Soul Serenade: Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story

Stax '68Stax Records was in a bad place as 1968 began. Otis Redding, the label’s biggest star, had been killed in a plane crash in a Wisconsin lake on December 10, 1967, just as he was poised on the brink of superstardom. Also killed in the crash were four members of Redding’s backing band, the Bar-Kays.

Also at the end of 1967, Atlantic Records was sold to Warner Brothers. Atlantic had been distributing Stax records since 1965 under the terms of a deal struck between Stax co-founder Jim Stewart and Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. Unfortunately, Stewart didn’t read the small print and when he exercised his right to terminate the contract because his key-man Wexler was no longer at Atlantic, Stewart learned that the agreement that he had signed gave ownership of all the Stax masters to Atlantic. Stax was left with no product to sell. Zero, zip, nada. But something worse, something that transcended the business crisis at Stax was about to happen in the label’s hometown of Memphis.

Everyone at Stax was shocked by Redding’s death but the label was not unprepared to continue without him. Redding’s contract with the label was about to expire and Stewart fully expected that Redding would sign with one of the many major labels that were chasing him. But first, there was one more single, recorded a few weeks before Redding’s death, to be released.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was a song that Redding had written in the summer of 1967 while he was relaxing on a houseboat in Sausalito, California shortly after he had blown away a mostly white rock audience at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. He worked on the song with producer Steve Cropper but it still felt somehow unfinished. After Redding’s death, Cropper came up with the idea of adding the sound of seagulls and breaking waves to the record and the rest is history.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released on a new Stax imprint called Enterprise on January 8, 1968, and it streaked to the top of the R&B chart while making it to the #2 spot of the pop chart. Released the same day was Sam & Dave’s follow-up to their 1967 smash “Soul Man.” “I Thank You” proved to be another Top 10 R&B and pop hit for the duo. Despite the dark times, Stax had somehow risen from the ashes and under the leadership of label VP Al Bell, and there were some big plans for 1968.

Eddie FloydStax still had an impressive roster of artists. In addition to Sam & Dave (it would soon be discovered that they were actually signed to Atlantic and had only been on loan to Stax), the list included stalwarts like William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Booker T and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and Albert King among many others. Somehow, despite everything that had happened, things were looking up at Stax. They might not have any of their old catalog to sell but they had plenty of artists to create new product. Then Dr. King was shot to death in Memphis on April 4. Things got tense across the nation but nowhere more so than in Memphis where the smoke from fires began to fill the sky.

Stax had always worn the diversity of its artist roster and staff as a badge of honor while acknowledging that the harmony that existed inside the Stax building didn’t necessarily translate to the outside world. The assassination of Dr. King brought the outside world closer to Stax. Eventually, the fires were banked but the tension remained on the streets of Memphis. The white musicians at Stax were so concerned about the threats they were receiving that they had to be escorted to their cars by the black musicians.

Bell made the critical mistake of hiring a tough guy from New York named Johnny Baylor to ensure the safety of Stax employees. The move worked in the short term but it would eventually bring the label to its knees several years later. Making matters worse was the dawning realization that the racial strife that had been kept outside of its doors had found its way into Stax.

Stax was in no position to wait though. There had to be new product if the label was going to continue to exist. And it was the artists who had been at Stax from its earliest days that delivered the hits.

“We were determined,” Stewart said. “The company really came together. It was do or die.”

It began with Booker T and the MGs and their hit “Soul Limbo” which was released in late May. Stax changed its label from the classic blue stack of records design to the yellow finger-snapping label and designated “Soul Limbo” as Stax 0001. The label was clearly indicating its desire to start afresh. The record went Top 10 on the R&B chart and Top 20 on the pop chart. Then William Bell and Judy Clay scored with “Private Number.”

Stax had a setback when Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” was rejected by R&B radio demonstrating that racial tension remained high in the South and white soul singers were not welcome on black radio. As a result, Stax gave up trying to have hits by white R&B artists for quite a while.

“I worked my buttocks off to break that record,” Bell said. “Then I started hearing back. ‘That’s a white girl! Isn’t that a white girl?’ We never said to anyone she was white. Radio and retail were both saying it to us. It broke my heart. Momentum just kept decreasing from that point on.”

