Soul Serenade: Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now”

Johnny NashI think it’s fair to say that for many Americans reggae began and ended with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Marley certainly deserves his due for spreading the music to this country and the world but the fact is that reggae has a history that pre-dates Marley and has continued after his untimely death. At a time when reggae was strictly the purview of Jamaican musicians, one American singer took a reggae song to the upper reaches of the charts.
Johnny Nash was born in Houston and began his career as a pop music singer in the 1950s. He signed with ABC-Paramount Records and released his self-titled debut album in 1958. In the six years that followed, Nash released singles on a variety of labels including Warners, Chess, and Argo in addition to the four albums he made for ABC-Paramount. The biggest hit he had in these years was “The Teen Commandments” which Nash recorded with Paul Anka and George Hamilton IV in 1958. The single reached #29 on the pop chart. The following year, Nash’s version of “As Time Goes By” just missed the Top 40.

Most of Nash’s other singles of the era either failed to chart completely or didn’t make the Top 100. In 1965, Nash founded JODA Records with his partner Danny Sims. One of the label’s early signings was the Cowsills, the family band that went on to have hits for MGM Records.

Johnny Nash

It was Nash’s visit to Jamaica in 1968 that lit the spark for his biggest hits. While Nash was there he was introduced to Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers as they were then known. Marley, along with Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and Rita Marley introduced Nash to the local music scene. In return, Nash signed the four musicians to a contract with a label he had formed called JAD. Unfortunately, no hits emerged from the sessions that JAD financed but Nash himself had a Top 10 hit with rocksteady-flavored “Hold Me Tight” in 1968. That same year, “You Got Soul” reached #58.

Nash never forgot what he had heard in Jamaica, and during a trip to London in 1972 he recorded a song he had written called “I Can See Clearly Now.” The record, which Nash produced, clearly employed the reggae sound that had inspired Nash when he worked with the Jamaican musicians. On November 4, 1972, “I Can See Clearly Now” reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for four weeks. The record sold over a million copies and was awarded a Gold Record by the RIAA.

The album that followed, also called I Can See Clearly Now, featured four songs written by Marley. One of them, “Stir It Up” (a song later made famous by Marley himself) was a #12 hit for Nash. He would never put another record into the U.S. Top 40, but his 1975 cover of the Little Anthony and the Imperials classic “Tears on My Pillow” did top the U.K. chart.

In addition to his career as a singer, Nash appeared as an actor in several films and TV shows.

Advertisements

Soul Serenade: Denise LaSalle, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”

Denise LaSalleWhen Koko Taylor died nine years ago, the title “Queen of the Blues” was bestowed on Denise LaSalle. Then LaSalle died in January of this year and the title has been vacated, at least for the time being.

LaSalle had the classic upbringing for a blues singer. She was born in Mississippi to a family of sharecroppers. She took the well-trod road north to Chicago when she was 13 and moved in with an older brother. Like many southern singers, LaSalle was influenced by both country and blues music. She began to make her name in R&B circles around the Windy City and in 1967 she signed with the legendary Chess Records label. “Love Reputation” was her first single for the label and while it was not a huge national hit, it did show some promise regionally.

Denise LaSalle

It was her third single, “Trapped By a Thing Called Love,” that had the magic. By the time it was released in 1971, LaSalle had moved on to the Detroit-based Westbound Records. The song, which was written LaSalle, was a huge hit for her, topping the R&B chart, reaching #13 on the pop chart, selling a million copies, and earning the singer a Gold Record. The record was co-produced by LaSalle and her then-husband Bill Jones.

The following year, LaSalle scored again with “Now Run and Tell That,” and “Man Sized Job” both of which were Top 5 R&B singles and made the pop chart as well. All of LaSalle’s early hits were recorded at Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in Memphis. In 1975, LaSalle left Westbound for ABC Records where she scored another Top 10 R&B hit with “Love Me Right” in 1977. When ABC Records was sold in 1978, the new label, MCA, dropped LaSalle mostly because they didn’t know how to market black music.

Malaco Records came calling shortly thereafter and LaSalle began a long and successful career with the label. Over the course of more than 20 years with Malaco, LaSalle released 11 highly regarded albums for the label. Eventually, LaSalle moved on from Malaco and made two gospel albums for Ordena Records before returning to secular music with three albums for Ecko Records.

More than ten years after she left the label, LaSalle returned to Malaco in 2010 and released the album 24 Hour Woman. During this time LaSalle continued to perform and was a popular artist at blues festivals. She was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011, and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

Denise LaSalle, the “Queen of the Blues,” died on January 8, 2018, at the age of 78.

