triple treat – jimmy hughes
The release of a volume of Jimmy Hughes greatest hits - the best of Jimmy Hughes by Fame in 2008 sparked considerable interest in the soul music community. This compilation includes 2 hours of interviews with the singer and was collated by the legendary producer Rick Hall’s son Rodney, who now runs Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Rather than satisfying our taste for Jimmy’s fine music, this 18 tracker merely created the desire to hear more of Hughes superb discography - that had been languishing in Fame’s vaults for too many years. Up until then precious little of his back catalogue had found its way onto CD, other than collections like Soul Soldiers, Something Special (with Joe Hicks) and the Stax Box series, all issued by Ace Records in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I don’t remember any specific CD issues on the artist himself or magazine interviews, it was as if he’d had become something of a forgotten man until David Cole’s excellent feature for In The Basement #54 in Summer ‘09. So when Tony Rounce put together the first of his 3 CD compilations Steal Away – the early Fame recordings for Kent last year I knew this project would become one of the most worthy that he had created so far - and he has produced some great series in the past for Sequel, Westside and Ace/ Kent.
Along with Arthur Alexander, Jimmy’s initial recordings made at Muscle Shoals Studios with Rick Hall put both Fame Records and the Studios on the map. Before his self-penned classic ‘Steal Away’ intro, an earlier single ‘I’m Qualified/ My Lovin’ Time’ (also produced by Hall) had been issued on Philly label Guyden, then due to the ‘Steal Away’ success (Pop and R&B sales both peaking at #17 in June and July 1964 - it went to #2 on Cashbox) it was issued again on Jamie. Down the years Steal Away’s influence would grow and many other singers would add to its status as a soul standard with their own recordings. Hughes was born in Leighton, Alabama with a background steeped in gospel, he sang at his mother’s church and with a few groups including the Singing Clouds. Jimmy loved baseball but didn’t indicate any particular interest in a musical career. After leaving school he went to work at Robbins Rubber and met musician and studio boss Rick Hall through an old school friend but still declined the opportunity to make a record. It wasn’t until he witnessed Arthur Alexander’s sudden rise to success that he was really convinced he too could make it in secular music. After his initial success with ‘Steal Away’ (the very first song Jimmy composed) in 1964 their follow up ‘Try Me’ also did quite well on the R&B charts. Subsequent singles, good as they were, made little commercial impact. It seems his initial American audience preferred his gospel sound to the soulful ‘I’m Getting Better’ (even with a twist of Bacharach) or ‘You Really Know How To Hurt A Guy’. The UK Soul fans didn’t pick up on either of Jimmy’s first two singles though ‘Steal away’ (issued on Pye) did sell better. According to Tony’s CD notes Calvin Carter of Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records requested an album from Hall after the ‘Steal Away’ success and he put together a 12 tracker, which they issued. Though this album didn’t storm the charts it was much sought after by collectors down the years and it eventually became the centre-piece for the first Kent CD in this series. After the initial dip in single sales Jimmy came storming back to the US R&B charts with ‘Neighbor, Neighbor’ that took him to #4 and #65 Pop (this single was a re-recorded grittier version, not the track on his first album). The Bonus tracks on this first CD number 10 and include both sides of the first single, A’s and B sides of the early Fame singles including highlights ‘My Loving Time’, ‘Goodbye My Lover Goodbye’ and the enjoyable ‘Have You Done Got Over Me’ unissued before now, as was ‘Girl You Belong To Me’ and ‘My Adorable One’. These fine tracks constitute volume 1 and it’s the greatest collection of Hughes early work.
