I was 19 years old in 1971, and my music tastes were becoming more varied. Deep down though, I was still a Soul Boy at heart, and that year I heard a wonderful Soul singer with his great new song. I bought this record the same day, then went on to buy his other records for the next four years.
By 1976 Al Green had decided to become a Gospel Minister, and changed his musical direction to Christian music. For me, that was a great loss to the genre of Soul Music.
He still performs today.
From the first time I ever heard an Al Green record, I was hooked on his smooth soul voice, and excellent vocal range. I don’t think he has ever released a song I didn’t like, and some of his recordings have remained favourites of mine throughout my life.
The lyrics of this song have always resonated with me ever since I first heard it at the age of 23. He co-wrote the song, which was released in 1975 as a single from his latest album at the time. Here are the words I always like to hear.
Curtis Mayfield was around for a long time. Pretty much the whole time that I appreciated music, in fact. He began his career with a gospel choir, moving to the group The Impressions at the age of just fourteen. In that group, he collaborated with the marvellous Jerry Butler, and they produced some of the enduring soul sounds of my youth.
After he left that group in 1970, Curtis worked on film soundtracks, and also became increasingly political with his musical message. His film soundtrack for the ‘Blaxploitation’ film, ‘Superfly’ received critical acclaim, and achieved huge sales. Despite being diagnosed with Diabetes, and also suffering a serious injury, he continued to record. He also returned to The Impressions after a twenty year absence, as well as collaborating with other artists, including the British group, The Blow Monkeys.
Many of his later songs carried a political message, and that did not affect his popularity, or record sales. He sadly died from complications of Diabetes at the young age of 57, in 1999. He left behind a legacy of soulful sounds, stretching over the decades. Perhaps because of the current world situation, this track from as long ago as 1971 sums up his hopes and desires, as well as being all too relevant just now.
I have decided to include three songs in this post. One reason is that I found it too hard to choose an example, and the other is that I would not want to publish three posts about similar songs, from the same genre. I have briefly mentioned Northern Soul previously on this blog. By the early 1970s, this small movement had grown, and had come to notice nationally. The devotees would pack venues in the north of England on Saturday nights, dancing to lesser-known soul records from America, until late the next morning. It came with a fashion style all its own, and a noticeable racial tolerance and general good humour. These clubs also served as markets, where fans could buy and exchange rare recordings to play at home. Young people would travel from all over the country, to fill places like the Wigan Casino, or the Blackpool Mecca.
Although it originated in the earlier Mod scene of the 1960s, Northern Soul aficionados did not continue with the same music from the Tamla-Motown stable, or Atlantic and Stax. They sought out smaller labels, and relatively little-known recording artists to dance to, as long as their music provided the distinctive sound that they loved. I could never claim to have been involved at that time. I was too old by then for one thing, and I would never have been comfortable in the baggy trousers and singlets favoured by the energetic dancers. For me, the attraction was simple. I knew the music. In some cases, I owned the records, and knew the recording artists’ work well. I had bought them the first time around, up to ten years earlier, when in my early teens.
It has never really gone away. Despite the closure of most of the iconic venues, the spirit lives on. In the following decades, other groups began to cover Northern Soul classics, giving them a new audience. Notable here are Soft Cell, who covered ‘Tainted Love’, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, who included ‘Seven Days is Too Long’ on their debut album. Some of these younger fans sought out the originals, and club nights began again. There are still ‘weekenders’, held in various places around the country, and a diehard army of fans, old and young. Their motto is, ‘Keep The Faith’. It is a faith worth keeping.
Regrettably, I am unable to cut/paste links from You Tube to this post. I have no idea why, perhaps they have disabled this facility. It has always worked before. So, if you are at all interested, they are easily found there. If this continues, my posts in the music and film categories are destined to look very boring, I’m afraid.
*I have managed to get the tracks into the comments, please see below for links.
Open The Door To Your Heart. This solid song from 1967 was recorded by Darrell Banks, and written by the talented Donnie Elbert. Banks had a very short career, as he was shot dead in 1970, aged just 32.
Seven Days is Too Long. As mentioned, this song was covered by Kevin Rowland in 1980. I had the original single by Chuck Wood some ten years earlier. Although more commercial than some, it is rightly considered to be a Northern Soul classic.
Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). This was a Tamla Motown release from Frank Wilson in 1965, and was considered sufficiently obscure for the Northern Soul scene. It has exactly the right beat, and overall sound, to illustrate perfectly just what they all loved about this kind of music.
Jocelyn Brown is almost 64 years old, and still working in the music business. One of the funkiest soul singers around since the 1970’s, she has surprisingly had only one hit record in all that time. Despite collaborations with Boy George and Culture Club, working as a backing vocalist for Bette Midler, and having a string of hits on the niche Dance Music charts, mainstream success has eluded her.
Her voice will be more familiar to you than you might imagine. Sections of her own recordings have been sampled on huge hits by other groups, including ‘The Power’ by Snap, and ‘Love’s Gonna Getcha’ by Boogie Down Productions. My chosen track may even surprise you, as it has been around so long you may almost certainly have heard it, or at least some of it, drifting out of a radio, or in the background at a club or bar.
Thirty years ago, in 1984, I heard this song, and it stopped me in my tracks immediately. It has an unusual structure, as it begins slowly, and the listener thinks that they are about to hear a ballad. Then the beat kicks in, the vocals step up, and it gets going. After an instrumental break, Jocelyn returns, vocals building and beat quickening. Towards the finale, the backing singers add to the crescendo of vocals, and you just don’t want the song to ever end. It is a great party record, irresistible to dance to, and compulsive to sing along with. It has all the best elements of a timeless funky soul song, and that is why it is still as good today. There are many versions available; extended cuts, 12 inch singles, and remixes. Here is a nice happy video of the short version; Jocelyn singing, and everyone enjoying themselves. I hope you do too.
OK, I apologise in advance. An incredibly slushy, Philly Soul song, of little importance, with annoying falsetto vocals, and a silly title. So, what is it doing in my ‘Significant Songs’ category then? It is all about significance to me, and the particular relevance of this song, is that a cover version, many years after the original, actually made me like this song, and want to own a copy. It isn’t even as if the cover changed the song, in any way, shape, or form. It is a faithful reproduction, and to an accidental listener, it might even be confused with the first version. I will try to explain.
In the early 1970’s, The Stylistics were one of the old-style male vocal harmony groups, following in the footsteps of such giants as The Temptations, and The Four Tops. They added the new ‘Philly’ sound to their performances, as did many of the new wave of soul groups hailing from the city of Philadelphia. This was a smoother, less punchy sound, and often had a falsetto lead. The suits were still awful; lurid colours, themed piping, and flowing bell-bottoms. The dance routines, if they could be called that, hadn’t changed in years, and the format was still successful, so these groups saw no point in altering those traditions. Other bands doing much the same thing at the time, included The Delfonics, The Trammps, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Most of these groups were doing nothing wrong. They churned out nice soul songs, and had hit after hit, with a large following for their sound, on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, The Stylistics just took it all too far. Too much sugar, too many falsettos, and songs of even less merit than most of the competition were recording. It didn’t matter though. They were a household name, and could do no wrong, selling millions of records. But I was getting overwhelmed by the syrup, and beginning to yearn for Motown to come back with something better. So I turned my back on the Philly Sound.
Almost twenty-five years later, Prince was going through a period of transition, something that has often happened in his long career. A dispute with his record company, in 1996, saw him then known only by a symbol, as he was not allowed to use any of his previous stage names, due to contractual difficulties. At that time, he was perhaps at his most irritating, yet also most productive, in many new ways. He was able to record and release songs and material previously denied to him by his former record company, and he finally released his cover version of ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’. When I first heard it, I just couldn’t believe that it was that good. Here was a song that I had always hated, and couldn’t bear to listen to, and I loved it! The arrangement was the same, and even the annoying falsetto was in place, so what made it any different?
Maybe it was the twenty-five year gap. Perhaps I was the one that had changed, not the song. I still didn’t care much for the original, so why did I like this one so much, that I went out and bought a CD single copy immediately? It had to be talent, pure and simple. Prince just felt the song, and sounded as if he really meant it. The production values were higher, and the overall sound, simply superb. I was drawn in, and couldn’t let go. He had turned around my feelings about a song, and made it into one that I still adore today. But only his version.
