Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jimmy Hughes - Just Ain't Strong As I Used To Be (You Done Fed Me Sumpin') (Volt 4060)

Just Ain't Strong As I Used To Be (You Done Fed Me Sumpin')


When Jimmy Hughes got to Stax in early 1968, it was a company in transition. As we discussed in part one, he had signed with them after Alan Walden convinced him it would be a good career move, shortly before Walden's partner Otis Redding was killed in that fateful plane crash in December of 1967. On April 4, 1968, Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, a place that had figured prominently in the history of Stax and their association with Atlantic Records. Songs like Knock On Wood and In The Midnight Hour had been composed there. Now it was all over. On May 16th, the distribution deal with Atlantic officially ended, and all the masters that Stax had recorded up to that point became the property of the New York company, which itself was now a wholly owned subsidiary of Warner Brothers. On the heels of losing their biggest star, they had just lost their entire back catalogue. This is the Stax that Jimmy Hughes walked into on East McLemore Avenue back then. Rather than shrink from the task, Stax guru Al Bell, who had helped build the label into the soul powerhouse it had become, viewed all of this as an opportunity for a new beginning. He was instrumental in negotiating the sale of the company to Gulf + Western on May 29th, thereby creating an immediate influx of cash to help promote their product. Complete with the brand new 'snapping fingers' logo, singles by Eddie Floyd, Booker T. & The M.G.'s and Judy Clay & William Bell were all over the radio that summer.
Jimmy told me he felt like the 'low man on the totem pole' at this point, and was unsure of how he would make it in his new surroundings. At FAME, he had pretty much been the star of the show, and now he was just a face in the crowd. They placed him on Volt, the subsidiary label that had been home to all of Otis Redding's hits. According to Rob Bowman, in the excellent liner notes to The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol 2: 1968-1971, it was Jim Stewart who decided to have Jimmy cover the Motown written I Like Everything About You (inexplicably left off the great Soulsville Sings Hitsville) as his first release. Produced by M.G.'s drummer Al Jackson Jr, it just missed the R&B top 20 in September of 1968. That would be the last Jimmy Hughes record to ever hit the charts. Within a couple of weeks, Johnnie Taylor's monster Who's Making Love, would solidify Stax' position as a force to be reckoned with, and validate Al Bell's vision for the future of the company. Maybe that's why Jimmy's next single didn't do much. Written by Isaac Hayes, David Porter and Homer Banks (and once again produced by Al Jackson), the great Let 'Em Down, Baby (Volt 4008) harkens back to the old days at the label, and may not have been promoted much for just that reason. Bell had brought in producer Don Davis from Detroit and, after the unqualified success he had with Johnnie Taylor, there was some serious friction between the old and the new. At this point, Bell took Jimmy into his own hands, and produced the obviously Davis-influenced Chains Of Love (Volt 4017). It didn't make much noise, probably because it just wasn't that good. In 1969, Al Bell hatched a scheme that would provide the label with a much-needed 'catalogue' and establish it as an 'album company' at the same time. His plan to release twenty eight LPs (and thirty singles) on the same date that May was perceived by many to be overkill (Jerry Wexler called it "regional nuthead business... a panic move"). Be that as it may, Something Special, the Jimmy Hughes entry into the LP sweepstakes, has been called "one of the finest soul records of 1969." In addition to both sides of the three singles he had already released, new material for the album was cut across town at the Sam Phillips' Recording Service. The producer of those sessions was Charles Chalmers. Chalmers had made a name for himself as a 'go-to' sax man in both Memphis and Muscle Shoals, blowing amazing solos on scores of hit records, including some of Jimmy's Fame material (he had been the sax player on Willie Mitchell's hit version of Soul Serenade just the year before). His skills as an arranger and producer were also well known in town, after the work he had done with former Stax artists Barbara & The Browns, not to mention the records he cut with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James. He married an acoustic guitar player and singer named Donna Rhodes, and a song they wrote together would be released as the single from the album. The infectious I'm So Glad, cool electric sitar and all, should definitely have been a hit, but was 'lost in the sauce' of all those concurrent releases, I guess. It was one of the first records to feature the background vocals of Charlie, Donna and her sister Sandy, the trio that would later become known as Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes. It truly amazes me sometimes how all of this stuff