Soul Serenade: Stax “Soul Explosion”

Stax Soul ExplosionIt’s a well-known story at this point. In 1968, Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart decided to put an end to the distribution deal that his company had with Atlantic Records. Warner Bros.- Seven Arts had acquired Atlantic the previous year and Stewart had insisted on a “key man” clause in his deal with Atlantic which was triggered when his key man, Jerry Wexler, left Atlantic. The contract called for a renegotiation or outright termination of the distribution deal if Wexler left. Stewart hoped for renegotiation but he considered the offers he got from Warner-Seven Arts to be insulting and he decided to terminate the contract.

As part of the termination, Stewart asked for the Stax master recordings to be returned to him. Unfortunately, Stewart had failed to read the contract carefully before he signed it. The contract said that if the deal between Stax and Atlantic was terminated, the master recordings would belong to Atlantic. That meant all of the masters, every recording that Stax had sent to Atlantic for distribution from 1960 -1967. Stewart felt betrayed and Wexler caught a lot of the blame. In his defense, the legendary A&R man claimed that he hadn’t read the contract carefully either. The end result was that the only music that Stax still owned was music that the company had not released. Even Sam & Dave, who had so many hits for Stax, turned out to be merely on loan from Atlantic and had to return there. They never had another hit. To add crushing insult to crushing injury, the biggest Stax star of them all, Otis Redding, was killed in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, along with all but two members of the Bar-Kays. A few months later Dr. King was murdered in Memphis and things went from very bad to much worse.

Stewart sold his shares in Stax to Paramount Pictures in May 1968, although he remained with the company for a while in a diminished capacity. Al Bell was named Vice-President of Stax and became more active as Stewart retreated. Bell had the unenviable task of keeping a record company with no catalog on its feet. He did what anyone in his position would do. He called for a “Soul Explosion.” It began with the first Stax hit since the split with Atlantic, Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love.” Next, Bell presided over the unprecedented release of 27 albums and 30 singles in a short period of time. Suddenly, Stax was back on the musical map led by the songwriter/producer turned hitmaker Isaac Hayes, the gospel to R&B shift of the Staple Singers, and Stax veteran Rufus Thomas. Others who assisted in the label’s resurrection included Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, the Mad Lads, Albert King, the newly re-formed Bar-Kays, and Ollie & the Nightingales.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stax resurgence Craft Recordings has embarked on an ambitious reissue program that includes the digital release of 30 Stax albums from the era, one a day for the month of June. In addition to the artists mentioned there are albums from the Soul Children, David Porter, the Dramatics, Estelle, Myrna, and Sylvia (from the Sweet Inspirations) and others. The company has also curated a Soul Explosion playlist for the streaming platforms. Perhaps the crown jewel of the Stax reissue program is the two-disc Soul Explosion album which has been newly remastered and released on vinyl for the first time since 1969. Here’s the Soul Explosion tracklist:

LP 1 — Side 1
Johnnie Taylor “Who’s Making Love”
Jimmy Hughes “Like Everything About You”
Booker T. & The MG’s “Hang ’Em High”
Carla Thomas “Where Do I Go”
Eddie Floyd “I’ve Never Found A Girl (To Love Me Like You Do)”
Southwest F.O.B. “Smell Of Incense”
Albert King “Cold Feet

LP 1 — Side 2
Booker T. & The MG’s “Soul Limbo”
The Mad Lads “So Nice”
Eddie Floyd “Bring It On Home To Me”
William Bell & Judy Clay “Private Number”
The Staple Singers “Long Walk To D.C.”
Ollie & The Nightingales “I’ve Got A Sure Thing”
The Bar-Kays “Copy Kat”

LP 2 — Side 1
Booker T. & The MG’s “Soul Clap ‘69”
The Staple Singers “Hear My Call”
Johnnie Taylor “Save Your Love For Me”
Jimmy Hughes “Peeped Around Yonder’s Bend”
Carla Thomas “Book Of Love”
The Mad Lads “These Old Memories”
Southwest F.O.B. “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

