the great american soulbook tour
Ben E King and Gary US Bonds
Gary US Bonds was energised and upped the tempo a notch or two with his great rendition of the old Pickett classic ‘In The Midnight Hour’ rolling on into ‘Soul Man’ before giving us a superb interpretation of his biggest hit ‘Quarter To Three’. Otis Redding’s swan song ‘Dock Of The Bay’ came next and Gary rounded off his first selection with a powerful version of the Jackie Wilson evergreen ‘Higher & Higher’. The little theatre was rocking but all too soon we were into the interval and folks were filing out into the bar. Gary made an appearance in reception, signing autographs, Top Rank singles, programmes and the like and was happy to pose for photographs and be generally available to chat and reminisce. This was an unexpected bonus for the fans in attendance.
The second half of their show had Ben ‘Twisting The Night Away’. Though you can’t really hear it in his baritone, Sam Cooke was a big influence on Ben when he started out. As Otis once told me “Sam is the black man’s Sinatra – no singer since him hasn’t been influenced by his records”. That was 45 years ago and times have changed since then but Cooke’s influence was indelible, Ben and his songs have been very influential too. His next number ‘Don’t Play That Song’ as I remember it came from his idea and was written by his wife Betty and Ahmet Ertegun while Ben was on tour in the UK. It was one of Ben’s classic tracks and sold a million. Then when Aretha Franklin cut it eight years later it was an even bigger hit for her (and the King family). Then she went onto cut another of his key songs ‘Spanish Harlem’ and scored another international hit with that. But one of King’s favourite writers is John Lennon and after a personal tribute he gave us his version of ‘Imagine’ that morphed into ‘Wonderful World’. To finish of his second set Ben sang what must be his most influential song ‘Stand By Me’ that not only has been a huge hit for him twice in his long career but has been covered by hundreds of singers including Lennon.
King passed the baton to Bonds and once again the energy levels went off VU as he stormed in with the old Eddie Floyd standard ‘Knock On Wood’ and Sam Cooke came into play once again with Arthur Conley’s only major contribution to the Great American Soulbook ‘Sweet Soul Music’. Gary dropped the tempo a notch or two for his beautiful rendition of the Al Green anthem ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and next came his recording debut the superb ‘New Orleans’ that like all the other songs was splendidly interpreted by the band - Leo giving us his best Daddy G riffs. Somehow it morphed into ‘Hound Dog’ a song that crossed all boundaries from Big Mama Thornton to Freddie Bell and Elvis Presley. It was almost all over as Ben reappeared and the band changed gear into the intro of ‘Stand By Me’ at this point the audience took over and they sang the complete song to him and Gary – the perfect goodbye.
Back in the dressing room after the guys had got their breath back we re-connected. Although we had spoken on the telephone and written to each other in the last few years we couldn’t believe it had been nearly 40 years since our last personal meeting back in 1972 when Ben was between record companies and had teemed up with JJ Jackson. They had offices/ rehearsal rooms in New York City and were writing and producing for young up and comers and talking about forming a production company. In the mid ‘60s we’d been tight when Ben used to tour the UK regularly once or twice each year and a group of us went to all his London gigs, met him at the airport etc. At that time I was freelancing for a number of music papers and magazines (all gone now) and would place features about him on each of his visits. We talked about the book we have been planning for a few years. In 2007 I presented him with my half of the book that had taken me a few years to complete (26,000 words plus a 17,000 word discography). He was delighted with this at the time and we came to verbal agreement that he would write his half of the book, dealing with the more personal recollections of events in his career and family life. Unfortunately in early 2008 I developed a heart problem and was hospitalised. I informed Ben and did not hear back from him for several months. When I was well enough to resume he seemed to have lost interest in the project. So this seemed like a good opportunity to reactivate the book. We talked about it and Ben said he would give it some thought and although his attitude was positive, I’m not holding my breath. I offered to go to New York to carry out a number of interviews with him and transcribe the results and he seemed genuinely interested but Ben’s kind of private about his family life and I want to respect his and their wishes even if they go up against my own.
I don’t expect that all Ben’s fans came out to see him this time, there are quite a few here in the UK, but they should have done because though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gary tour here in the future, I feel it’s unlikely that Ben will perform in the UK again certainly not solo – hope I’m wrong because it was great to see him again, though his vocal power is not what it was, he is such a natural craftsman and his records were so influential, especially his early work. Along with Sam Cooke and a couple of others he was one of the few pioneers that invented ‘60s soul music. (peter burns)
personal heroes #8
the impressions – part 1
Undaunted by this second departure the core Impressions membership of Sam Gooden and Fred Cash went into the studio to record their next album Preacher Man as a duo in mid ‘72. This was the first to be produced at Curtom’s purpose-built studios with master engineer Roger Anfinsen (who had designed and created the new studios) at the controls. Also, it was very much producer Richard Tufo’s baby, as he wrote five of the seven songs and arranged all the sessions. Curtis Mayfield took a back seat and was credited as production coordinator. From the opening notes of the album, it became apparent that Tufo, Cash and Gooden were making a conscious effort to present something different. Instead of trying to find a further replacement for Leroy Hutson, this threesome took the next positive step in the evolution of the Impressions. For the first time in the group’s history, Fred Cash sang the lead throughout the album with the assistance of Tufo, who recorded layers of background vocals, which featured Fred, Sam and new member Reggie Torian as well as assorted female voices. They used percussionist Henry Gibson (of ‘The Ghetto’ fame) on the opening cut ‘What It Is’ a funky instrumental in the ‘Freddie’s Dead’ mode. ‘Thin Line’ was by far the most ambitious post-Mayfield Impressions track, clocking in at over ten minutes in length and Curtom released an edited version as a 45 in an attempt to restore the group’s slump in singles sales, that had been in decline since Curtis’ departure.
