Sunday, September 24, 2006

Is Everything They Say About Soul Wrong?

I recently read an interesting article by Martin Skidmore, at the website FreakyTrigger. The title was "Everything They Say About Soul Is Wrong: Emotion vs Technique In Soul Music And Its Criticism." The thrust of the argument is a challenging one for all of us who appreciate soul music.

"I am deeply suspicious of the way its fans talk about it. This has seeped into the wider discourse too - the emotional angle is by no means restricted to the devotees, experts and critics."

Essentially, the writer questions the way in which we see the concept of 'soul music'. Do we turn it into something it isn't?

"[Are] we are talking about heartfelt emotions, raw passion, a sincerity of feeling, expressed from the heart in natural ways. I am very doubtful, though, that this has anything to do with soul music and what makes it so wonderful..."

Do I confuse the singer on the stage with the character of the song, and come to believe that I am witnessing real emotion when somebody sings?

"...We aren’t hearing the real emotions of the performers - no one has three minutes of heartbreak, then three of anger at betrayal, then three of having a party, then three of being deeply in love…"

I think that is a little bit too reductionist. Everybody should be able to recognise that they are being entertained, not necessarily receiving a confession. But it would hardly be emotionally satisfying for the audience if the performer didn't have the ability to make us feel the emotion held within the song itself. I tend to think that soul fans are perhaps less not more likely to confuse the singer with the song than people who perhaps enjoy indie music, where the concept of the 'singer-songwriter' puts a much greater emphasis on the illusion that we are listening to the self-written personal thoughts of the artist as a visionary poet.

Martin did have an interesting anectdote to counter my certainty, taken from the Yahoo Southern Soul Group:

"I particularly remember their reactions to a new published interview with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. He expressed a liking for various people, by no means all soul types or ‘credible’ artists. Elton John was the name that agitated them most - they were trying to make excuses, looking for a hidden agenda, wondering if there was talk of Elton writing a song for him or working with him. They couldn’t believe that a soul giant could really like Elton’s music, which is surely the obvious and completely plausible explanation..."

This behaviour I recognise, and I agree it should be discouraged. It is quite common for those who find out about soul music of the era for the first time to treat it reverentially, like an exclusive club to which only the true member may join - to the extreme of guarding it from perceived 'outside' influences (even against poor Reggie Dwight, who played piano with Major Lance, Doris Troy, the Bluebells and dozens more r&b acts who toured the UK in the 60s. Go and find a record by Long John Baldry & Bluesology to get an idea of that...). Yet we don't make the music - how can we say what it should be? Get out there and make some music yourself, then you can make it what you want it to be! Fortunately, it is an attitude that people grow out of with time and experience.

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Soul Men: Sam & Reggie. Why not! I suggest Don't Go Breaking My Heart, in a real slow, relaxed tempo, country soul ballad in style. There, I said it, I won't take it back, and you can't make me!

Do people focus so much on the emotional impact of the music that they do not give the professional skill and the talent of the performers and musicians enough credit? Martin does have one more warning to give us to ponder, likening the way he has observed others discuss soul music as akin to the way people describe African footballers:

"The talk is of passion and raw emotion, an innate access to feeling, and not of intelligence and musical technique... It doesn’t take a vast amount of insight to spot the racism in all of this..."

Certainly, it is undeniable that I love the way the music feels. Sometimes, when I personally write about the music, I describe the sensations when a certain moment in the music kicks in. But I'm not sure that that in itself is inappropriate. After all, the feeling we get is why we listen to music in the first place. And it is one of the very real motivations behind the making of all kinds of popular music. Soul music, like all others, was and is a business. But if you were going to make a living from it, you had to get good at listening out for the things that appealed to your audience, and you had to practice and work hard at perfecting your delivery and routine to make people turn out and pay for a ticket, and to get booked at the next town along on the road. In a sense, describing the emotional impact of music is a way of celebrating the effort and honing of the performers' art, using layman's terms that we can all relate to. I do think that there should be more effort put in to documenting and describing the technical elements that go into producing soul music. I for one know that I simply do not possess the knowledge and musical ability to do so. But I can appreciate a good professional performance and a well-crafted song.

