Top 50 soul songs – a personal selection

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think of it as the Allmusic school of the “great man” theory.

Plenty of other writers, reviewers, bloggers, pundits and fans of all stripes plays the same game, of course.

But some Allmusic writers/reviewers seem particularly prone to it.

And, my own personal interests seems top indicate, this is particularly true when it comes to classic ’60s and ’70s soul.

It goes like this: An artist/album may be just fine, but it is very much in the copycat school of the template laid down by, variously, Motown, Stax, Muscle Shoals, whatever.

A therefore, by implication, inferior.

No doubt to a significant extent, this suits the audience of Allmusic and other music media outlets.

But it also represents musical myopia.

Because like all hardcore fans, anoraks, obsessives, nutjobs and collectors, I know these simple truths – sometimes originality is not all; sometimes the copy is not only as good as the supposed original – it can be and often is A WHOLE FREAKING LOT BETTER.

So I wondered what my Top 50 list of epic soul songs would look like.

So I did it.

It is, as I guessed it would be, a mix of the famous and the obscure.

But not that obscure – I am a fan of and listener to reissues.

The days of really going down rabbit holes by pursuing 45s (and 78s) await my Gentleman of Leisure life change.

Whenever that may be.

This list is roughly in order of merit or esteem – Percy Sledge and Paul Kelly were always going to be the first cabs of this rank.

(And Kelly’s female protege at Dial, Annette Snell, hot on their heels …)

But it is only very roughly so – the list also reflects my haphazard filing system and random factors such as memory.

And, of course, if I did this list again tomorrow, it would be very different.

 

 

1. Percy Sledge – Thief In The Night

2. Percy Sledge – Cover Me

3. Percy Sledge – Take Time To Know Her

4. Percy Sledge – Come Softly To Me

5. Percy Sledge – True Love Travels On A Gravel Road

6. Paul Kelly – Stealin’ In The Name Of The Lord

7. Paul Kelly – Since I Found You

8. Paul Kelly – The Day After Forever

9. Annette Snell – Footprints On My Mind

10. Annette Snell – I’ll Be Your Fool Once More

11. Annette Snell – You Oughta be With Me

12. Annette Snell – Get Your Thing Together

13. Shirley Brown – It Ain’t No Fun

14. William Bell – Sacrifice

15. Sandra Wright – I’ll See You Through

16. Doris Duke – It Sure Was Fun

17. Dobie Gray – Drift Away

18. George McRae – Rock Your Baby

19. Brook Benton – Rainy Night In Georgia

20. Tyrone Davis – Turn Back The Hands Of Time

21. Betty Wright – Cleanup Woman

22. David Ruffin – What Becomes of the Brokenhearted

23. The Contours – It’s Growing

24. The Monitors – Bring Back The Love

25. Buster Benton – Sweet 94

26. Clarence Carter – Sixty Minute Man

27. Clarence Carter – I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone

28. Clarence Carter Making Love (At The Dark End of the Street)

29. William Bell/Judy Clay – Private Number

30. Jimmy Holiday/Clydie King Ready, Willing and Able

31. Warren Storm – Tennessee Waltz

32. King Floyd – Let Us Be

33. King Floyd – Messin’ Up My Mind

34. Arthur Alexander – Without A Song

35. Arthur Alexander – In The Middle of it All

36. Freddie King – One Hundred Years

37. James Carr – Freedom Train

38. James Carr – These Ain’t Raindrops

39. James Carr – You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up

40. James Carr – The Dark End of the Street

41. Irmas Thomas – Coming From Behind/Wish Someone Would Care

42. Lee Dorsey/Betty Harris – Get Out of My Life, Woman

43. Darrell Banks – I Could Never Hate Her

44. Harold Andrews – You’re A Winner

45. Vernell Hill – Long Haired Daddy

46. Jerry Butler – Isle of Sirens

47. Cay Hammond – Take Your Time

48. Ann Peebles – I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down

49. Rozetta Johnson – Who Are You Gonna Love

50. The Pointer Sisters Don’t Try To Take The Fifth

Hot Jazz On Blue Note

 

Various artists – Hot Jazz On Blue Note (Blue Note)

On the cover of the book Bill Russell’s American Music is a most intriguing photograph.

