When I think of the Warwick sisters, I think of unparalleled sophisticated soul, and yet only one of them managed to become a household name. Dee Dee Warwick (born on this day in 1942) never achieved the superstar status of her sister Dionne, but it wasn't for a lack of talent, magnificent material, and glorious productions.
While the Warwick sisters' voices were no doubt of similar quality, their styles were vastly different. Dionne was a master of subtlety while Dee Dee wasn't afraid to ignite the fiery inferno of flaming DRAMA. She never overdid it though. She knew how to use her instrument and applied the gentle touch when appropriate. Just check out "Yours Until Tomorrow" or her country-soul recording of "She Kept On Talking" for a fine examples of that.
Dee Dee is one of my favorite soul singers and there's no lack of recordings I could write about today, but I chose to focus on her Grammy-nominated 1968 single, "Foolish Fool" produced by the legendary Ed Townsend. The true masterpiece recordings of the 1960s didn't just happen. It took a great many elements coming together in just the right way, and I guess that's why I find them such a marvel.
I suppose you could think of a great 45 single in the same way you view a fine film. Everything has to come together perfectly for the final product to become a great work. In a film it takes script, casting, directing, photography, acting, scene decoration, music, editing, etc etc etc. A pre-1970s music production was much the same.
For "Foolish Fool" to become such a stunning recording it needed a well-crafted song (by Ed Townsend), a delicious arrangement (by Rene Hall), skilled and creative musicians, and of course a vocalist who not only could SANG but who can interpret a lyric. In this case we have an incredibly sophisticated symphonic production that still manages to have a cookin' soulful groove. The instrumentation on this record is essential in making this the case.
The guitar in the intro sets the tone, letting the listener know in no uncertain terms, it is PURE SOUL that will be the driving force on this record. Sadly the guitar intro is drastically shortened in the single version of the song (I've posted the LP version here). It's almost like the guitar is taking you by the hand saying "Hey there, let me lead you to this really cool record you're about to hear." I also need to give a nod to those drums. I am such a SUCKER for the climactic use of drums in 1960s NY productions. They makes those records seem so much larger than life.
Give this record a listen and if you like it, consider listening to Dee Dee's entire Mercury/Blue Rock sessions collection. It's one of my favorites.
Happy 74th Birthday to Mitty Collier, one of the MIGHTIEST voices in Soul Music, who was born on this day in Birmingham, AL. She was discovered in 1959 when after touring as a gospel singer, she entered DJ Al Benson's Chicago talent contest. She was soon signed to Chess Records she recorded her signature song, her secular rendition of Rev James Cleavland's "I Had A Talk With God". In the pages of soul history Mitty's career has often been summed up in just that one record, but there's much more to Mitty Collier, including a handful of uptempo #45records that over the years have become soul dance party floor-filler classics.
My favorite will always be the B-Side to "I Had A Talk With My Man" soul bopper "Free Girl (In the Morning)" which I played at Club Nitty Gritty this past Friday. In this performance Mitty packs a powerful punch when she swings two fists of booming blues belts. Ba-BAM! This song hits you with it's celebratory feminist liberation, but it's also representative of what is incredibly common in soul music of the 1960s, a veiled reference to the struggle for Civil Rights.
In honor of the birthday of Shirley Owens Alston Reeves, founding member of the Shirelles, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend the Shirelles live LP "Spontaneous Combustion". So often music fans of the younger generations are left with only recordings, a handful of photos, and if we're lucky one or two video clips of artists from the past. These are the things that draw a picture of our perception of who these folks were in their hey day. The portrait we're left with is often incomplete.
Such is the case with a group like the Shirelles, in spite of them being hugely popular. Most of us know the Shirelles from their extremely polished sound on their recordings. Unlike artists of today like Beyonce and Kanye West for example, we don't get a glimpse of their personalities outside of their records. That's why this live LP, released slightly after the height of their popularity, is such a treat. We get to hear a more laid back and gritty side of the Shirelles, complete with entertaining stage banter. They joke around with each other, make references to their romantic involvements and personal lives, and they get to cut loose. In other words, we get to see them as real people. The entire album is worth a listen just for the experience of getting to know the members of the Shirelles a little bit better.
Over the years I've heard a lot of people refer to the music they like as "my music". People will stroll into a bar and come up to the DJ booth and say something like "I'm so glad you're playing MY music tonight!" Music, unlike any other art form, has a unique power to reach over enormous chasms to reach into our hearts and let us know that we're not alone in our emotional experiences and life struggles. I think that's why people feel so deeply connected to the music they love. It becomes so personal to the point that even if we didn't create it ourselves, it feels as if it belongs to us.
With that in mind, I'd like to send BIG birthday wishes to Gladys Knight whose voice guided me through the loneliness and confusion of my younger years. Gladys Knight for so many years was MY music.
I've had today's selection of the day in my head a lot lately as I've watched the recent turmoil that feels as though it's tearing people apart while at the same time binding us together in ways we haven't seen in decades. Though on the surface this song may not seem like a message song, here we find Gladys Knight reminding us that when humanity has trouble finding common ground, it's important to remember that one thing we all have in common is the need for LOVE. It's undeniable and has been heavy on my mind as of late - There needs to be a lot more LOVE, COMPASSION & CONNECTEDNESS going around in the world today.
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.