Martin takes as an example Al Green's cover version of the Bee Gees song How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?, and describes with eloquence the techniques the Rev. Green uses to 'inject' a sense of emotion into the song:

"This isn’t the natural outpouring of romantic pain; it’s not even method acting, where he deliberately feels it and so expresses it; this is the work of a powerful musical intelligence, who has carefully thought about every moment of the song, every word, every sound, and has calculated how to make it work with maximum effect."

Every word of this is correct, and well said. However, I have to wonder, in getting up to go to work each day at the Royal Studio, and picking out songs to record, surely somebody was thinking in some small way,"Hey, I like this song, it kind of reminds me of when ..." I started to think: has Martin in some way created a straw man to knock down when he defines the emotional content thus:

"I don’t believe that all he [Al Green] is doing is expressing how he feels, if he is doing that at all; he is finding ways to express what this lyric and song feels like, he is putting those emotions into the song, irrespective of how he might have personally felt at the time it was recorded."

The distinction Martin makes is that between the true emotions of the musicians, and the emotional effect that they imbue the song with. While at first I was sure this was obvious to all, I wonder if it is so obvious, when people come to listen with their own mind-sets and prejudgements. A lot of people like hearing the Supremes come on at a family disco; not all of them are going to be paragons of virtue. I start to see where soul fans can go wrong in assuming that the music in itself will neccessarily change people's attitudes.

"I just think the gap between the way people talk about music and the way it’s actually made is greater in soul music than any other, and I think the musical skill and intelligence on show in its many great recordings are therefore persistently undervalued, or even not noted at all."

I know that in general, soul fans are always eager to sit and listen to stories of the people who made the music, without the more ghoulish aspects of our modern-day paparazzi-style veneration of celebrities. While the emphasis in pop and rock culture is to read about the after-show parties, and drink and drug binges, it is quite other with soul. We spend countless hours pondering just exactly how the 'Stax sound' was created, trying to find out just what is a 'head arrangement', and tracing all of the doings of those fabulous rhythm sections from all over who created such music. Martin gives an excellent praisie of the personnel and methods of Willie Mitchell at the Royal Studio as an example of the knowledge and work that went into creating music that sounds as if Al Green is talking to your girlfriend and persuading her to Stay Together right in the room with you. It is a perfect example well-chosen. I would counter that I have yet to meet a dedicated soul fan who would not want to eagerly devour such knowledge and take the message fully on board. But Martin is right that we would be naive to assume that everybody gets it, and that we are often therefore, naive in how we describe soul.

I think that the interest people have in learning about the whole person and about their lives apart from the music, and the numerous accounts I have read of the genuine friendships between performers and soul researchers, reunions, help given to those who have experienced hard times, express a greater appreciation of the real human beings, flaws and all, who make the music we love. Read Martin Skidmore's article for yourself, and hopefully it will remind you, if you ever forgot.

Read Martin Skidmore's article "Everything We Say About Soul Is Wrong".

I have edited my post after considering some more the thoughts in Martin Skidmore's essay. It reminded me of some of the themes of soul music that this blog is supposed to be commenting upon.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Boy Meets Girl: It's Too Late

Is it? Is it too late? Has summer gone? Did it stay too long? The day is cloudy, and thus I have to make this the final Boy Meets Girl snippet for this summer. If you don't go and buy the CD RIGHT NOW, however, don't fear - I'm sure I'll come back to it next summer, and the next!
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A pairing now of two artists we haven't heard yet, Eddie Floyd and Cleotha Staples. Cleotha is the oldest of the Staples siblings, born just before the late Roebuck 'Pops' Staples moved his family from Mississippi to Chicago. While younger sister Mavis gets to show off her vocal virtuosity on some outstanding soul shouters, Cleotha chooses a song in a more traditional gospel form, and building from a near whispher 'it's a weak man that cries...', she can take it up to match the haunting organ accompaniment. Eddie Floyd's voice, crisp and clean, seems perfectly suited for the song. A wonderful, pure song of love and regret.

