battles to fight for trans people. We still have a long way to go. But I sure am happy to feel free to come out from the shadows most of the time.
Happy Birthday Roberta Flack and thank you for your delicate version of this gay anthem. A quiet fire indeed.
As I turn my attention to the upcoming Women of Soul edition of Sugar Town, we celebrate the 73rd birthday of soul chanteuse Barbara Lewis. "S" Words like "silky", "smooth", "sweet", " satin", "sensual," and "sophisticated" have become cliche when describing the vocal stylings of Barbara Lewis, and yet it's hard to get away from that. It also seems hard for some people (even some soul DJs I've talked to) to get away from confusing Barbara Lewis with some of the other Barbaras of the era like Barbara Mason and Barbara Lynn. It's the kind of thing that I find a little bothering. To me, these 3 Barbaras couldn't be more different.
Barbara Lewis had three definitive pop-soul ballad hits in the early 1960s, "Baby I'm Yours", "Hello Stranger," and "Make Me Your Baby". This seductive sound became her signature and she applied it during the symphonic psychedelic soul era with this cover version of "Windmills of Your Mind" from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this song in the first place, but when paired with "the Barbara Lewis touch" it truly sends me whirling.
Motown psychedelic soul artist Edwin Starr was born on this day in 1942 in Nashville. He grew up in Ohio and migrated to Detroit during the 1960s becoming one of the signature voices on the Ric Tic label scoring hits with "SOS (Stop Her On Sight), "Agent Double 0 Soul" and "Backstreet" all of which have become classics at the soul dance parties of today. He also wrote "Oh How Happy" which was a HUGE record for The Shades of Blue.
In the mid-1960s Motown swallowed up the recording contracts of the Ric Tic label and Starr transitioned into a new identity. In the label's efforts to reach the growing hippie market Starr was paired with psych-soul producer Norman Whitfield. Together they created some of the most effective message records of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Obviously 1970's "War" is still being used as a protest cry in present times.
The song I've selected to feature today is from the Starr/Whitfield era. I turned to this record a lot during the GW Bush years, as it was a time when so many people just wanted to escape this place on a daily basis. The song is one with dual meanings alternating back and forth between seemingly addressing a relationship and confronting the oppressive powers that be in the U.S:
Take me clear from here
I don't want this life you want me to live right now
Take me clear from here
I don't want this life your trying to give to me
And if i do not go away
I know you know,
I'll be old and gray before my time
Well, it would take a while, it would take a while before i can forget
Oh, the different ways you try and break my mind
Starr's performance on this song is very convincing, probably because he was truly thinking of getting the hell out of the U.S. He ended up moving to the UK in 1973.
New Orleans songwriter, producer, arranger, and recording artist Allen Toussaint celebrates his 77th birthday today. This week seems to be jam packed with birthdays of soul folks I've had the honor of interviewing or collaborating with. Mr. Toussaint's roll in r&b, rock n roll, soul, and funk is monumental, and yet I found him to be extremely humble and soft-spoken. He's worn so many hats in the music business, including that of record label owner, I asked him which roll was his favorite. Arranger, he said.
You'll find Allen Toussaint's sweet touch of soul on all of the following:
Walking with Mr. Lee - Lee Allen
I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Some Day - Fats Domino
Ooh Poo Pah Doo - Jessie Hill
Mother In Law - Ernie K-Doe
Fortune Teller - Benny Spellman
Lipstick Traces - Benny Spellman
It's Raining - Irma Thomas
Ruler of My Heart - Irma Thomas
I Like It Like That - Chris Kenner
Nearer to You - Betty Harris
Working In A Coal Mine - Lee Dorsey
Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky - Lee Dorsey
Sophisticated Cissy - The Meters
Yes We Can - Lee Dorsey (also the Pointer Sisters)
Going Down Slowly - The Pointer Sisters
Lady Marmelade - Labelle
and countless others. It's mind-blowing how many classics this fella cranked out. In addition to all of his work for other artists, he is one of the most influential and defining piano players out of New Orleans.
Since Mr. Toussaint has done so much to help other people shine, I thought it would be nice to spotlight one of his own recordings. "From A Whisper to A Scream" may be better known to some by Esther Phillips, but Allen Toussaint's original haunting and theatrical slice of psych soul (featuring dramatic backup vocals by Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields) is brilliant example of vivid musical storytelling. It's the perfect listen for an overcast Pacific Northwest winter day.
One of my pet peeves is when music journalists relate a Black musician's accomplishments to famous white musicians, as if åay this person is important because they influenced a white artist or recorded with a white artist. I realize it's done in an attempt make the person accessible to a "mainstream audience", but it communicates the message that this person's music is important only in how it relates to white people. It's an imperialist perspective and it happens ALL the time, especially in obits.
And yet, with Doris Troy (who was born on this day in 1937) it's hard to separate her from her connection to Brit rock. She is linked to the Beatles. Any time someone is linked to the Beatles, that link will not be broken in the eyes of rockaphiles. For example, most pieces written about Billy Preston, who had a long and successful solo career long before and after his association with the Beatles, will include a mention of him being the "5th Beatle".
So if you look up Doris Troy you will find a number of pieces about her with a storyline written from this perspective (from the Apple Records website):
Doris Troy (1937—2004) was known affectionately as Mama Soul to her legion of British fans, a nickname she acquired in the mid Sixties after she came to the UK following the success of her songs ‘Just One Look’ (as covered by The Hollies) and ‘Watcha Gonna Do About It’. Doris grew up in the Bronx area of New York, and at an early age was talent spotted by James Brown at the Apollo Theater. As well as her solo recordings for Atlantic Records, Doris became the backing vocalist of choice for artists as diverse as Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and Carly Simon.
Doris signed to Apple Records in 1969, after impressing George Harrison with her backing vocals on Billy Preston’s first album for Apple, That’s The Way God Planned It.
Note: Other than the mention of "Just One Look" there is nothing in there about Doris' career in the U.S. and her importance within the soul scene here. Nothing about Doris being a member of "the group" who backed up most of the definitive soul records coming out of NYC in the early 1960s. Nothing about her songwriting skills or her unique sophisticated brand of early 1960s soul.
With all that said, due to my affection for the fusion of musical genres, ironically the song I've chosen for the Record of the Day is one she recorded with George Harrison at Apple in 1969. People who contributed to this LP include Billy Preston, Stephen Stills, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann, Leon Russell, and Peter Frampton. The song "Give Me Back My Dynamite" (written by Doris and George) has long been included in many of my tributes to feminist soul. This fusion of Brit Rock, blues, and soul is a ripping declaration of the reclamation of personal power and independence. It's right up my alley and I hope you like it too.
DJ Action Slacks
I'm excited to highlight some of my favorite records in a variety of genres (soul, R&B, classic country, rockabilly, oldies, garage rock, etc). These won't all necessarily be "dance" records per se. They will all be records that I believe deserve a special listen. I simply love good music, rare or not. Hopefully you will spend some time here and love music right along with me! Lets give this a shot!