Curtis, who owned the Impressions Name/ Mark, was considering a complete group makeover, in a more youthful format and Curtom re-issued ‘Times Have Changed’ as a solo under Fred Cash’s name. But when the Preacher Man albumwas released in March ‘73 it climbed to a healthy #24 R&B in the following month and that idea went on hold. The Impressions were still evolving in both personnel and musical direction. Preacher Man stands on its own merits though. A one-off experiment that in retrospect, sparkles with mature brightness. Critics and pundits tended to compare any Curtom product with the commercially successful material and so, sadly, some creative and distinctive work spluttered in Mayfield’s vapour trail when it really should have received better attention and acceptance. Fortunately the passage of time allows for re-evaluation of such music, and Preacher Man can now be seen for what it is, a highly accomplished piece of work. Not issued on vinyl in the UK or Europe it was one of their last albums to be transferred to CD.
The line-up of the Impressions looked set to change again. They began to lay down material for what became their 15th album in late 1973 and early ‘74, with producers Rich Tufo and Lowrell Simon (the latter formerly of Brunswick act, The Lost Generation). Towards the end of the Preacher Man sessions, Sam and Fred had taken on Reggie Torian as Leroy Hutson’s replacement. Torian had been recruited by Fred Cash in August ‘72 from a Chicago outfit, the Enchanters, who had recently had a local hit with ‘Fool Like Me’ on Golden Ear. Cash asked Clarence Ludd owner of the High Chaparral club to recommend a singer to help them out for 6 months and he suggested Reggie. The Impressions were not touring and still considering dissolving the group and Fred was also planning a solo career. Fortunately this scenario did not materialize. Reggie stayed for 10 years - his ability to replicate Curtis’ falsetto became a much-needed part of the Impressions’ future live shows. Reggie brought the group back to a trio and by the time the latest round of recording got underway they had become a quartet thanks to the further acquisition of Ralph Johnson. “Reggie is great at the old hits – he has a similar vocal range to Curtis. Ralph does most of the newer material.” Fred commented in an interview at the time. Johnson came from Greenville, SC was one of the singers with Moses Dillard’s Tex Town Display, who had a couple of singles on Curtom in 1970 and ’71. He got his introduction through his friend and lead singer with the Independents Charles Jackson. Fred and Sam invited Ralph to join the Impressions in late ‘73, after hearing some demos that he had cut the previous year. This new injection of youthful enthusiasm gave the group a further burst of energy and provided a new wave of hits for the Impressions. In December ‘73 ‘If It’s In You To Do Wrong’ peaked at #26 on Billboard’s R&B singles giving them their first hit in 18 months. An intelligent song with a terrific arrangement from ex-Motown staffer David Van De Pitte, ‘If It’s In You To Do Wrong’ began in mid-tempo mode but soon settled into a ballad groove with Ralph Johnson getting plenty of room to establish his credentials as a new Impressions lead singer. Johnson’s voice had a slightly harder edge to it than any of his predecessors and this gave the song an insistence that helped it re-establish the group as a force still to be reckoned with.
While the Simon/ Tufo production team and the Impressions themselves had been taking steps in the right direction, Curtom looked elsewhere for the inspiration and drive to complete this unfinished album. The ‘50s and ‘60s veteran Ed Townsend had recently become hot again thanks to his co-production of some of Marvin Gaye’s great album of the era Let’s Get It On and it was Townsend and his contemporary, the great guitarist/ arranger Rene Hall who were engaged to provide a quartet of tracks that they cut in LA to finish the Impressions’ project. These cuts were recorded in one take with a ‘live’ orchestra in the way that Townsend always liked to work. Ralph provided a relaxed delivery and this, together with Sam, Fred and Reggie’s memorable back-up vocals and a loping groove that Townsend flew straight in from ‘Let’s Get It On’, was all the incentive the public needed to make ‘I’m A Changed Man (Finally Got Myself Together)’ the hit it deserved to be. This record was to set the style for the Impressions’ next phase, giving them their 40th R&B chart entry and more importantly, their fourth R&B #1 single in April 1974 and also crossed over to the pop charts, where it peaked at a very impressive #17. Naturally it became the title track of the now-completed album that peaked at #22 on R&B albums, providing the group with healthy sales for six months and a positive outlook for the future. The album was also well received in Europe where it re-launched the Impressions outside America, selling well on the UK Soul album chart and in the following months the single went gold. Once again, the Impressions were in great demand – and this time independently of Curtis Mayfield. Fred Cash observed “Curtis had been such a huge influence, we knew we couldn’t live in his shadow forever and he wouldn’t have wanted it that way either. It was rough at first but when we hit the top without him, it gave us all a lot of personal confidence.”
