About a Mover
Among other things, the history of soul music is the story of a handful of regional labels that flourished 20 to 30 years ago, releasing strings of sublime 45s before the long night of disco fell. Their passing success owed a lot to house bands such as Booker T. and the MGs at Stax and the Hi rhythm section, young groups that achieved an easy synergy that ultimately flattered singers like Otis Redding and Al Green.
In a converted Memphis, Tennessee, theatre, the Hi session players fueled a slew of simmering, soul-into-funk singles by Green, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and Otis Clay. Hi producer Willie Mitchell instinctively knew better than to clutter his label's songs with too much sugar; instead, he created what now seems to be a timeless sound, composed of raw, yearning male vocals over spare brass, a thick bottom and a steady midtempo beat. Al Green sang on some of the best of those Mitchell sides, which have been steadily reissued, first on vinyl and then on CD. Others by Johnson, Clay and Ann Peebles, are sprinkled throughout the recent three-disc Hi Times boxed set.
But now, more than a decade since Otis Clay was lionized by Japanese soul fans, his work has been collected domestically and digitally by Right Stuff/EMI. The title, The Best of: The Hi Records Years, is thankfully a little deceptive, since the 23 tracks include at least three rare, smoking singles that predate Clay's Hi tenure.
Clay's muscular, gravelly gospel-drenched stylings make him one of the last great soul/blues singers, in a class with Little Milton, Bobby Bland and a few others. Listening to the tracks on this new collection, you have to wonder why Clay isn't better known. If there's any justice, the new Right Stuff set, by offering a detailed look at the singer's prime, may go a little way toward remedying that anonymity.
A Mississippi native, Clay, now 54, grew up tuning in to country music on Nashville radio. He eventually sang with gospel groups around the South and Midwest, including the Blue Jay Quartet, and, after a move to Chicago, the Sensational Nightingales. When he crossed over to secular music in Chicago in the early '60s, he cut a string of steamy soul singles that owed more to his Southern heritage than the city's preferred, smooth-vocal confections, including "That's How It Is (When You're in Love)" for the One-derful label, rerecorded at Hi and included on the new Best of set. Clay was scrambling for a hit in those days, so his near misses must have counted less to him then than they do to soul fans now. In retrospect, he was making rough, raw and shaking soul of the first water, even if he wasn't on the charts.
Traded to Atlantic's Cotillion label in 1968, Clay traveled south to the legendary Muscle Shoals studios to cut a handful of tracks, including a balls-out cover of "She's About a Mover," that far outpaced the Sir Douglas Quintet original, and "I'm Qualified," a "Midnight Hour"-style rave-up. Both are included on the Right Stuff collection. His career picked up a little when he signed to Hi in '71 and started working with the killer house band heard on Al Green's hits: drummers Al Jackson and Howard Grimes; Hodges brothers Leroy, Charles and Teenie on bass, keyboards and guitar; the resident Memphis Horns; and backing vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes.
Mitchell, a trumpeter and the producer and engineer on nearly all Hi tracks, had an aural vision that identifies his studio's cuts as surely as fingerprints. It seems so simple--a place for everything and everything laconically in its place--and, yet, it's one that eluded most other would-be impresarios. Mitchell already had a hot hand with Green when Clay showed up on his doorstep, and the Hi formula paid off quickly as he and Clay dented the charts in 1972 with the midtempo ballad "Trying to Live My Life Without You." Clay reached No. 24 on the R&B charts with that song, his personal best. Bob Seger covered it in a faithful but less soulful version nine years later and took it to No. 5 on the mainstream pop charts.
The mass market was no judge of the fire or hooks in Clay's work. It's worth the price of the new CD just to hear him howl on "I Can't Take It," a Don Bryant-penned number, never released as a single. Clay sounds like a sled dog dropped from his pack.
The pre-Hi Clay cuts tend to rock harder, but the Memphis tracks--the majority of the album--really showcase the Hi house band's strengths. On "I Love You, I Need You," Teenie Hodges plays one of the most restrained solo-guitar parts in the history of rock or soul--a single note softly repeated, echoing his virtuosic minimal performance on the long version of Al Green's "Beware." On Clay's "Too Many Hands," the Memphis Horns break fast and bop harder than most jazz players play in heaven. And throughout Grimes keeps time with a slightly lazy inflection, unmistakably live, his snare and high-hat high up in the mix.
