I am not a blues fan, nor will I ever be. I am, however, a fan of R & B, and no, this does not make me a walking contradiction, because those are two separate forms of music. Soul music is based on vocal expressiveness and a good, solid funky beat, and unlike the blues, the great stuff does not become numbingly repetitive from overuse of the exact same chord progressions/melodies/lyrical motifs. If part of my distaste for the blues and its blues-rock variants is cultural - i.e., I'm from Arkansas and have grown rather sick and tired of being overexposed to the "blues" which everybody treats with a sickening overreverence - then part of my distinct taste for R & B in its classic form is a result of that, too: after all, Memphis is right over the river, and the mono-channeled rhythmic pulse of that city's music long ago imprinted itself on my genetic matrix. Back in its heyday - a heyday sadly gone - the Memphis R & B sound was tight, gritty, earthy, and stompingly 4/4, a tough contrast to the overly sweet and pop Motown sound sweeping America from Detroit. Don't get me wrong - Motown were great, too, but pretty overrated; a lot of Smokey and Supremes hits haven't aged that well, to tell the truth. Stax/Volt R & B dripped from its barbecue-soaked jaws a downhome, but urban, Southerness; those hits just sound soiled with the essence of the Mid-South - the mud of the Mississippi's in'em, and so are flea-markets and tent-revivals and juke joints and sweating in 100-degree heat on the porch of your ramshackle little house in a poor neighborhood near the outskirts of the city. Most of these songs were recorded by the same session musicians, an assortment of white rednecks and black rednecks (yes, some Yankees don't realize this, but truck drivin', duck huntin' brothers are all over the place down these parts) who created a smoking, bedrock sound together during the height of school integration tensions.
I'm reviewing this terrific compilation of R & B hits released by the Atlantic label from between 1966-1969. It's Vol. 6 in a series covering 1947-1974, but I don't have that deep of pockets so I haven't heard the other volumes, but if they're anything like this then by all means dive in. Oh, and I realize I ought to have a lot more R & B acts covered on my review page - I'm working on Al Green and Stevie Wonder, be patient. And fie on modern soul, New Jack Swing and all that - so slick it's computer programmed. And how can music with processed drumbeats have any kind of soulful grit? At least there's the human voice left... Anyway, I say this now and will say it a dozen times more, R & B was ten times better when a)most soul singers learned their craft in the church choir, and b)real musicians played on the records - I mean, the lack of the human element is the very opposite of what soul's supposed to be about.___________________________________________________________________________
Wilson Pickett, "Land of 1000 Dances" - A tribal chant my highschool band used to play during football halftime. Whatever, "Na na na na na na na na na" is damn catchy in its primal way.
Eddie Floyd, "Knock On Wood" - Eddie Floyd's only hit sounds like an inspired fluke, and probably was the only great song he had in him, but dang what an earthshaking piece of superstition-rock it is: "I better - KNOCK - on wood" - perfect puncuation.
Otis Redding, "Try A Little Tenderness" - I saw this dumb lil' 80s teen flick with Anthony Micheal Hall that I forget the name of, and now I've got the sight of this skinny little dweeb falling to his knees miming this song permanently imprinted in my brain - aargh! Funnily enough, this tune was originally written for Bing Crosby. Man, dig that spaciousness.
Wilson Pickett, "Mustang Sally" - I used to like this song, but now I'm tired of it due to a)the Commitments (good flick, anyway) and b)every bar band in my town insists on playing this song. Hopefully you, unlike I, are not overexposed to it.
Sam & Dave, "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" - Note to all you soft-rock screechers out there: this is how a good, wrenching slow one is supposed to be done. Overemoting does not equal emoting well; listen to the understated anguish in these two guys' voices to hear how to put across genuine emotion well.
Arthur Conley, "Sweet Soul Music" - "Do you like good music?" Sure I do, and while this doesn't reach the level of some of the folks Conley namechecks, it's a heckuva tribute.
Aretha Franklin, "I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)" - A true to life love song that pores with hopeless devotion but doesn't suffer from sappy sentimentality: the man she loves is no good, a liar and a cheat, all her friends tell her to leave him, but it's no use - she's hooked. Does any commercial songwriter even try to write'em like this anymore?
Aretha Franklin, "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" - More Aretha; slightly lesser song, but compared to above, what wouldn't be? Straightforward, upfront feminism that shows up the Leslie Gores of this world for the wimpy whiners they are.