‘Neighbor, Neighbor’ hit a universal nerve and became Hughes biggest single hit but the follow up ‘I Worship The Ground You Walk On’ a superb slow pleading ballad written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham fell back to #25 – still a sizeable hit, but it deserved a much bigger success. ‘Why Not Tonight’ put him back into the top 5 but then inexplicably ‘Don’t Lose Your Good Thing’ a Hall/ Killen/ Oldham composition that rates amongst his very best records, missed the charts completely. I bought the single at the time (still have it today) and consider it the perfect example of Fame’s smooth production and Hughes uniquely relaxed style. So Jimmy’s second album was issued by Atco in 1967 and provides the first 10 tracks of Why Not Tonight? – the Fame recordings volume 2. The vinyl album contained Fame singles ‘It Was Nice’, and ‘Midnight Affair’ plus those already discussed, ‘Slipping Around With You’ and a good version of Jerry Butler’s ‘I Stand Accused’. Other highlights include ‘It’s A Good Thing’, ‘I’m The Loving Physician’ (that borrowed the tune from ‘Cry To Me’) and of course the title track. The bonus cuts include more Fame singles and flipsides, an OK re-arrangement of Tommy Tucker’s ‘Hi Heel Sneakers’ and Jimmy’s only Atlantic single ‘It Ain’t What You Got/ Uncle Sam’. The self penned ‘A’ side was a mid chart hit R&B single in January 1968. For the completists among you there are four previously unissued tracks – ‘Dilly, Dilly’, ‘Well Alright Girl’, ‘Too Much’ and the 3rd version of ‘Neighbor, Neighbor’. This CD marks out the middle period of Hughes short recording career, the end of the Fame years. Once again it reveals just how good a vocalist he was and how much great company can enrich your work. Volume 2 is just as mandatory as the first compilation.
Jimmy Hughes had signed to the Red-Wal management agency, founded by Phil and Alan Walden in late ’67. Then a month later disaster struck when their hottest artist Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash. The Walden’s wanted to increase Jimmy’s profile and persuaded him to leave Fame and sign to Stax/ Volt in Memphis. Without a hit for 2 years, Hughes was torn between what he knew and the promise of bigger success and eventually agreed. No one mentioned at the time that Stax was in the process of selling out to Gulf Western. His first records cut in Memphis were produced by Al Jackson of Booker T & the MGs, who along with the Memphis horns were the session musicians that provided the best possible support on Jimmy’s only Volt hit ‘I Like Everything About You’ that went to #21 on R&B singles in September 1968. The follow up ‘Let 'em Down Baby’ and ‘Chains Of Love’ made little commercial impact but in ’69 Volt released Hughes third album Something Special. It appears that something very wrong was going on at Stax because the promotion and distribution that had served them so well in the past just was not breaking their new product as effectively as it should have. In recent years this had been something that Atlantic had taken care of but with Gulf Western they were no longer in the picture and great artists like Lou Johnson and Jimmy Hughes saw some of their best work disappear without trace. To be fair to Stax they had lost their entire back catalogue in the Atlantic deal and were having to start from scratch. Later things would get back on track but there was a period when new artist that signed to the label were poorly represented. However I must say that in the UK Jimmy’s Volt album was well promoted and sold pretty well in the big Stax push of 1969. Once again this album is the nucleus of Kent’s third CD Something Extra Special – the complete Volt Recordings 1968 – 1971. Four of the five Volt ‘A’ sides feature and strong ‘B’ sides ‘What Side Of The Door’ and ‘Sweet Things You Do’ are also included. A single Jimmy Holiday song ‘It’s All Up To You’ and Homer Banks ‘Lock Me Up’ are memorable tracks too. Of Hughes three albums this has been the most widely available on CD in recent years. But for me the real highlights of this album are the 16 bonus tracks. All but two ‘Just Ain't Strong As I Used To Be’ and ‘Did You Forget’ have not been issued before. These were not throwaway tracks by any means, in fact they are strong enough to have been Jimmy’s fourth stand-alone album, everyone is well produced and complete. From ‘No Easy Way Down’ through ‘Don’t You Know I’m All Alone’, ‘Your Love Made A U Turn’, ‘Too Old To Play’ right up to the final cut ‘Your Love Is Important To Me’ the quality doesn’t waver. Sure there are some tracks that I prefer to others but that’s to be expected – musical tastes always vary. In David Cole’s interview with Jimmy last year he stated that although he was delighted with early sessions at Volt but at the end of the day he found it a big let down. Stax was and still is one of the great record companies, Jimmy was very unlucky to be there at a time when the business of the Gulf Western take over caused a distraction that impacted negatively on his career. Fate definitely did not deal him a fair hand. But listening to this music now, the creative side of Stax/Volt did not let him down, the music, much of it not heard until now, does not disappoint on the contrary Something Extra Special is the perfect title for this final compilation. Sadly Jimmy left the music business never to return so now his complete recorded catalogue is finally available and this Kent CD concludes a very soulful trilogy. Tony Rounce and the guys at Ace/ Kent who crafted this superb trilogy are to be congratulated. It stands out as another jewel in their unrivalled reissue catalogue. (peter burns)
Jimmy Hughes Discography compiled by Peter Burns