There will be loads of good new music to hear and talk about in 2017, I’m sure. Yet in the waning days of 2016 and the snow bound days of early 2017, I decided to slow down my rush to the new and spent some time rummaging through the “dust bins” of yesteryear. There I found a couple of albums that hardly made a ripple when they were released in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and another from the last decade that suffered the same fate. Regardless of their fate, all three are filled with great songs and performances, and despite or because of their relative anonymity, they sound fresh today.
Dionne Warwick – Soulful
By 1969, Dionne Warwick had established herself as a singular talent turning one song after another from the writing and producing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David into sophisticated pop gold. In doing so, she differentiated herself from the somewhat grittier soul singers like Mary Wells, Betty Everett, Tina Turner, and the soul queen Aretha Franklin. I don’t know her motivation. Maybe she just wanted to remind her audience, and perhaps her peers as well, that she too grew up in the church and could bring the soul whenever she wanted. Whatever the reason, she took a one album break from Bacharach and David, and went to Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis. Chips was about as hot as a producer could be at the time working with Neil Diamond and more importantly Elvis Presley on what would become the album that turned around the King’s career, From Elvis In Memphis. Together Dionne and Chips produced this mighty fine collection of classic soul covers.
I shouldn’t say the album didn’t make a ripple because it did reach #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart, #11 on the pop chart, and the lone single, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” reached 16 on the pop charts and 13 on the R&B charts. From a chart perspective, it was one of Warwick’s most successful albums. Still, fairly quickly after its release, Dionne went back in the studio with Bacharach and David and resumed the string of pop songs that had been so successful for the three of them.
Perhaps because of her quick return to pop, or because there was no new material on Soulful, the album has been largely forgotten. It shouldn’t be. Yes Dionne was different from most female soul singers. Where many of them range from nitty gritty to soaring, Dionne’s voice seems to float. But the emotion is there all the same. The album cover photo fits the album’s title and the singer, not to mention the Memphis studio players.
The arrangements for most of the tunes are reminiscent of the originals of songs like “I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman,” “People Got To Be Free,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and the aforementioned “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The one major exception arrangement-wise is on the Beatle’s “A Hard Days Night.” The tempo is slowed to a grinding groove transforming the song from a rock ‘n’ roll romp into R&B dirty dance – a very pleasing change up. It makes me wish Dionne had worked more with Moman and writers like Dan Penn to come up with a new batch of R&B/Soul. Why she didn’t is a mystery to me.
John Sebastian – The Tarzana Kid
How could an album featuring a multiple hit maker, who took a memorable star turn at Woodstock, with backing by the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Lowell George, Buddy Emmons and David Grisman, and with songs by some of the best tunesmiths around fail to even scratch on the charts. It’s not as if the output from all this talent isn’t worthy. In fact, it’s a damn fine album.
The Tarzana Kid, released in 1974, contains several Sebastian penned tunes including a couple of covers of songs from his Lovin’ Spoonful days, and a co-write with George, “Face of Appalachia.” There’s a nice version of John’s “Stories We Could Tell,” which had been the title song of the last Everly Brothers album before their early seventies break up. In fact, the great Phil Everly provides the harmony vocals. There are also entertaining covers of Lowell George’s Little Feat classic “Dixie Chicken.” the old Guy Mitchell chestnut “Singin’ The Blues,” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo.” The latter was adventurous then because few, if any, white musicians had tried their hand with reggae at the time.
Here’s one of my personal favorites from an early Lovin’ Spoonful album given an acoustic treatment on The Tarzana Kid with the great Ry Cooder backing John on slide guitar and mandolin.
So despite great talent, strong songs and the very engaging Sebastian, the album bombed. Ironically Sebastian had a surprise #1 hit with “Welcome Back,” the theme song for the hit TV comedy “Welcome Back Kotter” two years later. His label Reprise rushed out an album to cash in on the hit, and for my money it’s nowhere near as good as The Tarzana Kid. The point is, this is a really fine album, if you like well crafted songs played by genuine talents in a manner that feels like you’re all just sitting around the living room having a good time. I’m darn glad I found it, and I’m tickled to be able to tell you about it.
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Souls’ Chapel
Marty Stuart hasn’t had a hit since the early 1990’s, and this is an album of gospel songs, so it’s easy to understand why the album barely scratched into the top 100 on the country charts and produced no singles. It’s a shame because this is one terrific album. First, forget it’s gospel because it’s really rockabilly that could have been cut in Sun Studios in 1956 complete with extra reverb on the simmering guitars.
Marty was born to sing rockabilly, just born too late. Plus his band, the Fabulous Superlatives are aptly named not only for their playing but also for their harmony singing and their turns on lead vocals that Marty generously shares. I’m not a big fan of gospel music typically, but here it’s the emotional grit that gives the band traction. I can’t get the soulful voices and bent strings on songs like “There’s A Rainbow (At The End of Every Storm) out of my mine. These may be songs of praise, but the performances are country fried Rhythm and Blues as well.
My least favorite song on the album is the first, so I suggest you skip over that one and jump right into “Lord, Give Me Just A Little More Time,” a sentiment we probably all embrace.