Johnnie Taylor got the label back on track with his smash “Who’s Making Love,” a song that had been previously rejected by six producers at Stax. Booker T and the MGs scored again with the theme song from the Clint Eastwood film “Hang ‘Em High” and the gold rush was on at Stax. Bell signed the legendary Staple Singers. The Soul Children were brought in to try to fill the void of Sam & Dave’s departure to Atlantic.

Stalwarts like Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd continued to positively impact the bottom line. Delaney & Bonnie were doing their blue-eyed soul thing for the label too. But there were lesser known artists like the Charmells, Jeanne and the Darlings, the Mad Lads, Bobby Whitlock, the Epsilons, the Aardvarks, Jimmy Hughes, and Fresh Air doing their best to add to the Stax legacy.

A new five-disc set called Stax ’68 – A Memphis Story from Stax/Craft Recordings compiles every single released by Stax in the unforgettable year of 1968. There are 120 songs in all by the artists mentioned here and many others. The set was produced by Joe McEwen and the package includes a booklet with a powerful essay by Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon and another by Steve Greenberg. There are a host of great photos and the discs themselves are housed in sleeves that replicate Stax album covers.

You might think that you already own all of this music but you probably don’t. I base that on the fact that some of the artists represented are either unknown to me or forgotten in the mists of time. The other thing is that the set, with its accompanying essays, puts this music in the context of its times, and does so brilliantly. If you are a fan of Stax or soul music in general Stax ’68 is indispensable.

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Soul Serenade: The Joe Jeffrey Group, “My Pledge Of Love”

It seems that there is a holiday for nearly everything these days. Some are better than others. Recently we celebrated National One-Hit-Wonder Day. Yes, you read that right. It was actually fun to see people posting videos by their favorite one-hit wonder artists. It had the added advantage of distracting us from the usual political rancor for one day. One of the posts I liked best was made by my friend Barry. It was a long-forgotten song by the Joe Jeffrey Group that I loved back in the day. And so, this column.

As is usually the case with one-hit wonders, there is precious little information known about them and it’s pretty much only the music itself that survives. We do know that a musician named Joe Jeffrey, whose given name was Joseph Stafford, Jr., put together a band in Cleveland at some point in the 1960s. Jeffrey played guitar and sang and the band’s original lineup included bass player Al Russ, percussionist Charles Perry, and drummer Ron Browning.

In 1969, the Joe Jeffrey Group, by then signed to the Wand Records label, released the single “My Pledge of Love.” The song was written by Jeffrey and the arrangement was by Russ. It was a hit, rising up on the Billboard Hot 100 all the way to the #14 position. If the band could have followed up their success with another hit things might have been different. And they had a shot.

The following year, the Joe Jeffrey Group released their version of “My Baby Loves Lovin’.” Unfortunately, the British group White Plains released their version of the song at almost the same time. The White Plains version went to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the Joe Jeffrey Group single languished in the “bubbling under the Top 100” section of the chart.

The Joe Jeffrey Group missed an escape by from one-hit-wonder status by a whisker. Jeffrey didn’t give up. He played the Cleveland bars several nights a week in the 1970s as a solo artist. He played his hit, his near-hit, and covers of popular songs of the day but he never had another brush with chart fame.

Joe Jeffrey passed away in 2016 at the age of 80, a one-hit-wonder until the end.

Soul Serenade: Rose Royce, “Car Wash”

Rose Royce

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little over four years ago I featured the L.A. band Rose Royce in this column. The focus of my story was their Top 5 1978 hit “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” But about a year earlier the band, which got their start in Watts under the name Total Concept Unlimited, had an even bigger hit when their debut single was included on the soundtrack album for the hit film Car Wash. The title track wasn’t the only Rose Royce hit from the Car Wash album either. “I Wanna Get Next to You” and “I’m Going Down” were also Top 10 R&B hits. But it was the “Car Wash” single that ascended to the very top of the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the R&B chart.

Car Wash (the film) was directed by Michael Schultz who was also responsible for the 1975 hit Cooley High. Schultz had the good sense to enlist the legendary Motown producer Norman Whitfield to produce the Car Wash soundtrack. Whitfield was hesitant at first but eventually he was swayed by two factors. First of all, the album would provide an opportunity for the new band, Rose Royce, that he had signed to his own label, TCU, in 1975. The other factor? Well, it was pretty apparent that the film and its accompanying soundtrack would be a financial windfall for those who were involved.