Russell, champion of New Orleans music and someone these days mostly revered for his recordings, issued on the American Music, of the likes of trumpeter Bunk Johnson, clarinettist George Lewis and many more, is peering intently at his arcane recording equipment.

It is 1944 and the location is San Jacinto Hall in New Orleans.

The occasion is a recording session involving both Johnson and Lewis, as well as the rest of the then Johnson band – drummer Baby Dodds, banjo man Lawrence Marrero, bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau and trombonist Jim Robinson. 

At Russell’s side is a much younger man, dressed in a striped T-shirt, cigarette dangling from his mouth and stop watch in hand.

This is Alfred Lion, playing something of a sorcerer’s apprentice.

Yes, the same Alfred Lion who – with partner Francis Wolff – was responsible for the most famous jazz label of all: Blue Note.

The Blue Note revered the world over for the recordings of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and many, many more.

Hardcore jazz anoraks and trainspotters know all about Lion’s penchant for earlier styles of jazz, even if they don’t pay that music much heed.

But the sometimes now forgotten truth is Lion was recording New Orleans and dixieland (for want of a better word) artists even as he was forging ahead by changing the jazz world forever with the hard bop and post-bop for which Blue Note is mostly these days associated.

Monk first recorded for Blue Note in 1947, yet there are recordings on the four-disc set Hot Jazz On Blue Note by bluesman Josh White dating from as early as 1940.

And on it are sides by George Lewis from 1955, by which time Blue Note’s contribution to modern jazz was already assured.

Hot Jazz On Blue Note was released in 1996.

It’s out of print but it remains easily – and cheaply available.

That it hasn’t become a sought-after collectors’ item is something at which to marvel.

Because the music is superb and beautiful.

On it are a heap of New Orleanians such as Lewis, Pops Foster and Sidney Bechet, the latter of whom is the four-disc set’s dominant voice.

But on board, too, are a whole bunch of players more broadly associated with Chicago and dixieland and even swing, including Art Hodes, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy Archey, Big Sid Catlett, Wellman Braud, Sidney De Paris, Walter Page, Edmond Hall and many, many more.

Also featured is the piano of James P. Johnson, a pioneering figure who fits into none of the pigeonholes mentioned above.

There is none of the crusty sound found on many of Russell’s recordings of some of these artists – it’s all very good Blue Note sound the whole way.

Blue Note, hot style, falling between the cracks.

Back-porch New Orleans

 

Burke-Wiggs Big 4 (American Music)

It’s taken a couple of decades to get there, but these days I can boast a rather tidy and useful collection of vintage jazz with New Orleans breeding, running from the early commercial recordings made in the Crescent City, Chicago and elsewhere through to the New Orleans revival and beyond.

And about a quarter of that music is contained, I reckon, on albums sourced from labels in the George Buck stable – GHB, Jazzology, Solo Art and (mostly) American Music.

Aside from a few sideman appearances, what I haven’t had – until now – are any releases on which cornet player Johnny Wiggs is front, centre or even slightly prominent.

That’s certainly not the case with clarinet man Raymond Burke.

I have a good handful of albums that have his name on the covers, even if – as ever with this type of music – there’s almost always a collegiate vibe going on.

I was and am drawn to his playing because of its woody, relaxed beauty – and as contrast to the likes of George Lewis.

So when I heard about this double disc of low-key New Orleans jazz sessions from the 1950s, I had to have it.

Through 40+ tracks, this is wonderful stuff and just the ticket when New Orleans jazz is the need but a full brass line-up is more than is needed.

There’s various configuarations, but most tracks find Wiggs and Burke backed simply by Edmond Souchon on guitar and Sherwood Mangiapane on bass (pianist Art Hodes also appears on a few tracks).

There’s not a lot of this sort of relaxed, back-porch New Orleans jazz around.

Well, not of this vintage or earlier anyway – truth is, there’s still plenty of it to be had in and around in New Orleans.

The 6&7/8 String Band – which can also be found on American Music and also has Souchon on board – is one of the very few recorded examples of the nigh on forgotten New Orleans string band tradition.

Burke himself released an album on 504 of late 1970s recordings with just clarinet, Cie Frazier on drums and Butch Thompson on piano.