interconnects. I spoke with Howard Grimes last week to try and get a little background on what happened next. Howard had been the original drummer at Satellite Records (before it was called Stax), and recalls those days working with Chips Moman fondly. He cut Gee Whiz with Carla Thomas at the 'Hi Studio' (Royal) in 1960, after Chips was unhappy with the original version they had recorded around the corner at Satellite. Little did he know it was to become a second home to him down the line. Grimes played on groundbreaking records like William Bell's You Don't Miss Your Water, and was the drummer for Moman's Triumphs, the precursors to the M.G.'s. According to Howard, he missed a phone call for a session one day, and that pretty much changed everything. Al Jackson, Jr, who was the drummer in Willie Mitchell's band, got the call instead and he laid down the beat on what would become the first Booker T. & The M.G.'s record and propel Stax to the next level in 1962. After the ensuing blow-up between Moman and Jim Stewart, Howard was seen, I imagine, as one of 'Chips' boys', and the phone stopped ringing. He went off on a tour with a local band called Flash & The Board Of Directors, and when he got back he auditioned for the spot that Al's departure to Stax had opened up in Willie's band. He got the job. Howard credits Willie with teaching him how to 'hold back' and says he learned how to set the time by watching his foot on the bandstand. "If Willie's foot was moving, I'd know I got it right, but if he was standing still, I knew there was something wrong." After a while he got it down, and it was Willie who gave him his nickname, 'the Bulldog' because once he "locked that pocket, ain't nobody can shake him off." He was joined in that outfit by the three young Hodges brothers from out in Germantown who, along with Willie's brother James and his stepson Archie, made up the band in those days. Touring in support of Soul Serenade in early 1968, they were involved in a horrific accident out in Kansas, which convinced Willie to stay closer to home. When he became a partner in Hi Records the following year, his tight road band would officially become the label's new rhythm section. After Hi Records founder Joe Cuoghi died in 1970, Mitchell made some renovations to the studio that helped with the acoustics, and by early 1971, he had created 'the sound' that would sell millions upon millions of records over the next few years. Al Jackson, meanwhile, had stayed close with Mitchell, and knew all about what was happening over there on South Lauderdale. He had written a song with Jimmy Hughes, and Stax gave him the green light to go ahead and produce it over at Willie's studio, resulting in this incredible record we have here today. A Stax single that was recorded at Hi... now how cool is that?? The Hodges brothers are really burning it up on this one, with Teenie's killer guitar, Charles' smokin' Hammond, and Leroy's hypnotic bass line laid over The Bulldog's untouchable beat... wow! I really can't say enough about how much I love this 45... that's the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love) blowing those hot lines, and Jimmy's impassioned high energy delivery makes this just top of the line stuff. Jimmy has said that he thought Hi Rhythm was the best studio band out there in those days. "You could just feel it some kind of way. They were soulful guys. It makes you want to sing. Look like it go through your body" he told Rob Bowman. Without a doubt the best of his Volt releases, it would also be his last. Why? I asked him. He said that no matter what he did, he just couldn't seem to "climb the ladder" at Stax. With so many other artists who were there before him, he was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of promotion. He also told me that, as his producer, "Al Jackson wanted to sort of change me, and it just wasn't there... I couldn't go over to that style." Although he remained under contract until 1973, Jimmy decided instead to go back to school, and got himself a steady job with the Federal Government, one from which he has just recently retired. He has no regrets about his career, and although he is thrilled to have his music back in the public eye, he told me he has no plans to start performing again. There is talk, however, that he will be at the second annual Ponderosa Stomp Music Conference... that would really be something, wouldn't it? Al Jackson, meanwhile, repaid Willie for the use of his studio by co-writing and playing drums on Al Green's #1 smash Let's Stay Together (which, of course, also featured Rhodes, Chalmers & Rhodes on the background vocals) just a few months after this record came out (for more on all of that, head on over to The A Side). Life is funny sometimes.


Blogger Gail Adrian said...

This tune is as good as it gets! From the driving drum chain with the rolling wheeled guitar and the bass just pumping it....AHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Jimmy Hughes drives it with total control.
Thank you so much for this.

10:56 PM  

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