Legend has it that Whitfield had trouble coming up with a title track for the film until one day while playing basketball the idea came to him. It is said that he wrote the first draft of the lyrics for “Car Wash” on a paper bag from a fried chicken place. If you’ve seen the film, and who hasn’t, you know that the title song set the tone perfectly for it. Gwen Dickey a.k.a. Rose Norwalt sang lead for Rose Royce and she was ably assisted by guitarist Kenji Brown.

The “Car Wash” single sold two million copies and held down the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a week in January 1977. The entire Whitfield-produced album was comprised of Rose Royce songs and also spawned the two other aforementioned hits. That year, the Car Wash soundtrack album won a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album.

Rose Royce continued to move forward with hits like “Do Your Dance,” “Ooh Boy,” “Wishing on a Star,” “I’m in Love (and I Love the Feeling),” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” before releasing their final album in 1979. Dickey left the band the following year and it seemed to mark the end of the road for the band but the other members eventually reunited and had some success as a touring act.

Soul Serenade: Hot Chocolate, “You Sexy Thing”

Hot ChocolateThis week we travel across the Atlantic again to find our soul. You may recall that not too long ago I featured another great British soul band called the Foundations. This week I bring you Hot Chocolate and their indelible 1975 hit “You Sexy Thing.”
The band got together in 1968 and the original lineup included singer Errol Brown, guitar player Franklyn De Allie, drummer Jim King along with percussionist Patrick Olive and bass player Tony Wilson. One King, Jim, was soon replaced by another, Ian (no relation). The new King left too and was replaced by drummer Tony Connor. There was also a change at the guitar spot when De Allie was replaced by Harvey Hinsley.

They were originally dubbed the Hot Chocolate Band but that was soon shortened to merely Hot Chocolate by producer Mickie Most. Their first record deal was with Apple and it happened in a roundabout way. Hot Chocolate had recorded a reggae cover of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” without realizing that you needed permission to do such a thing. It didn’t take long for Apple to get on the phone to tell Brown that while he needed the ok from them it turned out the Lennon himself liked what he heard and that led to the record deal.

Unfortunately, the Beatles were breaking up at the time and it wasn’t long before Hot Chocolate and Apple Records went their separate ways. Then, in 1970, Most stepped in. He had a label called Rak and he signed Hot Chocolate. They released singles like “Love is Life,” “Emma,” “You Could Have Been a Lady,” and “I Believe in Love” all of which were substantial hits in the U.K.

In 1973, Hot Chocolate released a song about an interracial romance that was written by Brown and Wilson. The original version of “Brother Louie” was a Top 10 UK hit for Hot Chocolate and an even bigger hit when the American band Stories took their cover version to the top of the U.S. charts. Although they were already successful, the dawn of the disco era in the mid-’70s would take Hot Chocolate to the next level.

In 1975, “You Sexy Thing” took Hot Chocolate to the #3 spot on the U.S. charts. Three years later, “Every 1’s a Winner” did nearly as well, reaching #6 in the U.S. Although that was the last U.S. chart hit for Hot Chocolate they continued to have success with Top 10 U.K. hits like “No Doubt About It,” “Girl Crazy,” and “It Started With a Kiss.”

Eventually, chart success began to wane for Hot Chocolate but their music lived on through cover versions that artists like P.J. Harvey, Urge Overkill, and Sisters of Mercy added to their live sets. The writing was on the wall however when Brown and Ferguson left the band in 1986. Brown began a solo career and placed a couple of singles in the U.K. charts. By then, Hot Chocolate had disbanded but they reformed with a completely new lineup in 1992. The band continues to tour the U.K. and Europe.

Original Hot Chocolate vocalist and songwriter Errol Brown passed away in 2015 but not before he was awarded an MBE in 2003 and the Ivor Novello Award for his contribution to British music the following year. The enduring popularity of Hot Chocolate was confirmed when two of the band’s compilation albums reached the top spot on the U.K. album charts.