(The famous sides recorded by Sidney Bechet and Muggsy Spanier in 1940 for HRS with just bass and drums are quite different, a bit more formal and strident.)

Anyone even a little familiar with the American Music milieu will be unsurprised to learn that, especially spread across two discs, both the playing and the sound levels get a bit wobbly at times.

Plenty of expected warhorses here – Old Grey Bonnet, Milenburg Joys, Darktown Strutters Ball, Chinatown, Sister Kate and Just A Little While To Stay Here all make an appearance.

But there’s plenty of material that is less familiar, too.

A surprise has been how much I’ve enjoyed some of the crusty, bluesy vocals from Souchon and Mangiapane – think Jack Teagarden.

I had half hoped that after living with this stuff for a month, I’d be happy to pronounce “masterpiece”.

Well, nope.

Not yet.

But I’m awfully glad it’s in my life.

A tasty Romanian rabbit hole

 

Ion Petre Stoican – Sounds from a Bygone Age Volume 1 (Asphalt Tango)

Romica Puceanu – Sounds from a Bygone Age Volume 2 (Asphalt Tango)

Dona Dumitru Siminica – Sounds from a Bygone Age Volume 3 (Asphalt Tango)

Toni Iordache – Sounds from a Bygone Age Volume 4 (Asphalt Tango)

Gabi Luncă – Sounds from a Bygone Age Volume 5 (Asphalt Tango)

Having read the essays accompanying all these communist-era treasures from Romania, I confess to not being much wiser than when I started about what exactly I’m listening to here – how much is pop, how much is folk, how much is traditional?

Does it matter?

Nope.

A purchasing whim, a punt, has enriched my musical life considerably.

There’s violins, accordians, cimbaloms, trumpets.

Most emphatically, there are off-kilter rhythms – many of the tunes seem to stop and start, lurch and stagger.

If this was a western pop-folk sound, I might be tempted to think the players were drunk.

The music is frequently rousing, as often melancholy.

They’re all good.

But I like the singing of the famous Puceanu and Luncă the best.

The latter, in particular, throws in a poppy vibe that recalls – for me anyway – some of frothy twang and effervescence associated with the Eurovision vibe of many decades ago.

Best Oz album ever; IMO

 

Harem Scarem – Pilgrim’s Progress (Aztec)

Even though they recorded for Au-go-go and were loosely grouped into the same indie grunge territory that was such a big part of Australia’s indie scene at the time, Harem Scarem were quite a different proposition.

At the time, a line was often trotted out about Stooges-meet-Rolling Stones-meet-Hooker.

There’s something to that, but there’s more.

There’s a country tinge.

There’s a swampy looseness that conjures up CCR and Chisel at their Standing-On-The-Outside best.

(The band didn’t like that latter comparison then and doubtless still don’t!)

At the time of Pilgrim’s Progress, Harem Scarem had not only the Marshalls, Chris (vocals) and Charlie (guitar), but also fabulous musicians who would subsequently have claims to international fame – Barry Palmer (Hunters) and Peter Jones (Crowded House and many other gigs befitting a master drummer).

All that plus Chris Wilson on harp and Conway Savage guesting on piano!

Thanks to a cassette of the album provided to me several months before release, I hammered Pilgrim’s Progress on PBS and in the Herald.

Bruce Milne told me back then I’d generated some interest – but it was obviously not enough.

Pilgrim’s Progress mostly passed without notice.

I confess to only seeing the album line-up a couple of times – but one of them was a blazing hot gig at the Tote.

And I missed the one-off reunion gig at the Corner to coincide with Aztec’s 2008 reissue because I was working late on a Saturday night with Lee Howard!

Bummer!

When Aztec did the reissue job in 2008 I was still in a position to make sure Pilgrim’s Progress got the lead review spot in the Sunday Herald Sun.

Fat lot of good that did, too!

So … I don’t get it.

For me Pilgrim’s Progress is the greatest Australian rock album. I’m listening to it now and it still gives me chills, goose pimples and grins.

A masterpiece.

Ahead of its time.

Still sounds AMAZING.

Or, according to the headline on Michael Lynch’s essay for the reissue: “The one that got away.”

A footnote on the reissue:

Aztec did its usual bang-up job, including some very good live stuff, the interesting but much less persuasive title track to the 1984 Dogman EP and a track from the Au-go-go comp Asleep At The Wheel.