Their next project was a movie score for Three The Hard Way, a collaboration with Rich Tufo and Lowrell Simon as producers and writers. Hot once again, they happily rode the media-go-round through radio, TV, live shows and interviews. Richard Tufo became the second Curtom producer to write arrange and produce a movie soundtrack in ’74. 'Three The Hard Way' was directed by Gordon Parks Jr. of ‘Superfly’ fame. Mayfield’s Superfly had been so huge that Curtom were looking to capitalize on that success tied in with the Impressions renewed popularity at the time. The Impressions, supplied all the vocals for this project. The movie features Jim Brown an ex football star who had appeared in many successful Hollywood movies of all kinds, Fred Williamson (who starred in tough guy black movies in the 70s and 80s), and Jim Kelly, a Karate black belt champ, who came to prominence in 'Enter The Dragon’ ('73) and made a number of martial arts movies. These three heroes join forces to prevent a dastardly plot by Neo Nazi, Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson), to rid the planet of the black race by poisoning the water supply with a deadly serum, to which whites are impervious. This tedious thriller is long on action, with plenty of explosions, shoot-em-ups and combat scenes but short on (intentional) laffs: some good jokes would have made its passage that much smoother. But it fit perfectly into the Blaxploitation genre of the time. ‘Something’s Mighty, Mighty Wrong’ was cut as a single and added to the album (though it doesn’t appear in the movie). It went top 30 R&B in September '74 but saw no pop chart action and the Impressions lost some momentum. This offended Townsend whose reaction was “I put them back on top and they cut a record with another producer”. The Three The Hard Way soundtrack though not quite up to the standard of Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ was still OK but due to its non-release in the UK, both at the time and ever since, this album has become something of a rarity in Europe (though it was issued in Germany). Gordon Parks Jr. only made a couple of movies more before he was killed in a Kenyan plane crash in 1979.
First Impressions was the Impressions second album with producer Ed Townsend and their first under a new Curtom distribution deal with Warner Bros. Butler Workshop alumni Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy also added their creative production and songwriting skills, which honed the commercial edge to this album. Townsend wrote all the songs with one exception (‘I’m So Glad’ by Van McCoy). 'Sooner Or Later' begins with an introductory monologue that soon gives way to a medium tempo ballad featuring great group harmony behind a particularly fiery Ralph Johnson lead. Released as the album's first single, it deservedly barnstormed its way to #3 on the R&B chart in April ‘75, but its sheer soulfulness was perhaps too much for the pop market. Johnson sang the majority of songs on this collection. 'Same Thing It Took' was also used as a single, but only garnered medium sales. For many, 'First Impressions' turned out to be the album's highlight and became their only UK Pop hit single. It carried the Impressions to the very top of the UK Soul Singles chart in December '75 but for some inexplicable reason was not released in the US as a single until later (like Mayfield's 'Move On Up' had been), when it was thrown away on the flip of 'Loving Power' - another Curtom marketing mystery. Sam Gooden's bass has seldom been put to better use on an Impressions track, while Ralph, Reggie and Fred are in turn simply outstanding. For the Impressions this classic track, at least in Europe, was to become a latter day trademark. This album took a step further away from the Mayfield sound that had been the group’s recorded heritage since '58. The dual leads of Johnson and Torian gave them the opportunity to broaden their horizons, while all the time retaining the ability to perform the Impressions illustrious back catalogue in the finest style. First Impressions became a top 10 US R&B album and scored #33 on the UK Soul albums chart some seven months later in February '76. Their renewed popularity prompted tours of America and Europe keeping them busy between albums but for reasons as yet unexplained the UK audiences were unable to see their concerts, as they played in the main to US bases with the notable exceptions of the Speakeasy in London (1972), a Royal Variety performance in ’76, and one or two other isolated appearances.
When the Loving Power album was released in the UK, reviewers generally agreed that the Impressions had 'got it right' with this collection. As a single the title track did good US R&B business charting at #11 in late '75. The song was written and produced by (Independents front man) Charles Jackson and Marvin Yancy. Johnson shares the lead with Cash and Torian on a great track that was on reflection not really single material at least for the Pop market. Bunny Sigler was active at Curtom for a brief period at this time and no doubt influential in the choice of their next single 'Sunshine'. Sigler and Phil Hurtt had written 'Sunshine' originally for Percy Sledge and it had also been recorded by the O'Jays a couple of years earlier, although neither version became the big hit that the song deserved. The Impressions later version compares favourably with the O'Jays record, as does Tufo's excellent arrangement and production. Both versions are in danger of over singing to an overblown production but so often these dramatic illusions created by the great producers like Spector, Bacharach and Bell and others (in this case Rich Tufo) had found wide public acceptance. Nevertheless this was to become the Impressions final Curtom single and climbed to a healthy #36 R&B in May '76 but made no pop chart impact. Despite a rather ordinary sleeve the album sold well to Soul fans registering at #28 on the R&B album chart and similarly #32 on the UK Soul albums in the spring of '76. Shortly after its release in June, Ralph Johnson left the Impressions to create his own new group - Mystique. Then the remaining Impressions left Curtom seeking yet another new lead singer before signing to Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records, of New York. When asked by DJ Bob Abrahamian on his radio show ‘Sitting In The Park’ (27/4/08) “Why did the Impressions leave Curtom when they were still getting hits with them?” Reggie answered “We weren’t given a fair shake when Curtom moved from Buddah to Warner Bros. We had no idea of the amounts of money involved. When ‘Jet’ magazine revealed the situation we were shocked. When it came time to re-sign our contracts the group wanted a better deal”. Curtom did not agree and split the Impressions down the middle offering Ralph and Reggie a deal with two new younger Impressions. “Curtis was talking about them appealing to a younger market with Ralph and me as the centre piece and wanted us to stay at Curtom. I didn’t believe that would happen, Fred and Sam were and still are, the Impressions”. Initially Ralph also agreed but he had changed his mind by the time of their next meeting at Curtom.
