The gruff voiced, heavily emotional tones of Willie James first appeared on record for the terminally obscure Bill’s label. Both the uptempo “The Way You Love Me Sometimes” and the superb deep soul of Why Does A Man Have To Cry feature accompaniment from “The Mighty Bill’s Combo” whose eponymous leader is probably responsible for the initial release.
The ballad is my preferred side of course, as it gives James so much more room to get his message across. There are definitely shades of Otis Redding in his phrasing, but he is even more “throaty” than the Master, and on this track at least almost incoherent with pain, rasping out the lightweight lyric with no holds barred. A real one for the connoisseur.
The 45 was picked up by the slightly larger Unity label, an off shoot of Genuine records from New York so it is probable that the tracks were cut in the Big Apple. As indeed were the songs that formed James’ second 45, also on Unity but still very difficult to track down.
The top side Down On My Knees is another stone classic deep soul winner, and James is like a man possessed, mumbling and crying out in anguish – the sound of true soulful pain. The band vamping behind him benefit from a larger horn section (love that baritone sax) and a more structured arrangement, but the emphasis is all on Willie’s self absorbed torment. The flip is a short but highly effective James Brown funk item, which doesn’t seem to have reached the funk DJs but should have.
James’ two singles in the 70s are sadly not up to the standard he set himself with the earlier tracks. His voice is far less histrionic than hitherto, and his impact is thus heavily reduced. Both sides of the Jean release are interesting lyrically, but have nothing musically to make them stand out. And the Friends & Co 45 is straight ahead disco fodder. If only he could have continued to produce music of the depth and emotional power of the early 45s.
UPDATE ~ Dante Carfagna writes to say that "Willie James was from North Carolina and that first 45 on Bill's was done at Arthur Smith's Studio (evidenced by the Clay Music publishing)." Dante also sent details of a different issue for the Freinds & Co 45 now added to the discography. As ever I'm very grateful to Dante for sharing his extensive knowledge.
The way you love me sometime / Why does a man have to cry ~ BILL’S 8-9295 / UNITY 2708 (1967/8)
Down on my knees / Stand up for your rights ~ UNITY 2711 (1968/9)
Stop the drug pusher (we need to) / Sixteen century ~ JEAN 726 (1973)
Sweet lips and sensuous hips / Disco version ~ GREG 200 (1976) / FRIENDS & CO 128 (1978)