The Ovations featuring Louis Williams - I'm Living Good (Goldwax 117)
I'm Living Good
You know, life is funny sometimes. When I first started thinking about posting this Goldwax series, I knew that eventually I'd be writing about Louis Williams and The Ovations. It's a shame, I thought, that my favorite Ovations song was released as an A side... then, as I started doing a little research I discovered:
That's right, today's fabulous selection is listed as a B side at no less than four of those respected soul sites that yours truly checks regularly... hey, who am I to argue with the experts?
Louis Williams grew up in Memphis a big fan of Clyde McPhatter and James Sheppard. As he told Colin Dilnot, "I could throw my voice like all of them." When Sam Cooke crossed over in 1957, however, that was it for him, he'd found his idol.
While still attending Booker T. Washington High School, Louis became a member of vocal group The Montclairs, which was managed by the legendary Goose Tatum, the former Negro League baseball player who would go on to become the star of the Harlem Globe Trotters. After performing in the fabled amateur competitions at the Palace Theatre, Williams became a member of The Del-Rios.
Considered one of the most influential vocal groups in the Bluff City incubator of soul, the group was led by a young William Bell. They took second prize at the annual Mid-South talent competition in 1956, and earned a trip to Chicago and a one-off recording session at Lester Bihari's Meteor Records. Bihari had opened the label as a 'branch office' in Memphis in 1952, and had been recording blues and R&B for his brothers out in Hollywood. He was there when Sun kicked the whole Rockabilly thing wide open, and had been recording their overflow on folks like Charlie Feathers and Junior Thompson (in yet another lesson in how all things in Memphis seem interconnected, I was amazed to note that the songwriters on this cookin' 1956 Thompson record pictured above are none other than ol' Q. Claunch & W. Cantrell).
The young Del-Rios entered the Meteor Studio at 1794 Chelsea Avenue in Memphis in late 1956 to wax their 45. Backed by Rufus Thomas and his Bearcats, they recorded Alone On A Rainy Night and Lizzie which would be released as Meteor 5038 later that year. Although it sold a lot of copies in Memphis, the record, with virtually no promotion, failed to dent the national charts. If you can find a copy nowadays, it'll set ya back about $500!
With Meteor pulling up stakes in 1957, it was only natural that the Del-Rios gravitated towards Stax. It was Chips Moman who persuaded William Bell to try his hand at a solo career, and the success of the record he produced on him, You Don't Miss Your Water (Stax 116), convinced him to leave the group. Louis Williams, who had always been comfortable singing in the background, became the new lead singer. In 1962, the lone Del-Rios release for the label, Just Across The Street (Stax 125), became the first record to showcase his incredible voice (the flip, There's A Love, is one of the few B sides included on the Stax Singles box set as it features William Bell on the lead).
With Bell gone, the Del-Rios hired Nathan 'Pedro' Lewis who had come up singing with the El Salvadors (who would record one single as Barney & the Googles on a tiny label called Shimmy). Before long they were packing 'em in at The Flamingo Room, and were joined by future Soul Child Norman West. After West was drafted, and long-time business manager Harry Austin moved to Detroit, the Del-Rios started to fall apart. Robert Huntley left the group soon afterwards.
In the excellent interview with Nathan over at soulwalking he says, "Willie Mitchell contacted me and Louis. Said, 'Look, I've got some dates. Would you guys be interested in backgrounding Don Bryant on these dates that I've got? You all will be the Four Canes.' So he got one member out of the Canes group. 'So it'll be you, Louis, and Elvin Lee Jones'... We noticed from that experience on that outing that we had a solid background behind Don. And we knew Louis' potential as a lead singer. So we functioned as the Four Canes to do those dates, and something came to us, said, 'Well, let's work on something original with the harmony sound that we've got, and see what we can come up with.'" What they came up with was pretty good.
Once again, our man Roosevelt Jamison was on the scene. He convinced the three singers to stop by the Blood Bank one night, and arranged to have Quinton Claunch and Doc Russell there to audition them. They were reportedly blown away, and wasted no time in getting them into the new studio they were using, American. It was seedy, built in an old grocery store, and run by this drunk who'd engineer a session for "a bottle of whiskey and a couple of pills" (aka Chips Moman). They brought in Bowlegs Miller and recorded two sides on them, and it was at this point that Louis gave the group their name, The Ovations. That was in 1964.