Ralph may have sung lead on all seven Impressions hits in the past 30 months but now he decided that the time was right to strike out with his own group. The remaining Impressions, Sam Gooden, who had sung on every Impressions record ever made, Fred Cash, who had joined in '58 to replace Jerry Butler, and Reggie Torian, who sang lead on the back catalogue, also quit Curtom. A strange move considering that Mayfield had originally built Curtom around the group, before he went solo in 1970. It was not as if their current record sales were poor either, the past three albums had all been R&B hits and had also improved their European sales. Other than Curtis himself, the Impressions were Curtom's biggest asset. But the Curtom management didn’t believe that they would get a deal anywhere else. Fred and Sam disagreed and began negotiations with other companies. Cash & Gooden wanted to duplicate that hard gospel sound that Ralph had contributed but Reggie didn’t see it that way. “I was democratically voted down. So they bought in Nate Evans”. The Impressions signed with Henry Allen at Cotillion who gave them a good advance. Evans had been singing in Chicago for years and had previously recorded for one or two of the smaller labels, among them Twinlight. Nate’s voice was similar enough to Ralph’s to make a transition possible. But there was one more fly in the ointment. Reggie revealed “We had to buy our name back when Atlantic/ Cotillion offered us a contract”. Curtis gave the Impressions their release but wanted an impossible figure for their name. To everyone’s delight Atlantic paid it. Curtis sold his rights to the Impressions name/ mark and now Fred and Sam are its legal owners. Johnson’s new group Mystique projected a radically different image and sound from the Impressions. Their three Curtom singles only reached low R&B chart placings and their debut album Mystique was also their last. After the Impressions departure, the fortunes of both Curtom and Mystique slowly went into decline.
“We made a Christmas album with other artists on the label including Luther Vandross called Funky Christmas but it didn’t work with Cotillion,” said Reggie. But the group did lay down a beautiful version of the yuletide classic ‘Silent Night’ that was released on a single. The It’s About Time album was issued in November 1976. All the sessions were recorded in Hollywood, Los Angeles and Chicago by producer and ex Invictus staffer McKinley Jackson. Jackson shared arrangements between Gil Askey, HB Barnum and Gene Page. Six of the eight songs were written by Mervin and Melvin Steals, the other two came from the pens of Jackson, Paul Richmond and Daryll Ellis. It was a confident re-introduction, with new lead Evans looking and sounding enough like Ralph Johnson to step into the Impressions format without missing a beat. Nate’s vocal timbre was close enough to provide a convincing opening with 'In The Palm Of My Hands' that grows after a few hearings but was wrongly passed over as a single. Cotillion, in hindsight, made the wrong choices with all their Impressions singles. 'You'll Never Find' was used as their second single when it should have been their introduction. It’s a great track with Evans and group all in good voice but could only crawl into the R&B charts at #99 in March of '77. 'This Time' was written by McKinley and wife Shirley Jones (who sang lead with the Jones Girls) and as a single peaked at #40 R&B in November '76. It contains all the ingredients for a hit but not necessarily in the right order - either of the first two tracks works better. The It’s About Time albumcame in a sharp sleeve picturing the be suited quartet looking affluent and happy below a 'once only' Impressions logo. They went out on the road to promote the album in America but it didn't sell well enough to chart and was not released in Europe, where it might have received a better response. Shortly after release of the second single, UK press reports appeared telling of a 'near fatal' car crash that happened whilst the Impressions were touring in West Virginia. But thankfully all four members had been fortunate enough to escape the wreck with little more than cuts and bruises.
Cotillion released a third single 'Can't Get Along' that sold well enough to reach #42 R&B in July ‘77, doing almost as well as 'This Time' but that was their last single for a while.The album was good, but with a couple of minor adjustments it could have been great. It did not win them any new fans and the Impressions left Cotillion in '78 after several deals and promises had fallen through including a second album, cut but not released. On their UK tour in October '78 they talked about future plans for an album with Thom Bell, that also didn't materialize and some more information about the Cotillion album (SD 5203) that had been recorded and produced by Johnny Pate in Atlantic's New York Studios through the summer of '77. Review copies had been pressed but presumably the reaction had not been positive enough for Cotillion to release the album. The tracks included 'Dance' (already issued on a 12”), 'You're So Right For Me', 'Take My Time', 'Illusions', 'Pressure', 'Inside Out', 'Let's Talk It Over', 'Who You Been Loving' and the issued single 'Can't Get Along’. I am investigating the possibility and am hopeful for CD issue in the near future with the inclusion of other previously unissued bonus tracks. Cotillion had quite a lot of success on the Soul charts, but seemed unable to give their absolute best to some of the great talent that passed through their roster. Lou Johnson and Walter Jackson faired poorly and Ronnie Dyson did little better.