Soul Serenade: Graham Central Station, “Your Love”

Graham Central StationThe influence of Sly & the Family Stone has informed musicians for 50 years and has never waned during that time. The sound that Sly originated in the ’60s can still be heard in the most contemporary music. While the influence is indirect for many, it couldn’t be more direct than it is in the music of Larry Graham who, as the bass player for Sly & the Family Stone, helped to codify that sound in the first place.

Graham’s most important contribution to funk was undoubtedly what has become known as “slap” bass although Graham himself has always referred to it as “thumpin’ and pluckin’.” Whatever it’s called the style finds the bass player emulating the sound of a bass drum with his thumb and a snare drum with his second or middle finger. It’s a style that has been adopted by such bass-playing luminaries as Bootsy Collins, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, and Les Claypool.

Graham was born in Beaumont, Texas. He was only 20 years old when he joined Sly & the Family Stone and he remained with that legendary band for six years. After leaving Sly in 1972, Graham formed a band called Azteca along with guitarist Neil Schon. Before long, Schon had departed to form Journey, and Graham put together Graham Central Station.

Graham Central Statino

The self-titled debut album for Graham Central Station was released by Warner Bros. Records in 1974. The lineup for the album included guitarists Freddie Stone (another Sly refugee) and “Dynamite” Vega, singers Lenny Williams and Patryce “Choc’Let” Bank, drummer Willie “Wild” Sparks, keyboard player Butch Sam, horn players P. Caboose, and “Happiness” Kennedy, and percussionist Milt Holland. The album was a Top 20 hit on the R&B chart and reached #48 on the pop chart.

Release Yourself was released that same year and included many of the same musicians. The album, which reached #22 on the R&B chart, included the single “Feel the Need In Me” which found an equivalent level on the R&B singles chart. The following year the album Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It was released and it included the single “Your Love,” the biggest Graham Central Station hit. The single topped the R&B chart and was a Top 40 pop hit as well.

Graham Central Station continued to release albums in the ’70s, but after 1979’s Star Walk there was a gap of nearly 20 years before their next release, GCS 2000. The album was produced by Graham and Prince and was released on Prince’s label NPG. Despite Prince’s efforts to revive Graham Central Station’s career, neither the album or any of its singles charted, a failure that many people chalked up to there being too much Prince and not enough Larry Graham on the album. Missing was the freewheeling sound of the band’s earlier albums, replaced by the sound of studio perfection.

Prince didn’t give up on Graham Central Station however and featured the band as his opening act on the “Welcome 2 America” tour in 2011. The most recent Graham Central Station album, Raise Up, was released the following year.

Soul Serenade: The Independents, “Leaving Me”

The IndependentsThis week we return to the Windy City to meet one of the finest, though too little remembered, vocal groups of the 1970s. The Independents got together in Chicago in 1971. The original lineup included Chuck Jackson (no relation to Chuck Jackson of “Any Day Now” fame but he is the half-brother of the Reverend Jesse Jackson), Maurice Jackson, Helen Curry, Eric Thomas, and Marvin Yancey. Their thing was the love ballad and over the next four years, they proved that they could do it oh so well.
The group signed with Wand Records and it was four that label that they would release all of their original recordings. They debuted with a single called “I Just Want to Be There” in 1972 and while it failed to crack the pop chart is was a respectable R&B hit, reaching #38. “Just As Long As You Need Me,” released as a single the same year did better. While it didn’t quite crack the Top 100 on the pop chart, it was a Top 10 R&B hit.

The Independents

The next single, “Baby I’ve Been Missing You,” was their most successful single to-date reaching #4 on the R&B chart while just barely missing the Top 40 on the pop chart. The best was still ahead for the Independents.

Late in 1973, the Independents released the single that they would be best remembered for. “Leaving Me” was written by Maurice Barge and Jimmy Jiles and it soared up the pop chart all the way to #21 and remained on the chart for four weeks. The single also topped the R&B chart. “Leaving Me” was a million-seller and the Independents were awarded a Gold Disc by the RIAA for their effort.

The following year the Independents released what would be their last three singles. “Arise and Shine (Let’s Get In On),” “Let This Be a Lesson to You,” and “The First Time We Met” all found Top 20 success on the R&B chart. The Independents broke up after that, as groups do. Chuck Jackson went on to release a couple of solo albums and found great success when he teamed with Marvin Yancey to produce and write for artists like Natalie Cole (married to Yancey at the time), Ronnie Dyson, and Phyllis Hyman.