But really it’s 10 tracks from Pilgrim’s Progress that are the magic.

Repent – or else!

 

Ernest Martin and His Gospel Melody Makers – Hillbilly Gospel from the Blue Grass Hills (BACM)

Black gospel, from its earliest recorded days through to the funky ’70s and beyond, has always sat right snugly with ALL my musical and broader tastes.

It makes sense in all sense of ways for me personally.

Explaining to myself the equal, if less frequent, appeal of deep, hollerin’, scarifying white gospel is a whole bunch trickier.

To generalise to a ridiculous extent, where my black gospel loves are all of a piece – or almost all – with things such as the civil rights struggle and black American music in general, white gospel often seems to take its cues from the Old Testament and Revelations.

That’s unfair, as in the case of Kentuckian Martin and these sides from the late ’40s through to the ’60s – here there is no lack of upbeat joy.

But it’s all delivered in a strident, take-no-prisoners voice of such fervour, it’ll make your hair stand up on end.

He reminds me a lot of Ernest Phipps, a fellow gospel shouter from an earlier era.

And where, at other times in my life, I may have gotten a bit sniffy at the mix of traditional bluegrass instrumentation with Travis-style electric guitar, here I care not a whit.

What few releases I’ve come across on the British Archive of Country Music imprint have sometimes failed to impress.

No such problem with this fantastic music.

Hot gospel grooves

gospel1 gospel2 gospel3

 

Various artists – The Pitch/Gusman Records Story (Big Legal Mess)
Various artists – Holy Spirit: Spiritual Soul & Gospel Funk From Shrevport’s Jewel Records (Harmless)
Various artists – Christians Catch Hell (Honest Jon’s)

These are glory days for fans of hardcore vintage gospel fans and I’m loving it!

In a future post, I’ll give a rundown of some or all of the releases out and about on the fabulous Gospel Friend label.

They have only – so far – a small catalogue, but they’re all utterly tremendous.

In the meantime, these three anthologies are just as essential.

From the most downhome through to the smoothest grooves …

I thought a triple-disc effort of the obscure Pitch and Gusman labels would be truly getting into anorak territory.

So I was surprised and delighted to find the standard here is very high.

This music was produced by Waymon “Gusman” Jones from the early ’60s through to 1978 in Georgia.

No real famous names here – just mostly excellent small group gospel.

Highlight?

Don’t Let The Devil Ride by the Flying Clouds out of Augusta, Georgia, is a rocking slice of brilliance.

The Gusman/Pitch release shares with the Holy Spirit set a very heavy debt to the Staples Singers, both in the guitar sounds and lyrical content.

Guitar-wise, I’m not sure if that’s because “Pops” Staples was so influential or whether he shared with so many of the artists here profound southern roots.

A bit of both maybe.

As you’d expect, the Jewel double-disc outing is a lot more polished – but not enough for it to cross from downhome to uptown.

The Staples influence is even more present here.

The “spiritual soul” tag in the sub-title tells the story – many of the tunes make no mention of God or JC.

A prime example is the slinky beauty of the BPS Revolution’s Brotherly Love – forget gospel, this is prime southern soul.

There’s several tunes that reference the likes of the Vietnam War, MLK or the Kennedy Brothers.

Best of all are the two tracks by the Armstrong Brothers.

Much as I love my gospel, there’s times when it’s just too intense – times when I want a little more chill.

The Armstrongs do that with Far Away From God and Can You Treat Him Like A Brother?

Low key, slow tempos, bass voices – yep, chilled out, but still so stunning it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

I’ve searched online for more by the Armstrong Brothers to no avail.

How cool is the cover and title of the Christians Catch Hell?

Here, the slick steps up to a whole ‘nother level – no surprise as this stuff comes out of the Gospel Roots label, a subsidiary of TK Records and their Miami Sound.

Nevertheless, the gospel credentials are great.

Such luminaries as the Dixie Hummingbirds’ Ira Tucker and Savoy, King and Chess producer Ralph Bass were involved, so all is good.

So while there is a pronounced funky sheen to everything here, it is all still deep roots gospel.

It took me a while to get with the spirit of this album.

But now I’m a convert.