Willie Hobbs “A Penny For Your Thoughts” (Soulscape SSCD 7030)
By Pete Nickols
Yes, My Goodness, Yes; The Game Of Love; Where The Sweetness Lies; Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em; You Don’t Know What You Got (Until You Lose It); Where Did I Go Wrong; I Know I’m Gonna Miss You; Do Your Own Thing; (Please) Don’t Let Me Down; Nobody Has To Tell Me; A Penny For Your Thoughts; Big Legged Woman; ‘Til I Get It Right; At the Dark End Of The Street; Why Me; Mr. Lovemaker; How Could My Baby Know; Tomorrow (I’ll Begin To Make New Plans); Judge Of Hearts; Let Me See Those Kneecaps; Why Does It Hurt So Bad; Somebody Love Me.
How seriously can you take a singer who cuts a track (albeit unissued at the time) called “Let Me See Those Kneecaps”? Well, surprisingly perhaps, despite this quasi-Joe Tex novelty funk item, which is not greatly to my own particular taste, you should take Willie Hobbs very seriously indeed if you like country-soul and, indeed, occasionally top-drawer deep country-soul too.
When giving the ‘edge’ to ‘soul’ over country (which he did most of the time), Hobbs voice was extremely impressive, being both strong and very interpretive. When ‘giving in’ to ‘country’, Hobbs sounded like a completely different singer. If you had never before heard Tracks 15 (Willie’s interpretation of Kris Kristopherson’s country-gospel song “Why Me”) or Track 16 (Hobbs’ take on Johnny Paycheck’s Mr. Lovemaker), then I would defy any soul fan to identify the singer as W.H. since these are examples of a ‘black’ man singing ‘white’ and they sound nothing like Hobbs on his soulful outings. If you like ‘country’ per se these performances are A-OK (esp. the Kristopherson piece) but they sure ain’t soul! Hobbs uses his more ‘normal’ voice on another, much faster country item to slightly better effect, namely “’Til I Get It Right”, but even this one out-and-out soul fans will want to ‘track-jump’.
Don’t let me put you off, though, by having cited first off some of the very few soulfully unimpressive tracks on this generally pretty impressive CD, which features Hobbs’ work for both Silver Fox and for John Richbourg’s labels.
At the other end of the spectrum you have an all-time top-drawer piece of deep country soul in Hobbs’ superb “Judge Of Hearts” with that intriguing clarinet (or is it an oboe or cor anglais?) weaving its magical spell behind Willie’s wonderfully expressive vocal.
Then there’s Willie’s producer/mentor Dave Smith’s “Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em”, with Hobbs offering up a deep emotive vocal to some fine lyrics – this one being 10 times better than the throwaway lightweight ‘fluff’ of “Where The Sweetness Lies”, a song Dave also wrote for the other side of the same Silver Fox 45.
Track 6 offers up some great listening thanks to Hobbs’ top-class vocalising on Jackey Beavers’ fine, expressive slow-to-mid-tempo “Where Did I Go Wrong”, complete with its good storyline lyric and potent dramatic passages.
“(Please) Don’t Let Me Down” sees another terrific vocal performance by Willie on this slow, blues-meets-soul, semi-deep item. Whilst Wilie doesn’t sound at all like Bobby Bland, this is just the kind of emotive bluesoul item which he would have relished.
Hobbs’ sheer vocal quality again shines through on Bettye Crutcher’s appealing storyline mid-pacer (which gets ‘title-track’ status here), “A Penny For Your Thoughts”.
Willie’s take on the much-recorded “(At) The Dark End Of The Street” is interesting. I find his vocal (and also the back-up vocals) to be top-drawer – but the meaningful storyline of this great cheatin’ song is undermined here by an appalling overuse of strings. ‘Sweetening’ is the usual phrase used but that would give the wrong impression here, as with violas, cellos and violins all included, they don’t ‘sweeten’ the piece at all but instead dominate the musical backdrop to such an extent that they actively detract both from the meaning of the song and from Hobbs’ very expressive vocal. A shame.
“How Could My Baby Know” is lovely lay-back sweet-deep soul, very well sung by Willie and it makes for great listening.
Tim Drummond’s “Tomorrow…” is a fine up-tempo, driving opus which Willie rides really well, the brass building beautifully as the track develops.
Kenny Gamble’s co-penned “You Don’t Know What You Got” is fine, smooth, expressive soul rather than being actually deep.
I’ve already commented on the “..Kneecaps” track but, frankly, the other two unissued sides here aren’t all that impressive either. “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” is pleasant enough without being outstanding, while “Somebody Love Me” is country pop-soul with the ‘pop’ aspect winning out. There’s nothing wrong with Hobbs’ vocal, however.
“Big Legged Woman” was Israel Tolbert’s song and, for me, remains so. The greasy guitar here is right in line with the swampy nature of the piece but, just for once, Hobbs’ vocal isn’t. It’s too light and nowhere near ‘nasty’ enough for a song so clearly sexually-slanted.
You can skip Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Own Thing” unless you’re into non-involving, mildly-funky dance items and you can do the same with the normally reliable Allen Orange’s “I Know I’m Gonna Miss You”, which is a sub-standard song using boring repetition of the title phrase. Orange’s “Nobody Has To Tell Me” is much better - a lilting stop-go rhythmed vehicle, once again well sung by Willie.
Strangely, I’ve left comment on the first two tracks till last. “The Game Of Love” is a beautifully sung but fairly commercial-sounding piece of soul, while the writers of the opening track, “Yes, My Goodness, Yes”, themselves read like a Who’s Who Of Soul, namely Bobby Womack, Jerry Butler and Jimmy Holiday. This one is a strongly sung, slow-to-mid-paced item, the tempo being the only thing about it which is not normally associated with ‘deep soul’. Hobbs’ fine vocal performance here, though, puts it firmly in that category.
Soul fans owe a big ‘thank you’ to labels like Soulscape who go to all the trouble of licensing hard-to-find vintage-era material like this just so we can all enjoy it in CD quality. However, supporting what they do is not the main reason for buying this CD - the main one is that its highpoints far outweigh its occasional lower ones and – except on “Big Legged Woman” and when playing the ‘white country boy’ – Hobbs’ vocals are genuinely impressive throughout.
What’s more, John Ridley’s sleeve-notes accompanying the CD are excellent and will give you a very full overview of Willie Hobbs’ career. If you want a quick summary of that, however, look no further than here on Willie’s artist page on this web-site here, where you will also find a photo and MP3s of several fine Hobbs singles, including some for labels other than those featured on this CD, e.g. on Major Bill Smith’s labels and Dave Smith’s later Bandit outlet.