Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Candi Staton - How Can I Put Out The Flame (When You Keep The Fire Burning) (Fame 1472)

How Can I Put Out The Flame (When You Keep The Fire Burning)

Canzetta Staton started out as a farm girl in northern Alabama. She knew she wanted to sing by the time she was about four years old, and the pastor of her church recognized her unique gift. Together with her sister Maggie and two other girls, they formed a group called the Four Golden Echoes that traveled with the pastor to churches all over the state. Increasing problems at home caused her parents split up in the early fifties, however, and her mother moved the family to Cleveland.

A devout Pentecostalist, mom sent the girls to a Christian Academy that was run by Bishop Mattie Lou Jewell in Nashville. Impressed by the girls' talent, the Bishop got them together with her grandaughter Naomi Harrison and formed the Jewell Gospel Trio in 1953. This adorable group of youngsters became extremely popular in the South, and it wasn't long before they were touring the state raising money for the Academy. As their fame spread, they added steel guitar and 'Hawaiian drums' and began traveling the 'Gospel Highway' in caravans along with groups like The Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers and The Staple Singers. It was Mavis Staples who began calling her 'Candy', telling her she was too sweet to have a name nobody could pronounce.

The Trio's first sides were issued on Alladin, but it wasn't until they were signed to Nashboro in 1955 that they began to get noticed. It was Maggie who sang the lead on their biggest record, I Looked Down The Line And I Wondered, but Candy was out front for Jesus Is Listening and the wonderful Too Late. By 1960, the girls realized that they weren't being adequately compensated for their efforts, and left the Trio, and Bishop Jewell behind.

Maggie went off to college, but Candy headed back to her country roots in Alabama, finished high school, and married the son of a local minister. She settled in to a life of playing the church organ and singing in the choir of her father-in-laws strict fundamentalist congregation, while she raised her kids. Eventually she became fed up with the 'hypocrisy' she saw all around her, and was ready to move on. The last straw came when the pastor actually kicked her out of his church because she dared to have a television at home. At that point, she remembers thinking "...forget God, and forget everything associated with God."

Candy's brother took her to a place called the 27/28 Club in Birmingham in 1968. He dared her to get up and sing at an 'open mike' night they were having. She got up there and sang the only secular song she knew, Do Right Woman-Do Right Man, the Penn-Moman classic she had learned from Aretha's smash album the year before. The owner of the club couldn't believe how great she was, and hired her on the spot. After Candy went home and learned a few more songs, she came back ready to perform, and learned she was opening for local legend Clarence Carter. Carter was blown away as well, and asked her to sing a few songs with his band. They began touring the chitlin' circuit together, and Staton learned her chops as an R&B singer on the road with him.

When Clarence brought her to Muscle Shoals to meet Rick Hall, he just loved her and signed her to Fame right then and there. It was Rick who changed the 'Candy' to 'Candi' and promised to make her a star. Her first Fame sessions were held in September of 1968, and the resulting single I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool) (co-written by Carter, Raymond Moore and new staff songwriter George Jackson) became a huge hit down South, spending ten weeks on the national R&B charts, and breaking into the top ten. Candi couldn't believe it, and recalls staying up all night and switching stations on the radio while they played her song all up and down the line. Hall had kept his promise, and his new star came to be known as the 'Sweetheart of Soul'. The out-of-print Fame LP built around her first four chart hits for the label, I'm Just A Prisoner, is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest southern soul albums ever made (come on, EMI).

Her biggest hit for the label was a Clarence Carter arrangement of Tammy Wynette's country anthem Stand By Your Man. The song was actually co-written by Tammy with Billy Sherrill who, you may recall, had been a member of the Fairlanes and a co-founder of Florence Alabama Music Enterprises with Tom Stafford and Rick Hall. As good an example of 'country soul' as you're likely to find, it roared to #4 R&B (#24 pop) in the summer of 1970, spending over 4 months on the charts. Today's selection is the B side of that single (as well as being a track on the accompanying Fame LP), and illustrates just how good Rick Hall's label remained after everyone left. With George Jackson and Raymond Moore's incredible songwriting and Harrison Calloway, Junior Lowe and the rest of the Fame Gang's tight playing on here, I think this record stands up with the best of the 'second rhythm section' stuff. I just love it.

That summer of 1970, with Clarence Carter's Patches hitting the top 5 on the pop charts for Atlantic and Candi's breaking into the pop top 40 herself, may just have been the best of times for Fame. When the studio's two biggest stars got married in August, it made headlines throughout the soul universe. Rick Hall was a happy camper.

When big stars like The Osmonds began coming down there to record, and turning George Jackson compositions like One Bad Apple into mega-blockbuster hits, Rick couldn't help but see where the money was in 'the business'. He began neglecting his R&B artists, and had shut down the house label entirely by the end of 1973. He negotiated a contract for Candi with Warner Brothers, and agreed to continue producing her for the big company. Her first single for the label, As Long As He Takes Care Of Home, was a top ten R&B hit in the fall of 1974, and it seemed the arrangement was going to work out fine. Despite the words Candi was singing, when she found out Clarence had been cheating on her she divorced him by the end of the year.

