Joe Tex Sings “Skinny Legs and All”

joe-tex-live-and-livelyListen to this track from soul-singing huckster Joe Tex. It’s “Skinny Legs and All”, with this particular version of the song on the album Live and Lively from 1967.

Some soul singers were smooth talking love men like Sam Cooke, while others were wilder like Wilson Pickett.  All of them, however, owed the church a tremendous debt in terms of showmanship, providing them with a template as to how to relate to an audience in terms of presentation.  None is more indebted then Joe Tex, who is the testifyin’ preacher on this track.  Notice how this song directly engages the audience, how there is a call-an-response musically, but also between the performers and the crowd.

And what is this other than a sermon about how treasuring someone despite their shortcomings? And perhaps too it unveils something of how cultural expectations are not nearly as big as the shot of love when it strikes.  Of course with that you get that joyous and rough-shod Southern soul sound, with the stabbing horns, the feral rhythm guitar, and of course Tex’s own sandpaper-tenor voice lifting the whole thing to the stars.

Joe Tex would run with the giants of soul, yet never reach the same career highs, possibly because his style was so deeply entrenched in the gospel traditions and all of the idiosyncrasies that go along with them.  Tex would ‘preach’ and clown around in equal measure on many of his 60s cuts.  And by the 70s he would branch out into funk, and eventually to disco with a novelty hit ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)’ which may have undercut his mark as a serious artist.

Unfortunately, he died young at the age of 49 in 1982.  But what he was able to do during a relatively short career was to take the heart of soul music and have some fun with his audience at the same time.  While perhaps not an innovator, he was certainly a consummate entertainer, the clown prince of soul music.


Al Green Performs “Take Me To the River”

Listen to this velvet slab of classic soul from the good Reverend Al Green.  It’s “Take Me To The River”, a smash hit from Green’s 1974 album Al Green Explores Your Mind. The tune would be one of many in Green’s successful run with Hi Records, later to be covered memorably, if unexpectedly, by Talking Heads.

Al Green’s style represents something of a sea change in the way that Southern soul music was presented by the early to mid 1970s.  The instrumentation and general approach is largely the same as it was during the classic Atlantic and Stax-dominated period in Southern soul five years earlier.  But, there was a smoothness and lightness of touch to Green’s work, helped along by producer Willie Mitchell who has been rightly credited with c0-creating Green’s signature sound.  Of course, with the rise of disco not far away, and the financial difficulties which would end Hi Records, this era in classic soul had a limited shelf life.

Yet, listen to how funky this tune is, while at the same time being kind of refined too. Green certainly knew how to put across a lyric, and infusing it with emotion, without sounding as if he was trying very hard.  And this is my favourite example of this.  Also, Green took out a lot of the machismo of R&B, and revealed stories about guys caught in bad situations, feeling the pain of them, and giving voice to male vulnerability while still sounding manly and believable at the same time. This is a rare talent in any singer.  But, Green brought style and sophistication to it.

Mitchell and Green recently reconvened for a set of comeback records, after Green took a long hiatus from secular music to concentrate on his ministry.  When not recording soul music in the classic tradtion, Al Green is the pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis.

Gladys Knight & the Pips sing Norman Whitfield’s “Friendship Train”

Listen to this song by soul goddess Gladys Knight, accompanied by her faithful Pips.  It’s her take on Norman Whitfield’s “Friendship Train”,  which the group covered while they were still signed to Motown, scoring them a #17 on the charts.   The song was also a hit for the Temptations, also under Whitfield’s care at Motown.

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Norman Whitfield passed away last year, yet he left behind a number of immortal classics like this one, co-penned by fellow Motown writer Barrett Strong, and produced by Whitfield as well.  And Gladys Knight does it justice and then some, with her exuberant delivery and clear commitment to the material which marks her as a first-tier American singer in any tradition and style.

She’d released a version of  Whitfield’s most famous song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before Marvin Gaye’s more recognized version. And it was clear that both Knight and Whitfield were interested in pushing the stringent stylistic boundaries on which Motown was based.  “Friendship Train” is a soul answer to psychedelia in some ways.  It shares a similar optimism, and childlike approach to the more complicated issues of the day, much like that of  psychedelic rock.