Soul Serenade: The Vibrations, “My Girl Sloopy”

The VibrationsI saw a lot of amazing musicians when I was a kid growing up in Atlantic City in the 1960s. Every summer, the city’s famous Steel Pier became the epicenter for shows by some of the best-known artists of the day. There were appearances by Chubby Checker, Duke Ellington, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles among many others. Dick Clark even brought his Caravan of Stars to the Pier every summer from 1960-1964. Those shows included artists like the Shirelles, and the Crystals.

One group that I remember seeing at Steel Pier on several occasions was the Vibrations. They first got together in Los Angeles in the 1950s and called themselves the Jay Hawks. They had a Top 20 hit in 1956 with “Stranded in the Jungle” on Flash Records. By 1961 they were known as the Vibrations with a lineup that included Jimmy Johnson, Carl Fisher, Dave Gowan, Don Bradley, and Ricky Owens. That group scored with the #25 hit “The Watusi” which was released by Checker.

The Vibrations

In a rather unique twist, that same lineup had another hit in 1961 with “Peanut Butter” (Arvee Records) only this time they were known as the Marathons.

It was a move to Atlantic Records in 1964 that brought the Vibrations their biggest hit. “My Girl Sloopy” was written by Wes Farrell and Bert Berns. The Vibrations recorded the song in January 1964 and the Atlantic release reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart and #26 on the pop chart. But the Vibrations original was not the most successful version of the song. A year later a band from Dayton, Ohio called the McCoys took a retitled and edited down version of the song, by then called “Hang on Sloopy,” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

Although they never equaled the success of their earlier records, the Vibrations scored again with “Love in Them There Hills” in 1968. “Cause You’re Mine” (Okeh Records) and “Surprise Party for You Baby” (Neptune Records) also made some noise and helped to make the Vibrations records a staple spin on the UK’s Northern Soul scene.

The Vibrations split up in 1971 when Ricky Owens left for an ill-fated stint with the Temptations. Before long, Owens returned, the group re-formed, and the Vibrations found success as a nightclub act in the 1970s before dissolving for good in 1976.

Soul Serenade: Willie Tee, “Thank You John”

Willie TeeWilson Turbinton was born in New Orleans in 1944 and raised in that city’s Calliope projects. His older brother Earl played the saxophone and by 1960 formed the Seminoles. The younger Turbinton had the good fortune of having as a music teacher the legendary Harold Battiste. History tells us that Battiste was an excellent judge of talent and when he saw it in Turbinton he added the young man to his AFO (All For One) Band. The band also included the New Orleans icon Ellis Marsalis on piano.

As a part of the arrangement with Battiste, Turbinton, by then Willie Tee, recorded for the AFO Records label. In 1962, Tee released his debut single for the label, “Always Accused.” It wasn’t a hit but it served to establish the blend of jazz and R&B that Tee would pursue for the balance of his long career. It wasn’t long before Tee left AFO. He played with a band called the Souls for a little while and then signed with the NOLA label. In 1965, Tee released his first single for NOLA and “Teasin’ You” became the label’s first hit. Somehow the local hit found its way to L.A. and the Righteous Brothers covered it on the Shindig! television show.

The success of “Teasin’ You” came to the attention of Atlantic Records and they made a deal to distribute the single nationally. With a B-side called “Walking Up a One Way Street” the single didn’t make much of a dent on the pop charts but it came very close to the Top 10 on the R&B chart. Tee’s next single for the label was “Thank You John” and it failed to chart at all but it became a classic in the canon of Carolina Beach Music and was covered by Alex Chilton.

Willie Tee

Atlantic gave up on Tee after his next single, “I Want Somebody (To Show Me the Way Back Home),” also failed to chart. Tee returned to NOLA Records and released “Please Don’t Go” on the label’s Hot-Line imprint but neither that single or the follow-up, “Ain’t That True Baby” managed any charged success. By 1968, NOLA was out of business and Tee was on his own once again.

Tee hadn’t found much success as a recording artist so he turned to production. He worked with Margie Joseph on her 1969 Volt Records classic “One More Chance.” Tee’s piano playing eventually came to the attention of Cannonball Adderly who helped Tee to get a deal with Capitol Records. There, in 1970, he released his first album I’m Only a Man. But success as a recording artist continued to be elusive for Tee and his time with Capitol was short.