As disco began coming in, Hall's brand of southern soul was dropping out of favor, and the sales of Candi's singles slowed way down. Warner Brothers eased her away from Fame and sent her out to L.A. to work with producer David Crawford. She had re-married by then, to a man she later described as a "pimp and a hustler" whose escalating violence and drug use had her scared for her life. She poured her heart out to Crawford, and the song that he wrote for her, Young Hearts Run Free, became an instant classic. The little girl from Alabama was suddenly squarely in the middle of the whole 'pagne and 'caine mirrored ball disco club scene. The song would hit the pop top 20 in early 1976, and spend over 5 months on the charts on its way to #1 on both the R&B and (Billboard's new) Disco charts. Candi Staton was as popular in that world as both Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor... she was bad.

Songs like Victim and Looking For Love seemed to tell more of her increasingly troubled life story. By now an alcaholic and serious cocaine addict, she found herself married to a fellow user. Warner Brothers let her out of her contract to record for Sylvia Robinson's Sugar Hill label in 1981. Even though they had brought Dave Crawford back in as producer, the resulting album didn't do much. By 1982, Candi says she had bottomed out both personally and professionally.

That's when the Lord stepped back in. Both Candi and her husband were 'born again', and she turned back to the God she had sworn to forget. The couple would open Beracah Ministries just outside of Atlanta and Staton continued to produce great records. Her first Gospel LP, Make Me An Instrument, made up of her own compositions, was one of the first 'Contemporary Christian' records, and broke into the top ten on the Gospel album charts. Despite a Grammy nomination, Candi still found it hard to be accepted by the Black Gospel world from which she had come. It was Tammy Faye Bakker that first reached out to her, and she has been the host of her own TV show on the Trinity Network, Say Yes, for over 20 years. The best of her Beracah material has been collected on a great 2 CD set.

As part of her TV ministry, Candi agreed to record an inspirational song for a much publicized Dick Gregory weight loss campaign for a 1000 lb man named David Ron High. The song, You Got The Love, managed to crack the R&B hot 100 in 1986, with it's catchy 'sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air' chorus. Unknown to her, a 'house-music' remix of the song began setting the UK club scene on fire. John Truelove released it, and it went to #4 on the British pop chart in 1991. Truelove's The Source would remix it yet again, and take this remarkable record to #3 in 1997. Candi, frankly bemused by all of this, was back on top in London.

She agreed to make an album of 'inspirational dance music' in 1999 with famed UK producers K-Klass. The record, Outside In, was a huge success, and put no less than three singles in the top 40 in England. Back home in the States, meanwhile, these club records hadn't even been released, and rumors spread that Candi had 'backslid' once again to the secular side. When the HBO series Sex And The City used The Source version of You Got The Love on their series finale in 2004, Americans finally began to take notice.

Her critically acclaimed effort His Hands, released just this past April, is nothing short of a masterpiece. Candi's own compositions stand right up there with great songs by Merle Haggard, Tommy Tate, and Will Oldham. Muscle Shoals keyboard legend Barry Beckett was coaxed out of 'retirement' by producer Mark Nevers, and two of Candi's children join her on the album. The project was brought together by Honest Jon's honcho Mark Ainley, who had released a double LP of Staton's Fame material late last year. He has said that all he wants is to help get Candi Staton the respect she deserves. Touring this past Summer to sold out houses in support of the record, it looks like she may finally be getting it.

She's Got The Love!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Clarence Carter - She Ain't Gonna Do Right (Fame 1016)

She Ain't Gonna Do Right

Clarence Carter, blinded when he was one year old, came up as a student at the Talladega School for the Negro Deaf and Blind, the same institution that produced Clarence Fountain and the rest of the Blind Boys of Alabama. His first love was the Blues, however, and he took up the guitar when he was only eleven years old.

Clarence would go on to graduate from Alabama State University in 1960 with a Bachelor's Degree in Music - no mean feat for a blind black man in the South in those days! He would hook up with another blind student by the name of Calvin Scott, and they began performing together as Clarence and Calvin. They would back up national acts like John Lee Hooker as they passed through Montgomery on their way around the 'chitlin' circuit', and made a name for themselves in the South. Don Robey signed them to his Duke label in 1962, and released four singles over the next three years (sometimes calling them the 'C&C boys'), but they went nowhere.

In early 1966, after Robey failed to renew their contract, the 'boys' paid for some studio time at the new Fame studio facility in Muscle Shoals, and cut a 'one-off' single for Atlanta dee-jay Zenas Sears (later released on ATCO). Rick Hall liked what he heard and began recording them himself. At this point, Calvin got married, and was convinced by his wife to 'go solo', leaving Clarence to fend for himself.

Hall was impressed with Clarence's songwriting abilities, and signed him to his Fame label. Carter composition Tell Daddy was his first Fame single, and broke the R&B top 40 in January of 1967 (Etta James, of course, would take the feminized version to the top ten later that year). After Thread The Needle cracked the top 40 as well, Atlantic signed Carter to the 'big label' by the end of the year.

Today's crankin' soul burner was recorded around this time, but there's some conflicting information about when it was released, with some sources placing it as late as November of '68. In a happy turn of events for us, our tune is listed as the B side of the single by no less an authority than The Soul Of The Net, and is the flip of the bluesy Road Of Love. With the fabled 'second section' absolutely on fire (check out Jimmy Johnson's guitar!), this is one of my all time fave Fame records. Woo-Hoo!!