Pop-soul icon Dusty Springfield was born on this day in 1939 in West Hampstead, North London, England.
As you all know, Dusty Springfield has an epic musical legacy. She is one of the greatest pop singers of all time. She was also the queen of British blue-eyed soul singers. Often times, her music transcended musical categories. She was also a glamourous, gorgeous diva. Her incredible success and popularity make it all the more unlikely that this legend would publicly come out as early as 1970. It's such an incredibly brave act, something to be deeply admired.
Dusty is probably best remembered for the way she could reach out and caress her listeners through her delicate ballads. And it's true, nobody could do that quite like Dusty, BUT she could also wail when she wanted to. It's unfortunate and disappointing that so few of her soul stompers made it to 45. I guess they just didn't want to market her that way, or perhaps they didn't have faith in the public buying that side of her. Whatever the reason, we sure did miss out.
Her version of "Can I Get A Witness" is a killer floor-filler. It could have been a SOLID GOLD hit! It took me years to find it on a 7" but it became an instant Sugar Town classic upon the first spin.
Happy Birthday Dusty and thank you for your legacy.
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!
Marjorie Hendricks (aka Margie Hendrix) was reportedly born on this day in Georgia in 1935. She left us WAY too soon which is hugely tragic. Equally tragic is how little we know about her. For someone so revered in soul circles, there's very little information about Margie. Much of the information that is out there is conflicting. It's also challenging to find many photographs of her (there are even photos online labeled to be her, but they aren't her). She's a bit of an enigma.
What we do know is that Margie was a member of the original Cookies who's biggest hit was the lovely mid-50s classic "In Paradise" for Atlantic. From the Cookies she went on to found The Raelettes (sometimes spelled the Raelets) and spent the mid 1950s to the early 1960s backing and duetting with Ray Charles. This is her "claim to fame." She was depicted in the film Ray and since then has become infinitely more known because of it.
But Margie also had a solo career after parting ways with Ray. While her output wasn't extensive, she did manage to scorch some 45s with her vocal inferno. She was perhaps the greatest soul shouter of all time.
Though Margie didn't put out many solo records, it's still difficult for me to choose my favorite. The record I've chosen to highlight today is "Packin' Up." It's a quick-paced, gospel-charged liberation song, written by Margie. Need a pick-me-up? This is more effective than a triple shot of espresso. Give it a taste.
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.
Today the legendary Soul Queen of New Orleans, IRMA THOMAS turns 74! Currently Irma is widely celebrated as one of the greatest song stylists of the golden age of soul music. People can't get enough of her classics like "It's Raining," "Breakaway," "Time Is On My Side," "Hittin' On Nothing," "I Wish Someone Would Care," "Ruler of My Heart," etc etc etc. She's one of the most requested artists at my dance parties which is fantastic. However, I remember a time, just 20 years ago, when Irma Thomas was not well-known to people outside of the gulf coast region. The wonders of the Internet have made her a bigger star today than she was when she initially released her stellar records of the 1960s. It's one of those internet occurrences for which I'm extremely grateful. It really has increased visibility of artists who would have been long forgotten. As someone who's more or less dedicated my life to celebrating the artistry of these folks, it's been interesting to watch this phenomenon occur in front of my eyes.
Before the Internet, classic soul artists like Irma Thomas had another avenue for maintaining a career in the national (and international) spotlight - The Blues Circuit and blues radio. In the the late 1970s when traditional soul music was in the rear view mirror of the public eye, a handful of independent record labels began cropping up under the umbrella of the genre of "the blues". Artists who were popular in the 1960s as soul musicians where dusted off, repackaged, and marketed as BLUES artists (possibly because of the popularity of The Blues Brothers movie?) and a handful of musicians from the R&B and soul era where given opportunities to launch a second phase of their careers (maybe a 3rd phase for those who tried their hand at disco).
In the 1980s and 1990s we saw "blues" releases by soul/R&B artists like Barbara Lynn, Johnny Adams, Ruth Brown, Syl Johnson, Solomon Burke, Mighty Sam McClain, Ann Peebles, Miss Lavelle White, Johnny Copeland, Bobby Bland, The Persuasions, Otis Clay, Earl King, Charles Brown, Nappy Brown, Carol Fran, Linda Hopkins, and IRMA THOMAS. Irma became the queen of that scene and was able to keep building a niche fan base until the Internet, satellite radio, vinyl revival, and the soul dance party resurgence all worked together to make her a superstar amongst a new generation of hipsters.
All of this is great news, because if there is anyone who deserves to be appreciated for her artistry, it's Irma Thomas! She's been busting her butt in the music industry non-stop for at least 55 years!
Like Baby Washington, Irma Thomas is one of those artists who sings for the outsiders, the dejected, the rejected, the misunderstood, the under-appreciated. We've all been there (some of us more than others) and those are the times when we're at our most vulnerable. Perhaps that's why the voice of Irma Thomas is able to seep it's way deep into our damaged hearts, do a little spackling, and prepare it for permanent repair.
I've chosen one of Irma's uptempo positive tunes for my record of the day. It's from her Allen Toussaint-produced era. I have a soft spot for Allen, what can I say. This song was written by him and is representative of the New Orleans soul sound of the early 1960s.
I love you Irma. Thank you for 55 years of providing musical therapy for wounded hearts.
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!