Cleotha Staples worked with the Staple Singers up to Pop's death in 2000. Soon after that, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, which, with the help of her family, she continues to cope with, and she helped to organise the release of the final Staple Singers sessions in 2003.

Eddie Floyd & Cleotha Staples - It's Too Late (STAX STS-S 2-2024) 1969

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Boy Meets Girl: Just Keep On Loving Me

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Carla Thomas featured prominently on the Boy Meets Girl album, at a time when she was beginning to feel that she was being sidelined as an artist at Stax. After performing in London at the Bag O'Nails club in front of an impressed Paul McCartney, she was actually asked to drop out of the Stax/Volt tour of England in 1967 to perform at a civil-rights benefit in Chicago that Al Bell had double-booked! Having recorded the successful King & Queen of Soul album and Tramp with Otis Redding, she was hoping to capitalise on this. Jim Stewart promised another duet album with Otis for December 1967; yet Phil Walden remembers talking with Al Bell about an album featuring Otis with Aretha Franklin.

Al Bell found a place for Carla on Boy Meets Girl, although she is billed last, under Stax's newest female singing sensation, Mavis Staples. Nonetheless, Carla Thomas makes the most of her chance. She performs three songs in her trademark ballad style, All I Have To Do Is Dream with William Bell, with Eddie Floyd on Don't Make Me A Storyteller, and I'm Trying with Purvis Staples. She streches out into more impassioned territory with William Bell again on I Can't Stop and I Need You Woman, It's Our Time with Eddie, and particularly forcefully on It's Unbelievable with Purvis Staples. But it is perhaps with Johnnie Taylor that she reaches her best rapport, first on the ballad I've Just Been Feeling Bad, and then on today's song.

Carla Thomas matches and outdoes Johnnie Taylor on every plea to Just Keep On Loving Me. It's clear to me that she is in fact the power driving this song, with more confidence that she expresses on some of her other duets here. Ironically, in September 1975, in the dying days of Stax as a real record company, this song was released with Carla's vocals removed, in an attempt to cash in on Johnnie Taylor's renewed popularity with the disco crowd and drum up some much needed cash while the vultures swooped (this version recently featured on Stepfather of Soul, I think, but I can't remember now). It is good, but does it feel like someone is missing when he cries out for Carla halfway through? If you have that version, compare it to the original here, and decide for yourself.

Carla Thomas & Johnnie Taylor - Just Keep On Loving Me (Stax 0042) 1969

Information for this post taken from Rob Bowman's Soulsville: USA, and the Stax Site. You can buy the CD Boy Meets Girl here.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Boy Meets Girl: Love's Sweet Sensation

Summer lingers on, the sun is shining, boy meets girl, feel love's sweet sensation...

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1969: Following the revelation that Atlantic Records had conned them out of ownership of their entire body of work to date, and stunned by the death of Otis Redding, and the murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, the Stax family gathered together under the new direction of Al Bell to consider the future. Even though there had been tragedy and trickery, and even though tensions lay simmering beneath the surface, everybody equally believed in the possibility to make one new team effort, in the Stax spirit, to push ahead. A big release of new material, in a fanfare of publicity, was planned for May 1969.

The recording push of late 1968 and early 1969 produced so much astonishing music, often from previously untapped talent at the company, that it was able to push Stax to new heights. Everybody was put to work writing songs, performing, producing, in new combinations. New acts such as the Soul Children, the Emotions and the Staples Singers joined the family, while Isaac Hayes got to work on Hot Buttered Soul. A grand total of 27 new albums and 30 singles were recorded and pressed for simultaneous release, with more in the pipeline.

Boy Meets Girl was one of those albums, and was in part a response to the perceived success of that other soul giant, Motown, with duet songs. The decision to record four sides worth of Stax duets may seem slightly over-enthusiastic. Not everyone, even at Stax, believed that it would be possible to release so much and promote every artist properly. Al Bell, who personally produced the album, explained the reasoning in an interview with Rob Bowman:

"It was an attempt to take the entire roster and come up with a unique catalogue album ... then I could expose every track on the album and ... get all of those artists out there..."

