Soul Serenade: Garland Green, “Jealous Kind Of Fella”

Garland GreenA couple of weeks ago I wrote about Danny White, a southern soul singer who toiled for years looking for a hit that proved elusive. This week, I’ll take a look at a singer who managed to find that hit, even reaching to Top 20 on one occasion, before fading from the memory of most people.

Garland Green was born in Mississippi, one or eleven children. He joined the great northern migration when he moved to Chicago at the age of 16. Green was still in high school when his singing talent came to the attention of Argia Collins, a local restaurateur. Collins became Green’s patron and paid for him to attend the Chicago Conservatory of Music where Green studied voice and piano.

While he was in school Green began to sing in the clubs around town and he won a talent contest at a place called the Trocadero. The win earned him the chance to open a show for Lou Rawls and Earl Hines. Joshie Jo Armstead was in the audience the night of the concert. Armstrong had written songs with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and she saw something in Green. Armstrong arranged for Green to record in Detroit and the resulting single, “Girl I Love You,” found enough local success that MCA Records picked it up for national distribution on their Revue Records imprint.

Green recorded a few more singles for Revue before being moved up to MCA’s most prominent label, Uni Records. “Jealous Kind of Fella” was a song co-written by Armstead and Green along with R. Browner, and M. Dollinson. When the single was released in 1969 it raced up the charts, reaching #5 on the R&B chart and winning a Top 20 spot on the pop chart while selling a million copies. Unfortunately, the follow-up single, the oddly titled “Don’t Think I’m a Violent Guy,” failed to come anywhere near matching the performance of “Jealous Kind of Fella,” not even cracking the Top 100. That put an end to not only Green’s association with MCA but his partnership with Armstead as well.

Green landed at Cotillion Records, an Atlantic subsidiary. He released five singles for the label but only the Donny Hathaway-produced and arranged “Plain and Simple Girl” found any success. The single was a Top 20 R&B hit but again didn’t crack the pop Top 100. The lack of success led Green to depart Cotillion for Spring Records. There he released five more singles including “Let the Good Times Roll” (not the Shirley & Lee song), and “Bumpin’ and Stompin’.” None of the singles found anything more than minor success on the R&B chart which led Green to yet another label, RCA.

At RCA, Green released three more singles and an album that was produced by Leon Haywood. The search for another hit continued to come up empty for Green. He moved to California in hopes of changing his luck. There he recorded for an indie label called Ocean-Front Records. The album that Green released for the label was co-produced by Lamont Dozier but only the single “Trying to Hold On to My Woman,” a song that had been a hit for Dozier a decade earlier, found any traction, reaching #63 on the R&B chart.

There was no quit in Green, however. He continued to record and release his own records until 2011 when he signed a new record deal with a subsidiary of CDS Records called Special Soul Music. The following year, Green released his first album of new material in 29 years, the appropriately titled I Should’ve Been the One. Indeed.

Soul Serenade: Curtis Mayfield — Keep On Keeping On

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Mayfield was 14 years old when he joined the group that would become the Impressions. He was born in Chicago in 1942 and by the time he was seven, he was singing in the church’s gospel choir with a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield became friends with Jerry Butler in high school and in 1956, he joined Butler’s group, the Roosters. The other members of the group were the brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. Two years later, the group changed their name to the Impressions and added Sam Gooden to the lineup.

The Impressions had an early smash with Butler singing lead on “Your Precious Love” and it was enough to motivate Butler to leave the group to start a solo career. Mayfield followed him and co-wrote and played on Butler’s solo hit “He Will Break Your Heart.” But Mayfield wasn’t interested in being a sideman and soon returned to the Impressions who had replaced Butler with Fred Cash. It was the classic Impressions lineup of Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash which signed with ABC Records and released a string of hits which began in 1961 with “Gypsy Woman” and continued with “I’m So Proud,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Amen,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Choice of Colors,” which would be the last hit that Mayfield recorded with the Impressions.