As such, its charming, and infectious, and shows Whitfield’s keen eye for pinpointing the zeitgeist and writing a song around it that doesn’t seem like a means to simply market to an audience.   Instead, it entertains.  And Gladys Knight’s take, along with the Temptations’ version, show that Whitfield’s approach was easily delivered by the right talent.

For more Gladys, check out the Gladys Knight official website.

And to learn more about Norman Whitfield, read this overview article about Norman Whitfield.


Sax Great King Curtis Plays ‘Memphis Soul Stew’

king-curtis-memphis-soul-stewHere’s a clip of saxophone superman and soul music legend King Curtis with his 1967 single and signature tune “Memphis Soul Stew”.  No self-respecting soul compilation album should be without it as an opening track.

King Curtis was a giant when it came to sax, touching on soul but also R&B and rock ‘n’ roll as well, playing the famous solo in the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak”, and playing with fellow Texan Buddy Holly too.  By the time the 60s rolled around, he’d recorded for a number of labels and in a number of styles.  Yet, I really think this is his signature tune once he found a home on Atlantic Records by 1965.

“Memphis Soul Stew” is an ode to Southern soul music that brings out something of the funk that lays at the heart of it.  It helps that he had some heavyweight players behind him including Jerry Jemmott on bass, Bernard Purdie on drums, and long-time collaborator Cornell Dupree on guitar.  These guys became known as the Kingpins, recording a number of sides with Curtis from the mid-60s to the early 70s.  Along with the Memphis horns, it’s hard to think how much better these guys could have done in the raw talent department.

King Curtis’ sax would also be a sought after element on other people’s records, and Curtis’ enthusiasm and natural leadership skills made him a success behind the desk as well as in the role  of musical director for Aretha Franklin in the early 70s.  He of course worked with Jerry Wexler, being in the Atlantic Records stable.  And he played on John Lennon’s Imagine album as well.

But like Lennon, his life  would be cut short by violence.  Curtis was killed in the street just outside of his home in the summer of 1971.  Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral.  But, with a recorded legacy behind him, and with the contributions he made to the development of soul music, it’s impossible to forget him.


Bettye Lavette Sings Lucinda Williams’ “Joy”

ive-got-my-own-hell-to-raise-bettye-lavetteHere’s a clip of seasoned soul belter Bettye Lavette singing the song “Joy” as taken from her 2005 record I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. The record, as it is explained,  consists of songs written solely by women, including Dolly Parton, Sinéad O’Connor, Rosanne Cash,  and Aimee Mann.  This one is a barnburner penned by Lucinda Williams, and ridiculously funked-up here by Bettye with sympathetic group under the eye of producer Joe Henry.

Bettye Lavette made a name for herself starting in the 60s, with minor hits on independent labels like “Let Me Down Easy” and many others. In the 70s, she continued to troll the borders of success, while never becoming a household name.  But, in 2005, her album ‘I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise’ raised her profile among fans of classic soul,  produced as it was  by a sympathetic and visonary Joe Henry, who also produced Solomon Burke’s well-loved comeback album “Don’t Give Up On Me”.  Her most recent album “The Scene of the Crime” is garnering equal praise, as is the retrospective “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” which compiles recordings from 1969-70.

I’ve been thinking, and writing, a lot lately about the business of musical genres, and how we tend to group performers.  I am beginning to see more than ever that the boundaries between styles are really just illusory, that there are good tunes, and bad, but that the towering and impenetrable walls between rock, soul, funk, and country are only as real as the marketing departments at retail chains and record conglomerates say they are.

Bettye Lavette proves this nicely with her album, hailed as a critical triumph and a return to the world stage for Bettye who had been sidelined, perhaps ironically,  by the very forces that undermine this idea that genre isn’t really an issue when you’ve got great material.