LP 2 — Side 2
The Bar-Kays “Hot Hips”
Ollie & The Nightingales “Heartache Mountain”
Johnnie Taylor “Twenty Years From Today”
Eddie Floyd “It’s Wrong To Be Loving You”
Judy Clay “It’s Me”
Booker T. & The MG’s “Booker’s Theme”
Albert King “Left Hand Woman (Get Right With Me)”

Stax was back in business, for the time being. In 1972 the label flexed its powerful muscles by presenting Wattstax, a major concert in Los Angeles. Over 100,000 people attended and the concert was filmed for motion picture release. Bell and Stewart had purchased their company back from Paramount but things began to sour under Bell’s leadership. Bell made a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS but when Davis was fired by the company there was no one left at CBS who cared about Stax. Despite the lack of interest, CBS would not let Stax out of the contract fearing that Stax would make a better deal with a CBS competitor. Without anyone to push their product, Stax was on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to avoid that prospect loans were made by Union Planters Bank in Memphis and Stewart even mortgaged his home to keep his company from dying. It wasn’t to be though. The bank got scared and called in the loans. Stewart lost everything. There was more than a little racism involved in the bank’s decision, according to Bell. Apparently, white power structures and successful black companies were not going to be able to co-exist in Memphis. Stax filed for bankruptcy on December 19, 1975, and was shuttered by a judge a few weeks later.

For more information on the Stax reissues please visit the label’s website.

Soul Serenade: Rufus Thomas, “Walking the Dog”

Rufus Thomas“His music … brought a great deal of joy to the world, but his personality brought even more, conveying a message of grit, determination, indomitability, above all a bottomless appreciation for the human comedy that left little room for the drab or the dreary in his presence.” — Peter Guralnick

As Dr. King once famously said, longevity has its place. And when it comes to a career in music, longevity is something that’s widely sought after but all to seldom experienced. We often celebrate the singular achievement of the one-hit-wonders but there are some artists who have had the opposite experience. Rufus Thomas was one of those artists, with a career that spanned 75 years.

Thomas was Memphis, through and through. He was born there in 1917 and at the age of six, he was already performing in a school theatrical production. He played a frog. By the time he reached his teens, Thomas was touring around the South as part of a troupe called the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, performing as a comedian and tap dancer. When he came home to Memphis he would emcee vaudeville and talent shows at the Palace Theater on Beale Street. The talent show winners included the likes of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Johnny Ace.

At the age of 23, Thomas married Cornelia Lorene Wilson in a ceremony officiated by the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin. He didn’t rely on income from his show business pursuits and took a day job at a textile bleaching plant. It was a job that Thomas worked for 20 years. He never stopped performing, however, and by the time he was in his 20s, Thomas was writing and singing his own songs. After making his professional singing debut at the Beale Street Elks Club, Thomas became a regular at the Memphis clubs including Currie’s Club Tropicana.

Thomas was 33 years old when he signed his first record deal with the tiny Dallas-based Star Talent label. There he recorded his first 78 r.p.m. single, “I’ll Be a Good Boy” b/w “I’m So Worried.” Although Thomas claimed to not be looking to get rich with the single he had to have been disappointed by the decidedly lackluster sales. “The record sold five copies and I bought four of them,” he once told the Dallas Observer. The record did succeed in garnering a positive review from the influential Billboard Magazine though. Thomas also recorded with Bobby Plater’s Orchestra for Bullet Records in Nashville but he was billed as “Mr. Swing” on those records and it was only years later that they were credited to Thomas.

The next stop for Thomas as a singer was at Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios where he recorded several sides for Chess Records. When none of them managed to find success, Thomas took his ebullient personality to radio station WDIA where he became a DJ. His afternoon radio show was called Hoot and Holler and his presentation of blues and R&B appealed to both black and white listeners. The radio career brought Thomas the kind of fame that he had failed to achieve as a singer but the audience that he built at WDIA allowed him to take another crack at music. In 1953, at the urging of Phillips, Thomas recorded “Bear Cat” as an answer record to Big Mama Thornton’s hit “Hound Dog.” The record reached #3 on the R&B chart making it Sun Records’ first national hit. Don Robey, the publisher of “Hound Dog,” didn’t like the record a bit and launched a copyright infringement suit that almost put Sun out of business before Elvis even showed up there.