On December 11 of that year, the R&B world was rocked by the senseless murder of Louis' idol, Sam Cooke, at the very pinnacle of his career. It's important to understand the impact that his death had. If you were black, something died within you... it was bigger than the Kennedy assasination had been the year before. The posthumous release of A Change Is Gonna Come spoke directly to the hearts of those engaged in a life-long struggle for civil rights. Williams was crushed. He began working with an old Soul Stirrers' spiritual that Sam had written called Wonderful, and (along with his partners Nathan and Elvin) developed it into the song that would introduce them to the national stage.
It's Wonderful To Be In Love, one of the first sides to be recorded at American with Reggie Young and the rest of the Memphis Boys, was released to a Cooke-starved public in May of 1965. They ate it up. Helped along by a Washington D.C. dee-jay named Al Bell, it would climb to #22 R&B and even hit #61 pop. The Ovations were soon booked into The Apollo, and were sharing the bill with top names like James Brown and Otis Redding on a nation-wide tour.
It's hard for me to believe that this awesome, incredible follow-up record we have here today (B side or not), fell on deaf ears. Claunch, at the suggestion of Moman and Rick Hall, brought The Ovations down to Fame in Muscle Shoals. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham had custom written the tune for the group after hearing It's Wonderful To Be In Love and, admittedly, it does owe a lot to its predecessor... still, I think it should have been a #1 hit, man. I just love it. Perhaps a lot had to do with the fact that Goldwax was still being distributed by Vee-Jay at this point, a company that was just about to go out of business.
I guess now would be as good a time as any to talk about all these different labels Goldwax had. What's up with that? When I first started buying the label, I was freaked. I mean, were these counterfeits, or what? How could there be two (or even three) different labels on the same release? I've never seen this subject adequately addressed, but It's my guess that Vee-Jay (who did much the same thing with Introducing The Beatles) used whatever generic label stock they had on hand to print up copies of a record that was in demand, rather than wait for more real ones to arrive from Memphis. Later on, when Goldwax switched over to Bell, I imagine that they were using up their old gold and white labels as they made the switch to the blue ones that were more in line with Utall's other stock labels (Bell, Mala and Amy). It doesn't matter much in the long run, I suppose.
When Bell became the new distributor in 1966, the numbering system was changed, starting over again at 300 with an Ovations release, Don't Cry, once again missing the charts. At this point, Elvin Lee Jones left the group and was replaced by 'Billy Boy' Young, who had been a member of The Avantis. As we've discussed before, it was also around this time that George Jackson and Dan Greer agreed to come on board, and begin writing for the label. Jackson, it's been said, was simply 'in love with' Louis' voice, and enjoyed writing specifically for him. I Believe I'll Go Back Home (Goldwax 306) was his first attempt at it, but the record didn't do much.
In early 1967, the group would take a Claunch and Cantrell tune, Me And My Imagination, into the R&B top forty. Interestingly, the single appears in the discographies as both Goldwax 314 and 114. Now, I'm not sure if it had been actually released two years earlier or not... it could have been mis-printed on some labels or something, I guess. Does anybody out there know the real story on this?
At this point tensions in the group were running high, and The Ovations became involved in a dispute with Claunch about the payment of royalties. After three more singles (at least one of which had already been 'in the can') failed to chart, they left Goldwax shortly before its demise in 1969.
The Ovations moved to MGM subsidiary label Sounds Of Memphis along with George Jackson and Dan Greer. They would have their biggest hit to date for the label with Touching Me (Sounds Of Memphis 708) in the summer of 1972, only to top that by taking a remake of Sam Cooke's Having A Party all the way to #7 for MGM the following year.
Despite quality albums like Hooked On A Feeling and Sweet Thing during the seventies, their charting days were basically over. There's always been some confusion (at least to me) about their lineup in the seventies. Martin Goggin had this to say; "Pedro and 'Billy Boy' Young didn't leave the Ovations til after the fantastic 'Hooked On A Feeling' LP, and made a major contribution to this LP. (And they rejoined Louis in 1976, but recorded with Louis just once more, in 1984). Contrary to a few postings on the web, the members of the Nightingales [Rochester Neal and Quincy Billops Jr] just backed Louis on the road and were never recorded with Louis as part of the Ovations." There you go.
Williams recorded an album's worth of solo material for old pal Dan Greer's Beale Street imprint in the eighties (Ole Beale Street salutes Sam Cooke), which saw only limited release. Thanks to our friends across the pond, much of The Ovations' output has become available again on both Kent's The Ovations featuring Louis Williams and their latest offering Can't Be Satisfied: The XL and Sounds Of Memphis Story, as well as on their excellent Goldwax Story series, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
Louis Williams died in his hometown of Memphis in October of 2002, after a long illness. He was 61 years old. In the obituary published by his family it reads, "Generations yet to come will be forever discovering his genius and enjoying his music."