After 14 years with the group, Mayfield left the Impressions to start a solo career. That is where Keep On Keeping On, the new box set from Rhino Records begins. Rhino has lovingly collected Mayfield’s first four solo albums to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of Mayfield’s solo career and to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. The set begins with Mayfield’s first solo album, Curtis, which was released in 1970 and reached the Top 20 on its way to becoming a Gold Album. Curtis includes the hit singles “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” and “Move on Up.” In addition to its commercial success, Curtis was one of the most influential albums of its time, inspiring later socially conscious work by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Curtis Mayfield - Keep On Keeping OnA year after his successful debut as a solo artist, Mayfield returned with Roots, which reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart. While not quite as successful as the debut, Roots scored with hits like “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother of Mine,” and “We Got to Have Peace.” Mayfield’s next effort, which is not included in this set because it was not a true solo album, was his incredibly successful soundtrack for the film Super Fly. The album went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and pushed two singles, “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Superfly” into the Top 10.

In 1973, Mayfield released his third proper solo album, Back to the World. The album topped the R&B chart and returned Mayfield to the Top 20 on the pop albums chart. The album’s hit singles included “Future Shock,” “If I Were a Child Again,” and “Can’t Say Nothin’.” Mayfield’s fourth solo album and the final one collected in this set was released in 1974. Sweet Exorcist came within a whisker of the top spot on the R&B chart, settling at #2 and also found Top 40 success on the pop chart. The album’s success was driven by two hit singles, the title track, and “Kung Fu.”

Keep On Keeping On ends with the Sweet Exorcist album but fortunately, Mayfield’s career did not. He continued to record into the 1990s and standout albums from this period included Sparkle (1976) and Heartbeat (1979). “So In Love,” released in 1975, was the last Mayfield single to hit the pop chart but records like “Only You Babe” (1976), “You Are, You Are” (1978), and “She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me)” (1981), continued to find success on the R&B chart. In all, Mayfield scored more than 30 solo hits on the R&B chart to go along with a similar number of R&B hits during his time with the Impressions.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a show in Brooklyn. The accident ended his career as a guitar player but he could still write songs and sing, something he did to great effect on his final album, New World Order, in 1997. Mayfield died of complications from diabetes in 1999.

Curtis Mayfield is remembered for introducing social activism into soul music. The Impressions hits “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” and “We’re A Winner” became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and were often used by Martin Luther King to inspire marchers. Mayfield and the Impressions were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (he was also inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 1999, one of a handful of double inductees). He received a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Just before he died, Mayfield was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: The Exciters, “Tell Him”

The Exciters

 

I’ve written about the Exciters before in this column, back in 2013. But that story was more of a reminiscence about my first band and a song called “Do-Wah-Diddy” that we included in our set. It just so happened that the song was originally recorded by the Exciters in 1963. I can’t claim that we were aware of their recording and in truth, we were inspired by the hit version of the song by Manfred Mann that rocketed up the charts a few months after the Exciters version.

In 1961, Brenda Reid, Carolyn Johnson, Lillian Walker, and Sylvia Wilbur were high school classmates in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York. At the time, there was a male vocal group at school called the Masters so the four young women decided to become the Masterettes. Wilbur left the group early on and she was replaced by Penny Carter but Carter didn’t last long either and to replace her the Masterettes enlisted one of the Masters, Herb Rooney. The quartet managed to wrangle an audition with hit songwriter/producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller in 1962.

One of the first orders of business for Lieber and Stoller was to change the group’s name to the Exciters. Signed to United Artists, the group entered the studio in 1962 to record “Tell Him.” The song was written by another legendary producer and songwriter, Bert Berns, under his Bert Russell pen name. In fact, it was Berns who produced the first recording of the song by Gil Hamilton, who was also known as Johnny Thunder, in 1962. Subsequently, “Tell Him” was also recorded by Ed Townsend. But it was the third version, the Lieber and Stoller-produced Exciters version, that proved to be the charm. Their record was released in October 1964 and quickly rose up the charts until it eventually reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1963.

The ExcitersThere is a story about Dusty Springfield and the first time she heard the Exciters version of “Tell Him.” Dusty was in New York and on her way to Nashville to record a country music album with her group, the Springfields. When she heard “Tell Him” blaring from the speaker outside of Colony Records while she was taking a walk, it changed everything for her.

“The Exciters sort of got you by the throat … out of the blue comes blasting at you “I know something about love,” and that’s it,” Springfield recalled in an interview. “That’s what I wanna do.”