The first Atlantic single, Looking For A Fox, was a top 20 hit. The second release, Funky Fever (a kind of answer song to Funky Broadway) made #49 in June of 1968, before dee-jays everywhere flipped the record over and started playing the B side, Slip Away. Just like Jimmy Hughes' Steal Away had done four years before, this 'cheatin' song ate up the charts, spending two weeks at #2 R&B that summer (it was only kept from the #1 position by Hugh Masekela's massive hit Grazing In The Grass). It would become a million seller, as would the #3 follow-up, Too Weak To Fight. Records like Snatchin' It Back and Doin' Our Thing would keep Clarence in the top ten in 1969, while 1970 saw the release of his biggest record ever, Patches. Clarence had first heard the song on a Chairman Of The Board album, and turned it into the sentimental smash that cracked the pop top five that August.

Carter was unable to keep producing the mega-crossover hits for Atlantic (who by now was busy with Led Zeppelin and CSN anyway), and by early 1972 he was back recording for Fame. He has actually cut more songs at the studio than any other single performer over the years, and Rick Hall has said that Clarence is "at the top of my list... he's not only one of the finest artists, but one of the finest people I've ever met".

When Hall closed down his label in 1974, Clarence moved to ABC and, would record later on for the Venture label. Carter continues to perform to this day, and remains immensely popular in the South. His early 90s Ichiban album, Dr. C.C., contained a little ditty called Strokin', which remains a favorite of wedding DJ's everywhere, and ensures that he'll be heard for years to come...

OK, now, take a look at the songwriting credits on our current killer b side - that's right, Dan Penn and Lindon Oldham.

As we've mentioned here before, Dan Penn is the man who brought the 'soul to the shoals', burning up the fraternities with his own brand of high voltage R&B as the leader of the Mark Vs. When a song he wrote up over the drugstore, Is A Bluebird Blue?, became a hit for Conway Twitty in 1960, people began to take his songwriting skills seriously. Shortly afterward, Penn changed the name of his band to The Pallbearers, and they began showing up for gigs crammed into an old hearse. Something happened out there on the road, and Dan decided to give it all up for the Lord, moving to Texas to work in a Christian bookstore.

After he got that out of his system, he came back to Muscle Shoals and joined Rick Hall as a staff songwriter at his brand new studio, bringing The Pallbearers in as studio musicians. After the success of Jimmy Hughes' Steal Away, it was Dan Penn who had the second release on the Fame label in June of 1964. It didn't sell much, so he continued to write, working with old pals David Briggs and Donnie Fritts. As the Pallbearers started to drift away for better paying jobs in Nashville, Hall brought in a new keyboard man, Dewey Lindon Oldham.

'Spooner', as his friends called him, would release a single on Fame as well, and soon became Penn's favorite collaborator. They'd "take a couple of pills, and stay up all night writing... the songs'd fall on the floor, and in the morning the artists would come in and want to cut 'em!", Penn said. One such artist was Joe Simon, who had come to Fame on the advice of WLAC's John R, and took Penn-Oldham composition Let's Do It Over to #13 R&B in the summer of '65.

When James and Bobby Purify broke into the top ten with I'm Your Puppet in 1966, the record companies began to realize how great their songs really were. They had developed quite an extensive catalogue of material by then, and their tunes were in demand. Penn, frustrated with Rick Hall, left the Shoals to work with Chips Moman in Memphis right around this time. Oldham stayed behind, playing on some of the greatest records ever made.

He and Spooner had cut rough demos of most of their songs at Fame, and Dan brought them with him to Memphis. Moman has said that those demos were "masterpieces... there's nothing more entertaining then a Dan Penn - Spooner Oldham demo, I'd rather hear that than anybody's master!". I have managed to hear a few of them myself over the years, and I agree, these guys were something else (Barry Fowden featured one on his radio show just last week).

Penn kept on writing, and with Chips as his new partner, would come up with all-time classics Do Right Woman-Do Right Man and The Dark End Of The Street while working at American Studios with him. He began producing as well, and one of his first efforts, The Letter, was absolutely huge, putting The Box Tops on top of the pop charts for a month in the fall of 1967. The pressure was on for a follow-up record, and Dan finally convinced Spooner to come join him in Memphis. It took a while, but the old magic re-surfaced, and the song they came up with, Cry Like A Baby, would coast to #2 in early 1968.

"We kind of have this chemistry. I mean everybody's different; plenty of guys are good. But me and Spooner have this...when we're all...I can't tell where Spooner stops and I begin. When we write a song, it don't sound like two people wrote it", Penn has said about their partnership. When you think of the incredible body of work they have created together - songs like It Tears Me Up, Sweet Inspiration, Take Me Just As I Am, In The Same Old Way... it's hard to imagine American music without them.

Penn and Oldham have been performing together perodically since appearing at an 'In Their Own Words' songwriters' workshop in 1991. They released a great album that captures the special chemistry between them, Moments From This Theater, a few years back, and were touring again this past summer. By all accounts they were simply fantastic.

Talk about living history, man!


