Soul Serenade: Dobie Gray, “Drift Away”

Dobie GrayFor a pop songwriter, the gold standard is a song that has a chorus that people can sing along to. That kind of thing not only goes a long way toward having the song becoming a hit but also gives it longevity. If your chorus is catchy enough people are likely to still be singing it years later. Having spent some time in bars with jukeboxes and live bands I think it’s fair to say that “Drift Away” qualifies as one of those songs.

Lawrence Darrow Brown was born in 1940 into a family of sharecroppers in Texas. His grandfather was a Baptist minister which is how Brown first became inspired by gospel music. He moved to Los Angeles when he was in his early 20s with an eye on an acting career but it isn’t easy to break into the Hollywood scene so Brown turned to singing to make some money while he was waiting for his chance.

Brown recorded for several labels during this period, under several names. One of the people he encountered was a guy named Sonny Bono who thought the independent label Stripe Records would be a good fit for Brown. Once he signed on the people at the label suggested the name Dobie Gray which was inspired by the then-popular TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

He may have acquired his name at Stripe but he accomplished little else. Success didn’t come until 1963 when he was recording for Core-Dak and it was a modest success at that. The single “Look at Me” climbed to the not-too-lofty position of #91 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two years later, however, Gray struck gold with his #13 hit “The In Crowd.” With the legendary Wrecking Crew backing him up, Gray hit the Hot 100 again with the follow-up, “See You at the Go-Go.” But things dried up for a while, a long while, after that.

Gray kept recording for small labels and he even got some of that acting work he’d come to L.A. for in the first place. He spent 2 1/2 years in the cast of the L.A. production of the musical Hair.

Do you remember Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies? He was played by Max Baer, Jr. and after his acting career, Baer became quite a successful manager. One of his clients was a band called Pollution that had formed in 1970 and included Gray as the lead singer. The band recorded two albums that didn’t make much noise and by 1972 Gray had signed with Decca Records. He prepared to work on an album for the label to be recorded in Nashville with Mentor Williams as producer. Williams was the brother of the very successful songwriter Paul Williams with whom Gray had recorded some demos earlier.

Dobie Gray

One of the songs they recorded in Nashville was “Drift Away” which featured that indelible chorus as well as some fine guitar work from Reggie Young. The song was written by Mentor Williams and first recorded by John Henry Kurtz in 1972. The following year it became a #5 smash for Gray, selling a million copies and earning a Gold Record. Gray followed it up with his cover of “Loving Arms” which did respectable but not spectacular business, reaching #61.

By then Decca had been enfolded into MCA Records and Gray made three albums for the label. None of them was very successful, a problem Gray felt was caused by the fact that MCA “didn’t know where to place a black guy in country music.” Now a permanent Nashville resident, Gray signed with Capricorn records and had modest success with his last two solo singles, “If Love Must Go” (#78), and “You Can Do It” (#37). During this time, Gray toured in Australia, Europe, and after persuading the authorities to allow him to play to integrated audiences, South Africa.

Gray recorded for Capitol Records in the 1980s and had some success on the country charts. He continued to tour and release albums in the 1990s. Unexpectedly, “Drift Away” became a hit all over again when Gray recorded a new version of the song with the band Uncle Kracker in 2003. The new version made it all the way to #9 on the Hot 100 that year and spent an incredible 28 weeks at the top of the Adult Contemporary chart.

Dobie Gray died in Nashville in 2011. He was 71 years old. And we’re still singing that chorus.

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Soul Serenade: The Delfonics, “Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)

The DelfonicsDo you remember when you first fell in love with Philly Soul? For me, it was in 1968 because that was the year when the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” came pouring out of radio speakers everywhere to offer a balm in a very troubled time. There had certainly been great Philly Soul records before. Several of the Intruders hits come to mind but there was something so magical about the Delfonics sound that it transcended everything else.
I remember seeing the Delfonics on television around that time. Their stage presence was as unique and special as their sound. Into a world that was in love with the Motown way of performance, the powerful athletic movement embodied in the live appearance of the Temptations came this trio with slow angular moves that owed more to modern ballet than anything else. And there were no slick suits either. Instead, the Delfonics appeared in turtlenecks and bell bottoms. It was as if Philadelphia meant to announce, as if such an announcement was necessary, ‘hey, we ain’t Detroit.’

The Delfonics released two new singles in the wake of “La La.” Both of them did alright, “I’m Sorry” reaching #42 on the charts and “Break Your Promise” doing a little better at #35. Both songs had been written, just as “La La” had been, by producer Thom Bell along with William Hart, who sang lead on the hits. The original Delfonics trio also included Hart’s brother Wilbert and Randy Cain. That was the classic lineup.