The quartet continued to tour America and when Carl Davis set up his new Chi-Sound label in ’78 he invited them to join the select group of artists involved in his new venture. Come To My Party their first Chi-Sound album was produced by Davis and arranged by Sonny Sanders and James Mack. Two of the songs were written by the label’s current vice-president Gene Chandler, and a further three came from staff producer Eugene Record, who had previously recorded the songs solo or would use them again for the Chi-Lites. Reggie Torian sang lead on most of the cuts and the sleeve feature a great photo of the trio in party mode. Unfortunately the Impressions back catalogue was currently deemed 'unfashionable’ and the more contemporary material produced by Chi-Sound was not quite compatible either. The results were good but the Impressions vocal arrangements had them sounding like the Chi-Lites on occasion. ‘I Could Never Make You Stay' (with monologue intro by Sam) seemed to suit them best and album highlight 'Maybe I'm Mistaken' also went out as a single. Fred co-wrote two songs, of which 'Sorry' made another single, but neither of these sides could manage to create more than low R&B chart interest. The title track is the best of the dance sides and though the trio performed well within their abilities, and the evolution of their vocal harmony was in step with musical trends, it wasn’t quite what their fanbase wanted to hear. In the 2 years since they last cut any records, black music of any literary quality had taken a backseat, the focus was now very much on the beat - ad nausium. These songs were pretty good, with contributions from Eugene Record and Gene Chandler, the production and arrangements were fine but there were too few tracks, some were overlong and ‘Come To My Party’ had been used before by Record. Davis tried to balance soul with dance-oriented disco and the Impressions gave it their best shot. It was almost 2 years before they got their next album Fan The Fire a co-production between Davis and Record with arrangements by Tom Tom 84 and Sonny Sanders. The title track is a dance floor stomper previously recorded by Record, but the returning Nate Evans’ confident lead has the edge on 'I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love' that really should have been a single; it had real hit potential and was certainly a lasting favourite on the dance floors in Europe. Torian took the lead on 'Love Love Love' that is a continuum dance groove and Fred Cash sings on his self-penned ballad 'You're Mine'. Evans did as well as he could on the next three songs but they all lacked vitality. Impressions fans showed their preference by buying the contemporary version of ‘For Your Precious Love’ into the R&B chart (to #58) their only Chi-Sound single to achieve reasonable sales. Sam sang a superb lead, as he must have done hundreds of times before on the Impressions tours. In the UK this classic song was twinned with ‘Fan The Fire’ on a 12” single. It was a lean time for soulful music and though Davis, Record and Chandler provided a great sound and production values, consistently better songs might have made a greater impact on the charts. Chi-Sound also had more than its fair share of distribution problems during this period and spluttered on until January '84, when Carl Davis finally called it a day. And in Chicago, Soul music died. Almost every record label, recording studio, venue and club that had once made Chicago one of the most important centres of Soul music had changed direction, closed up or moved away from the city.
Reggie Torian left for personal reasons. He was going through a difficult divorce during which he lost everything. After it was all over he took a Los Angeles vacation and ended up staying there 10 years. He went back to College (Business Studies and Arts) then taught Physical Education and Health for 3 years. Seeking spiritual renewal he joined the ministry and became an elder in the 7th Adventist Church, who put him through college in Alabama. Torian cut a couple of small label solo records of little distinction while still active in the church. The Impressions recruited Vandy ('Smokey') Hampton, who had spent the past ten years singing in Chicago, first with the Soul Majestics and later with the Chi-Lites, during the years that Eugene Record had been solo on Warner’s and Gospel on Evergreen. Sam Gooden had sung with the Impressions right from the start (and the Roosters before that) when he had been one of the leads (on Bandera with 'Listen' in '59). He was considered the closest vocally to departing lead Jerry Butler and his rich bass was featured many times on Impressions records (in support and lead). His celebrated bass/ baritone is in the tradition of Brook Benton and Jimmy Ricks and his striking good looks earned him the nickname “Hollywood Sam”. He learned from the Undisputed Truth (in Northampton May 2008) that the vocal track on their biggest hit ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’, had been inspired by him. His lifelong pal Fred Cash, who had also been a Rooster back in Chattanooga, was too young to be an Impression the first time around and had joined the group in late 1958 when Butler went solo. His tenor has also featured on many Impressions recordings and their combined voices were (and still are) the sound that became the group’s heart and soul and gave them more than 50 hit singles and 30 hit albums since their formation in 1957. Sam and Fred have written a few good songs, but as the Impressions had always depended on the brilliant writing of Mayfield, Hutson, Townsend and the like in the past, they sometimes suffered from less than perfect material. Though the Impressions cut no more records for 4 years they still found plenty of steady work on tour, playing revues and appearing on Gospel TV. Then Nate went solo and toured with Eddie Kendricks for a short period. They performed in Birmingham, Alabama and LA but the gigs ran out in September ’81.
The trio Sam, Fred and Smokey celebrated the Impressions Silver Anniversary in 1983. In the latter part of '82 on his return from a successful UK tour, Curtis Mayfield, once again linked up with Jerry Butler, Nate Evans and the Impressions to create, rehearse and celebrate their Silver Anniversary with a nationwide US tour (sponsored by Budweiser). According to New Yorkers Pernell Jones and Faith Aarons, who caught the tour at the Beacon Theatre, the programme ran for close to three hours with an intermission. It was staged chronologically with Butler and Mayfield performing their solo hits as well as their leads with the Impressions. The orchestra included a dozen pieces or more and featured Henry Gibson (percussion), Gary Thompson (guitar), Tracey Mayfield (bass), Eric Hackett (keyboards) and Ira Gates (drums). Debra Henry and Mattie Butler provided the vocal support and the Chicago Horn Section and orchestra were under the direction of MD Lawrence Hanks. In New York the concert was well attended by an audience that spanned right across the age groups. The tour was enormously successful; performances were enthusiastically received, got standing ovations and many curtain calls. Mayfield recorded the highlights of the tour and there were rumours that he would be releasing an album of the Impressions Silver Anniversary Tour on CRC (Curtom Record Company). Unfortunately this promising album did not materialize but the tapes do exist and have sat in the Curtom vaults somewhere for the past 29 years awaiting digital liberation. (peter burns)
Acknowledgements to Reggie Torian, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash
Impressions on CD compiled by Peter Burns
The Impressions Part 2 - Sooner Or Later will be published in the next issue
bobby bland - I Pity The Fool
Now regarded as one of the all time classic blues albums, Bobby Bland’s seminal 1961 release “Two Steps From The Blues” was not greeted with unanimous approval by UK blues fans at the time, one of whom described it as being “two thousand steps from the blues”. In retrospect this tells us more about the mindset of British blues fan back then than it does about the quality of the music. If a record strayed too far from the accepted twelve bar format then for some it ceased to be the blues. In reality the blues in its purest forms was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the majority of black record buyers, with the then current interest coming mainly from the burgeoning folk music scene. Looking back at the album now tracks such as “I Pity The Fool” and “Cry, Cry, Cry” can be seen as pivotal, not just in the development of the blues as a musical form, but in the way it was interpreted vocally.
