December 26 – ’60s Alto Star Was A Bass

Remembering one of the great voices of the ’60s: Fontella Bass passed away this day in 2012. Bass is largely considered a “one hit wonder” for her great 1965 hit “Rescue Me”, but there’s more to her story than just one song.

Bass was born in 1940 St. Louis. She was something of a child prodigy on piano and was playing that and singing in church by six or seven. By nine she was singing professionally with her mother and grandmother, both of whom were gospel singers of some renown in the Midwest. By the early-’50s, she was making $10 a day singing (largely at funerals!), which wasn’t bad for the day. “I was sort of like, an income person in the home,” she said years later.

After signing to Ike Turner’s record label briefly in the latter part of the ’50s, to little notice, she was signed by the famous Chess label, at one time the home of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. At first she was just an in-house session player and backup singer but by 1964, she had the chance to record on her own (with among others drummer Maurice White – soon to found Earth, Wind & Fire – and backing vocalist Minnie Ripperton in the studio with her.)

After minor success on the R&B charts with one of the singles (“You’ll Miss Me”) scratching its way onto the mainstream charts, her career took flight with the song she was synonymous with. “Rescue Me” topped the R&B charts for weeks and made #4 on the singles chart. It was a hit in the UK and Canada as well. Journalist Dave Marsh calls it the “best non-Aretha, Aretha song ever.” And it came a year before Aretha began to be known and garner “Respect.”

Bass says it came about when entering the studio she heard blind pianist Ray Miner playing the basic melody and she came up with the lyrics together with him – and God. “He (God) is the only person I can give thanks to,” she’d say.

The single went gold in the U.S. and was the first massive hit for Chess Records in a decade. However, people looking at the 7” single saw the writing credits going to Miner and Carl Smith, who’d also co-written “You’re Love Keeps Taking Me Higher”. Due to that and an iffy contract with Chess, Bass got very little money. “Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my royalty cheque, I looked at it, saw how little it was for and tore it up and threw it back across the table.”

She fought for what she figured was her due (and eventually would reach a settlement with them decades later) but that “side-stepped” her out of the business because she gained a “reputation of being a trouble maker.” That cloud probably never stopped hanging over her as in 1990 she famously – and successfully – sued American Express who’d been using her recording of “Rescue Me” in commercials without permission.

By the decade’s end, she’d moved to Paris, met a trumpeter she’d marry (Lester Bowie, no relation to David) and put out one unsuccessful album there before essentially retiring to become a homemaker and mother. She did a little movie soundtrack work in Europe briefly and had a short return to Gospel music in the ’90s before being sidtetracked again by poor health.

She fought cancer and a stroke in the 2000s but succumbed to a heart attack at age 72. St. Louis honored her with a star on their Walk of Fame. A great one hit wonder, but one wonders if she wouldn’t have been a great deal more if fates had aligned better for her with Chess Records.


December 2 – Cooke’s Voice Stirred The Soul

The Inventor of Soul” gave us his creation 65 years ago. This day in 1957, a day after making his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Sam Cooke had the #1 song in the U.S. with “You Send Me.” It would end up being his only #1 hit single, but enough to put his name down in music history and inspire a generation of young singers.

Cooke was born in Mississippi but grew up primarily in Chicago, where he was friends with Lou Rawls. Cooke was raised in a church-going home and was a talented gospel singer from a young age. In 1950, while he was still in his teens, he joined a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers. They were respected in their field, but had little mass-market appeal. However, Cooke also liked doo-wop and some pop music, and felt entirely justified in singing that. “My father told me it was not what I sang that was important, but that God gave me a voice and musical talent,” he reflected, making it “important to share it and make people happy.”

Which brings us to “You Send Me”, the great love song he wrote, although oddly it was originally credited to his brother LC Cooke. The song was undeniably fine. Decades later, Rolling Stone would list it as the 115th greatest song of all-time and Mojo’s Tim Sheridan would call it “one of the great pop love songs of all-time.” But, the Soul Stirrers and their label, Specialty Records, felt it was too secular, not Godly enough for them to do. So it was recorded and they made arrangements with Keen Records to put it out. That worked out well for Keen!