The Delfonics

Next up came a single that wasn’t a hit any bigger than the previous two singles but, clocking in at just over two minutes, it made a lasting impression. “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love)” was again written by Bell and Hart. It was released by Philly Groove Records on October 22, 1968 (the record just celebrated its 50th anniversary) and rose to #35 on the pop chart and #14 on the R&B chart.

The Jackson 5 covered “Ready or Not” on their 1970 Third Album. Perhaps the biggest moment of afterlife for the song came when the Fugees interpolated it for their huge 1996 album The Score. The following year, Missy Elliott sampled “Ready or Not” for her song “Sock It 2 Me.” “Ready or Not” has also been sampled by Three 6 Mafia and Lil’ Kim among others.

Despite releasing some great records after “Ready or Not” the Delfonics only had big chart success one more time, that with “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” a Top 10 single in 1970. Randy Cain left the Delfonics the following year and was replaced by Major Harris. An even bigger set back came when Thom Bell, who had such an important role in the success of the Delfonics as producer and songwriter, moved on to work with the Stylistics and the Spinners.

The Delfonics split up in 1975 but there are groups touring with some variation of that name right up to today include William “Poogie” Hart & the Delfonics, and Wilbert Hart, formerly of the Delfonics. Randy Cain passed away in 2009.

Soul Serenade: Otis Rush, “Homework”

Otis RushI’ve known Billy Hector for more than 30 years. It began when I managed a band he was in in the early 1980s. Billy is a legendary figure in New Jersey and beyond, a bluesman without equal. He’s been entertaining audiences with his high-energy guitar playing and singing for decades and if you’re lucky you can still catch him playing three or four nights a week. Billy has his own material but he also plays blues classics and it was his torrid version of the Otis Rush song “Cut You Loose” that turned me into a Rush fan for life.

In the mid-’80s, while I was trying to make money in the music business, I still had a job in the corporate world which allowed me to make actual money. It was a pretty straight job with a major financial institution but it did have its perks. The best perk was that I got to travel to Chicago three or four times a year. Not only did I have friends living in the Windy City at the time, but the town was also still a hotbed for the style of electric blues that bore its name. Among the artists I got to see, all in small clubs, were legends like Junior Wells, Son Seals, Jimmy Johnson, and of course Otis Rush.

It was at a club called Blue Chicago at that time located on State Street on the near North Side. The club’s proximity to the downtown area made it a haven for tourists. I’m generally not fond of those kinds of places but when I learned that Otis Rush was playing there while I was in town I put that aside. I don’t remember that much about his set beyond the feeling that he was everything I hoped he would be and that was a high bar to surpass indeed.

Rush came up to Chicago from the South like many of the other artists who created the Chicago blues sound. He was born in Mississippi in 1935 and moved to the city with his family when he was 14. He made some important recordings for Cobra Records in the 1950s including the #8 R&B hit “I Can’t Quit You Baby” which was released in 1956. Other notable songs from that period included “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” and “Double Trouble.”

When Cobra went belly up, Rush landed at Chess Records. He recorded eight sides for the label before moving on to Duke Records. His output at Duke was even lower. There was just one single for the label but that one single was “Homework.” The song was written by Rush along with Al Perkins and Dave Clark. It wasn’t a hit for Rush but it was a song that would gain new life when it was covered by the J. Geils Band on their debut album in 1970.

Rush continued recording through the 1960s on labels like Vanguard and Cotillion. His Cotillion album Mourning in the Morning was produced by the storied guitar player Mike Bloomfield along with Nick Gravenites. Both producers were members of the Electric Flag at the time. The album was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and appropriate to that setting the sound of the album found Rush moving in the direction of rock and soul.

In 1971, Rush recorded his classic album Right Place, Wrong Time for Capitol. For some reason, Capitol refused to release it. Five years later, Rush bought his master back from the label and had the album issued in Japan. Eventually, it was released by Bullfrog Records in the U.S. There were more recordings for labels like Sonet and Delmark in the 1970s.

Then there was a gap of 16 years between Rush albums. The drought ended when he released Ain’t Enough Comin’ In in 1994. The album won Rush his first Grammy Award. He continued to tour into the new century until a stroke brought his touring days to a halt in 2003. Although he was unable to play, Rush made an appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2016 where the city’s mayor proclaimed it Otis Rush Day.

Otis Rush passed away on September 29, 2018. He had been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Jazz Foundation of America earlier this year.

Billy Hector has a fine new album called Some Day Baby. You can find it at iTunes and the usual online retailers or better yet if you’re in the area go to one of Billy’s gigs and pick it up there.

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.

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.