For the purpose of this piece I will be concentrating on the recordings Bobby made for Don Robey’s Houston based Duke label between his demob from the army in 1955 and the cutting of “I Pity The Fool” in 1960. Initially during this period Bobby’s records followed the standard 12 bar urban blues format of the day and featured a top quality seven-piece band. Unlike most bluesmen at the time Bobby didn’t play an instrument himself and was therefore reliant on his voice alone to sell the song. He initially achieved this by basing his vocal style on his hero Roy Brown, who had a higher natural pitch than his own, and a fruity, almost operatic delivery which was much copied. To add spice to his own style Bobby began punctuating his songs with a wailing falsetto cry which soon became his calling card. The records were solid if unexceptional, and didn’t really take off sales-wise until the gently rocking “Further Up The Road” stormed to the top of the R & B charts in September 1957.
Having finally established himself Bobby experienced a serious setback when, after a routine tonsil operation, he found that he could no longer hit those wailing high notes which had become his trademark. When he finally hit on a replacement vocal mannerism it came from a rather unexpected source - the charismatic Rev. C. L. Franklin (father of Aretha, Erma & Carolyn) whose albums of gospel songs and sermons were very popular at the time. At certain key points the Rev. Franklin would toughen up his delivery with a rough edged squall, and it was this devise that Bobby added to his own vocal armoury. It really came to the fore at the chilling climax of his 1958 hit “Little Boy Blue”, a truly thrilling performance which equalled anything that James Brown or Ray Charles were doing at the time. In fact, so memorable was it that, five years later Otis Redding climaxed his second Volt release “That’s What My Heart Needs” in exactly the same manner.
Label boss Don Robey must have recognised that in Bobby Bland he had a singer of huge potential, who, given the right material and production values could become much more than just another bluesman. In pairing Bobby with trumpet player and arranger Joe Scott, Don Robey’s hopes soon became a reality. As an added bonus the talented Scott was also able to coach Bobby in how to approach and interpret each new song, something which Bobby himself has been quick to acknowledge.
“I Pity The Fool” was recorded in Chicago on Nov.12th 1960 with a ten piece band led by Scott and featuring ace session guitarist Wayne Bennett and drummer John “Jabo” Starks. Although the song writing credit goes to Deadric Malone (Don Robey’s nom de plume) it was probably penned by writer / singer Joe Medwick who may also have been responsible for “Cry, Cry, Cry”. Robey frequently used the ploy of purchasing the rights to the songs from the actual writers then replacing their names with the Malone pseudonym when the record was released. In reality Robey had probably never written a song in his life.
Whilst dramatic ballads such as “Cry, Cry, Cry” and the gospel inspired “Lead Me On” signalled a move away from the traditional blues format into what was later to be labelled soul music, “I Pity The Fool” relies on a basic twelve bar progression for the verses and just a single chord and staccato brass riff for the chorus. Yet it doesn’t sound like a conventional blues because the melody line and arrangement and Bland’s vocal interpretation give it a different sound and feel. Of course, in general terms this musical transition had been going on for many years, but a commercially successful recording like “I Pity The Fool” by an artist who was perceived as being a conventional urban bluesman gave it far more relevance.
The opening verse sets the scene brilliantly, with Bobby approaching the bitter lyric in a suitably dark and brooding manner, no doubt following the instructions of arranger Joe Scott, who instinctively knew how the song should be interpreted to gain maximum impact. But it is in the chorus that the song really comes alive, as Bobby’s mood changes from one of bitter reflection to outright anger -
“Look at the people!
The lines were inspired by a popular gospel record of the day, “Standing At The Judgement” by the Sensational Nightingales, led by the charismatic Julius Cheeks. It is hardly coincidental that the Nightingales recorded for Don Robey’s Peacock label, of which Duke, originally a Memphis based concern, became a subsidiary. And the gospel link is further reinforced when Bobby uses his powerful Rev. C. L. Franklin inspired squall to heighten the drama. The record buying public approved too, sending “I Pity The Fool” to the top spot on the U. S. R & B Charts in 1961. Hardly surprisingly it made very little impression on the pop charts, peaking at a lowly 46. It soon became an acknowledged classic though, generating versions over the years by acts as diverse as The Mannish Boys (featuring David Bowie), Memphis based soul singer Ann Peebles, and popular modern bluesman Robert Cray.
The influence of “I Pity The Fool” and other Bobby Bland titles of the time cannot be emphasised enough. Indeed such were their impact that other blues balladeers such as Earl Gaines, McKinley Mitchell, Buddy Ace, Tyrone Davis, Mighty Sam and in particular Geater Davis and Little Milton were able to build their entire careers on Bobby’s soul-blues style. At the time of writing Bobby, now in his eighties is still performing, occasionally with his old blues buddy B. B. King. And long may it continue! (mike finbow)
Sources - Bill Dahl, booklet notes for Bobby “Blue” Bland, The Anthology on MCA Records.
personal heroes #9
gerry rafferty - part 1
Songwriters inevitably reach out to others through their work just as authors, painters and poets always have. No matter how simple the message it will resonate with others less able to articulate their hopes, dreams or wishes. This too was part of Gerry’s dream but from the very start he had reservations about the music business and the growing cult of celebrity that was to make life difficult for him and many others in the future.