Soul Serenade: The Diamonds, “The Stroll”

The DiamondsCanada, a nation known for hockey, curling, poutine, and … soul? Yes indeed. I may seem to be on a mission to prove that soul music comes in all kinds of forms from all kinds of places but it only seems that way because it’s true. Sure, cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, and New Orleans are known as soul capitols but they are hardly the only places from which soulful sounds emerged. Last week I gave you soul from London in the form of the Foundations. This week we travel north of the border to meet the Diamonds.

Their history goes all the way back to 1953 when sound engineer Dave Somerville met three like-minded guys in Toronto. The thing they had in common was that they all liked to sing and as a result, a new vocal quartet was formed. They called themselves the Diamonds and in addition to Somerville, the original lineup included Ted Kowalski, Phil Levitt, and Bill Reed. They got a positive reaction from early audiences and 18 months into their career they decided to make the drive to New York City in search of fame and fortune.

The Diamonds found what they were looking for when they tied for first place on the popular Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts tv show. Their prize was a record deal with Coral Records. That, in turn, led to them acquiring manager Nat Goodman. Four songs came out of those early sessions the most memorable being a Lieber-Stoller composition called “Black Denim Trousers & Motorcycle Boots.”

The Diamonds

The Diamonds continued to move forward and DJ Bill Randle helped them to get a deal with Mercury Records. Success came in the form of a cover of the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers hit which reached #12 in 1955 and was followed by the #14 hit “Church Bells May Ring” that same year. The group made their first appearance on the R&B chart the following year with “Love, Love, Love” which reached #14. Bigger things were still ahead.

The real breakthrough record for the Diamonds was their take on the Maurice Williams-written “Little Darlin’.” In 1957, the single made it to #2 on the R&B chart and the same position on the pop chart. “Words of Love” and “Zip, Zip” followed “Little Darlin’” into the Top 20 and then the Diamonds scored big again with “The Stroll,” a song written by Clyde Otis which reached #4 on the pop chart and #5 on the R&B chart. Yes, 1957 was quite a year for the Diamonds.

Despite the success, by the end of the decade, three original members of the Diamonds had left the group leaving Somerville as the only original member. Replacing Kowalski, Reed, and Levitt were Mike Douglas, John Felten, and Evan Fisher. The Diamonds continued into the ’60s but by 1961 even Somerville had left. He pursued a solo career as David Troy and he was replaced by Jim Malone.

The hit-making days of the Diamonds were done but they continued as a live act, playing often in Las Vegas. Inevitably there was a battle over who owned the Diamonds name which led to two different groups of Diamonds being on the road at the same time. In one form or another, a group called the Diamonds has continued touring in the new century.

Soul Serenade: The Foundations, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”

The FoundationsAs I’ve written many times in this column, soul can come from anywhere and in a variety of forms. This week I’m featuring a multiracial band from England that scored two of the most indelible hits of the ’60s.

The Foundations featured horn players from the West Indies, a few white British musicians, and a Sri Lankan. They were certainly racially diverse but that wasn’t their only distinction. The lineup was also diverse in terms of the ages of the members which ranged from the 18-year-old drummer Tim Harris to the 38-year-old sax player Mike Elliott. The rest of the lineup included sax player Pat Burke, trombonist Eric Allandale, guitarist Alan Warner, bass player Peter Macbeth, keyboard player Tony Gomez, and lead vocalist Clem Curtis.

The Foundations got together in London in 1967. Things weren’t easy at the beginning. They ran a place called the Butterfly Club where the cooked, cleaned, slept, and rehearsed. They derived their name from the basement rehearsal space in the club. Their break came one night when they were playing at the Butterfly and a record dealer named Barry Class came in. Class liked what he heard, signed on as the Foundations manager, and got them an audition with Pye Records.

Tony McCauley was a producer and songwriter at Pye and he was looking for a new act. He had written a song with his partner John Macleod and when he heard the Foundations he thought that the song just might be right for them. That song was “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” and McCauley’s instinct was dead on, although that wasn’t apparent at first.

Pye released “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” in the summer of 1967 and it was an immediate … flop. No one paid any attention to the record. At the time, pirate radio was very popular in the UK, siphoning off listeners from the BBC. The BBC decided to combat the pirates by playing records that the pirate stations weren’t playing. One of those records was “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” and when BBC Radio 1 added it to their playlist the record raced up the charts. By November of that year, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” was the #1 single in the UK.

The Foundations

As it turned out, the Foundations had it all. Not only were they the first multiracial group to have a #1 hit in the UK, many people thought that they were the first British group to come up with an authentic soul sound. The fact that their live show revealed that they were a well-rehearsed, tight, entertaining band didn’t hurt either.

