Soul Serenade: The Soul Children, “The Sweeter He Is”

The Soul ChildrenWe’ve heard about one-hit wonders and even no-hit wonders but what about groups that had multiple hits and still manage to be forgotten when people talk about classic soul? The Soul Children recorded for Stax Records at the height of the label’s popularity, they had three Top 10 pop hits, and they were mentored by the legendary songwriting/producing team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. And yet they’re often not even part of the discussion of the glory days at Stax.

Hayes and Porter put the Soul Children together in 1968. The lineup included two women and two men and the intention was that the group would take up the slack left at Stax when Sam & Dave had to return to Atlantic Records after the infamous contract dispute between the two labels. The original Soul Children lineup included Norman West, John Colbert (a.k.a. J. Blackfoot), Anita Louis, and Shelbra Bennett. Colbert already had a career that included some solo singles as well as a stint as the lead singer for the Bar-Kays when they reorganized after the plane crash that killed four members of the group as well as Otis Redding. Louis sang backup on some Hayes/Porter productions, Bennett was a singer signed to Stax, and West had replaced William Bell in the Del-Rios but hadn’t found any success as a solo act after that.

“Give ‘Em Love,” a Hayes/Porter production, naturally, was the debut Soul Children single in 1968. The single’s Top 40 success on the R&B chart pointed to even more success ahead. That promise was realized when the group’s second single, “I’ll Understand,” did even better, reaching the #29 spot on the R&B chart. Still, pop success was proving to be elusive until the Soul Children released their fourth single, “The Sweeter He Is.” The two-part single was a Top 10 hit on the R&B chart and the group finally found some pop success when the record managed a #52 showing on the pop chart. As was the case with nearly all of the Stax Records of the day, the backing musicians on the Soul Children records included luminaries like Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr, Duck Dunn, and Hayes himself.

The Soul Children

The Soul ChildrenThe group only had a minor hit when they tried their luck with a slowed down version of the Sam & Dave smash “Hold On I’m Coming.” The single managed to crawl into the R&B Top 50 but did not cross over to the pop chart. The fate of the Soul Children seemed to be sealed when Hayes stopped working with them in order to focus on his solo career. They didn’t give up, however. They recorded a couple of albums including one at Muscle Shoals and released several unsuccessful singles. Then, in 1972, the Soul Children made their comeback with “Hearsay,” a song written by West and Colbert that turned out to be their biggest hit to date reaching #5 on the R&B chart and #44 on the pop chart.

The Soul Children appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert in Los Angeles in 1972. After a few less successful singles, the group returned to the upper reaches of the charts in 1974. “I’ll Be Your Other Woman” turned out to be their biggest hit, reaching #3 on the R&B chart and #36 on the pop chart.

Storm clouds were hanging over Stax when the Soul Children left the label in 1975. At the same time Bennett, who had sung lead on “I’ll Be Your Other Woman,” changed her name to Shelbra Deane and left the group for a solo career. The remaining trio signed to Epic Records in 1976. They had some success with singles for the label notably the #19 R&B hit “Can’t Give Up a Good Thing” in 1978. During their time at Epic, the Soul Children reunited with Porter who produced an album called Where Is Your Woman Tonight? in 1977. When Stax was resurrected by Fantasy Records in the late 1970s, Porter brought the group back home. Unfortunately, the one album that the group recorded for the newly reconstituted label, Open Door Policy, was not successful and they decided to call it a day in 1979.

The Soul Children put 15 singles into the R&B charts and five on them into the pop chart. When the subject of classic soul comes up they have earned a place in the discussion.

Soul Serenade: Betty Wright, “Clean Up Woman”

Betty WrightWhen most people think of Miami, they think of retirees, Crockett and Tubbs, sultry tropical nights, and hot Latin rhythms. What many people don’t associate with Miami is classic soul music. But if you dig down a little deeper into the city’s musical history, you will find a deep vein of southern soul.

Betty Wright was born in Miami, and she was only two-years-old when she began to sing in her first gospel group. The Echoes of Joy also included two of Wright’s siblings. The group’s first album was released in 1956, and they worked together into the sixties. Wright was only 11 when the Echoes of Joy broke up in 1965, and she made the decision to move from gospel to secular music.

Wright began to sing in talent shows, and it was at one of those shows that she was spotted by the owner of a local record label. By the following year, Wright had released two singles for the label. “Thank You Baby,” and “Paralyzed” made Wright a big star in Miami.

There was a legendary music business figure by the name of Henry Stone in Miami at the time. Stone owned a company called TK Productions, and one of the company’s labels was Alston Records. When Wright was still a teenager she began discovering local talent and getting them signed to Alston. Among her discoveries were George and Gwen McRae who would go on to become stars in their own right.

Wright’s first hit for Alston was “Girls Can’t Do What Guys Do.” She was only 15 when the single reached the #33 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and #15 on the U.S. Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. The single was also included on Wright’s debut album, My First Time Around, also released in 1968. In 1970, Wright had a Top 40 R&B single with “Pure Love.” She was still in high school at the time.

