Tag Archives: Philly soul

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 6 – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) – The Delfonics

There’s nothing I don’t like about the Delfonics’ Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Thom Bell’s luxurious sting arrangement, William Hart’s soaring falsetto, the electric sitar (Bobby Eli, I think, rather than Norman Harris), Bobby Martin’s French horn call that begins the song, the key change to A going in to the first verse from the intro, that rhythmically displaced chord change in the chorus – it’s all wonderful, and you can’t give enough credit to Thom Bell for his creativity. But even so, when I put the song on, it’s usually because I want to hear that drum track. And for that, we have MFSB drummer Earl Young and engineer Joe Tarsia to thank.

Earl Young is an unquestionable great of popular music, the supplier of countless great drum performances from the late 1960s and all through the ’70s. But he shines brightest on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Joe Tarsia, engineer and studio owner, and presumably Thom Bell (since, as producer, the decision was ultimately his) were convinced of the need for the drums on their records to be uncompressed, loud and proud. As a consequence, no matter how sophisticated, ornate and opulent the arrangement, the drum tracks on songs coming off the Philly conveyor belt meant business. Young’s studio kit had a 26-inch bass drum. On Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time), Young plays meaty, powerful rimshots all the way through (which, along with his intricate hi-hat work, is a Young trademark), his tom-and-snare build-ups in the choruses have an aggressive physicality to them and his work on the brass is decisive and authoritative. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is a complex, conflicted song, and, to wax psychological for a moment, if the orchestra reinforces and amplifies the tenderness that the singer still feels for his love, Earl Young’s drums stand for the part of him that is delighted to be standing up for himself and finally be proving her wrong.

Young’s magnificent performance is given the sound it deserves by Joe Tarsia, recording engineer and owner of Sigma Sound studio. His philosophy was to attempt to record the session as accurately as possible and save the clever stuff for the mix, but he was not afraid of capturing real room sounds as part of that process. The drum sound on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is noticeably reverberant and big, and it’s not something that was added in mix. Indeed, Greg Milner quotes Tarsia as describing the contemporaneous West Coast quest for total separation and dryness as “ridiculous… it was the producer not willing to commit. He wanted to be able to take the guitar out later, which you can’t do if it’s bleeding into five other microphones.” Leakage was Tarsia’s friend, not something of which he lived in mortal fear, and he sculpted that live sound – and, according to Milner, the session that produced the backing track for Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) was completely live, orchestra and all – into one of the most incredible-sounding recordings ever made.

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Earl Young (photo © Andrew Small)

 

Let’s Stay Together – Al Green

Let’s get right to the point. Let’s Stay Together by Al Green is one of the most glorious records in popular music. If you drew a Venn diagram of all the different kinds of soul music, from the roughest Southern cut to the most sophisticated and classy Philly soul ballad, Let’s Stay Together would be in the middle. It’s raw without being rough, sweet without being cloying, smooth without being bland. If you like deep soul with a small-band feel, the core of Let’s Stay Together is the rhythm section, organ and one guitar. If you like horns and strings, you’ve got them too: a couple of horns on the right, playing the iconic off-beat lick that opens the song, and a small string section on the left.

The guys who made Let’s Stay Together knew how to put together a hit record. The song was written by producer Willie Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. Jackson still played on Hi Records sessions as a favour to Mitchell, even though he had enough work on his plate to keep him busy every day of every week, and it was he came up with the rolling beat that defines the song’s rhythmic feel. It was presumably played by him on traps kit and Howard Grimes (who was Green’s drummer when Jackson wasn’t around) on, I’d guess, congas. It’s one of the greatest drum tracks in pop music, instantly addictive and endless satisfying. Mitchell could have put that out with just Green’s vocal on top and it would have got to number one just the same.

But the record has so much else to offer, Green’s vocal being a key part of its charm. Green was somewhat unsure about singing softly and making such prominent use of falsetto. He’s grown up as a something of a shouter with bluesy, Otis Redding inflections. Mitchell coached him to tone it down, to speak softer and mean more. The result was a career-defining performance, and turned ‘Al Green’ into a sort of shorthand when describing male soul ballad singers.