Almost every permutation of male and female vocalist gets an outing. Duets were recorded with William Bell, Mavis Staples, Cleotha Staples, Purvis Staples, Johnny Taylor, Carla Thomas and Eddie Floyd. The results are remarkable. Carla Thomas matches and outdoes Johnny Taylor with every plea to Keep On Loving Me. William Bell and Mavis Staples didn't have to love us but they did, yes they did, on I Thank You. Mavis's voice soars above Eddie Floyd to dare him, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart.

Al Bell, working with Don Davis and Isaac Hayes to produce the tracks, took the artists to Muscle Shoals Sound for half of the songs. This was the first time the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett, had played on a Stax record. Eddie Hinton, Marvell Thomas and Isaac Hayes also played.

The other half of the songs were recorded at Ardent Studios, with the new line-up of the Bar-Kays. Marvell Thomas and Isaac Hayes came to record parts too. They soon would return to Ardent to come up with Hot Buttered Soul...

Today's song is Love's Sweet Sensation, a duet between Mavis Staples and William Bell. You can't help but think about the warmth of a sunny day. I always cheer up listening to this track. When William calls out that love's "like a big hurricane", listen out for Mavis' response: "ooh, windy..." The string parts (recorded at Tera Shirma Studios in Detroit by Russ Terrana Jr) add a soaring element that matches the song's sentiment, while the song never gets syrupy thanks to the clever changes of tempo that wind up the song.

William Bell & Mavis Staples - Love's Sweet Sensation ("Boy Meets Girl" Stax STS 2-2024) 1969

The predictions that the release schedule was overdone were in part justified. Boy Meets Girl, and its six singles, did not chart, like some of the other albums. But the album push did make an impression on the music industry, and the record-buying public - Stax would continue - and gave us a wealth of great music.

All of the facts in this post come from Rob Bowman's Soulsville: USA. are selling the Boy Meets Girl CD at good price for 22 classic tracks.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Who Was Jack Montgomery?

Yesterday's post eventually mentioned the mysterious Jack Montgomery, Detroit soul singer, and his recording of Don't Turn You're Back On Me (visit this post to...), which seemed an appropriate song for the article on Hurricane Katrina. So who is Jack Montgomery?

Trailing around in the Soulful Detroit forums, a poster gave a link to a fascinating article by Dave Rimmer at Soulful Kinda Music, in which he conducts an interview with soul songwriter/producer Don 'Barracuda' Mancha, who suddenly revealed that he knew and worked with Jack, and even suggested his stage name...

Jack Montgomery's real name was Marvin Jones, a draughtsman, who came to Don to audition. Don came up with the name Jack Montgomery based on his business partner Don Montgomery, owner of the Travler Motel. Don't Turn Your Back On Me was the first single, released on Don's own label Barracuda (his nickname as a DJ), written by Don Mancha and Fred Bridges (renowned songwriter at Golden World Studios), and recorded at United Sound Studios on Second Ave, with Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore doing one of their first arrangements together. Interestingly, the b-side was an instrumental track called Never In A Million Years, which doesn't even feature Jack.

They then looked for majors to take an interest, eventually turning to Scepter Records in NYC to release the follow ups, all of which Jack/Marvin had a hand in writing, and were probably recorded at the Tera Shirma Studio. Johnny Terry, then part of The Drifters line-up, had set up the deal with Scepter, but then things went sour, accusations were thrown of skimmed payments, and Johnny took custody of the master to Baby Baby Take A Chance On Me when the two Dons dissolved their partnership with him.

Marvin went on to make one more single under the Jack Montgomery name, this time with new producers and arrangers, then apparently faded from soul history into a new life outside music.

According to Don, Jack Montgomery pased away several years ago, presumably sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s.

GO and read the fascinating interview here. If you know more about Jack, I'd love to hear about it! Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore provided info on the Soulful Detroit forum boards. Other info from "The Fred Bridges Story" by David and Lowell on Soulful Detroit.