But Phillips was famously looking for a white singer who could sound like a black singer and after he signed Presley he began releasing his black artists, including Thomas. His next single was for Meteor Records in 1956 but “I’m Steady Holdin’ On” failed to chart despite the playing of Lewie Steinberg who went on to be a co-founder of Booker T & the MGs.

By 1960, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton had started the Satellite Records label and it was there that Thomas first recorded with daughter Carla. “Cause I Love You” was successful enough regionally to allow Stewart to sign a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, a deal that proved lucrative for both parties until it was a near-disaster for one. But that’s a story for another time. In 1963, Thomas had a hit for Stax (as it had been by then renamed) called “The Dog” but it was the follow-up that would prove to be Thomas’ greatest success. “Walking the Dog,” a song written by Thomas, was released the same year and rose to the Top 10 on both the R&B and pop charts. The song was covered by the Rolling Stones a few months later on their debut album and over the years it has seen covers by Aerosmith, John Cale, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Jackie Shane, and Ratt.

The success of “Walking the Dog” finally gave Thomas the chance to give up the job at the textile plant and focus on his music career. He continued the canine theme on Stax singles like “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog” but perhaps his greatest contribution was as a mentor to the young artists that Stax was signing. There was a dry spell during which Thomas didn’t have much in the way of hits but the spell was broken in 1970 with his recording of “Do the Funky Chicken” which hit the Top 10 on the R&B chart and reached #28 on the pop chart. Al Bell, President of Stax at the time, produced the record along with Tom Nixon, and the Bar-Kays served as the backing band. Thomas would keep working with Bell and Nixon and that same year the team collaborated for Thomas’ first and only trip to the top of the R&B chart with “Do the Push and Pull.” A year later, “The Breakdown” was another hit for Thomas, making it to the #2 spot on the R&B chart and #31 pop.

After a few more minor hits for Thomas, who appeared at the legendary Wattstax concert, Stax went under in 1976. Thomas kept on touring the world. He called himself “the world’s oldest teenager” and “the funkiest man alive” and was known for energetic dances moves that were unexpected from a man in his 50s and for his flamboyant stage clothes. Thomas continued to be a presence on radio and television he also appeared in several movies including Mystery Train, Cookie’s Fortune, and the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Only the Strong Survive. He also continued his recording career, releasing music on labels like Alligator and Ecko.

In 1992, Thomas received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, When he reached the age of 80 in 1997, the City of Memphis renamed a street near the old Palace Theater Rufus Thomas Boulevard. That same year, Thomas received a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP and four years later he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2000, Thomas’ wife Lorene passed away and he followed her a year later. They are buried next to each other in Memphis.

Soul Serenade: Lavern Baker, “Tweedlee Dee”

Lavern Baker

Publicity photo donated to the Rock Hall Archives

There is no doubt that Atlantic Records played a huge role in exposing a wider audience to the sound of Rhythm & Blues. The label, which was founded by jazz lovers Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1947, boasted a roster of artists that at one time or another included Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. But in the beginning, there were pioneers at the label. They included artists like Ray Charles, Sticks McGhee, Ruth Brown, Joe Morris, the Clovers, the Clyde McPhatter-led Drifters, and Lavern Baker.

She was born in Chicago in 1929. Her given name was Delores Baker and she was the niece of not one but two singers — jazz vocalist Merline Johnson, who was primarily responsible for raising Baker, and the legendary blues singer Memphis Minnie. By the age of 12, Baker was not only singing in her church choir but she was leading soloist. It was just five years later, having attained legal status, that Baker began performing in the South Side clubs under the stage name “The Little Sharecropper.” Her rustic schtick proved popular with the record number of black people who were migrating to Chicago from the south as well as the hip city people.