In a year when Elvis Presley was starting to make his presence widely known but Pat Boone was still a major star, Cooke’s song became one of the first “soul” records ever to hit it big. It went to the top of both sales and radio play charts, as well as the R&B one and sold two million copies eventually. And it made a name for Cooke. While he’d not have another #1 single (he came close in 1960 with “Chain Gang”, which got to #2) he did top the R&B ones four more times and established him as an in-demand writer. Among the many other well-known tunes he’d write was “Another Saturday Night”, turned into a hit by Cat Stevens over a decade later.

Cooke’s time in the spotlight was cut short unfortunately. He was shot dead at age 33 by a motel manager in California under suspicious circumstances. The shooting was ruled self-defense

October 23 – Public Were Still In Love With Al Too

The minister of God’s love knew a little about good lovin’, human style as well. And we really found that out in 1972, which was a very good year for Al Green. He put out his second great album of the year on this day 50 years back, with I’m Still In Love With You. It was birthed about nine months after his previous classic, Let’s Stay Together. If anyone was happier about that than Green and his listeners, it was Hi Records, the small Memphis label he recorded for and was the only real provider of hits for.

The nine song soul classic contained seven originals plus a couple of worthy cover songs: his take on Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” and Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” (More recent CD releases have usually included a couple more tracks from that time period, “I Think It’s For the Feeling” and “Up Above My Head”). But it was Green’s originals which stole the show, sexy soul masterpieces including the title track, “Love & Happiness” and “Look What You’ve Done For Me.”

Rolling Stone at the time raved that Green was “the only truly great male vocalist to come along since Otis Redding” and that coupled with Let’s Stay Together, at year’s end “the #1 male vocalist will be Al Green. I mean, is there any doubt in your mind?” Years later they still loved the album, ranking it among the 300 greatest of all-time, noting it was “more sensual than its predecessor” and calling “Love & Happiness” a “masterpiece.”

The whole album was darn close to a “masterpiece” and at least American listeners agreed. It got to #4 on the charts, the highest of his career, and gave him his only platinum record. On the R&B charts, it was his second of six-straight #1s. The title track got to #3 and was one of four gold singles he scored in just over a year; “Look What You’ve Done For Me” hit #4 and was a top 30 hit in Canada, as in the UK as well, the album was fairly well-received but didn’t match its U.S. numbers.

Green soon after turned towards God and became a minister, and as we noted a few days back, as much as his music has influenced many a musician, his preaching inspired Marc Cohn to write his hit “Walking in Memphis.

October 12 – Stars Made Simply Red Super To Home Crowd

It was the one that made them superstars…in their homeland at least. Simply Red‘s fourth album, Stars hit #1 this day in 1991 in the UK, only days after its release. It would stay hot there for months, spending a total of 12 weeks at #1 through May of the next year and end up being not only the best-selling album of 1991, but ’92 as well! It made for the first time in over two decades that had happened – Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters was the last album to be #1 of the year two years running there, in 1970-71. It was also a major reason Simply Red spent more total weeks on top of the Brit album charts than any other act in the 1990s. The rest of the world however, while not ignoring the album, seemed far less enamored by it.

The band recorded Stars in Italy, which they found relaxing, with Stewart Levine producing again. He’d also done their debut and the previous album to this one, A New Flame. However, singer-songwriter Mick Hucknall had added in a seventh member to the band, drummer Gota Yashiki, formerly of Soul II Soul. He wanted a more soulful sound than the previous record, but conversely a somewhat smoother or more refined sound. Judging by the public’s reaction in Britain, it would seem he found it.

There were 10 original songs on Stars, written by Hucknall (a couple with help from keyboardist Fritz McIntyre), the first album by them with no cover versions. Highlights included the hits “Something Got Me Started” , the title track with Mick’s characteristic soaring vocals and the slightly World Music-influenced dance number “Thrill Me.”

Critics weren’t over the moon with Stars, although most received it reasonably well. Q and Uncut both gave it 4-stars, but the NME also gave it a “4”…but they were scoring out of 10, not five. The latter called it “an exercise in no style over no content.” Other British publications were somewhat kinder, like Melody Maker, which called it “sleek, airbrushed music best described as ‘soulette’” while the Independent figured it was “several notches above the rest of the smooth soul genre.” On our side of the Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B+” thinking it “classy” and while it doesn’t “break any new ground” it has “an understated groove that’s tasteful and disarming.”