There’s a sort of alchemy present in Let’s Stay Together: the warm and inviting instrument sounds; the sense of vocal power held in reserve; the extreme discipline of the musicians (listen to every instrument in turn: no one’s playing much). There’s a couple of dozen live versions of this song on YouTube if you want to spend an hour or so going through them. None of them is a patch on the studio version. It was a once in a lifetime moment for Green. And he didn’t know it at the time, fighting Mitchell over the song for days before finally giving in and recording it. Sometimes musicians are the worst judges of their own work.

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Break in the Road – Betty Harris

On the whole, I prefer my soul music soft, opulent and orchestrated, a sound that tends to be associated with Chicago in the very late 1960s and with Philadelphia in the early 1970s going into the disco era. Strings, doo-wop-style harmonies, falsetto lead vocals, steady but unflashy drumming, a bass guitar groove that was infectious but happy to play second fiddle to the top line – these things that characterise soft soul are the things that really send me.

But listening to it all the time is like surviving on a diet consisting of nothing but cream cakes. A really great deep soul or southern soul record can make the orchestrated Midwestern/East Coast variety sound effete, decadent even.

Southern soul tended to do without orchestras. Its roots in gospel music and jump blues were more apparent, and while its arrangements may have often been musically sophisticated, they tended to use a small-band sound: drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, piano and organ (especially organ), and a small horn section. It was, yes, gritty- and dirty-sounding, but sanctified – it hadn’t moved that far from the church.

Betty Harris didn’t cut many tracks in her career, but her body of work is revered by connoisseurs of this kind of raw soul music. She had begun her career on Bert Burns’ Jubilee label, and in 1963 released a hit version of Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me with a gorgeous vocal, alternating between a smoky whisper and a passionate roar. Harris’s record slowed the tempo down to a crawl, but it was irresistible and was a pop hit. Despite this early success, Burns’s attention was occupied by his bigger artists and his own private life, and soon Harris was without a producer, and to make matters worse, a manager (‘Babe’ Chivian) in legal trouble.

The appearance in her life of the great New Orleans producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint must have seemed propitious. There is some debate whether a deal with Toussaint was brokered by her manager (still Chivian? A subsequent manager?), or whether Toussaint approached her and her representative after seeing her sing live at the Apollo. However it happened, Toussaint had set up a venture called Sansu with Marshall Sehorn, and soon Harris was recording for the fledgling label, usually flying in to cut a vocal on a track written and arranged for her by Toussaint, leaving before the song was mixed.

Toussaint is a towering figure in New Orleans music, a writer of numerous classics (Working in a Coalmine, Ride Your Pony, Southern Nights), a great arranger and pianist, and a likeable singer in his own right, but his magic failed to work on Betty Harris’s career. She cut a lot of fine records for Sansu, but none of them were hits, and eventually – dispirited by the lack of success and her lack of involvement in making her own records – she quit singing in the early 1970s.

Before she did, she made one last great track in 1969, (There’s a) Break in the Road, a fire-breathing monster powered along by the Meters (more about this later). It’s about as raw a soul record as has ever been made, the guitar feeding back throughout, the snare drum and horns audibly distorting. It sounds like band in a room, loud as hell. No other record I know of sounds as present, as ‘there’, as Break in the Road. It verges on psych territory, with post-Hendrix trills on the guitar and drumming that savagely pushes and pulls at the groove, with syncopations so complex that they nearly go out of control. The song spends most of its 2.45 running time on the very edge of falling apart, and it sometimes seems as if Harris and her backing singers are holding the whole thing together only by force of will.

So who is the drummer on Break in the Road? Most of the sources I could find seem agreed that the guitarist and bassist are the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr, but opinion seems split on whether the drummer is the Meters’ own Ziggy Modeliste or James Black, a fellow New Orleans funk drummer known for his work with Eddie Bo. If you listen to Hook and Sling, Black’s best-known work, there are moments in the breakdowns every bit as far out and gonzo as those on Break in the Road, so it could easily be him, however much it sounds like Ziggy on first listen (and a lot of that may be be down to the engineering and production choices – perhaps a larger part of the Ziggy Modeliste drum sound comes from the recording techniques than has often been assumed).

I wish I knew for sure who it was. What is beyond contention is that this is Harris’s finest achievement, better even than Cry to Me. And that’s saying something.

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