At the time, Detroit had a growing reputation as a center for R&B so Baker headed there. She landed a gig at The Flame Show Bar. The club’s owner, a guy named Al Green, became her manager. Baker’s first recordings were released by RCQ in 1949 with Baker fronting Sugarman Penigar’s band. “I Wonder Baby” and “Easy Baby” proved very popular in the clubs where Baker was performing. But the winds of change were blowing and by the early 1950s big band music was on its way out and R&B was rising. 1952 was a big year for Baker. She dumped the “Little Sharecropper” thing, joined the Todd Rhodes Orchestra, changed her stage name to Lavern Baker, released an R&B ballad called “Trying,” and toured nearly non-stop.

The momentum continued in 1953. Baker quit the band and successfully toured Europe as a solo act. That was also the year that she signed with Atlantic Records and released her first single for the label, the classic “Soul On Fire.” Her true breakthrough was still ahead and it took place with a single that Baker recorded in October 1954. “Tweedlee Dee” was a huge hit all through 1955. The Winfield Scott song, written specifically for Baker, rose to #4 on the R&B chart and #14 on the pop chart. The problem was that there was a despicable practice known as “whitewashing” going on at the time. Many radio stations and record stores would only push records by white artists. So white artists like Georgia Gibbs made whole careers out of covering black hits and getting substantial airplay and sales. The Gibbs cover or “Tweedlee Dee” sold over a million copies and she subsequently cover the Baker hits “Jim Dandy” and “Tra La La.”

Lavern BakerBut Baker didn’t let racism stop her. She continued releasing hits like “Play It Fair” and “Bop-Ting-A-Ling” and made an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1955. As rock and roll began to eclipse R&B, Baker adapted again, releasing rock and roll-styled hits like “Jim Dandy,” “Jim Dandy Got Married,” and “Humpty Dumpty Heart.” Her greatest success, however, came in 1958 with an epic single “I Cried a Tear.” Baker’s string of hits continued into the 1960s with songs like “So High, So Low,” “Saved,” and “See See Rider.” But the river of time kept flowing and the rise of Motown and the appearance of the Beatles on these shores relegated artists like Baker to “oldies” status. By 1965, Baker had decamped from Atlantic and landed at Brunswick records. She had a couple of small hits for the label, “Think Twice,” and “Wrapped, Tied, and Tangled.”

While entertaining troops in Vietnam on a USO tour in 1966, Baker fell ill with pneumonia. She was airlifted to Thailand for treatment and by the time she recovered, the tour had ended and she was left alone in southeast Asia.

“I didn’t know what to do, who to go to,” Baker told biography.com. “The tour was gone and I was in a strange country where telephone service was practically nonexistent. I hitched with farmers on wagons to Bangkok. I’d had to slog through rice paddies in water up to my shoulders in some places to get to Bangkok, so by the time the Marines got me to the base I’d had a relapse.”

Baker was then airlifted to the Philippines where she spent four more months recovering. Her then-husband, comedian Slappy White, used the lack of communication (Baker insisted that she made numerous attempts to contact him) from Baker to have her declared dead and assumed ownership of her catalog.

“For all I know he heard my voice and hung up. Probably did, the no-good &%@S#!!,” Baker said.

Baker decided to make the best of a bad situation. She stayed in the Philippines, running a nightclub for 21 years, before returning to the U.S. in 1988. She got back in time to win acclaim with her performances at the Atlantic Records 40th-anniversary show at Madison Square Garden and in the Broadway production of Black and Blue. In 1991, Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She continued to tour until her death from heart failure in 1997.

Pioneer. Trailblazer. These are terms that we tend to toss around but they fit Lavern Baker like a glove. She’s not called the Empress of Rock and Roll for nothing and if her life had a tragic tinge to it as a result of losing millions of dollars because of the covers of her hits by white artists and being an exile from the country of her birth for more than 20 years, she lived with dignity and unshaken optimism.

“I just did what I had to do,” she said. “Don’t we all?”

Soul Serenade: Nancy Wilson, “Face It Girl, It’s Over”

Nancy WilsonHappy New Year!