Uni Records, an imprint of MCA, released “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” in the US where it streaked up the charts to #11 and sold three and a half million copies. Suddenly, the Foundations success was worldwide. Unfortunately, the follow-up single, “Back On My Feet Again,” didn’t make it into the British Top 10 and barely crept into the US Top 50. The lack of success of the second single, along with McCauley’s refusal to let the Foundations record their own songs, led to the beginning of problems between the band and the producer. At the same time, Curtis began to feel that some members of the band were resting on their laurels and not putting in the same effort that got the band to the top of the charts. That frustration led him to leave the Foundations for a solo career. Around this time, Mike Elliott also quit the band.

Curtis was replaced by Colin Young. Elliott was not replaced. That’s Young singing lead on “Build Me Up Buttercup” which topped the US charts and peaked at #2 on the UK charts in early 1969. The song was written by McCauley and Mike D’Abo and it was the biggest hit of the Foundations career. The song has remained in our consciousness for nearly 50 years now. A follow-up called “In the Bad, Bad Old Days (Before You Loved Me)” was a respectable hit but certainly not on the same level as “Build Me Up Buttercup.”

The beginning of the end for the Foundations came when McCauley left Pye Records and the band was suddenly without their hit-making songwriter. That combined with the changing nature of soul music in the late-’60s and early-’70s (with James Brown leading the charge to a harder, funkier sound) made it difficult for the Foundations to fit in. They broke up in 1970, just one year after their massive hit “Build Me Up Buttercup.”

A few years later, Curtis decided to revive the band, but so did Young. The result was two groups of Foundations, confusing everyone. Inevitably it ended up in court where it was decided that Curtis could call his band the Foundations while Young would call his the New Foundations. That didn’t exactly clear things up. Curtis continued to tour into the 21st century with Clem Curtis and the Foundations. Meanwhile, original guitarist Alan Warner has been out there with Alan Warner’s Foundations.

Soul Serenade: Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, “Bustin’ Loose”

Chuck Brown & the Soul SearchersI was discussing the column with my friend Michael last week. Michael is something of a music expert whose opinion I value. I mentioned that after seven years of writing the column every week it’s not always easy to come up with something new. Michael asked if I had ever written about Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers. I’ve written so many installments of the column that sometimes I don’t remember who I’ve written about, so I did a search. Sure enough, Brown and his band had not been featured in this space previously, Thanks for the suggestion, Michael.

Go-go. To people of my generation, it meant young women in cages or on platforms dancing intensely to 60s music. But if you are from the Washington, DC area, go-go means something else entirely to you. For you, go-go is a combination of funk and R&B that became popular in DC in the mid-70s. Many regional bands were part of the go-go scene but it is undeniable that Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers were the musicians who laid the groundwork for the music that became a sensation. In fact, Brown is known as the “Godfather of Go-Go.”

Brown grew up in poverty with an absent father in Gaston, North Carolina before moving to Washington, DC with his mother when he was six-years-old. By the time he was 15, Brown had dropped out of school and was living on the streets, making some money by shining shoes. He got into real trouble when he got into a fight and the person he was fighting died. Although Brown claimed self-defense, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for murder.

Chuck Brown

Chuck Brown. 2007. Credit: Glenwood Jackson Studio

It was in prison that Brown first got his hands on a guitar and started learning to play the instrument. When he was released, he moved back to Washington and began to perform at parties while making money at odd jobs like bricklayer and sparring partner at area gyms. Brown’s music career began in earnest when he began to play with groups like the Earls of Rhythm and Los Latinos in the 60s and he continued performing until his death in 2012, achieving enormous popularity in the DC area.

Brown’s recording career began with the 1972 Soul Searchers album We the People which was followed by Salt of the Earth two years later. But it was the third Soul Searchers album, Bustin’ Loose, that really put the band on the map. The album was released in 1979 and sold 500,000 copies, earning a Gold Record. The title single also attained gold status and topped the R&B chart for four weeks while crossing over to Top 40 success on the Pop chart. You can recognize parts of “Bustin’ Loose” in Nelly’s 2002 smash “Hot in Herre.”

Brown continued releasing albums right up until his death and beyond with 2014’s Beautiful Life. His influence on bands like the Soul Rebels Brass Band, Junk Yard Band, Rare Essence, and Trouble Funk is undeniable. Local promoter Darryl Brooks said, “He was a symbol of D.C. manhood, back in the day, because of the authority that he spoke with. He just spoke from a perspective that black men could understand.”

Brown was accorded numerous honors and awards during his lifetime including a National Heritage Fellowship in 2005. It is the highest honor that the United States awards in traditional and folk arts. Brown was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2011 for the song “Love” which he recorded with Jill Scott and Marcus Miller, and that same year he was honored at a National Symphony Orchestra concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building.