Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Soul Children - The Sweeter He Is Part II (Stax 0050)

The Sweeter He Is Part II

So... how was it?

In a word, amazing. Despite the corporate (and completely superfluous) teleprompted banter by Randy Jackson and Chuck D, it was a night of pure magic. A night that offered a glimpse of the supreme talent that made the whole Stax phenomenon so special. Backed by a 'house band' that included Stax regulars like Bobby Manuel, Skip Pitts, Wayne Jackson, and (yes) Marvell Thomas, performer after performer just rocked the house. How about Eddie Floyd singing Knock On Wood? Or Mabel John stretching out on Your Good Thing (Is About To End)? Or William Bell holding the crowd in the palm of his hand with his sweet rendition of I Forgot To Be Your Lover?

When Booker T. & The M.G.'s took the stage, the crowd went wild, as smokin' versions of Green Onions and Time Is Tight left 'em hollerin' for more. To see Isaac Hayes (still recovering from the stroke that laid him low last year) conducting the band on Theme From Shaft, or Mavis Staples leading the whole bunch of 'em (and the audience) in singing I'll Take You There to close out the show were indeed special moments. What a night this was...

One of the absolute high points, in my opinion, was a rare appearance by the original Soul Children.

As we mentioned in our last post, the 'Big Six' production team at Stax played an incredibly important role in shaping the label's trademark sound. Isaac Hayes and David Porter had essentially created Sam and Dave, writing songs that fit their image, and providing hands-on production that brought out the best in their 'alter-egoes'. When Stax and Atlantic decided to go their separate ways in early 1968, Sam and Dave became one of the major casualties, as they had been signed to the larger company all along, and had merely been 'on loan' to Stax. This proved to be a rather significant loss, not only because they were the label's biggest sellers at that point, but also because it left Hayes and Porter without enough to do.

Unsure of how to proceed, they were reluctant to simply try and find another pair of personable young guys and put them out there as what would be surely be percieved as some kind of 'cookie-cutter' version of the real thing. In a true stroke of brilliance, they hit upon the idea of a quartet that would pair two men and two women, and provide an even greater vehicle for Hayes and Porter's prodigious talents. The Soul Children were born.

The male contingent was made up of local character J. Blackfoot (aka John Colbert), who had originally come to David Porter's attention singing along with the jukebox in a local bar, and Norman West, who had done a stint with William Bell's former group The Del-Rios before setting out on his own and waxing a few singles for Hi and Smash. Anita Louis, who (like Carla Thomas) had been one of WDIA's Teentown Singers, and Shelbra Bennett, a local girl who 'walked in off the street' and was simply in the right place at the right time, would comprise their 'better half'.

The record buying public was apparently down with the concept, as their first release Give 'Em Love would crack the R&B top 40 in November of 1968. I'll Understand did even better early the following year, while Tighten Up My Thang would keep them in the top 50 that spring. Recorded in July of 1969, the A side of today's cool selection (Part I) was their breakthrough record, soaring to #7 R&B that fall, and reaching #52 on the Billboard Hot 100. With Hayes and Porter's focus now squarely in their corner, The Soul Children had it goin' on!

As they lit into this song the other night in Memphis, the crowd roared their approval, with nearly everyone over a certain age straining to sing along with those high pitched 'doo-doo-doo-DOO-doo-doos' whenever they came around. The Children ate it up, providing some of their trademark 'soul theater', as 'Foot' tossed away his jacket, and had to be helped from the stage as he was just overcome by it all. Fantastic stuff, boys and girls.

With the unprecedented success of Isaac Hayes' album Hot Buttered Soul transforming him into, well, Isaac Hayes, his involvement with The Soul Children was put on hold. They would continue to chart, however, with great records like Hearsay (which was written by Blackfoot and West and actually produced by Jim Stewart and Al Jackson, Jr.) busting into the R&B top five in 1972 and the monster #3 hit I'll Be The Other Woman in early 1974. When Stax went under, they were signed by Epic, releasing a few minor singles, before hitting the R&B top twenty one more time in 1978 with Can't Give Up A Good Thing on the revitalized Fantasy Records version of the Stax label.

