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.
It seems like Don Covay had his fingers in just about every piece of R&B pie baked from the 1950s to the 1970s. His contributions were significant in the development of the r&b-pop dance craze of the early 1960s (with his "Pony Time") and Southern soul (with Stax as well as Aretha Franklin). He also dabbled in acid-hippie album-oriented soul-blues-rock of the late 1960s, raw funk, 1970s slow jams, and even Philly disco-soul. When he wasn't busy recording himself, he was writing songs that would be classics for others.
I can't say it would be hard to imagine soul music without Don Covay. No. It would be IMPOSSIBLE to imagine soul music without Don Covay. And with his passing over the weekend, sadly we've lost one of the very roots of this music.
He had a song called "Iron Out the Rough Spots" but luckily with few exceptions, Covay laid the gritty, raw quality of his voice out on the table for all to hear. He balanced the ruggedness with a unique, delicate vulnerability in his performances. I guess you could say Don Covay's jagged edges were often draped in satin. Those who would try to imitate him (Mick Jagger, eh hem) would not be able to capture the nuances of the Covay delivery. He was one-of-a-kind.
Today's selection of the day is by The Soul Clan, a soul supergroup initiated by Covay (the name being a political, Black Power jab at the KKK). This group was supposed to include Otis Redding, but unfortunately he died before they made it to the studio. Otis was replaced by Ben E. King who was joined by Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, Arthur Conely, and of course Don Covay. This song was written by Covay with another recently departed soul legend, Bobby Womack. Now that I'm listening to it again, I can definitely hear an echo of this record in D'Angelo's "How Does It Feel". What do you think?
Bobby "Blue" Bland was born on this day 85 years ago in Barretville, TN. Though he never achieved much success on the pop charts, Bobby Bland was a GIANT in the blues/soul world. He is perhaps one of the most influential and imitated vocalists of the genres and certainly is credited with launching the genre of soul-blues.
To soul dance party goers he's best known for the famous Bobby Bland growl he unleashed as he roared through uptempo gospel-blues records like "Turn On Your Love Light" and "Don't Cry No More." However, Bland also could gently massage a lyric as masterfully as some of the greatest vocalists in American music history. And that's why today I'm featuring "Building A Fire With Rain," the absolutely gorgeous rumba-soul-blues B-Side of another great Bland tune "Poverty". The rumba rhythm is actually quite common in the blues and as I write this and think about some of my favorite records, I'm noticing that I tend to have an affinity for rumba blues.
But enough about me, let's talk about you and how much you're gonna love listening to this song today.
Esther Phillips had easily one of the most recognizable voices in pop music history. While her unique singing style remained fairly consistent, it was cast against a backdrop of a variety of musical styles: jump blues, traditional pop, soul, jazz, blues, country, and disco. She didn't bend much to the music, but rather the music was transformed by her voice elevating it with the elegance in the artistry of her technique.
Her name should be mentioned alongside vocal greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Aretha Franklin, as someone who brought a new and completely individual and innovative expression to the table. And yet so often it seems she gets swept aside. It's a tragedy equalling that of her premature death. Like so many female musicians, her contributions are often overlooked and remain under-celebrated. That's why over the past 20+ years I've made it one of my core objectives to tell their stories and sing their praises in whatever medium available to me. And for the past 4 years I've thrown a party specifically to honor the women of classic soul and R&B. I hope you will be there to pay tribute to women like Esther Phillips on March 7th at the Spare Room.
The Record of the Day is Esther's version of a song best known to modern audiences by Amy Winehouse. This one goes way back to 1949. It began as a jazz instrumental by sax player James Moody. Vocalese pioneer Eddie Jefferson added lyrics in place of Moody's sax solo (as is the definition of "vocalese") and began performing it in his live shows. Then it was picked up by King Pleasure who had a hit with it in 1954. From there it shot off in all kinds of directions and one of those directions was a pop-jazz production featuring Esther Phillips.
I think this is the most sensual version of this song on record. She stuck to the jazz phrasing, but decorated it with yards upon yards of velvet brushed with sophisticated soul. This performance is so warm and cozy, it's like curling up next to a crackling fire on a cold winter night. So nestle up next to Esther's voice for a spell and listen to my selection of the day.
The Queen of Memphis Soul celebrates a birthday today. Starting with her first solo release in 1960 (Gee Whiz) Carla Thomas was a master of the pop soul ballad. And though she demonstrated she could deliver on uptempo numbers, it was with the ballads that she really shined. I am a SUCKER for a Carla Thomas slow soul burner! I suppose it should be no surprise then that Carla's "All I Want for Christmas" is my favorite holiday record. Sadly, I've never found a copy that doesn't have distorted sound. SOMEDAY! I guess all I want for Christmas is you and a non-distorted copy of "All I Want for Christmas".
Today is Little Richard's 82nd birthday, born in Macon, Ga in 1932.
Before there was a Little Richard, never had someone so incredibly gay (and out) become such a sex symbol for teenage girls and a superstar in mainstream American culture. In the beginning Richard made no attempt to hide who he was and where he came from. He blazed a FLAMING trail and made the path that much brighter for those who would follow him. The fact that it took decades before anyone remotely like him to achieve similar success (Prince, I’m looking at you) demonstrates just how impressive his achievements were. And though Richard has renounced his queerness a couple of times over the years, he always comes back to us. How could he not? He is one of the gayest people to have ever lived.