Joe Tex, "Show Me" - Don't know much about the man, but from the evidence I've heard, a quite interesting, possibly underrated (if still minor) soulman. His moralism's front and center, but he's got a sense of humor and that rarest of virtues in rock, humanism; he's not much of a singer, but his talks through his parablic narratives good enough.
Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, "Tramp" - Sassy! Bitchy! Funny! The comedy routine makes for a nice interlude.
Wilson Pickett, "Funky Broadway" - Minor Pickett song; good, but nothing to get worked up about.
Booker T & the M.G.'s, "Hip Hug Her" - Good instrumental from one of the greatest backup bands in history, but mostly it makes you realize what a great backup band they were for other people and play those records instead.
Sam & Dave, "Soul Man" - One of the greatest guitar hooks as an intro, ever; Steve Cropper is a quite an underrated guitarist, perhaps because he doesn't show off - but comes up with solid rhythm, and hooks like this. The words to this song are immortal, too. Just forget about John Belushi for a moment, if you can.
Aretha Franklin, "Respect" - More Aretha, but you ain't seeing me complaining. Actually, the tune's Otis Redding's, but she reworks and takes over this song so completely it makes the fine Redding original seem irrelevant.
Aretha Franklin, "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman" - Well, there's no point in me saying any more about this song written by the best female songwriter of her time, Carol King, and sung by the best female singer of her time, Aretha Franklin. Can you imagine, for just one moment, being alive in 1967 and hearing the new Beatles and this at the same time?...
The Bar-Kays, "Soul Finger" - Frat-soul. Party on, dudes.
Aretha Franklin, "Baby I Love You" - Okay, now this is a little bit too much Aretha. I mean, everybody ought to own her greatest hits, even if she starts to slide downhill with her 70s material.
Joe Tex, "Skinny Legs and All" - More gently humanistic and humorous talk for Rev. Tex. Message: stand by your woman even if she's butt ugly.
Aretha Franklin, "Chain of Fools" - See my comments above. Anyway, if for some reason you can't afford 30 Greatest Hits, then this comp contains her six best songs as a meager substitute.
Wilson Pickett, "I'm In Love" - Whoa, Mr. Wicked thruster and groaner can pull a slow one off, after all. Kind of like listening to Jesse Ventura trying to prove he's sensitive.
Archie Bell and the Drells, "Tighten Up" - The (literal) ingredients for Memphis Soul Stew. Compliments to the chef.
Otis Redding, "(Sitting On the) Dock of a Bay" - The greatest soul song of all time and candidate for - seriously - greatest single of all time was, unbelievably, considered a risk at the time. No one had hit upon the brilliant idea of fusing a folky narrative with a hippie sensibility, with the emotional tug of soul. A song with an almost unbearable sadness and yearning; the lonely homesick blues have never found greater expression.
Clarence Carter, "Slip Away" - The second greatest soul song on the age-old subject of adultery (the greatest would be Percy Sledge's "Dark End of the Street"). In many ways, classic soul and classic country (by which I mean Willie and Hank, not these modern day soulless hat acts) have a lot in common - particularly the tension between piety and sin. Country and soul are best when sung by men and women who do all the bad things you're supposed to do on Saturday night, but then wake up Sunday morning hungover and feeling really, really guilty, as you're supposed to do, too.
Aretha Franklin, "Think" - I just gotta say my favorite part is in the break when the chorus goes, "Freedom!" Aretha's singing about getting out of a bad relationship, but at that point she's back in church praising the Lord, underscoring the importance of gospel to soul.
Roberta Flack, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" - Not gritty in the least; in fact a bit too genteel and subdued, bland even - but it's pretty.
R.B. Greaves, "Take A Letter, Maria" - A pretty involved narrative for two minutes and forty seconds: he finds his wife in bed with another man, so he files for divorce. He realizes then that his mistake was working too hard and not paying enough attention to his personal life; it's time for him to pack up and start a new life. In the final verse he notices that the secretary he's been telling to send the letter is nice, so he asks her to have dinner with him. And it turns out to be a darn catchy little pop tune, too.
Brook Benton, "Rainy Night In Georgia," - Perfect way to end this compilation with a lullaby. I think I'm going to curl up in a boxcar and nod off...
Grade: ***** - Like, duh. If you've got deep pockets I'd spring for the whole box set, but these volumes were originally issued separately in the '80s and shouldn't be hard to find. I have to tell you that this tape is one of the rare tapes in my collection that has now become almost unplayable - I have literally worn it out from playing it so many times (well, not just me - my parents used to play this all the time, too).
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