In 1971, Betty Wright had her breakthrough hit. “Clean Up Woman” was written and produced by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, and released on Alston Records. The record soared to #6 on the Pop chart and remained on the chart for 14 weeks. It was also a #2 smash on the R&B chart. “Clean Up Woman” sold over a million copies and received a gold disc award from the RIAA. It is estimated that the song has been sampled at least 32 times, including records by Chance the Rapper, Mary J. Blige, and Al Kooper.

In 1972, the follow-up single, “Baby Sitter,” was another Top 10 R&B hit for Wright, and reached #46 on the Pop chart. The hits kept coming for Wright with songs like “It’s Hard to Stop (Doing Something When It’s Good To You),” “Let Me Be Your Lovemaker,” and “Where is the Love” all hitting the charts. In fact, during the 1970’s alone, Wright had 20 chart singles. And she was certainly not done yet.

As the disco era faded, so too did TK Productions begin to fade. Wright moved on to Epic Records and released her self-titled debut album for the label in 1981. She continued having R&B hits for the label through the ’80s. But it wasn’t until 1988 that Wright, by then recording for her own label, returned to the R&B Top 20 with “No Pain, No Gain.” The album that included the hit single, Mother Wit, was the first gold album for a black female artist recording for her own label.

Wright continued recording into the ’90s, also working behind the scenes with artists like Gloria Estefan. Moving into the 21st century, Wright began doing vocal production for other artists including Joss Stone and Jennifer Lopez. In 2005 she won a Grammy for producing Stone’s second album Mind, Body & Soul, working with co-producers Steve Greenberg and Mangini. The same team produced tracks for Tom Jones 2008 album 24 Hours.

In 2011 Wright released her first album in ten years, Betty Wright: The Movie. Backed by the Roots, the album was produced by Wright along with Roots drummer Ahmir Questlove Thompson. Guest artists included Joss Stone, Lil Wayne, and Snoop Dogg. A track from the album called “Surrender” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

Betty Wright remains active in the music business. Her most recent appearance on record is on the DJ Khaled song “Holy Key,” which was released earlier this year.

Soul Serenade: Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”

Barrett StrongFor each empire that has risen up in the history of the world there is a starting point, a moment when it became apparent that something exceptional was afoot. The Motown empire is no exception. On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. opened Tamla Records, using an $800 loan from his family to start the company. It was a beginning, but that’s all. There was certainly no guarantee of success.

Tamla’s first release was Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me,” but it’s first hit was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” The song was written by Gordy, along with Janie Bradford (Barrett claimed that he should have had a writing credit, but he never got one), and Tamla released it in August, 1959. Unable to meet demand for the single, Gordy licensed the record to Anna Records, a label owned by his sisters Anna and Gwen, an Billy Davis. Anna had national distribution through Chicago’s Chess Records, and that enabled “Money” to rise up to #2 on the R&B chart, and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Barrett Strong was 18 years-old when his record hit. “Money” was famously covered by the Beatles in 1963, and has had many other cover versions.

Barrett Strong

Although “Money” was a big hit, and showed the way forward for Gordy’s burgeoning empire, by the mid-’60s Barrett was working primarily as a Motown songwriter, teaming up with producer Norman Whitfield. Among the smash hits they penned were “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” a hit for both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips, Edwin Starr’s “War,” and “Smiling Faces Sometime” by the Undisputed Truth.

And then there were the line of Whitfield-produced hits for the Temptations including “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and the non-psychedelic hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”

Motown left its Detroit home for Los Angeles in 1972. Strong didn’t follow. He left the label and resumed the singing career that had had such a promising start some years earlier. Strong signed with Epic Records that year, and then moved on to Capitol Records, where he recorded two albums in the 1970’s. He had one more hit as a writer, penning the 1988 Dells classic “Stay in My Corner.”

Barrett Strong was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Soul Serenade: Rufus And Chaka Khan, “Ain’t Nobody”

Rufus with Chaka Khan - Ain't NobodyOnce upon the ’60s there was a band out of Chicago called the American Breed, and in 1968 they had a big hit with a song called “Bend Me, Shape Me.” Eventually two of the band’s members, Chuck Colbert and Lee Graziano, encountered a bar band called Circus, and added a couple of that band’s members to a lineup that also included two latter-day members of the American Breed. They called the new band Smoke.

By 1970, Smoke had new managers, and a new name … Ask Rufus, which eventually became just plain Rufus. Lineup changes included the departure of Colbert and the addition of Dennis Belfield on bass. The following year the band signed to Epic Records, and following the recording of one unreleased album departed Epic in 1972. That year Graziano left as well, and Rufus added a young singer by the name of Chaka Khan … (more)

Soul Serenade: Dorothy Moore, “Misty Blue”

Dorothy Moore - Misty BlueThis week I want to focus on Dorothy Moore who was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1946. Her father, Melvin Hendrex, was better known by his stage name that he employed as a member of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Melvin Henderson. Like so many of the great soul artists, Moore began singing as a member of the gospel choir at her church.Eventually Moore went on to attend Jackson State University where she was a part of a group called the Poppies with Petsye McCune and Rosemary Taylor. The Poppies signed to Date Records, an Epic imprint, and had a #56 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Lullaby of Love” in 1966 … (more)

Soul Serenade: Dorothy Moore, “Misty Blue”