The title track got to #9 in the UK and was a top 20 hit in Canada, France and Germany, while “Something Got Me Started” hit #11 both in their homeland and Canada. Other singles didn’t fare as well but the difference was why. While it sold acceptably elsewhere (it made gold status in North America and platinum in Australia), in Britain it seemed people were too busy buying the album to worry about individual singles. It finished up as 14X platinum, second only to Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory in the decade, and is still among the top 20 sellers ever there.

September 28 – Ben E’s Hit Jetted Him To Stardom

We remember one of soul’s great voices. Ben E. King would have turned 84 today. Ben was born Benjamin Nelson in North Carolina, honing his vocal skills in a church choir as did so many of his contemporaries.

He joined the Doo-wop band the Five Crowns at age 20; they went on to become The Drifters. In his brief stint with them, he sang lead on several hits including “Save the Last Dance for Me” and quickly got the attention of Atlantic Records which signed him to a contract in 1960. Although he did quite well through the 1960s with nine R&B chart top 20s and scored a hit single with “Spanish Harlem” he really is immortalized for one song – “Stand By Me”. As journalist Garth Cartwright puts it, the song “possesses timeless appeal, conveying fear and reassurance”. It was a top 10 hit in the U.S. in 1961 and then again in 1986 when it was used in the Stephen King-penned movie of the same name (it actually went to #1 in the UK at that point.) Ironically, Stephen King said “I wasn’t a big fan of the song” although “I was a big fan of (Sam) Cooke.” The confusion is understandable; although “Stand by Me” is credited to Ben E. and the team of Lieber and Stoller, it did sound similar to a gospel song, “Stand By Me Father” that Sam Cooke had recorded in the ’50s.  In 2015, the Library of Congress designated the song – the Ben E. King one – “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” . It’s been covered by artists ranging from John Lennon to Florence + the Machine and was the fourth most played on radio in the 20th Century according to BMI ,earning King and his estate over $25M in royalties through the years.

Ben E. was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as a member of the Drifters. He passed away at age 76, leaving his wife of 51 years, Betty, and three kids.

September 9 – Respect Still There For Mr. ‘Dock Of The Bay’

Remembering one of the great voices of soul – Otis Redding. The great Georgian singer would’ve turned 81 today, had he not sadly died at a young 26 in a plane crash.

Otis honed his musical skills as a child in his Dad’s Macon-area Baptist church and won numerous talent contests as a teen. After dropping out of school at 15 to help pay his family bills, he soon started playing piano for bar bands and won a radio talent contest which led to him getting a contract with Memphis’ famous Stax label. After concerts at the Apollo Theater in 1963 with the likes of Ben E. King and the Coasters he became a significant soul star, with eight R&B chart top 10s prior to his death, including “Try a Little Tenderness” and a cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, but none had major mainstream impact. His 1967 appearance at Monterrey Pop exposed him to a much wider, and Whiter, audience. Apparently he was quite impressed and influenced by Sgt. Pepper that year and on Dock of the Bay he tried to expand his sound. The result was a success; the album was a #1 hit in the UK – the first ever posthumous one there – and led to his biggest single “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” That tune was his only #1 hit at home and is currently ranked among Rolling Stone’s 30 greatest songs of all-time… although below “Respect”, Aretha Franklin’s hit that was written by Otis.

Otis’ reputation has grown through the years, being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. They note “some singers had his power, some had a bigger range. No one had Otis Redding’s emotion.” He’s also honored with a statue of him playing a guitar in Macon.

August 16 – Long Live ‘The Queen’ (And ‘The King’)

A day when we remember not only “The King” but “The Queen”. The Queen of Soul that is. On this day in 2018, or 41 years to the day since the death of Elvis, Aretha Franklin passed away. She was at home, surrounded by family and friends including Stevie Wonder, in Detroit. Franklin was 76 and suffering from a variation of pancreatic cancer.