And now, as the extended family descends on the B side hacienda, I'd like to wish all of you a happy and a healthy Thanksgiving... and remember, the bird is the word!

Catch ya on the flip side!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ruth Brown - Honey Boy (Atlantic 2075)

Honey Boy

Please join me in saying goodbye to one of the true cornerstones of this music... the woman who 'put the rhythm in the blues', Ruth Brown. A woman who paved the way for everything that was to follow.


Let's do the math - She was signed to Atlantic Records by founder Herb Abramson in 1949. Within a year, she had broken the 'race record' market wide open with her smash hit Teardrops From My Eyes, which would spend an unprecedented 25 weeks on the R&B charts (including 11 weeks at number one!), and give the fledgling label it's first taste of national success. Ruth would go on to become Atlantic's top-selling artist of the 1950s (selling more records than even Ray Charles). 18 of her 21 chart singles released that decade would reach the top ten, including 4 more number one records (like the positively magnificent Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean). All told, her music would spend a total of 208 weeks (a cool four years) on the R&B charts for Atlantic, while selling over 5 million copies.

It is definitely safe to say that without her there would have been no Atlantic Records (known in those days as 'The House That Ruth Built'), and without Atlantic... well, you get the idea.

This rockin' little number we've got here today (the flip of Taking Care Of Business) was released in 1960, and shows her still at the top of her game, even though her charting days had already gone by the wayside. She would leave Atlantic the following year, and the label - which had already lost Brother Ray to ABC by then - was on the verge of going out of business... at least until Solomon Burke came along.

I have been fortunate enough to see 'Miss Rhythm' a number of times, both as part of big productions like The Atlantic Records Fortieth Anniversary show, and the Manhattan club date I've spoken of before (where she shared the bill with Solomon Burke and Charles Brown, and pulled Maxine Brown up out of the audience!), and she was always just marvelous. A consummate performer, she 'owned the room', no matter what the size.

Ruth Brown's tireless efforts to gain recognition (and long overdue royalty payments) for her fellow R&B artists led to the formation of The Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1987.

A truly great lady.

"...and it's raining teardrops from my eyes."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Aretha Franklin - Baby, Baby, Baby (Atlantic 2441)

Baby, Baby, Baby

I took my nine year old daughter (a big fan) to see Aretha Franklin last night in Manhattan. She was performing at a benefit concert for the National Marfan Foundation. Touring this fall to support a forthcoming album to be released on Clive Davis' J Records, Aretha's put together a 22 piece orchestra under the direction of the great H.B. Barnum. While a little heavy on the 'supper club' music for me (she covered both Beyond The Sea and Mack The Knife), the show still allowed the Queen Of Soul room to stretch out a bit. Although she only played piano on one selection, that was the high point of the evening for me... she remains, as Jerry Wexler has always reminded us, a genius.

So, what can I say about this amazing woman that hasn't already been said? Not much, I suppose, but I thought we'd focus on a remarkable three week period in early 1967 that changed everything. First, a little background:

The second of Reverend C.L. Franklin's three daughters (and two sons), Aretha was born in Memphis, but moved north with the family, finally settling in Detroit in the late forties. There her father would become the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, and a true legend. By the mid-fifties, his fiery sermons were being recorded by Leonard Chess and released on Checker with enormous success. The Franklin home became a haven for Gospel greats as they passed through town, and Aretha grew up singing with the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward as she helped them in the kitchen. The Reverend James Cleveland actually lived with the family for a time, and taught her how to play the piano 'by ear'. Sam Cooke was a frequent visitor as well, and encouraged her to "Sing, girl!". Sing she did, almost constantly. In Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere To Run, Aretha recalls singing with her sisters Erma and Carolyn "all day, every day" until the other girls begged her to stop. She began performing at New Bethel during her father's services when she was about nine years old.

As her father's reputation grew, he was able to tour the country and pull down a cool $4000 per appearance - big money in those days! When Aretha was 14, she began traveling the 'Gospel Highway' along with him, and that was when her real education began. Her first recordings were made during this period, and the resulting album, Never Grow Old, received plenty of airplay on Gospel radio. As the daughter of the renowned Reverend Franklin, she was already well known in the black community when she was 'discovered' by John Hammond in 1960.

Hammond, the legendary A&R man at Columbia records who had signed both Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to the label, heard that same ineffable quality in Aretha's voice on a demo somebody was playing for him in his New York office. He went out of his way to find the young singer, and signed her to an extended contract in the fall of 1960 (Hammond would, of course, later go on to 'discover' Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen as well...). Her first Columbia sides were produced by Hammond, and songs like Today I Sing The Blues and Won't Be Long (backed by the Ray Bryant Combo) became top ten R&B hits, as would Operation Heartbreak in October of 1961. The B side of that record, her cover of Al Jolson's Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody, actually cracked the pop top 40, and seemed to set the tone for the rest of her stay at the label.

Bounced from one producer to another - like former Dinah Washington protegés Belford Hendricks and Clyde Otis (and even Mitch Miller!), later Columbia releases failed to create much of a stir, and by 1966 Aretha seemed to be just biding her time, waiting for her contract to run out. Louise Bishop, a dee-jay at Philadelphia radio station WDAS, heard that Franklin's Columbia contract was about to expire, and called old friend Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records.

