Various Artists "Take Me To the River – A Southern Soul Story 1961-77" (UK Kent Kentbox 10 - 2010)
by Pete Nickols
THIS 3-CD SET IS A FINE INTRODUCTION TO SOUTHERN SOUL
William Bell~You Don't Miss Your Water; Arthur Alexander~Go Home Girl; Otis Redding~These Arms Of Mine; Jimmy Hughes~Steal Away; Joe Simon~My Adorable One; O V Wright~You're Gonna Make Me Cry; Percy Sledge~When A Man Loves A Woman; Eddy Giles~Losin' Boy; Otis Redding~Try A Little Tenderness; Jarvis Jackson~Something I Ain't Never Had; Wilson Pickett~Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won't Do); Eddie Floyd~Got To Make A Comeback; Charlie Rich~When Something Is Wrong With My Baby; James Carr~The Dark End Of The Street; Toussaint McCall~Let's Do It Over; Aretha Franklin~Do Right Woman, Do Right Man; Sam & Dave~I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down; June Edwards~You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man); The Masqueraders~Let's Face Facts; James & Bobby Purify~She Ain't Gonna Do Right; Al Johnson~Bless Your Little Sweet Soul; Laura Lee~Dirty Man; Eddie Hinton~Cover Me; Reuben Bell with the Beltones~You're Gonna Miss Me; Etta James~I'd Rather Go Blind; Oscar Toney Jr~Without Love (There Is Nothing); Maurice & Mac~You Left The Water Running; Don Bryant~I'll Go Crazy; Bill Brandon~Rainbow Road; Shirley Walton~The One You Can't Have (All By Yourself); William Bollinger~Tell Him Tonight; Ollie & the Nightingales~A Smile Can't Hide (A Broken Heart); Spencer Wiggins~Uptight Good Woman; William Bell~I Forgot To Be Your Lover; Clay Hammond~I'll Make It Up To You; Clarence Carter~Slip Away; James Carr~That's The Way Love Turned Out For Me; Tony Borders~Polly Wally; Candi Staton~Another Man's Woman, Another Woman's Man; Joe Tex~Buying A Book; Doris Duke~To The Other Woman (I'm The Other Woman); Paul Kelly~Stealing In The Name Of The Lord; Z Z Hill~Faithful And True; Chuck Brooks~Love's Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down (Part 1); Kip Anderson~I Went Off And Cried; Barbara & the Browns~If I Can't Run To You I'll Crawl; Paul Thompson~What I Don't Know Won't Hurt Me; Johnnie Taylor~Jody's Got Your Girl And Gone; Thomas Bailey~Wish I Was Back; Jimmy Braswell~I Can't Give You My Heart; Gwen McCrae~Lead Me On; Marcell Strong~Mumble In My Ear; Denise La Salle~Breaking Up Somebody's Home; Al Green~Tired Of Being Alone; Spencer Wiggins~I Can't Be Satisfied; King Floyd~Groove Me; Freddie North~She's All I Got; Bobby Newsome~Jody, Come Back And Get Your Shoes; Mel & Tim~Starting All Over Again; Sam Dees~We Always Come Back Strong; Frederick Knight~I've Been Lonely For So Long; Luther Ingram~(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want To Be Right; Ann Peebles~I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down; Bobby Womack~I'm Through Trying To Prove My Love To You; Millie Jackson~It Hurts So Good; Quiet Elegance~You've Got My Mind Messed Up; Bobby Patterson~I Get My Groove From You; Tommie Young~Take Time To Know Him; George Jackson~How Can I Get Next To You?; The Soul Children~I'll Be The Other Woman; Clarence Carter~Heartbreak Woman; Chet Davenport~Take One Step (I'll Take Two); Al Green~Take Me To The River; Tommy Tate~If You Got To Love Somebody; Geater Davis~I'll Play The Blues For You.
As Kent’s Tony Rounce says in his introduction to this set, the 75 tracks presented here tell “a” southern soul story rather than “the” southern soul story for he rightly adds that a quite different 75 tracks could equally have been chosen to tell the tale probably just as well.
In truth there is no textual southern soul “story” told here, merely a fine cross-section of tracks (with informative and beautifully illustrated notes), all broadly in the style of this particular sub-genre of soul music. Musical styles attain pidgeon-hole titles like “southern soul” only some time after there are enough examples which appear to be in a similar enough vein for them to be grouped together in this way - usually by listeners, not by those producing the music in the first place.