Franklin of course was successful; her 13 gold or platinum albums and 19 R&B chart #1s (starting with 1967’s “I’ve Never Loved A Man Before” and running through 1985’s “Freeway of Love” with greats like “Respect”, “Until You Come Back To Me” and “Spanish Harlem” in between) are testimony to that. She was also a well-known and respected voice for social justice throughout her life, but she was more than that. She was one of the great voices…the great voice, at least according to Rolling Stone.

That magazine ranked her as the greatest singer of all-time, just ahead of Ray Charles. They called her “a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one that can touch her.” Or as allmusic state, “more than any other performer, she epitomizes soul.” The “Queen of Soul” nickname was so widely known, Steely Dan referred to her by it in their ’81 hit “Hey Nineteen”; so great was her appeal that she visited the White House- several times. She performed at the inauguration galas for both Presidents Clinton and Obama, and invited to do so by President Trump, whom she turned down. In between Clinton and Obama was George W. Bush, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She joined a list of musicians like Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to be so honored.

After her passing, she was quickly given tributes from all over, including one of this decade’s big female voices, Adele who wrote “I cannot remember a day in my life without Aretha Franklin’s voice and music filling my heart” , to Hillary Clinton who said “she deserves not only our RESPECT but also our lasting gratitude for opening our eyes, ears and hearts.”

July 22 – Not At All Too Late For Cornelius Family 50 Years Ago

Pity Billie Jo! She was the fourth, and ergo unnamed member of the soul quartet Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. They hit #2 this day in 1972 with their biggest hit, “Too Late To Turn Back Now.” It was their second single and second to go gold in the States, but alas, also the last significant hit they would register.

The name was pretty much who they were when it came to Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. It was a family out of Florida, consisting of brothers Eddie and Carter Cornelius and their sister, Rose. The brothers began writing a few songs and singing together around the beginning of the decade but felt something was lacking, so they invited their sister, who was already a respected gospel singer, to join them. They got signed to United Artists, and added in another sister, Billie Jo before starting work on their first album. Guess they figured “Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose and oh, look, there’s Billie Jo too” might not fit well on a 7” record label.

The self-titled debut hit the American top 30 based largely on the two upbeat R&B singles that led it off : “Treat Her Like A Lady” (which got to #3 in the States) and this one. “Too Late To Turn Back Now” actually topped Canadian charts ( a rare case of a soul song doing better north of the border back then) and made the Australian and New Zealand top 20. Two more singles followed and squeaked into the U.S. top 40, “Don’t Ever Be Lonely” and “Never Gonna Be Lonely Again” but fame was fleeting.

A 1973 follow-up album drew almost no notice and they disbanded in ’76 when the brothers took a cue from their sister perhaps. Eddie became a born-again Christian pastor, while Carter joined the Hebrew faith and changed his name to Prince Gideon Israel and began making Jewish religious music until his death in 1991. At last word, Rose still lives and sings in Florida.

May 27 – Chi-lites Lit Up The Charts 50 Years Ago

Remember when we had the #1 song?” might be something Marshall Thompson might be asking his bandmates, which just might provoke a response like “old man, we weren’t even born then!” Because the Chi-lites had the magic – and the #1 song in the U.S. 50 years ago. “Oh Girl” displaced Roberta Flack’s biggie “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” after its six week run this day in 1972.

The Chi-lites were/are an R&B group that formed in Chicago back in 1959, smooth singers that kept pace with rival Motown acts like the Four Tops. Through the ’60s and into 1970, they’d had six R&B chart top 20 hits but failed to attract much attention on mainstream radio. That changed in ’71 with their breakthrough hit “Have You Seen Her?” which got to #3 on Billboard. Which set the pace for their ’72 album, A Lonely Man, and their hurting soul classic that topped the charts.

Marshall Thompson, one of their backing singers, played the memorable harmonica bits on the song which was written and sung (and the album produced) by the appropriately-named Eugene Record. Record played the guitar and bass as well. Oddly, when they cut seven songs for the demo for the album and Brunswick Records told him they would have a #1 hit on their hands, Record named the other six songs first…he didn’t really like “Oh Girl”. The public sure did though.