From that point on, Springfield pursued a highly successful career as a pop/soul singing solo artist.

The Exciters continued to put records in the charts including “He’s Got the Power,” “Get Him,” the aforementioned “Do-Wah-Diddy,” “I Want You to Be My Boy,” and “A Little Bit of Soap” but none of them had anything like the kind of success that “Tell Him” enjoyed. In 1965, the group ended their partnership with Lieber and Stoller and left United Artists. They signed with Roulette Records, then moved on to Berns’ Bang! and Shout labels, and finally landed at RCA. It didn’t matter where they went or what they released. The Exciters would never match the massive success of “Tell Him.” The group broke up in 1974.

In the summer of 1964, the Beatles had embarked on their first full North American tour. On August 30 of that year, the tour arrived in Atlantic City. The show that was headlined by the Liverpool quartet also included the Bill Black Combo, the Righteous Brothers, Jackie DeShannon, and the Exciters. I was in the balcony at Convention Hall for that night and while the Beatles were obviously the main draw, I vividly recall the four Exciters performing their big hit “Tell Him.”

Soul Serenade: The Capitols, “Cool Jerk”

The CapitolsThe summer of 1966. I spent it on the beach and Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Incredible music poured out of tinny sounding transistor radio speakers everywhere I went. The songs of that summer included “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones, “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells, “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb, “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” by the Chiffons, “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by the Temptations.” But the Tempts and their Motown colleagues were not the only ones pushing great music out of the Motor City. Because 1966 was also the summer of the Capitols.

They got together in 1962 as an actual band, as opposed to a vocal group, called the Caps. The original lineup included drummer Samuel George who was also the lead singer. Don Storball played guitar and sang backup vocals, and Richard Mitchell was the keyboard player who also sang backup. At the time, an Ann Arbor DJ named Ollie McLaughlin owned a label called Karen Records. When the Caps opened for Barbara Lewis, McLaughlin caught their act and signed them to his label. In 1963, they released their first single “Dog and Cat” b/w “The Kick.” The record had plenty of energy, just like their later singles would, but the lyrics were pretty childish and the Caps failed to find an audience for it. As a result, the group fell apart and the members went their own ways.

The 1960s were known for a number of dance crazes. There was the twist, the watusi, the frug, and many others. One of the biggest was a dance called the jerk. The jerk was more sexually suggestive than some of the others, so much so that in some Detroit clubs it was known as the “pimp jerk.” Storball could sense which way the wind was blowing and he wrote a song hoping to capitalize on the jerk craze. He was smart enough to worry that such a song might end up being banned on the radio so instead of calling it “Pimp Jerk” he called it “Cool Jerk.”

The other Capitols saw the potential in Storball’s song and decided to get back together. They got in touch with McLaughlin to give him the good news and to book some studio time. On March 14, 1966, they went into the studio and although “Cool Jerk” was not technically a Motown record, the backing group that day was none other than Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers. McLaughlin served as producer. There were supposed to be horn players on the record but perhaps fearful of the wrath of Berry Gordy, Jr. they failed to show up for the sessions. The session went on without them, the horn parts simply left out of the mix.

The Capitols
The “Cool Jerk” single was released two weeks later on Karen Records (it was eventually picked up by Atlantic for distribution) and it rose to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 while reaching the #2 spot on the R&B chart. Not content to rest on their laurels, the Capitols released two albums in 1966 hoping to capitalize on the success of the “Cool Jerk” single. Both albums, Dance the Cool Jerk and We Got a Thing, were primarily made up of Motown and other soul covers. Neither album did very well although Dance the Cool Jerk managed to scrape into the Top 100 for a week.

The Capitols released eight more singles in the wake of their “Cool Jerk” smash. Only two of them charted and none higher than #65. As a result, the Capitols will always wear the one-hit wonder tag. In 1969, they broke up for good. Don Storball became a cop and still lives in Detroit. Samuel George died in 1982, and Richard Mitchell died two years later.