Rafferty was born the third son to Joseph and Mary in April 1947. He grew up in a council house in Ferguslie Park, a deprived community located in the North West of Paisley, near Glasgow. His father was an Irish-born coalminer who also worked as a lorry driver. Joseph had a habit of getting drunk on a Saturday night and taking his troubles out on his family. As a kid Gerry picked up a three-string banjo that was laying around the house and soon he was composing his own songs. His mother whose maiden name was Mary Skeffington would inspire one of Gerry’s brightest early songs. He left St. Mirin’s Academy aged 16, the year that his father died. Gerry worked a couple of jobs at a butchers shop then at a tax office but he began writing songs with school chum Joe Egan and together they formed the Sensors, playing at local clubs and dancehalls. Within two years they had gone semi professional and changed their name to the Mavericks. After playing a gig at a Clydebank dance hall Gerry met his future wife Carla Ventilla who was only 15 at the time.
Following a couple of months busking on the London Underground Gerry returned to Scotland and took a job in the Clydeside shipyards. He also reconnected with Egan and together they formed the Fifth Column who were soon to cut their first single ‘Benjamin Day/ There’s Nobody Here’ for Columbia in 1966. It was Gerry’s first published song but it made no national impact and within a few months of its failure Rafferty and Egan had left the group. Rafferty joined a Clydeside Folk group the Humblebums in 1969, who had previously been a duo featuring Tom Harvey and Billy Connolly. Connolly wrote most of the songs and Harvey played lead guitar and mandolin. During the previous year Billy and Tom had recorded a dozen or so songs at Craighall Studios in Edinburgh and Sound Technique Studios in London with producer Bill Leader and Transatlantic issued 13 tracks as The Humblebums First Collection Of Merry Melodies in late 1968. Inspired by the new set up Rafferty brought a new enthusiasm and lots of songs to the group but within six months Harvey left. The ‘New’ Humblebums first single ‘Saturday Round About Sunday/ Bed Of Mossy Green’ was issued by Transatlantic in 1969. The UK charts of the time were awash with Pop/ Rock like ‘Dizzy’ (Tommy Roe), ‘Get Back’ (Beatles), soulful sounds by the Isley Brothers (‘Behind A Painted Smile’) and Jackie Wilson’s classic ‘Higher & Higher’ jostled alongside ‘Galveston’ (Glen Campbell) and the Folk/ Rock of Simon & Garfunkle and Jethro Tull, so basically it was open season for a broad sweep of musical genres, if you could get played on TV or radio. But the Humblebums had a purer Folk sound so ‘Saturday Round About Sunday’ didn’t make much impression but Rafferty’s first lead single the haunting ‘Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway’ caused a ripple of interest in the London music business. Connolly and Rafferty began laying down tracks for the groups second album of which a dozen were selected to compile The Humblebums (also known as the New Humblebums). Gerry and Billy had a very different appeal and the tracks were placed alternately with each singer performing his own composition. While Connolly experimented with a kind of variety monologue that gradually evolved into longer dialogues, Rafferty concentrated on his songwriting and vocal technique. Songs like ‘Look Over The Hills And Far Away’ and ‘Her Father Didn’t Like Me Anyway’ expressed a kind of longing for highland landscapes and fragments from his past came through. ‘Rick Rack’ refers to his abusive father who would ‘raise his hand’ without much provocation. Others like ‘Coconut Tree’ talk of domestic escape, ‘Please Sing A Song For Us’ is self-explanatory and ‘Blood & Glory’ describes what could be an episode from TV drama ‘Sharp’. ‘Patrick’ is in praise of the great Scottish painter (and playwrite) John Byrne who had been good friends and attended Glasgow School of Art with Gerry’s elder brother Joe and supplied the superb portrait of the group for their new album sleeve. The duo were described by original liner note writer Archie Fisher, who presumably was lucky enough to see the Humblebums perform as “…a complex of creative talent, sensitivity and humour, that embraces all music, and they contribute an original and lyrical experience to their contemporaries”.