So, southern soul was not an established style of music which producers and artists in the south set out to develop; rather, it is a style which brings together recordings which relied upon a cross-fertilization of chiefly black singers (not all of them born and/or raised in the south) and the often country-music influenced (chiefly white) producers and musicians working mainly in the smaller independent studios throughout most of the southern states (though, again as the CD notes rightly point out, not particularly from the States of Arizona or Texas where soul styles tended to be different, nor from New Orleans where, although some local artists sang southern soul extremely well (e.g. Irma Thomas), that city produced home-grown R&B, and even reggae-influenced soul styles all its own.
Even within “southern soul” there is a wide variation of approach, which is chiefly down to the backgrounds of, and influences upon the singers in question. Some, like James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, O.V. Wright and Don Bryant (all featured in this CD-set) are steeped in the gospel influence. When paired with a fine southern-studio country-influenced band of musicians their output is often sublime but the strong gospel nuances in their vocals are still dominant. With singers like Percy Sledge, Joe Simon, Paul Kelly, Sam Dees and George Jackson (again, all featured here), their long-standing appreciation of country music shines through and, although the result is still “soul”, it offers a softer and often more storyline approach which some newcomers might find easier to relate to initially. People like Kelly, Dees and Jackson were also great songsmiths and regularly wrote material for themselves and others. However, even well-established country songs, often the product of full-time Nashville writers, were regularly borrowed by the southern soul performers and the end results indicate how readily adaptable to a soul approach many such country songs indeed were.
This review would be pages long if I attempted a detailed appraisal of every track, so let’s just dip into this fine selection of material and choose a few prime examples for further scrutiny.
“When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge is probably one of the best-known tracks on the set and is considered by many people today to be simply a pop standard. However, it was an early example of a soulful vocal being paired with a sparse country-edged southern rhthym section (plus a few horns) and its huge “crossover” success (i.e. sales in the pop market as well as the R&B one) actually provided the money for Sledge’s mentor, Quin Ivy, to finance and develop his own Norala/Quinvy studio in Sheffield, Alabama. (You can read the history of Norala/Quinvy here). There is a genuine romantic beauty about Sledge’s vocal and the words rang true with many a listener of the time, causing one guy to famously say that every time he heard it on his car-radio he just had to pull over and bathe in its romantically soulful message.
Another quite well-known song (and a much-covered one) is James Carr’s “The Dark End Of The Street”, which boasts a style of soul-vocal developed within the southern soul sub-genre that itself became pidgeon-holed as the “Cheatin’ song”. These were songs with storyline lyrics about guys cheating on their wives or partners by having clandestine relations with others (sometimes even the girls cheated but it was mainly the guys!). The gospel-influenced Carr is regarded by some as the finest soul singer of all time. This song by guitarist, producer and later label-owner Chips Moman and the hugely-influential soul-loving ‘country boy’ singer-songwriter Dan Penn probably represents the zenith of ‘cheatin’ soul’ performances. A slow-paced tale of James and his floozy meeting at the dark end of the street to avoid prying eyes, there is also a feeling of fear and foreboding present. It’s a sparse, tell-it-like-it-is piece which, far from celebrating the exciting ‘danger’ of enjoying ‘a bit on the side’, instead underlines the unsatisfactory and worrying nature of such a relationship, which is surely destined for an early end and possible ensuing recriminations. However, this doesn’t mean that the song and Carr’s performance aren’t both stunning. No wallpaper music this – this is a great soul song and a great soul performance which just has to be listened to.
Emotive southern-soul is often slow-paced but the sub-genre readily embraces plenty of potent uptempo offerings too. Take, for example, “Polly Wally” by the more obscure Tony Borders, a fine driving piece of soul-meets-country-meets-funk-meets-swamp-music. Yes all these elements are there, together with a lovely greasy guitar break by another of southern-soul’s fine white writer-performers, Eddie Hinton, whose demo of his and Marlin Greene’s song for Percy Sledge, “Cover Me”, is also featured in the CD-set. Borders was a strong vocalist, cutting mainly at the same studio as Percy Sledge, namely Quinvy, and there’s a very good Borders retrospective CD available on the UK Soulscape label.