Tee then re-formed a band he had been in earlier with his cousin Ulis Gaines. Gatur released the ballad “The Man That I Am” and followed that with the funky singles “Your Love and My Love Together” and “Swivel Your Hips” that pointed to a new direction for Tee. In 1973, the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian Band enlisted Tee to put together a backing group for an album they were recording. He brought his older brother Earl and guitarist Snooks Eaglin and composed all of the music incorporating elements of funk and Afro-Cuban music and rearranging some New Orleans classics. The resulting album became one of the most beloved albums in Crescent City music history. The album was noted for spreading the Native American Mardi Gras culture to a worldwide audience.

In 1976, Tee decided to try his hand as a solo artist again. He signed with United Artists and released his second album, Anticipation. It was the last album he would ever make for a major label but he continued to play the clubs with Gatur. In 1988, Tee and his brother Earl made a jazz album for Rounder called The Turbintons. Eventually, Tee became a favorite on the Northern Soul scene in England and his music was sampled by hip-hop artists like Sean “Puffy” Combs and the Geto Boys.

Willie Tee passed away in 2007.

Soul Serenade: Aretha Franklin, “I Say A Little Prayer”

Aretha Franklin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m back. I was happy to have a couple of weeks to recharge my batteries in terms of writing this column but enough is enough. I had many ideas that I wanted to write about while I was on my short sabbatical but then Aretha Franklin passed on and I knew that there could only be one subject for my first column back … the Queen of Soul.

I’ve written about Aretha before in this column, three times in regard to her own records and many more times in passing while writing about another artist. There’s virtually nothing that I can add to the extensive coverage that we’ve all been following since Aretha died. We’ve heard all about her childhood from her birth in Memphis to her family’s move to Buffalo when she was two to her permanent relocation to Detroit. We know that Aretha was the daughter of the prominent minister C.L. Franklin, that he separated from his wife when Aretha was six-years-old, and that her mother died four years later.

It wasn’t long after her mother’s death that Aretha began to sing in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. The first hymn she sang, at age 12, was “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me.” Her reputation as a gospel singer continued to grow until Aretha reached the age of 16. At that point, she began to contemplate a move to secular music with encouragement from Sam Cooke who had followed the same path.

There were several offers from record labels and eventually Aretha signed with Columbia Records and released her first secular album in 1961. She made some fine albums for Columbia but the truth is that the label failed to take advantage of her strengths and when her contract expired in 1966, Aretha moved on to Atlantic Records. One day at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals in January 1967 was all it took to cement her place in history. The song that was recorded in Muscle Shoals, “”I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” was Aretha’s first Top 10 hit and was followed up by her take on Otis Redding’s “Respect” which took her to the top of the charts and became her signature song. “Respect” was followed by “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools.” Not a bad run, right? And it was far from over.

Aretha Franklin

There were more hits, many more hits over the years. While Aretha had her greatest string of hits in the 1960s, she was still creating hits into the 1980s and beyond. Her classics for Atlantic and Arista are too numerous to mention and besides, you know them all. So I’ll focus on one hit in particular, Aretha’s take on the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song “I Say a Little Prayer.”

The song was originally written by Bacharach and David for Dionne Warwick with whom they had so many hits. Her version was another in that run, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1967. Despite the success, Bacharach himself was never happy with the finished record, feeling that it was too rushed.

The following year, Aretha and her background vocalists, the Sweet Inspirations, were rehearsing songs for the upcoming Aretha Now album and they began singing “I Say a Little Prayer” just for fun. It wasn’t long before they realized that their version, markedly different from Warwick’s, had potential. In July 1968, “I Say a Little Prayer” was released as the B-side of “The House That Jack Built” but before long it was getting airplay on its own. By October 1968 the B-side was a Top 10 hit on the pop and R&B charts. It was Aretha’s ninth consecutive Top 10 hit for Atlantic and it would be her last for the label.

Aretha Franklin’s music was important to generation after generation. Even more important was her commitment to civil rights and women’s rights. “Respect” and “Natural Woman” became anthems for those causes and she provided her time and money for the struggle from behind the scenes and on stage at various benefits over the years.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Aretha Franklin. She was one of those rare artists who remained our hearts and in our ears for decades. Even after all of this time, no one changes the channel when “Respect” comes on the radio. We’re more likely to start singing along at the top of our lungs with huge smiles on our faces. The Queen is gone but in truth, she will never really be gone at all. Long live the Queen.