And then of course, there’s the issue of gender.   Maybe the idea to start this record off was to show female empowerment in some way.   I personally find myself suspicious of estrogen-fests on record and on tour, and the ghettoisation of ‘female artists’ in general.   I ultimately find the approach narrow-minded and patronizing.  I’d read in the music papers that Bettye Lavette felt the same way, and was reluctant to cut a record of songs by female songwriters for these same kinds of reasons.  She is her own woman, after all.

And since she’s Bettye Lavette, and the songs are good, no one in their right mind would consider this record a ‘women only’ album.  It isn’t contained by gender, or expectations attached to it.  It’s got, if you will, brass balls, baby.  This makes the fact that all the songs are written by women to be immaterial, at least to me.

Listen to the absolutely filthy groove Bettye’s band lays down behind her, and her own feral delivery.  And what kind of music is it?  Blues-rock, soul, funk?  Well, yes.  And even if it incorporates some tried and true characteristics – American city names (thanks, Chuck Berry), and the idea of a road quest (thanks to Jack Kerouac, and the scads of rock and folk songs he helped to inspire), it is otherwise beyond description stylistically.

This could have something to do with the fact that Lavette is a soul/R&B vetran singing a tune by an alt-country titan of a songwriter in Lucinda Williams.  This is aural fusion cuisine, with lots of pepper, salt, and mysterious herbs and spices that make for something of an aphrodesiac that grabs you in all kinds of places.

For more information and music about and by Bettye Lavette, check out


Booker T. & The MGs Perform “Green Onions”

Here’s a clip of one of the most important groups in music history with the one of the greatest instrumental tracks of our time; Booker T. & the MGs with their signature hit “Green Onions”.  The clip shows the classic line-up of the band, with Booker T. Jones on organ, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.

Where to start with this song, with this band? Basically, if you've ever heard and loved Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, or any other record on the Stax/Voltz label (and some on the Atlantic label too), you've heard Booker T. & the MGs ("Memphis Group"). They were the Stax house band, a racially integrated band that defied the old guard in the American South by even existing. Everyone in the band, just as everyone at the Stax label, were dedicated to creating Memphis soul music, a sweaty, rootsy, distinct brand of soul that emphasized the groove, yet kept one foot inside the Baptist church too. They were not just a band, they were architects of a musical era, and of a cultural tradition in American music - "Soulsville USA".

“Green Onions” is probably their most recognized piece, a tune which would appear in several instances of pop culture, as well as being a huge hit for the group who released it in 1962.  It made number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too, reaching number three.  The song is somewhat related to Ray Charles “What’d I Say” which is certainly an inspiration to its structure, yet is something special on its own.  Listen to that organ riff – where the hell did it come from?  And Steve Cropper’s guitar – just a series of razor-sharp stabs that serve as a call-and-response to it.  This is not to mention the steady, relentless rhythm section that pushes the whole thing along.

The group would gel to an unbelievable degree when “Duck” Dunn joined the band in 1965, after original bassist Lewie Steinberg left.  At this point, the group began a golden age in soul music, along with producer Chips Moman, and writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter, all under the watchful eye of Stax owner Jim Stewart.  Due to how often they played and recorded together as a house band, while also releasing their own records, they became one of the most imitated bands of the era – everyone wanted to nail down their sound.

In addition to soul bands like the Bar-Keys and the Mar-Keys in the States,  Booker T. and the MGs  also had an effect on mod groups in Britain, like the Who, a group who also traded on soul music as a  part of their musical engine.  Take a listen to their early instrumental The Ox (so named after bassist John Entwistle), which is a clear tip of the hat to the Memphis group.  The two bands would share a stage in 1967, when Booker T. & the MGs played the Monterey Pop Festival as Otis Redding’s back-up band.  It was at this time that the imaginary barriers between soul music and  rock music were revealed to be just that – imaginary.  Further, the group’s last album on the Stax label “Melting Pot” was something of a block party favourite, later to be sampled by early hip-hop pioneers.

Yet by the early 70s, all was not well at Stax, and as a result Jones and Cropper left, leaving Dunn and Jackson behind as sessioners for the remaining years the label had.   Although the group would reunite a few times, their run was over. A big comeback which was planned in the mid-70s was cancelled when drummer Al Jackson was murdered during a home invasion.