The release of their album created little in the way of financial reward but it was a creditable step in the right direction and they began to lay down new songs for their next album Open Up The Door. For this project the duo contributed seven songs each but clearly they were already moving apart. Rafferty’s songs and Bill Leaders productions moved closer to pop and featured more musicians. As was evident on several of these new songs Gerry’s talents both as a writer and performer were expanding fast. ‘I Can’t Stop Now’ is an appreciation theme that he would often return to over the next 40 years and features an early use of strings. ‘All The Best People Do It’ is a social comment on superficial attitudes that lead you away from the truth. Rafferty’s father makes an appearance in ‘Steamboat Row’ an early indication of the kind of sophisticated song that Gerry was capable of conceiving, singing and producing. This song would reappear in a newer form three years later on Stealers Wheel’s Ferguslie Park album. ‘Shoeshine Boy’ was used as their next single backed up with Connolly’s ‘My Apartment’. ‘Keep It To Yourself’ is another great song that reflected his delicately persuasive style and would later be remodeled and reissued right at the end of his recording career. McCartney influences come through in ‘Song For Simon’. Though Open Up The Door was a musical progression for Rafferty, the Humblebums partnership came to an amicable end a short time later. The moody black and white photographs by Janos were all wrong for the album sleeve, as was the art direction and the amateur typography. These errors in judgment were detrimental to the albums appeal and consequently it didn’t sell well and though The Humblebums was reissued on a number of formats Open Up The Door became a rarity (though later CD reissues made it more available). Despite two albums issues in a relatively short space of time, there were quite a few unissued tracks that crept out on later compilation CDs. The missing songs were a second version of ‘Everybody Knows That’ (BC), ‘Rick Rack 2’ (GR), ‘Please Sing A Song For Us 2’ (GR), ‘Continental Song’, ‘Continental Song 2’, ‘Half A Mile’ (GR) and ‘Half A Mile 2’. Allegedly the now defunct Castle Records issued these recordings that also included the failed 5th Column single ‘Benjamin/ There’s Nobody Here’ - but as yet I have not been able to acquire a copy. Also left in the can were ‘Who Cares’ an early demo of the song later reworked for Stealers Wheel’s Ferguslie Park Album, ‘Bernard’, Mother 2 (BC), ‘In Loving Memory’, ‘Martha’, ‘Way Of Knowing’ (Early demo) and ‘Time’. For the completists among us we can but hope that since Gerry’s death, a round up and re-issue of these cuts is imminent. But both (New) Humblebums albums were released in the USA. Billy Connolly would of course become a world-class comedian and Gerry would stay with Transatlantic to complete his contract obligations and record his first solo album Can I Have My Money Back in 1971.
Two important events occurred when Gerry Rafferty came to record Can I Have My Money Back. Transatlantic put him together with Hugh Murphy, who produced the album and Joe Eganalso made positive contributions to the project. Murphy became a recording artist in his own right and later produced other artists such as PF Sloan, Mark Almond, Kilburn & the Highroads and Lindisfarne, writing and creating arrangements for many others including Van Morrison and Jackson Heights. Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty would go on to create three stunning albums as Stealers Wheel that would put them on a creative par with the Beatles.
Rafferty wrote 14 songs for his solo debut though ‘So Bad Thinking’ was omitted and became the flipside of the ‘Can I Have My Money Back’ single. Can I Have My Money Back begins with the upbeat ‘New Street Blues’ that heralds a great album and leads us onto ‘Didn’t I?’ a lilting Rafferty ballad with beautiful steel guitar work by Rod King. Gerry & Joe’s voices blend so superbly that they could have been the Scottish Everly Brothers (though frankly Don & Phils voices are easier to identify than Gerry & Joes). ‘Mr. Universe’ is a comic strip involving the voices of Gerry, Joe, Hugh and Rab Noakes the only song that comes close to a filler on the album. On this lyrical ode is to his mother ‘Mary Skeffington’ (her maiden name) Gerry’s vocal seems to just drift on the beautiful melody he created. This fine song is perhaps the highest light among many on this fine album. ‘Long Way Round’ is one Rafferty’s landscape ballads like ‘Steamboat Row’ and ‘Look Over The Hill And Far Away’ – It’s a journey across the loc to a meeting with his woman. I think Patrick took his inspiration for the wonderful cover he created from this exquisite song. As I mentioned ‘Can I Have My Money Back?’ was issued as a single. This song relates one disappointment after another in the search for satisfaction the singers’ unable to break free from a accelerating revolving door. When Gerry was writing ‘Sign On The Dotted Line’ with Joe their deep suspicion of the music business was already clearly a burning issue. And Rafferty’s resistance to the record company demands to tour and publisize their albums was to cause many future problems for all concerned. These seeds of self-destruction sewn too early were an unheeded warning of what was to come. This superbly constructed and produced song was almost a blueprint for Gerry and Joe’s Stealers Wheel and an eerily accurate prediction of their future sad demise.
‘Make You, Break You’ revolves around a self-centred but fatal female attraction. It must have been considered compelling enough by Ron De Blasio who issued it as the debut single on his Signpost label in the USA circa 1972. Another great analytical ballad that was to become a Rafferty specialty ‘To Each And Everyone’ is beautifully delivered by Gerry & Joe. ‘One Drink Down’, was no doubt written by ‘Patrick’ and Gerry over a few jars and it’s almost impossible not to reflect on how the booze diversely affected Rafferty’s life. Perhaps the drink culture was genetically transmitted in Rafferty’s bar - but these were early daze. ‘Don’t Count Me Out’ was again eerily prophetic, the lyrics “When the sun goes down, you’ll find me sitting in a bar on the darkside of the town, and if you tell me that I drink too much and it’s gonna be the death of me – Hear me shout - Don’t Count Me Out” are chilling in light of his early departure. ‘Where I Belong’ sounds stripped down compared to the big polished extravaganza of ‘Half A Chance’ that runs into it and just has Gerry’s voice and piano – it’s not the big finish one might expect but a confession, some confusion and an admission about the driving force behind his music -he almost sounds in awe of what is just about to happen.
Can I Have My Money Back is an amazing album. Going back to listen to it again, you realize just how accomplished it was given that Rafferty was still only 23. He had written all the songs, some of which sound slightly Beatlesque in places - but that might just be because of it’s brilliance, sometimes these kinds of comparisons are too easy to make. The sheer drive and creative force that it takes to produce an album like this is hard for mere mortals to comprehend. Then to have the confidence to put it down and across so well is astonishing. Sure he had gathered a great group of musicians around him, a good producer and the creative support of his old friend Joe Egan. The fusion of these kind of talents doesn’t always work this well – but fortunately this time it did. So why I wonder did it not propel Gerry into the pop music stratosphere and make him a star? Answers on a postcard please to…