Wexler jumped at the chance to add her considerable talent to the already formidable roster of Soul giants at the label, and made a 'handshake deal' with Aretha and her husband Ted White in the Fall of 1966. Jerry then offered her to Jim Stewart at Stax, who was riding high with his own impressive string of Atlantic distributed soul 'super-hits', but he turned him down (whether this was seen as some kind of peace offering from a man Stax had already attempted to distance itself from, we'll never know).

Wexler's next call was to Rick Hall down in Muscle Shoals. Atlantic had become Fame's biggest customer by then, and their recent track record with Wilson Pickett was just unreal. The big company had forced Hall to install a new three track board that would allow for stereo recording and overdubs at the studio by then, and he was none too happy about it. When Wexler told him he was bringing someone named Aretha Franklin down there to record, the name didn't mean anything to him or the rest of his young studio regulars, and he booked the studio for a week at the end of January 1967.

Wexler then called his favorite guitar player, Chips Moman, in Memphis and hired both him and bass player Tommy Cogbill to work on Aretha's Fame sessions (just as he had been doing with Pickett's). Moman had established his own American Studio in Memphis by then, and was now working with Dan Penn, who had teamed up with him after leaving Fame a few months earlier. Both Moman and Penn knew who Aretha was, and had been following her career ever since they first heard her Gospel material on WLAC. They were psyched, and decided to bring a song they had been working on down there for her to check out. That was fine with Wexler, and he asked Chips to put together 'the usual' Memphis horn section for him.

Now the plot thickens. Chips called Charlie Chalmers, a local sax player that was a regular at the studio (and would later become an essential part of Willie Mitchell's 'Hi Sound' as one third of legendary backround vocal trio Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes) and left the rest to him. For one reason or another, Charlie was unable to get his usual team (which included Bowlegs Miller and Floyd Newman, both black) together, and, along with David Hood (soon to become the regular Fame bass player) on trombone, he brought down Pete Smith on baritone and Ken Laxton on trumpet, both of whom were 'reading guys' at Pepper-Tanner. By all accounts, Laxton was somewhat of a 'wiseguy', and basically an outsider to the Memphis/Muscle Shoals hit making machinery.

On January 24, 1967, Jerry Wexler checked into the Downtowner Motor Inn in Florence, Alabama with Aretha, Ted White and his engineer Tom Dowd in tow. When they arrived at Fame for the sheduled session, he was a little taken aback to find no other black faces in the room, and he began to get nervous. White had been brought up in Detroit, a city only months away from major race riots, and was understandably wary. This was Alabama, after all.

Aretha, at home in any studio by then, sat down at the piano and just blew everyone away. At that moment, Wexler (to his eternal credit) decided that she would play piano on all her Atlantic material (something she had not been doing at Columbia). "When I heard her play I said, Jesus, she sounds like Thelonius Monk!", he later recalled. Everyone else at the session was equally impressed, and began to realize the sheer talent of the woman they were working with. White had brought a rough demo of a song written by Ronnie Shannon with him, and despite his and Wexler's enthusiasm for it, the down home boys just didn't get it. It was Spooner Oldham who would come up with a couple of rolling chords on the electric piano that formed the basis of the 'head-arrangement' that was to follow, with Chalmers writing up charts for the makeshift horn section as the song developed momentum.

After about four takes, they had created what still stands as a timeless distillation of how truly great soul music can be; I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You). I know I say this a lot, but, this one IS as good as it gets! The musicians in the room knew it too, and began celebrating, passing around a bottle. Ted White soon joined in, and the party was on. One thing led to another, and apparently Ken Laxton made some kind of 'inappropriate sexual remark' about Aretha in front of her husband. [We now know, through conversation with Ken's son Mikel, that Laxton's exact words were 'Man, she sure sings her ass off!' which is neither inappropriate nor sexual. -ed. 2015] White charged into the control booth and demanded that Wexler fire Laxton on the spot. Jerry, in true record company executive fashion, delegated that job to Rick Hall, who went ahead and fired him. At that point White and Wexler took off for their respective rooms at the motel, and that, basically should have been that.

Only it wasn't. Hall had had a bad day behind the new soundboard, with Tom Dowd looking over his shoulder and telling him what he was doing wrong. He hadn't heard much to celebrate about in the song they had just finished either, and basically felt like the whole session had been a bust, even before the incident with Laxton. He began pulling from the bottle as well, and decided he needed to go over to the motel and try to patch things up. By the time he knocked on Ted White's door, they were both well on their way, and an escalating shouting match soon turned into a fist fight that ended up with Hall cussing and screaming to Wexler on the phone in the lobby. White called Wexler's room next and told him he and his wife were leaving the next day. "Don't tell me, tell my lawyer," was his reply. Not good.

Meanwhile, back at the studio, Dan Penn had finished the lyrics to the song he and Chips had brought for Aretha, and had stayed behind with Spooner, Chips, Roger Hawkins and Tommy Cogbill to work on it with Aretha. They laid down a basic track, with Penn singing the lyrics to Do Right Woman - Do Right Man in Aretha's key, and called it a night, figuring they'd take up where they left off the next morning...