Clay wasn't completely obscure, then or now. He still makes a nice living in Chicago clubs and does well playing European festivals and Japanese concert halls. One of his 1983 Tokyo gigs resulted in a reunion with the Hodges brothers and a tough-as-nails live set worth finding--released in the U.S. by Rounder as Soul Man: Live in Japan.
"When I first went to Japan, I said to myself, 'What am I going to do? What am I going to sing?'" Clay told Chicago Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra. "I had no idea that all the stuff we'd done at One-derful was readily available in [Japanese] stores. Someone would ask for an autograph, and they would have this shopping bag full of all the One-derful 45s. I never knew that."
The Right Stuff collection is six-foot-deep studio soul from a time when you could be a star in Memphis and unknown in New York--the very last time, actually. All you have to do is shuffle through late Elvis Presley sides and you begin to suspect that if Clay or the Hodgeses had been any better known in their day, their work would have suffered. Still, the great soul stirrers who lived past 40 mostly wound up bitter or in Japan. Being forced to choose between quality and riches can do that to a man.
The Bihari brothers--Jules, Joe and Saul--launched their Modern label in Los Angeles in 1945 and proceeded to wax some of the most sophisticated and powerful blues of the postwar era. In the early '60s, they formed a subsidiary, Kent, to capture the first stirrings of deep soul, a natural outgrowth of blues. The cynic's take is that these white men simply trotted after the market in black music and placed a side bet, like good capitalists.
But if that's all the Biharis did, why is it that the new collection of Kent soul sides, Slow 'n' Moody--Black & Bluesy (Virgin/Pointblank), is so much better than almost any soul package on CD today? This stellar disc of mostly unknowns kicks off with Z.Z. Hill covering a Sam Cooke song, "Nothing Can Change This Love," recorded at the beginning of Hill's career. After hearing 40 or 50 Hill cuts, suddenly it's clear to me why Hill was a great singer: He wails it hoarse, sounding just a foot out of church. And he's not alone. Most of the 22 tracks on the collection sound like the work of people who came to the music straight from Sunday school, not juke joints.
Slow 'n' Moody includes entirely obscure musicians such as Terry and the Tyrants, Jackie Day and the Angels of Joy, as well as vaguely familiar artists such as Clay Hammond. Standing in a Seattle Tower Records outlet, I scanned the back cover and only one name leapt out at me: Little Richard, with a 1966 recording date. And I thought: "Yes!"
I've always liked Little Richard. I could watch reruns of his TV performances through eternity, but I get a little tired of his famous, frenetic '50s Specialty sides. Still, there's one Little Richard recording I've never grown tired of: "I Don't Know What You Got," cut at VeeJay in the mid-'60s, years after he'd supposedly declined. He hadn't. It's a slow, gorgeous piece of vibrato testifying, and I've been looking for more of that stately midcareer stuff ever since. The track on Slow 'n' Moody "Directly From My Heart to You" is maybe one/100th worse than "I Don't Know What You Got." If that. And, better yet, it may not even be the best cut on the set. The Pompadoured Peach gets stiff competition from Hammond, Johnny Copeland, and Willie Gauff and the Love Brothers. Somewhere, there's a better deep-soul collection than this. In your dreams.
Emma Goldman Singin' the Blues
Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale was on Terry Gross' radio talk show Fresh Air recently, a rerun timed to coincide with the general release of the movie I Shot Andy Warhol. The electric violist said there were two musical poles at work in the Velvets. The first was his pull toward Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
Gross was dubious.
"But it doesn't sound anything like Phil Spector," she said. "I mean, it's good--I like it--but it doesn't sound like Phil Spector."
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The other pole, Cale said, was Lou Reed's Chuck Berry fixation.
"Huh," Gross said.
She's got a point, and so does he: You can kind of hear "School Days" in "Sensation Inside Your Heart" and "Beginning to See the Light," reissued in pristine glory on the recent four-disc Velvets boxed set Peel Slowly and See (PolyGram). It's a serviceable sound--just ask Jonathan Richman and Keith Richards.
And the Wall of Sound? It's there, among other places, in the delicious collapse of all music at the end of "Heroin," a brush with aural chaos that remains coherent, but just barely; unrivaled by anything except perhaps the last seconds of The Who's "My Generation," where Keith Moon sounds like he's playing his drum kit as they both fall down the stairs.
What the Velvets achieved in retrospect is nothing less than the subversion of all the great teen cliches Berry and Spector manufactured. Not that they sullied them. Spector was a delusional maniac; Berry, a leering pervert; and they both made great pop. The Velvets are clean by comparison, nearly clinical. But there's a dirty pop heart hidden, warm and throbbing, inside all that mess.