Now, here's why I love Memphis.

Last Thursday, after buddy Preston Lauterbach was kind enough (for the price of lunch at his favorite 'meat & three' joint) to show me around the Thomas Street neighborhood in North Memphis where real music can still be heard most weekends, I decided to stop by Royal Studio to visit Willie Mitchell like I did last year.

As various great-grandchildren swirled around us, Willie played me his most recent productions on the Spanish and French acts that have been booking time at the studio recently. I'm not sure who they were (neither was Willie) but, let me tell ya, they all had that trademark 'Hi Sound', and just knocked me out - even though neither one of us could understand what they were saying. As we sat there and talked, people from the neighborhood began to trickle in.

"This is Foot," Willie told me. When that drew a blank stare, he said "You know, J. Blackfoot from The Soul Children." I couldn't believe it. Still an absolute character, Foot traded barbs with 'Pop' as they talked about the upcoming Stax show tomorrow night. We were soon joined by Julius Bradley, the soft-spoken Gospel artist I told you about last year, and local blues sensation Preston Shannon. Truly honored to be there, I got me an earful and a priceless window into the music scene as it exists in Memphis today. We had us a time!

One thing I learned was that Memphis music is alive and well, and not just hidden away in some museum. All three of the guys I was hanging with have current releases that are making some noise locally. J. Blackfoot (whose solo career we'll feature in an upcoming post) has a new CD called It Ain't Over Till It's Over that's all over the radio down there.

Julius Bradley, meanwhile, has completed the album he was working on with Poppa Willie at Royal last year, He Is Coming Back. According to the liner notes, it was 'Written, Composed, Arranged, Performed and Produced' by Julius and 'Mixed, Engineered, and Co-produced under the tutelage and by the Learned Hand of "The Master", Mr. Willie Mitchell'. It's great.

Preston Shannon holds down a regular gig at B.B. King's down on Beale Street, where he just smokes it up with a band that features local keyboard sensation Norris Johnson. I stopped by to see them after the Stax show, and Eddie Floyd (who was celebrating his 72nd birthday that weekend) was in the house. Be With Me Tonight is his latest CD, and it just cooks. If you're down that way, be sure to check 'em out, they're the real deal...

After Preston's set, I kind of snuck in to the Stax 'after-party' that was thrown by the Concord Group over at the Gibson Factory lounge. Rubbing elbows with folks like William Bell and Rob Bowman was cool enough, but when Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn walked in and hung out with us at the bar, I was in soul heaven, baby. It just doesn't get much better than that.

Long live The Sound Of Memphis!


Blogger Preston Lauterbach said...

unbe-freakin-lievable, Red.
Beautiful write-up.
You make it feel like I was there. Hell, I might even tell the grandkids about it some day.

Thanks for the memphories!

8:55 PM  
Blogger Rob Whatman said...

I am in awe! That is one incredible, memorable day...

One day, one day, before my life is through, I will see Memphis for myself, I vow it...

Enjoy soul heaven, Red! :)

12:47 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

You have done a wonderful job here. This is a great piece you have written. Memphis is a place that has become almost a "spiritual" getaway for the wife and I after passing through there a few years back. Enough to be married there last year. And Stax is one of the biggests ghosts that brings me back.

To Rob Whatman up there please please do make your way there when you have a chance you will by no means be dissapointed. Pick yourself up a copy of this if and when you do
Kreature Comforts Low-Life Guide to Memphis

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Red Kelly,
I have admired this blog for a long time, and this posting is just another example why. Yours was one of the first MP3 blogs I followed on a regular basis. For your info, I have nominated you for the MP3 Music Blog of the Year Award at Mega Super Mammoth (at Gravy Bread). The cash prize is a modest $50 and I hope to announce the winner this month. Just thought you should know from the source.
-Evan G

2:41 PM  

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