Candi Staton made her name nationally chiefly as a 70’s disco-queen on the back of hits like “Young Hearts Run Free” and “Nights On Broadway” and she also became a big favourite of the gay crowd from that same era – but her southern-soul output from earlier in her career is second-to-none. Indeed, I regard her as probably the finest-ever female purveyor of that musical style. Her “Another Man’s Woman” is a prime example of that country-edge being so apparent on a recording by a top-drawer gospel-based soul singer. Candi’s best work, including this track, was cut at one of the greatest southern studios of all, namely Fame in Muscle Shoals – and there is a fine box-set also from UK Kent specialising in the output from this location, as well as a wonderful separate retrospective CD-set of Staton’s best material.
“Deep Soul” is another term relevant to certain examples of “southern soul”. It refers to soul of an ultra-meaningful, ultra involving, ultra-emotive style. (see here for my attempt at a definition of Deep Soul). Nearly always slow-paced and often positively depressing in its vocal content with lyrics usually bemoaning loss of love, it is an acquired taste but nevertheless, by its very nature, attracted some of the greatest and most expressive soul singers of all time. The magnificent Spencer Wiggins was one such (he has two tracks on offer here, one ‘deep’ and one more up-tempo) but if you want to really find out what ‘deep soul’ means, simply play Track 2 on Disc 2, “Ill Go Crazy” by Don Bryant, who just happens to be the husband of Ann Peebles, whose ominously-titled “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”, later covered by white UK soulman Paul Young, is also on this CD-set. Bryant was a gospel-honed vocalist who went secular for a while before returning to the sanctified fold. In addition to singing for Hi label-owner Willie Mitchell’s back-up group, he cut some superb solo outings and demos for other soul artists while at Hi’s Memphis-based studios, where another artist featured on the CD-set, the very commercially-successful Al Green, also cut all of his best soul recordings. The Bryant track (which is not the James Brown soul song of the same name) is truly outstanding and is rated as the No.1 deep soul recording of all time by some soul afficianados. Unusually for a deep song, the lyric is about Don threatening to go crazy, not over a lost love, but if and when an already great love affair he is enjoying should somehow get even better! However, despite its far too short a playing time, Don’s dramatic, emotional, gospelly vocal and the superb support from the Hi rhythm section puts this recording in a class of its own.
For country-influence well to the fore, take a listen to another Quinvy recording, namely Bill Brandon’s terrific version of “Rainbow Road”, a wonderful storyline-soul song originally written by Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts as a semi-biograhical piece about another artist who appears on the CD-set, Arthur Alexander.
You can probably already see that certain names and studios seem to crop up again and again in the southern soul story and many of the most empathetic session musicians also acquired deserved reputations which brought them regular work in more than one of the best known 60’s and 70’s southern recording locations.
Amongst the other soul names on offer here, most will have heard of Wilson Pickett (a huge talent who, though famed for his faster commercially successful ‘dance’ tracks, could sing a slow deep piece of southern soul as well as anyone). Already an industry veteran by the late-60’s, R&B singer Etta James produced some amazingly good southern soul sounds down at Fame Studios, as did Al Green’s later girl-friend Laura Lee. Eddie Floyd, known by some only for his huge “Knock On Wood” hit, both wrote and sang some very good southern soul, while Oscar Toney from Selma Alabama had a wonderful gospel-styled voice which could nevertheless add that important country-touch at the drop of a hat. Clarence Carter (who ‘discovered’ and then married Candi Staton) was a great purveyor of the southern “cheatin’ song” style and had the wickedest laugh in soul music; while Joe Tex (a one-time Little Richard imitator) weaved many a magical piece of country-storyline soul, sometimes with not-inconsiderable use of what passed for spoken ‘rap’ in the 60’s! Millie Jackson was another ‘rap’ lover but this lady also possessed a superbly interpretive soul voice when she chose to let it take precedence. Tommie Young had a limited number of secular recordings issued but they – and her voice - were so good that she was viewed by many soul fans as potentially another Aretha Franklin.
These fine artists and so many others are there on this great CD-set just waiting to entertain you and introduce you (if you need it) to the joys of “southern soul”. My advice is, don’t hesitate, take a few pounds, dollars or whatever out of the savings jar and grab yourself a copy. As with most UK Kent releases, it is beautifully packaged with great sleeve-notes and photos – but at the end of the day it’s that wonderful “southern soul” music that counts.