At the end of the 70s, Cropper and Dunn would play with Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the Blues Brothers both on record and on film,  Levon Helm‘s RCO All-stars album, and with Booker T. Jones on Neil Young’s 2002 album Are You Passionate?, which featured the band as Young’s backing group on all of the songs.  Jones would continue to be a sought-after session musician, and would reunite with his bandmates a number of times over the decades with a number of well-respected drummers in Jackson’s seat, including Willie Hall, Steve Jordan, and Steve Potts.

But, they never bettered “Green Onions”. Everytime I hear it, I get something new.  And it never fails to excite me, to make me want to move.  Even now, the groove they created has potency.

For more information on Booker T. & The MGs,  I suggest you check out my fellow music geek, and a former professor of mine from my York University days, Rob Bowman and his book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records. It is the definitive work on the subject, and is written by a Canadian, eh.


Solomon Burke Sings “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”

Here’s a clip featuring King of Rock ‘n’ Soul Solomon Burke with his 1964 smash hit “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, a soul favourite straight out of the gospel tradition. It was released as a single that year and has since become a soul, and rock, standard.

The song has been covered by a number of artists, from fellow soul belter Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, the 13th Floor Elevators, and of course the Blues Brothers.  The song was featured in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie, which gained it a new audience.  But, even though that’s where I first heard this song, when I heard Solomon Burke’s original, it was like being shown a real, panoramic landscape when before I had only known the oil painting – as good as the oil painting is, of course.

The thing I love about it is that it is so raw, so unafraid to show something of where it comes from.  This one is straight out of the church, with Solomon Burke in full preacher mode, and his back-up singing testifying along side him.  When he says “let me hear you say YEAH!” and his singers start clapping, it’s hard not to join in.  And that can be embarrassing when you’re listening to it on the bus with your head phones!

Not many casual music fans know about Solomon Burke.  Well, not as many as those who know Otis Redding, for instance.  But, Burke was a force of nature who made a huge impression on the British Invasion groups of the 60s, even if his records never strayed too far from the R&B charts back home.  The Zombies covered his “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Love You”.   Van Morrison took his vocal style, built it up, and made a career out of it.  And more recently when Burke made something of a comeback in his 2002 record Don’t Give Up on Me, Morrison wrote him a tune, as did Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan, among other luminaries.

Even though he’s known primarily as an R&B singer, Burke had interests in country music too, which informed many of his early sides.  To explore this, more recently he cut Nashville, which is an album of country covers put out in 2006 .  Once again, Burke is joined with some heavyweights of the country world including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch, proving that there is a distinct kinship between country and soul that many people forget is there.

And this has been Burke’s strength – to take any song and make it work as a Solomon Burke number.  And long may the King of rock ‘n’ soul reign.

His newest album, Like a Fire is out now.

To hear more music, check out the Solomon Burke MySpace page.


Isley Brothers Perform “It’s Your Thing”

Here’s a clip of soul-funk emperors The Isley Brothers with their 1969 hit “It’s Your Thing”, surely one of the sweatiest, funkiest floor fillers in the history of sound.

The Isley Brothers are more than just a band, they're more like a family business, with several line-ups of the band made up of at least two sets of brothers and other family members. The group scored hits in every decade from the 1950s to this current decade, covering material ranging from doo-wop, to soul, to funk, to disco, to modern R&B. They've gone from being a quartet, to a trio, to a sextet, and are currently a duo, changing with the times and keeping the band's legacy going strong. At one time, they employed a young guitarist named James Marshall Hendrix (Jimi to his friends) to back them up. And they successfully sued Michael Bolton for plagiarism, which is a nice bonus.

I just love this tune, full of joie de vive and almost supernaturally funky.  I love the flowing rhythm guitar lines, and the sexy horn shots.  This is of course not to mention the bassline, a writhing, seething thing that defies you not to shake your hips.   The song is used to great effect in Stephen Soderburgh’s heist picture Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, which also included their song “Fight the Power” in the soundtrack.