Unknown to them, Wexler had gotten into it pretty heavy with Rick Hall, broken off all ties with the studio, and left with the master tapes. He was pissed off. According to his wife Shirley, Jerry had staked his reputation on being able to "reveal the real Aretha Franklin" to the world, and he "felt like he was on stage... everybody was watching him". Jerry just couldn't see how something so right had suddenly gone so terribly wrong. He couldn't even find Aretha for two whole weeks, but when she finally called, he was ready.

He had been dying to release I Never Loved A Man, but he had no B side. In a stroke of genius, he decided to fly Aretha's sisters Erma and Carolyn (along with family friend Cissy Houston) in to New York to sing back-up on the sessions that would eventually complete the album. As noted earlier, they had been singing together since they were little kids, and that powerful chemistry came shining through in the studio. The first thing they did was to overdub the piano and vocal tracks to the rough version of Do Right Woman he had brought north from Muscle Shoals. Wasting no time, the single, with Do Right Woman now on the B side, was released on February 10, 1967. Very possibly THE greatest 'two-sider' in the history of soul music, I Never Loved A Man spent 7 weeks at #1 R&B (and cracked the the top ten Pop), while the flip side would break into the top 40 R&B on its own later that year.

A simple phone call to Memphis ensured that Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill and Charlie Chalmers (along with professional 'hanger-on' Dan Penn) would come to Atlantic's New York studios to work on the album... now came the hard part. Jerry had cooked up a scheme, in true NYC fashion, to have Muscle Shoals 'delivered'. He called Rick Hall and asked him if he had a problem with Atlantic hiring his studio musicians for an upcoming King Curtis session. Hall, still hoping he hadn't totally blown it with the company, readily agreed. Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, and Roger Hawkins couldn't believe it was really happening, but they were flown into New York, and recorded King Curtis Plays The Great Memphis Hits at Atlantic. When they were finished, Wexler called them into his office and explained the real reason they were there. He put them right back on the floor to record what would become the third track cut for the album, the great Save Me, which had been written by King Curtis, Aretha and her younger sister Carolyn. Chips Moman, much to his regret, had to fly back to Memphis for prior committments at American at that point.

The next session was scheduled for Valentine's Day, and Wexler called in Atlantic secret weapon Arif Mardin (who had just finished working his magic on the Young Rascals' Groovin') as an arranger. According to Mardin, Aretha's arrangements were fully formed in the chords she used on the piano, and all he had to do was translate them to the other instruments (and voices) involved. In what may go down as one of the greatest days in Atlantic history, they would cut two songs written by Aretha; Don't Let Me Lose This Dream (co-written with Ted White), and today's cool B side, which was written with little sister Carolyn, and shows what a great 'girl group' the Franklin Sisters were.

They next tackled three covers of songs made famous by men Aretha really dug - Ray Charles' Drown In My Own Tears, Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, and Otis Redding's Respect. There simply aren't enough superlatives to convey how HUGE a song Respect was, and remains to this day. When it was released as a single that May it soared to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts, and would manage to define dance music that Summer, while becoming the ultimate 'message song' as well. To see the crowd (and my daughter) go absolutely wild when she lit into it last night to open the show, demonstrates the enduring power this phenomenal song continues to have almost 40 years after it's release.

They would round out the album the following day, recording Dr. Feelgood, Soul Serenade, and Good Times, before sending the boys from Alabama back home. I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You) had become everything Wexler wanted it to be, and more. He had proven to the world, once and for all, what a great producer he really was and had, as promised, delivered the 'real' Aretha Franklin to the world. If you don't have it already, you owe it to yourself to own this landmark album.

Oh and, by the way, the A side of today's selection was recorded on February 16th, 1967 but held out for later release... something called (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

Like Wexler said, "genius, baby".

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Willie Hightower - You Used Me Baby (Fame 1465)

You Used Me Baby


The world-famous FAME Records– based in the fabled music mecca of Muscle Shoals, Alabama has signed a distribution agreement with EMI Music Marketing in the United States. Under the terms of the deal, EMI will distribute new FAME Records product along with rare and vintage Southern soul and rhythm-and-blues recordings from the treasured FAME vaults.

"This is the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the story of FAME and Muscle Shoals music," says legendary producer Rick Hall, founder of the historic, hit-generating FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals... the EMI distribution deal will include the opportunity for the long awaited reissues of classic music from FAME's catalogue from the heyday of "Southern Soul"...

"Some of these old masters have never been released at all, and only a select few of them have ever been released on CD," added Rodney Hall, who has helped document and preserve the company's rich, one-of-a-kind musical archives. "It's really the last great soul catalog to come out on CD..."

In light of this historic announcement, I figured we'd take a look at the origins of FAME...

The story begins with Tom Stafford, sort of a hunchbacked Neal Cassady figure who was the black sheep of a prominent local family in Florence, Alabama. While he was still in high school he became the manager of the town's movie theater, where he would hold court up in the balcony with the friends he let in for free. His family owned the town's drugstore, and Tom was never without a few free samples. He spun tales of elaborate mystery and imagination up there in his perch, and the local boys listened...

