O.V. Wright - I've Been Searching (Back Beat 631)
I've Been Searching
O.V. Wright? You might ask... what is it with this guy and O.V. Wright?
Well, if you're a fan of this music (and if you're reading this, it's a safe bet that you are), there is big news. After years of being out of print in this country, O.V.'s Back Beat LPs are being made available on CD for the first time ever!
With the loving attention to detail that it deserves, O.V.'s 1973 classic
Memphis Unlimited has just been released by Reel Music, the Massachusetts based independent label whose stated mission of "re-issuing some of the greatest soul albums of all time" is music to my ears. Recent titles by Kim Tolliver and Betty Lavette have been simply sublime, but this one is just over the top. Featuring state of the art 24 bit digital re-mastering from the original analog tapes, and an informative 16 page booklet of liner notes penned by the inimitable John Ridley, I simply cannot recommend this package too highly. You need to buy one.
Now, as you may recall, we've been talking a little bit about Royal Studio and Hi Rhythm over the past couple of weeks, and as this album is one of the finest things to ever emanate from 1320 South Lauderdale Street, I figured we'd take a closer look.
I'm sure you've all heard the story of how Willie Mitchell kind of took Teenie Hodges 'under his wing' and 'practically raised him' and all of that, which is just wonderful stuff. Well, I spoke with Teenie a couple of weeks ago, and he told me something I never realized. He said he spent hours hanging around the studio as a kid, and that he considers Reggie Young to be his mentor. He said he learned how to play from watching Reggie who, as the guitarist in Bill Black's Combo, was the session guitarist at Royal in those days. Teenie's first appearance on record, he said, was on O.V.'s 8 Men And 4 Women, playing rhythm guitar opposite Young's brilliant lead. Those days meant a lot to him, and he would name his first-born son, Reginald Hodges, after the man who taught him so much.
Released in March of 1968, Willie Mitchell's top ten R&B hit Soul Serenade featured Teenie's guitar front and center, and represented the beginning of the new era at the studio. On the strength of that record, 'The Willie Mitchell Group' was selected as the '#1 Instrumental Band' of the year in the annual Cashbox Reader poll, and Willie's next album, On Top, made prominent mention of that fact. The single released from that album, 30-60-90, was a hard hitting workout that would break into the R&B top 40 in January of 1969, and offer a glimpse of what was to come.
In these awesome photos from the back of that album cover, here's The Willie Mitchell Group as it existed at that point. As we discussed before, the group was involved in an accident in which Willie's brother James was sent flying through the windshield, while the van he was driving rolled over again and again out on some lonesome stretch of highway down in Texas. Miraculously, the band would perform that night, with the worst of their injuries being Willie's broken ankle. According to Howard Grimes, by the time they got back to Memphis, news of the accident was being broadcast on WDIA, erroneously reporting that they had all been killed. In light of what had just happened with Otis Redding and The Bar-Kays a few months earlier, it was an easy decision to come in off the road for good.
With Reggie Young and Bobby Emmons moving on to work with Chips Moman at American, Willie's group became the 'house band' at the studio. After becoming part owner of the label, Willie then set out on a conscious mission to transform it from the 'Home of the Instrumental' to the hit factory it would become. He wanted vocalists, and signed a young singer named Ann Peebles after Bowlegs Miller brought her in to audition one day in 1969. It took him a little while longer to sign Al Green, but once he did, all the elements were in place. With his brother James proving to be an excellent arranger (and not only of the horn charts but the strings as well), and those incredible background vocals provided by Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes, Willie Mitchell had pulled it all together. By 1971 'the Hi Sound' was the new and unmistakeable 'Sound of Memphis'.
As the first O.V. Wright record to feature that fully realized sound, A Nickel And A Nail stormed into the R&B top twenty in the summer of 1971, sandwiched between Al Green's Tired Of Being Alone and the aforementioned monster Let's Stay Together. After that things really started to take off, and by the time O.V. returned to the studio to record Memphis Unlimited in late 1972, the place was just on fire. Singles by new Hi artists like Otis Clay, George Jackson and Syl Johnson had joined Green's on the charts, not to mention the work Willie was doing for other labels on folks like Denise LaSalle, Bill Coday and The Detroit Emeralds.
This great selection we have here today was the opening track on the album, and saw release as O.V.'s second single from those sessions, climbing to #62 R&B in the summer of 1974. Written by another key figure in Willie Mitchell's universe, songwriter Earl Randle would compose some of Hi's best material, including two other cuts on the LP, Nothing Comes To A Sleeper and the great Lost In The Shuffle (he would also be the man behind Into Something (Can't Shake Loose) a few years later).
After working at both American and Stax, Darryl Carter had left Memphis to try and jump start his career. In New York, he teamed up with another Bluff City transplant named James Shaw (no, not the Mighty Hannibal James Shaw), in a short-lived venture called TTC (Transworld Telefilm Corporation) Records. When the single they released on him failed to hit, Darryl moved out to the west coast, where he would collaborate with Bobby Womack and Jimmy Holiday. It was Willie Mitchell who convinced him to come back home in 1972 and work with him at the studio. They were recording Memphis Unlimited when he got there, he said, and needed some material to round out the album. Darryl suggested the song he had written for Shaw at TTC, and The Only Thing That Saved Me has gone on to become one of O.V.'s most loved tunes. But Darryl wasn't through...
He and O.V. were hanging out on South Lauderdale Street in front of the studio during the sessions, he told me, and were shooting the breeze back and forth, when one of them said something like "I'd rather be Blind, Crippled and Crazy than to ever do that again..." Carter recalls telling O.V. "There's a song title right there..." and they went back into the studio and found Charles Hodges sitting at the organ. "We wrote that song together, the three of us, in about 25 or 30 minutes," Darryl said, "and we cut it that same day." It was, of course, the first single pulled from the album, which broke into the R&B top forty in early 1974, and remains one of the enduring classics of seventies Memphis Soul.
Memphis Unlimited is a stunning snapshot of O.V. Wright, Willie Mitchell, Hi Rhythm and the rest of the Royal Studio crew at the absolute top of their game. I can't say enough about how great a record I think it is. Thanks to Paul Williams at Reel Music, this lovingly restored (and reasonably priced) package is finally available here in the 'digital age'. You owe it to yourself to pick one up.
...and, by the way, if you were unable to make it to Memphis last November for the O.V. Wright Memorial Weekend, this year's Ponderosa Stomp is offering you a second chance. That's right, Hi Rhythm, Otis Clay, and Roosevelt Jamison are all scheduled to appear down in New Orleans this April in what is shaping up to be an amazing few days of Soul. Tickets are now available.
Life is good.