During the holidays I decided to determine once and for all how long I’ve been writing this column. I searched the Popdose archives for that first column which I knew featured the King Curtis song that gave the column its name. And there it was, published on April 15, 2010. Soul Serenade is approaching its ninth birthday. In that whole time I’ve only taken a few weeks off (alright, one of them was last week) so simple math tells me that there have been well over 400 entries in this series. Phew! I must admit that occasionally it’s challenging to come up with something I haven’t covered previously but I’m going to press on into the New Year.

Aretha Franklin’s death was one of biggest, and saddest stories of 2019. And rightly so. She was the one and only Queen of Soul after all and her life and career were the stuff of legend. But in December we lost another great singer who was iconic in her own right, Nancy Wilson.

Wilson was born in Ohio in 1937. Her father was a foundry worker who loved music and Wilson grew up listening to his records by artists like Billy Eckstein, Dinah Washington, and Ruth Brown. From the time she began singing in church choirs as a child, it was clear that Wilson would become a professional singer. Her first break came when she was 15. Wilson won a talent show sponsored by a local television station and the prize was two appearances on Skyline Melodies, a local television show. Around this time Wilson was also working in the clubs around town.

Given the vagaries on show business, Wilson decided to go to college to pursue a teaching degree. But after a year she knew that she had to return to her true calling. Soon after that, she landed a gig singing with Rusty Bryant’s Carolyn Club Big Band. Wilson stayed with the band for two years, touring throughout the Midwest and Canada during that time. It was also with Bryant’s band that she did her first recording.

Somewhere along the way, Wilson encountered Cannonball Adderley who was taken with her talent and suggested to Wilson that she move to New York to jumpstart her career. Wilson made the move in 1969. She sang four nights a week at a club called Blue Morocco and by day she worked as a secretary at the New York Institute of Technology. With the help of Adderly’s manager, John Levy, she got a deal with Capitol Records in 1960.

Nancy Wilson“Guess Who I Saw Today” was Wilson’s first single for the label and it was so successful that Capitol released five Nancy Wilson albums over the next two years. Adderley advised Wilson to move from her pop music stylings to more of a jazz and R&B thing and the two collaborated on Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley in 1962. The album included the R&B smash “Save Your Love For Me.” Between 1964 and 1965, Wilson put four albums into the Top 10 on the Billboard albums chart. She also had her biggest single with “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” which reached #11 in 1964. Wilson charted ten other singles from 1963-1971, but “Face It Girl, It’s Over” was her only other non-Christmas single to crack the Top 40. “Face It Girl” reached the #29 spot in 1968.

Wilson was a fixture on a variety of television shows in the ’60s and ’70s. In 1967, she finally got her own shown on NBC. The Nancy Wilson Show only lasted for two years but it won an Emmy during that time. Aside from her own show, Wilson appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Tonight Show, and numerous other variety shows along with dramas series like Room 222, Hawaii Five-0, and The F.B.I.

The 1980s brought more recording and touring for Wilson. She recorded with jazz greats like Hank Jones, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Ramsey Lewis, and Stanley Clarke. Appearances included prestigious venues like the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Tokyo Songs Festival. By the ’90s, Wilson had 60 albums under her belt. From 1995-2006, Wilson hosted NPR’s Jazz Profiles and won a Peabody Award for her efforts in 2001. She continued to perform until 2011 when she made her final public appearance on a stage in, appropriately, Ohio.

“I’m not going to be doing it anymore, and what better place to end it than where I started – in Ohio,” Wilson told jazzcolumbus.com at the time.

Nancy Wilson won many awards and over the year. She was the recipient of three Grammy Awards, the Whitney Young Jr. Award from the Urban League, and the NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award among many other honors. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music and Central State University. Wilson was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2005. The list of honors goes on and on, but you get the idea. Wilson was not only a great singer but a great citizen as well.

Nancy Wilson died in California on December 13, 2018, after a long battle with kidney cancer.

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

Aretha Franklin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Aretha Franklin

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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.