The owner of the town's bus depot, James Joiner, had started a publishing company called Tune in 1957, and had been able to place one of his songs up in Nashville. When A Fallen Star was covered by artists like Ferlin Husky and Jimmy 'C' Newman, it broke into the Country Hot 100 that summer. Tom Stafford wasted no time, and talked his father into letting him use the vacant office above the drugstore as a small studio to record demos. This beat the balcony of the movies by far, and soon became just about the coolest place in the whole South.

Rick Hall had come up dirt poor in the hill country of Alabama and, after losing both his wife and his father to tragic accidents inside of a two week period in 1957, he "had no desire to be anything but a bum", and hit the bottle pretty hard. He had been playing the 'fraternity circuit' in a band called The Country Pals, and was basically living in his car. He became friends around this time with Billy Sherrill, the piano player from The Rhythm Swingsters, a pop combo that was working the same crowd as they were. Before long they had formed their own group, The Fairlanes, and began writing songs together (that's Rick on bass and Billy on Sax in the photo above).

It seemed inevitable that Rick and Billy would hook up with Tom Stafford in his roost over the drugstore, and in 1958 the three of them formed Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, better known as FAME. When a scrawny kid named Wallace D. Pennington showed up later that year, it changed everything.

Dan Penn, as he called himself, was a sixteen year old force of nature who had made a name for himself belting out R&B as the leader of his band, The Mark Vs. It was his presence that changed the way the guys over the store looked at things, and introduced them to the incredible wealth of black music that was all around them. He began singing part-time with The Fairlanes as well, and the very idea of performing 'Country' became ancient history for all of them.

By the spring of 1960, Rick Hall was getting restless and questioned the committment of his partners, who seemed content to sit around and dream. He wanted to charge ahead and 'get things done', an attitude that ended up getting him 'pushed out' of the scene, with nothing left to show for it but the rights to use the FAME acronym.

Arthur Alexander, a local guy that Tom knew from the theater, began hanging around over the store at this point. It was obvious that he had talent, but Tom wasn't quite sure what to do with it (Billy Sherill had already taken off for Nashville by then). He had recorded a couple of primitive sides on him, but when Arthur came upstairs with a song he had written that Tom just knew could be a hit, he 'put his tail between his legs' and came looking for Rick Hall.

Rick, meanwhile, had borrowed some money and set up a makeshift recording studio in an old warehouse just outside of town. He agreed with Stafford on the 'hit-potential' of Arthur's tune, and they cut You Better Move On in the Summer of 1961 using members of Penn's Mark Vs as the back-up band. Once Hall was happy with it, he took the masters and shopped them around to all the major labels that had offices in Nashville. They told him to get lost. He next tried the radio sations, and the music director at WMAK, Noel Ball, sent a copy out to Randy Wood who had by then taken his Dot Records operation out to the west coast. Randy loved it, and worked out a percentage deal with them, before releasing it in early 1962. The record just took off, climbing to #24 pop, on its way to becoming the smash hit they all knew it would be.

When it came time to get paid, however, Rick found out that the $10,000 he made off the initial release of the record was all he was gonna get. Apparently, Stafford had signed away the rights to You Better Move On, along with all future claims to Alexander, in a deal that reportedly included a 'case of codeine'. Hall forged on, and used the money to build a brand new studio at 603 E. Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals (where it remains in operation to this day). While it was still under construction, Dan Penn (who had fled the scene for the Texas Bible Belt for a while) came to see Rick, and agreed to come and write material for the new studio for $25 a week.

Penn's band (now re-christened The Pallbearers) stayed on as the first incarnation of the 'Fame Rhythm Section', but nothing much was happening. It took almost a year before Rick inked a deal with Atlanta music legend Bill Lowery to record his artists at FAME. In addition to working with pop guys like Joe South and Tommy Roe, the studio came up with a top ten R&B hit for The Tams, What Kind Of Fool, in early 1964. The studio had become the new cool place to hang out, with Penn and his sidekicks Donnie Fritts and Spooner Oldham coming over from Florence to stay up all night and work on ideas.

Back in '62, around the time You Better Move On started to hit, Hall had recorded some demos with a cousin of (then unknown) Percy Sledge named Jimmy Hughes at the old warehouse studio. Hughes had been singing Gospel with a local quartet called The Singing Clouds and, after Alexander made it big, he figured he'd try his hand at 'crossing over'. Hall had been able to place one of those demos (I'm Qualified) with Philadelphia label Guyden in 1963, but the record hadn't done much. He had taken another song Hughes had recorded at those first sessions and overdubbed some background vocals on it, but was unable to find a company that was interested in releasing it. It was Bill Lowery that convinced him to press it himself, and Steal Away would become the first release on the new FAME label in the Spring of 1964.

Rick Hall piled a thousand copies of the record, a case of vodka, and Dan Penn into an old station wagon and set out to promote the single to any dee-jay who was willing to listen. They traveled from Memphis to Montgomery, Nashville to New Orleans and back again in the space of about two weeks. It paid off. By the time they got back, Steal Away was a bona-fide hit, and Lowery was able to work out a national distribution deal with Chicago's Vee-Jay Records (who would bring Joe Simon down there to record his #13 hit Let's Do It Over the following year). Steal Away would spend three months on the charts, breaking into the Billboard top 20 that Summer. FAME had hit the big time.