The Capitols may have only had the one hit but it’s a hit that has been covered many times over the years and one that has influenced generations of musicians. Among the artists doing their own versions of “Cool Jerk” were Todd Rundgren, the Tremeloes, the Coasters, the Outsiders, and the Go-Gos. The song has also been featured in numerous films including a memorable version that had Bootsy Collins performing the song backed by the Funk Brothers in Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Soul Serenade: Jimmy Soul, “If You Wanna Be Happy”

Jimmy SoulI chose this week’s song with some trepidation. It has been on my list of prospective features for a long time. The obvious reason is that on its surface, this song is a long way from politically correct and in the current climate that can generate more controversy than I’m interested in dealing with. But wait a minute. Let’s look a little below the surface. What is Jimmy Soul really saying in “If You Wanna Be Happy”?

First a little about the singer himself. Jimmy Soul was born in North Carolina and as you may have guessed, Soul was not his family name. James Louis McCleese was preaching by the time he was seven and singing gospel in his teenage years. It was his church congregation that gave him the “Soul” moniker.

Soul toured the south a variety of gospel groups and acquired some popularity in the Norfolk, Virginia area. It was there that he encountered Frank Guida who was a songwriter and producer ass well as being the manager of Gary U.S. Bonds among other artists. Guida thought that Soul would be a good substitute for Bonds on songs that Bonds had declined to record and when you listen to “If You Wanna Be Happy” you will notice a decided similarity to the sound of the Bonds hits. It’s a sound that has had a noticeable impact on producers and artists who came later.

Jimmy Soul“If You Wanna Be Happy” was written by Guida along with his wife Carmella and Joseph Royster. It was based on a song called “Ugly Woman” that had been recorded by the Trinidadian calypso singer Roaring Lion in 1934. The record was released on Guida’s own S.P.Q.R. label and distributed by London Records in the United States. Despite the fact that the “ugly woman” lyrics got the song banned by many radio stations “If You Wanna Be Happy” shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1963. The single sold over a million copies and earned a gold record. It was the second hit for Soul who had scored with “Twistin’ Matilda” the previous year.

Jimmy Soul kept trying but he could never match the success of the two singles. He finally gave up his career as a musician and joined the Army. Sadly, drugs became a problem for Soul and landed him in prison in the 1980s. He died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 45.

Now about those lyrics. Yes, they’re hard to defend and yet the point of the lyrics is clearly that looks aren’t everything. It’s a positive message which is unfortunately delivered in a rather offensive way. And yet, in 1963, “If You Wanna Be Happy” captured hearts around the world with the unrestrained joy that leaped from the grooves of the record.

Soul Serenade: Dee Dee Sharp, “Ride!”

Dee Dee SharpWhen we think of Philly Soul, we tend to think of Gamble & Huff and their work with the Intruders, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, the O’Jays, and many more. We also think of Thom Bell and his work with the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and the Spinners. And while those producers, songwriters, and artists certainly represent the peak of Philly Soul, the fact remains that there was great music coming out of Philadelphia before any of them arrived on the scene. Case in point, Dee Dee Sharp.

Dione LaRue was born in Philadelphia and when she was 16 years old she began her career as a background singer. It wasn’t long before the newly christened Dee Dee Sharp was stepping out on her own. Her first hit was a duet with Chubby Checker called “Slow Twistin’,” although Parkway Records failed to credit her on the record label. Her first hit on her own came with the smash “Mashed Potato Time” in 1962. The Cameo Records single ran all the way up the Billboard Hot 100 to #2.

“Mashed Potato Time” was followed by “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” and “Ride!,” both of which also reached the Top 10 that same year. Sharp’s final Top 10 hit was “Do the Bird” in 1963. She also released “Rock Me I the Cradle of Love” and “Wild!” that year and both singles made the charts but neither had the kind of success that the earlier hits did. Subsequent Cameo singles like “Where Did I Go Wrong,” “Willyam, Willyam,” “Never Pick a Pretty Boy,” “I Really Love You,” and “It’s a Funny Situation” also found only minor chart success.

A marriage made in Philly Soul heaven took place when Sharp married Kenny Gamble in 1967 and began recording as Dee Dee Sharp-Gamble. The disco era brought a bit of a career renewal for Sharp-Gamble as she released a moderately successful cover of the 10cc hit “I’m Not In Love” on her husband’s Philadelphia International label in 1976. Sharp and Gamble were divorced in 1980 and Sharp subsequently remarried. Her last chart single was “I Love You Anyway” which reached #62 on the R&B chart in 1981.

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: 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.