Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Arthur Conley - In The Same Old Way (Fame 1007)

In The Same Old Way

Arthur Conley grew up in Atlanta. By the time he was 12 years old, he was singing Gospel on local radio station WAOK with a group called The Evening Smiles. By age 16 he had formed his own band, Arthur and the Corvets, and began recording some singles for local labels like Moon and NRC.

When he turned 18 in 1964, he joined his father in Baltimore where he hooked up with local promoter and DJ Rufus Mitchell. Rufus was impressed with Conley's talent, and released a song Arthur had written, I'm A Lonely Stranger, on his local RU-JAC label. When Otis Redding rolled into town later that year, Mitchell played the single for him backstage after a show at The Baltimore Theatre. He liked it a lot.

Otis had started his own record label down in Macon with Atlantic Records road manager Joe Galkin (hence the name, JOTIS). He worked out a deal with Rufus, and arranged to re-record Arthur's song at the STAX studio in Memphis, with production help from Jim Stewart and Booker T. The haunting deep soul ballad became the second release on Jotis (470), in September of 1965. Another Conley composition, Who's Fooling Who, was also recorded at Stax and came out as Jotis 472 in early 1966.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, Redding apparently dissolved Jotis at this point, and sent Conley to record with Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals for his FAME label. A July session resulted in the blazing I Can't Stop (No, No, No) (now up on the 'A' side), which was a Dan Penn/Roger Hawkins composition (it would turn up three years later on Solomon Burke's Proud Mary album), and our current B side, a hidden Penn/Oldham gem. With Arthur's cut-like-a-knife vocals and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section in its absolute prime, it just doesn't get much better than this, baby!

Another Fame release (1009) would follow that Fall, I'm Gonna Forget About You Baby (whose Penn/Oldham penned B side Take Me Just As I Am would be taken to #11 R&B by Solomon Burke 8 months later). Although Fame was distributed by ATCO at this time, neither Conley single got much in the way of airplay. All that was about to change.

Both Otis and Arthur were huge fans of Sam Cooke, and they began playing around with a song that first appeared on his Shake album, Yeah Man. What they came up with was Sweet Soul Music, that immortal love song to the groove. Recorded at Fame with Otis Redding handling the production, it's scary how good the record really is. (When Cooke's old business partner J.W. Alexander got wind of it, he demanded that Sam get credit as a co-writer, and that his company handle the publishing. He ironed things out with Redding, and I'm sure it helped that the single was released with Let's Go Steady - a tune Alexander had written for Sam himself - as the flip). Bumped up to the big label now, ATCO 6463 was released in March of 1967 and just took off, spending 15 weeks on the charts, and rising as high as #2 both R&B and Pop (Aretha owned the #1 R&B spot for 17 weeks that year!).

At the height of the record's success, Jerry Wexler and Otis' manager Phil Walden arranged for Arthur to join the Stax-Volt Revue on its historic tour of Europe. Although it was not all sweetness and light (Conley's big hit had already sold more records than any of the others, including Otis himself!), for the most part it was a smash and provided Arthur with his first glimpse of life outside these United States. He returned home long enough to record Shake Rattle & Roll (his follow-up Atco release which would break the R&B top 20), before Atlantic sent him back to Europe with Sam & Dave and Percy Sledge on the "Soul Explosion" tour. He was back at Fame recording in the Fall, but his cover of Joe Turner's Whole Lotta Woman went nowhere.

When Otis Redding's plane went down that fateful night in December of 1967, Arthur "just couldn't believe it". His life and everything he'd worked for seemed shattered and empty. Conley "sobbed inconsolably" at Redding's funeral, and "disintegrated" during a hastily organized tour in early 1968. There were those who said that Arthur was "the invention of Otis Redding", and that he was too "confused" and "naïve" to make it on his own. In any event, his career was now being handled by less than sympathetic people like Walden and Wexler.

Arthur pulled himself together, and entered Chips Moman's American studio in February of 1968 to cut some new material he had written. When Funky Street, a song about his old hometown of Atlanta, was released in March it went straight to the #5 spot R&B. His next two Atco singles were cut at American as well, with People Sure Act Funny breaking the top 20, and Aunt Dora's Love Soul Shack (which started up a whole string of 'shack' records) just missing the top 40.

Don Covay and Bobby Womack had put together the backing tracks for the long-awaited Soul Clan single out in L.A., and Atlantic had each individual artist record his vocals whenever they were available. After Wilson Pickett balked, and Otis Redding went and died on them, they arranged for Ben E. King and Arthur Conley to replace them. Conley recalled that he never even spoke with the other members of the Clan about the record, and that he recorded his part all alone up in New York. The single would go to #34 R&B in the Summer of 1968, and then, according to Solomon Burke, "the record was stopped and banned". He may have been right.

It was Wexler who decided that Arthur should start out 1969 with a cover of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (this was right around the same time that he pushed Dusty Springfield into recording Windmills Of Your Mind), and although it broke the top 50, people were really buying it for the B side, the great Otis Sleep On, Conley's tribute to his best friend. The material Atco was selecting for him actually went downhill from there, culminating in an embarassing rendition of Harry Belafonte's Day-O in 1970.

Conley declined to renew his contract with Atlantic and began recording for Phil Walden's Capricorn label in 1971. This arrangement yielded four singles, none of which even dented the charts. Whether it was a lack of promotion, changing times, or the priorities of a record company whose biggest star was The Allman Brothers Band, by 1974 Arthur had had it. He turned his back on the whole industry and moved far, far away.

Reports were that he lived in England for a time, and then moved on to Belgium. By 1980 he had settled just outside of Amsterdam and changed his name to Lee Roberts. I'm not sure why.

In 1988, Blue Shadow records released an album called Soulin', by Lee Roberts & The Sweaters. It was taken from a live recording of an Amsterdam performance from 1980. He would later start his own business, Art-Con, which included several record labels, a music store, publishing company, and even a radio station.

Lee's final performance was in The Netherlands in June of 2002. He died of intestinal cancer in November of 2003.

Sleep on Arthur, sleep on.

(I'd like to thank B side regular Jean-Francois for schooling me about Lee Roberts...)

Also, as you probably already know, the fantastic Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers contains an unreleased track by Conley that was recorded at Fame in June of 1967 - Rome (Wasn't Built In A Day) - a cover of the song Sam Cooke gave to Johnnie Taylor in 1962. It also includes a remastered copy of That's How It Feels, the B side of the Soul Clan single. Go ahead and buy a copy.


Blogger Paul McCormick said...

Wow, Red. What a side, what a story. This is as deep as it gets. Thanks for taking the time to put this out there.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

Great tune Red! I had no idea that Conley had ever recorded for anyone but Atco. Can't beat those Penn/Oldham tunes either. Great ballad with some interesting changes.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post!

10:55 PM  
Blogger Garrincha said...

Awesome, as always.
It's just amazing how much work and love you put in your posts. You're the new Guralnik.


3:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Red,
Amazing post. I am looking to get more information about Arthur's life in the Netherlands. Do you have an suggestions where i could start. Any information that you could provide would be extremely helpful.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Cies said...

You can watch a Dutch documentary on Arthur Conley from 1988 at:

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That link to the Dutch site isn't working for me. Any tricks to it or another link? Thanks so much for all this deep look into a brilliant talent.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Red Kelly said...

Hello - Yes, that link to the 1988 documentary appears to be dead... if I ever come across it again, I'll be sure to re-activate it.

I wrote again about Arthur in 2007:


...and again (as Lee Roberts) in 2011


including a couple of unreleased tracks.

He really was a Super Star! Thanks!

7:00 PM  

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