Unfortunately, that 'fame' didn't translate into higher pay for the studio musicians at FAME, who in Rick Hall's opinion, were lucky to be getting the union scale he was paying them. As out of town artists came in, local guys like Norbert Putnam and David Briggs saw 'how the other half lived', so to speak, and soon moved on to Nashville. Rick Hall, in typically arrogant fashion, shrugged it off, reportedly saying "Most of these kids couldn't carry a tune in a bucket..."

The 'second rhythm section' is the one that is, justifiably, the most well known. Although it took some time to evolve, it was made up primarily of local guitarist Jimmy Johnson (who had actually been working at FAME already as a 'Guy Friday'), Roger Hawkins (the drummer from The Del Ray's, Johnson's 'fraternity circuit' band), David Hood on bass and Spooner Oldham on keyboards. Junior Lowe and Duane Allman would contribute to this core group as well at one time or another. When Buddy Killen brought Joe Tex down there to record Hold What You've Got in late 1964, he took one look at this group of young kids, and decided to use Joe's band on the sessions instead.

Although Rick continued to release records on guys like Jimmy Hughes and Arthur Conley on FAME, it was the studio's work for other labels that cemented its place in history. When Jerry Wexler wore out his welcome at Stax, he brought Wilson Pickett down to Muscle Shoals in early 1966. That's the 'second section' (along with musicians Wexler brought down from Memphis) gettin' down on unbelievable songs like Land of 1000 Dances and Mustang Sally.

Atlantic soon signed Aretha Franklin away from Columbia, and brought her down to record at FAME in January of 1967. They had completed I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and half of Do Right Woman (arguably the best things she's ever recorded) before a booze fueled argument between Aretha's husband, Rick Hall and Wexler got out of hand, resulting in Atlantic vowing never to return (although Pickett would ignore that vow, as probably only he could).

Leonard Chess was more than happy to take Wexler's place and began sending female artists like Irma Thomas, Laura Lee and Etta James down there to record. James' blistering Tell Mama album showcases just how incredibly tight the studio band had become by 1967. They were untouchable, and they knew it.

Dan Penn had walked away from FAME the year before, as he and Rick Hall just couldn't get along. When Spooner Oldham joined him in Memphis in 1967, Barry Beckett took over on keyboards, and quickly became an integral part of the 'sound'. By early 1969 (just after completing work on Solomon Burke's Proud Mary album for Bell), most of the 'second section' would walk away as well. They would form their own competing studio, Muscle Shoals Sound in nearby Sheffield and continue to crank out the hits (but that is a whole other story...).

Once again, Hall didn't 'bat an eye', and built his third rhythm section, The Fame Gang, around guitarist Junior Lowe, who had stayed behind. Although often overlooked because of the monumental works the preceding section had created, I think these guys are just da bomb! Rick revitalized his FAME label, and began recording some of the best music the studio ever produced. Husband and wife Clarence Carter and Candi Staton became mainstays at the studio, and the label recorded some of the most sought after gems of southern soul on artists like Roscoe Robinson, George Jackson, and James Govan.

Willie Hightower is another of those artists. He had come up singing Gospel in his home town of Gadsden, Alabama but had switched to R&B and was performing locally by the late fifties. He hooked up with a local dee-jay named Shelly Stewart who would become his manager and secure him a recording contract with Bobby Robinson up in Harlem. There he appeared at The Apollo, and recorded two singles for Bobby's Enjoy and Fury labels in 1965 and '66.

Robinson sold Willie's contract to Capitol, but continued to produce him for the label. They would release an album made up primarily of his earlier Fury sides, and a couple of singles were released from the album (one of those singles is now up on The A Side). This was around the same time that Capitol began really hitting its stride with chartbusters by both the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and Hightower's releases were strictly a low priority. FAME had signed a distribution deal with Capitol during this period, and they figured it would be a good idea to send Willie down there to record. It was.

Today's absolutely fantastic selection is the B side of the equally great Walk A Mile In My Shoes, a cover of the Joe South hit that Rick Hall felt 'cried out' for a funkier treatment. I can't say enough about how much I love this man's voice (Barney Hoskyns has described it as sounding like "Sam Cooke after a night on the tiles"). Written by Willie as well, this great record shows just how good he, and the Fame Gang were. His other two FAME singles are smokin' two-siders as well, and have all recently been made available on an Honest Jons UK release. Buy it.

Willie Hightower went on to sign with Mercury after leaving Fame, and as of 2004 was still performing locally in Alabama. (Now, there's somebody I'd love to see at the ol' Ponderosa Stomp!)

Rick Hall began concentrating on big money national acts like The Osmonds, Mac Davis and Paul Anka in the early seventies, and had essentially shut down his FAME label by 1974. The studio then moved on into Country music as well, recording big hits for folks like Jerry Reed, Alabama and Shenandoah. In the early nineties, Rick turned over 'day-to-day operation' of the company to his son Rodney (a Southern Soul List favorite), and the studio continues to record quality music to this day. As of this writing, records produced at the FAME studio have sold over 30 million copies...

We can only hope and pray that EMI treats the FAME catalogue with the care and respect it deserves, and look forward to quality re-issues of some of the greatest soul music ever recorded.