The band began in the 50s, starting out strictly as a gospel group before starting on a pop career.  Their biggest hit from their early period is probably “Twist & Shout”, a tune which was arguably supplanted by the Beatles’ 1963 version of the song on their debut album.  Yet, the Isleys had more tricks up their glittery sleeves, with another song called “Shout“, which is heard at  wedding receptions across the nation and yet never gets stale.  By 1969, the line-up of the band had changed, when younger siblings came into the fold, a period known as the “3+3” period.  And the landscape of soul music had changed by then too.  Luckily the infusion of new blood into the band would allow the Isleys to easily make the transition from early gospel-based pop, to a sound with a funkier edge.

The group had a string of hits in the 70s, particularly with their take on Seals & Crofts “Summer Breeze” being a massive hit in the UK, where they’d built a solid following.  Their 1985 hit “Caravan of Love” was covered by British group The Housemartins, featuring one Norman Cook (AKA Fat Boy Slim), and future Beautiful South frontman Paul Heaton.

And because of their vocal and instrumental prowess (Ernie Isley in particular is one of the world’s most underrated guitarists), they are a popular choice for sampling, up there with the JBs and Parliament-Funkadelic.  Public Enemy, Notorius B.I.G, and Snoop Dogg are among the hip-hop artists who have sampled the Isley’s work.

Check out the Isley Brothers MySpace page for more music and info.


William Bell Sings “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”

Here’s a clip of under-exposed soul man William Bell with his 1968 single “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”,which can be found on the recent Stax compilation album The Very Best of William Bell.

William Bell was born William Yarborough in 1939, initially serving time as a backing vocalist for other artists including Rufus Thomas.  He joined Stax as a staff writer, before recording his signature hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in 1961.
William Bell was born William Yarborough in 1939, initially serving time as a backing vocalist for other artists including Rufus Thomas. He joined Stax as a staff writer, before recording his signature hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in 1961, a version of which appears on his 1967 debut album, Soul of a Bell.

This tune packs a punch; a song of regret as expressed by a man who finds himself the victim of his own mistaken priorities.  His work has taken him away from focusing on the one he loves.  Will she forgive him, or is it too late?  In this song, we don’t get to find out.  We only hear the anguish of a man who knows he’s messed up, and that he has come to this realization, perhaps, too late.

This is a love song with a big helping of desperation, which really hits me whenever I hear it.  I’ve had my own troubles with losing sight of love, and what is important.  In this, I kind of find this tune reassuring; that I’m not the only one.

William Bell never gained the stature of an Otis Redding, or a Wilson Pickett. Yet the foundations of a great soul singer are evident in his passionate vocals that bring out the best in his material, putting the song first before any self-indulgent acrobatics by which so many soul singers are often known.

His work while with the Stax label helped to define the sound of southern soul music, and the sounds associated with Stax in particular.  His first album Soul of a Bell remains to be an undiscovered gem by many soul fans.

Bell was a songwriter previous to his role as a performer. His first hit was 1961’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, the self-penned song which remains to be the one for which he is best known.  He is also responsible for co-penning Albert King’s hit for Stax, “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones, a song  which Bell himself recorded. The song is now considered to be a blues standard.

The tune was also covered by Cream in 1968 on the Wheels of Fire LP, proving that his material was open to interpretation as well as cross-over appeal.  Indeed, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” was sampled by the hip-hop artist The Alchemist, featured in the track “Worst Comes to Worst” by Dialated Peoples.

William Bell continues to be a steady performer today, gaining a W.C Handy Heritage award in 2003, and having put out his most recent album in 2006, A New Lease on Life.


Bernard Purdie Performs a Drum Solo

Here’s a clip of legendary soul and R&B sessioner Bernard Purdie demonstrating why King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others sought his skills as a drummer from the 60s onward.

Purdie is one of my favourite drummers, and I think he gives away his secret in this clip; he is a drummer who is interested in melody as much as he is in the groove.  This is certainly identified on Aretha’s Live at Filmore West, and on Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, my two favourite examples of his work.

For more information about Bernard Purdie, check out Bernard Purdie’s official website, which outlines just how prolific he has been as a session drummer, as well as a bandleader.