This video is almost a parody, so be advised. It is completely over the top, and I recommend listening to the song, without watching the visuals. As for the slush and sentiment, consider yourselves warned…
It appears that this has been removed from You Tube, and I cannot get a version online. Apologies.
Continuing what seems to be a musical theme this week, I am recalling some of the soul songs, and dance classics, of my teenage years. They are all from America on this occasion, as the main alternatives here at the time were the Mersey Sound, or belated Rock and Roll. I doubt that this selection will attract that wide an audience, or receive a great deal of appreciation, as it is all in something of a niche market. However, as a memento of the parties and clubs of my youth, it is a priceless personal souvenir.
Tell it like it is. ( 1967) The ultimate slow dance track, from the smooth voice of Mr Aaron Neville. I was not much past fifteen when this was released, and I have played it regularly ever since, for over forty-six years.
Louie Louie. Not the original 1957 version, but the 1963 release by The Kingsmen. This became a Mod classic in the UK during the early 1960’s. Covered many times since, nobody beats the early funky feel of this dance-floor essential. Despite sounding like a group of black singers, with very soulful lead vocals, they were actually all white, and appeared strangely camp, clad in cardigans, and wearing caps. Can’t beat the 60’s!
Seven Days Is Too Long. (1967) This simple soul dance hit from Chuck Wood became a big hit in the UK, on more than one occasion. It has become one of the hall of fame records for fans of so-called ‘Northern Soul’, the American records played almost exclusively in clubs in the North of England. Even at 61, I cannot keep my feet still!
Nothing Can Stop Me. (1965) Snappy suited, with a Motown look and feel, Gene Chandler got feet tapping with this one. Better known for the huge hit ‘Duke of Earl’, Chandler moved on to greater things with this track, another adopted by those Northern Soul aficionados.
Barefootin’. Again in 1965, Robert Parker ensured that dance floors were filled with this upbeat recording. The subject of a few covers over the years, this is the original, and best, from the man himself.
Cool Jerk. A year later, in 1966, The Capitols released this one-off. Almost in its own genre, it is still undoubtedly a classic; as the numerous cover versions, and inclusion in film soundtracks, can testify.
Comin’ Home Baby. This 1962 song, by Mel Torme, is not a soul song at all. It could be called Jazz, possibly even Swing. Looking back at Mel through modern eyes, he seems somewhat ridiculous. Sharp suit, bulging eyes, college-boy haircut, and snapping fingers clutching a cigarette. But he was the epitome of cool in 1962, and to my mind, this is still one of the coolest records ever made. This video is like watching a history documentary, but they are still doing this sort of crap on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Perhaps better to not watch him though. Close your eyes and listen.
I Get The Sweetest Feeling. Already well known for ‘Reet Petite’, and ‘Higher and Higher’, Jackie Wilson made the journey from Doo-wop, to modern soul, throughout the 50’s and 60’s. This track is on my list for the memories it brings back to me, from 1968. His influence is self explanatory, when you recall the Van Morrison song ‘Jackie Wilson Said’, recorded in 1972.
When I’m Gone. Saving the best until last perhaps, this short love song from the wonderful Brenda Holloway sums up the early years of Tamla Motown, from 1965, and I simply love it.
There are many, many more, but this is just a snapshot of the party tunes of my youth. I enjoyed them, then and now, and I hope that you do too.
I am well aware that music taste is something that cannot be forced, and rarely changes. Fans of Metal do not, as a rule, suddenly stop liking it, and the same goes for lifelong soul boys like me. I was brought up with records, and recording artists, as my father became a salesman for Pye Records in 1960, when I was only 8 years old. For the next ten years, he either sold records, promoted artists, or worked in the retail of records. My own second job was selling records, admittedly very cheap ones, for the company called Saga Records. For those not old enough to remember, they were copies of the current chart hits, or old classics and out of royalty stuff, performed by unknown artists (mostly), and sold for less than £1. They were available in all sorts of outlets, from petrol stations to clothes shops, and even record shops! Although very popular at the time, the concept seems laughable now.
I later progressed to working in retail record shops for a while. One was in Piccadilly Circus, the other across London, in Leyton. The customers in these two shops could not have been more different. In the West End, we had queues outside the door for the latest Led Zeppelin album (Led Zeppelin 3, 1970), and later that year, in East London, we sold out of Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’ in less than an hour. I learned very quickly that different tastes have to be taken into consideration.