Richard, I thank you for your immeasurable contribution to not only American music, but for showing that queers can change the world. I love you!
I think that when most people think of the music of Little Richard they think of whoops and hollers, but did you know that Richard was also a master balladeer? Oh he could make you SWOON and melt right down to the ground! My Record of the Day is a fine example.
"Directly From My Heart To You" was first recorded by Richard with Johnny Otis in the mid-50s, then re-recorded for Specialty. He recorded it AGAIN as a soul version in 1966 for Modern. That last version is my favorite. In this version Richard shows the world that although other singers may have been inspired by him, there is only ONE Little Richard and he can burn a ballad just as hot as his disciple Otis Redding or any other 60s soul cat. He starts out with a subtle and sweet smolder, but by the time he's done the fire department is on the way to fight the roaring inferno of Little Richard's soul.
There's something to be said for minimalism in a production. Whoever was responsible for the arrangement on this record knew that the best way to showcase Willie's heart-wrenching vocals was to quiet all instrumentation down to a smokey whisper, with the exception of the bluesy-jazz sax that shares a duet.
It starts out with a blues shout, loudly calling out from a distance "Somewhere, Somehow!" Then it quickly closes in on the listener, pulling right up to your ear drum, making you feel as if Willie is right there next to you confessing the blues. I don't know if it was intentional or if Willie just had to step back from the mic because his howl was so loud, but I think that little trick does a lot to make this performance sound all the more intimate than it already is. It draws you in and makes you feel as if you're witnessing his suffering first hand.
I remember the first time I heard this song, it felt devastating. The emotion is so real. It cut me to the core. I'm pretty sure I shed a tear or two upon that first listen. What's unbelievable is that all of that is coming from a singer who was then just 19 years old. Where did that depth of feeling come from in such a young person? Was he an old soul, or just naturally gifted? Or did he have an intuitive sense of how tragically his life would end?
Little Willie John is considered by many to be one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) male vocalists of all time. On this 77th anniversary of his birth, take a moment to appreciate his genius.
And the winner for best dramatic performance on a 45 for the year of 1967 was...CARL HALL for "You Don't Know Nothing About Love". That's what would have been announced if they gave out acting awards for 45s. And that's quite a feat given the vast array of dramatic performances that year.
I love slow soul burners but I as a person of limited income I tend to direct my dollars at records I can actually play more regularly at dance parties. However, there are certain 45s that are so perfectly executed, I simply can't resist purchasing a copy if given the chance. This one I actually spent years hunting down. People buy paintings so they can hang them on the wall and appreciate them and treasure them. Music is obviously something you can't look at or hang on your wall and admire. For music nerds, that's where a 45 comes in. It's the physical representation of one song (well two I guess). You can see it in the grooves. You can hold a masterpiece in your hands.
If you don't appreciate this record, I dare say...YOU DON'T KNOW NOTHING ABOUT LOVE.
Jerry Ragavoy wrote and produced some of the most definitive deep uptown soul records of the golden era of soul. However this one soars above the others. On the vocal wings of Carl Hall it reaches the upper room.
This is how to use dramatic vocal techniques effectively in a soul performance. To me, THIS is definitive. Contestants of reality tv singing contests, this is what you need to listen to. Abandon the empty histrionics and ridiculous disconnected vocal runs. Listen to what Carl Hall does in this song. Interpret song lyrics like an actor would interpret a monologue and attach emotion accordingly. Carl Hall knew this because in addition to being a singer, he was an actor.
Of course, if everyone could sing like this we'd never appreciate something so glorious as the performance etched into the grooves of this 45. And that's what makes it a masterpiece.
Today is voting day. Get your ballots in my friends! There is a great video on Upworthy reminding women to vote. It features a bunch of ladies lip-syncing Lesley Gore's feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me." So, in honor of that my Record of the Day is Keanya Collins' killer 1969 soul cover of that song.
I wasn't able to find out any info about Keanya, but I can tell you she also did a song dedicated to Barnabus the vampire from the daytime soap opera "Dark Shadows". Pretty cool.
I guess the rain has put me in a mellow mood this week. It just takes one overcast day and couple of raindrops to send me straight down Introspection Road. And there's nothing I love to listen to more while I'm strolling down that street than a slow soul burner.
"Please Don't Change Me Now" is a rarely mentioned recording by the legendary Chicago group, The Dells. It's actually the b-side of one of their finer dance records "Wear It on Our Face". Both of the tunes are off of the Dells comeback There Is album released over a decade after their initial success with 1956's "Oh What A Night". What I love about "Please Don't Change Me Now" is that it brings the Dells' 1950s doo-wop roots into what was then "modern times" by decorating it with psychedelic arrangement. The contrast of these two sounds make this record all the more surreal.
It was arranged by the legendary Charles Stepney who was recruited by Chess Records in the late 60s to breathe new life into the label and give them an edge with the psychedelic hippie crowd. His arrangements have been met with mixed reviews over the years. Some folks have called them over-the-top. Others think his psychedelic experiments with blues and doo wop just didn't meld very well. His body of work can be challenging listening and doesn't always appeal to the masses, but there are definitely some masterpieces in there. I think the entire "There Is" album is one of them.
Give this cut a listen and you be the judge. I think it's perfect for a lazy, rainy Saturday morning.
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!