My taste in music is nothing if not varied. There are the soul, Tamla-Motown, and ska roots of course, as well as some classical music, and the better-known operas. American music of the 1970’s, typified by Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, The James Gang, and many others; alongside The Beach Boys, CSNY, and Bob Dylan. Van Morrison also has an enduring place in my CD collection, not to mention Jazz in many forms, though particularly the work of Miles Davis. Latin beats, Sambas, Mambo, even Cajun, it is all in there somewhere. Later on, there was The Jam, The Style Council, The Blow Monkeys, Swing out Sister, the great revival of British music, in so many styles and forms. Drum and Bass, Dance, House and Garage, they all caught my attention too. Baby D’s anthem ‘Let me be your fantasy’, was the highlight of 1992 for me, as two years earlier, ‘Groove is in the heart’ by Deee-Lite had been.
Pop did not pass me by either. Madonna, Janet Jackson, Hue and Cry, ABC, Heaven 17, Inner City, all these lurk in my CD boxes. And Bowie of course; almost everything the great man has ever recorded. The crossover from DJ’s attracted me too. Artful Dodger, Fatboy Slim, despite my age at the time, (47) I was really excited by them. Then there were the balladeers, old and new; Corrinne Bailey Rae, Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Scott, Edith Piaf, Adele, all had their place. And the diminutive youngster from North London, Amy Winehouse, who stole my ears, and my heart, with her amazing voice. But did I have a perfect CD, one where every track was worth a listen, that would be timeless, and that I would never tire of? Listening to so many over the years, I found myself skipping tracks, almost subconsciously. Past favourites faded with time, and I fell into the familiar habit of buying ‘Greatest Hits’ compilations, to avoid those songs that did not grab me. I have given this idea a lot of thought, and I think that I have found it. The CD I always listen to, and never tire of; the one that I would save in a fire, if there could only be one. It may surprise you…
In 1988, I heard a record on the car radio. I liked it so much, I stopped the car to listen to the rest of it, and to discover who had recorded it. It was called ‘Talking with myself’, and was by a group that I had never heard of, Electribe 101. I went to a record shop that weekend, and bought it as a single CD. I read that the vocals were credited to Billy Ray Martin, but I had never heard of her. I had no Internet in those days, so it was not very easy to find out more. Two years later, I heard that distinctive voice once again, on a song called ‘Tell me when the fever ended’. Later that year, I saw that Electribe 101 had finally released an album, ‘Electribal memories’, and I bought it immediately. It had both the previous tracks, as well as the haunting ‘You’re Walking’, and all the vocals were by the amazing Billy Ray Martin. I later realised that she was also singing on the hits of the chart-topping group S-Express, something I had been unaware of. The band split in 1992, without a second album release, and I presumed that would be that. Billy Ray Martin had apparently returned to her native Germany, and life went on, with new sounds appearing daily to capture my interest.
In 1995, I was 43 years old. I was settling into a house in Docklands, and enjoying music from the likes of Seal, Montel Jordan, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. One day, again in the car, I heard the unmistakable, precise tones that could only be Billy Ray Martin, once again. The driving beat, a strange contrast to the perfect diction, reeled me in immediately, and I waited in a car park, to hear the name of the song. It was ‘Your Loving Arms’, and I was excited to hear that it was the first single released from the forthcoming album. The next day, I was in a record shop, disappointed to hear that it was to be a vinyl release only. I did still have a record player, but it was a nuisance to get it out, set it up, and put it away again. I had to wait more than three months, until 1996, before I could get the CD release of ‘Deadline For My Memories’, the most complete and compelling album I would ever own.
I am not trying to convert anyone. I don’t expect you to suddenly like this music, if you never did before; no more than I will ever become a die-hard fan of Country and Western. If this style of music, and the haunting vocal range is not to your liking, no amount of words written on this post will make you think otherwise. This is a personal journey, with an equally individual conclusion. However, if this is new to you, and you have never heard any of her music, or your mind is open to new experiences, I would love it if you looked further, tried it out, and made up your own mind. I will not follow the format of listing tracks, describing them, and writing about why I like them, though I will add some links. Almost 1200 words about one CD is enough, I reckon. Feel free to let me know what you think. It is too late to change my mind anyway.