Oh Girl” not only went to #1 on the R&B charts, but on the overall singles chart, and later would be a top 10 North American hit for Paul Young when he did a cover of it in 1990. The Chi-lites one made it to #14 in the UK at the time, but rose to #5 upon being re-released there in ’75. In Canada, it topped out at #9…however, it did spend two weeks at #1 on the CHUM charts there…

Speaking of which, this day in 1957 was an important one for pop and rock music in Canada, because it was then that CHUM radio in Toronto became the first “rock’n’roll” station in the country, kicking it off by playing Elvis’ “All Shook Up.” The AM station had been on air since 1945 (originally only during daylight hours!) but played light, easy-listening or classical music when not doing news; their format change in ’57 must have shaken listeners as much as those of the fictitious WKRP in Cincinnati. Around the time “Oh Girl” was #1, CHUM was easily the most listened-to and influential rock station in the country’s largest market and helped make many songs catch on nation-wide, helped along by popular DJs who’ve included J.D. Roberts (who changed to “John” and became an American network news anchorman) and actor Rick Moranis. In the ’70s, they launched CHUM-FM, one of the first “album rock” stations in North America. However, by the ’80s, their AM ratings were dropping and the FM station was second in local influence to more experimental CFNY; in 1986, CHUM dropped the hit pop/rock format.

There is still an AM station at 1050 in Toronto, but it’s largely a sports talk one. The Chi-lites, amazingly are still going, with Thompson being the sole founding member still with them…63 years later.

April 29 – Song Garnered Aretha A Little…Well, You Know…

Some would suggest the greatest rock or pop album came out in 1967,with Sgt. Pepper... Remarkably, many would also suggest the greatest single of the pop era came out that year too – in fact on this day 55 years back. So we’d better treat that year in music with “Respect”…which happens to be the single we were referring to, by Aretha Franklin.

The song put Aretha on the musical map, as it had to a lesser degree Otis Redding two years prior. Redding had written the song and released it as a single in 1965, on his Otis Redding Sings Soul album. The song was written from a male perspective, singing to a girl who was “sweet as honey” whom he was going to give “all my money”…if she treated him with respect. As Cashbox colorfully put it back then, it was a “rollickin’, rhythmic, poundin’ romance”. It was a very upbeat R&B song that hit #35 in the U.S., but it sounded little like the “Queen of Soul’s” version we’re all familiar with.

She’d played the song in her live sets for over a year and when she signed to a new label, Atlantic, her new producer, Jerry Wexler, figured it would be a great tune for her to record. As journalist Matthew Osinsky put it, she was raised on gospel and Wexler “wanted her to preach.” She agreed, and changed the lyrics to a female’s perspective. Also huge was the addition of the powerful spelling out of the title – “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!” which gave it a whole different powerful flavor Redding’s didn’t quite match.

Although they recorded it in New York at corporate studios, Aretha and Wexler brought in “the swampers” – the studio musicians from Alabama’s fine Muscle Shoals studios – to play the music, save for some of the piano which Aretha did herself. A studio engineer, Arif Martin was there that day and says “there was never (another) day like that. It was like a festival. Everything just worked right!” Including Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Emma, who sang the backing vocals, improvising phrases like “Ree Ree Ree” (Aretha’s nickname) and “sock it to me, sock it to me”. The latter was perceived by many to be a sexual invitation, but the singer disagreed. “There was nothing sexual about it…it’s just a cliché phrase.” One which became a lot more popular after the record came out, becoming a TV catchphrase even uttered famously by President Nixon.

The song struck a chord with millions. Both feminists and Black civil rights advocates adopted it. As the Detroit Free Press put it later, it was “a ground-breaking feminist and civil rights statement in an era when such declarations weren’t always easy to make.” Otis Redding himself was impressed, saying “it has a better groove on it than any of my records…from now on it belongs to her.”

Her and the public, that was. The song spent two weeks at #1 in the Summer of Love, being sandwiched by the Young Rascals “Groovin’” (which it replaced but then was replaced itself by at the top spot); her second top 10 hit but first #1. She’d make the top 10 seven more times before the decade’s end but wouldn’t top the charts again for twenty years, eventually getting another #1 with her duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting.”

The song won Franklin two Grammys, for Best R&B record and the first Best Female R&B performance, in the words of Osinsky “ a new category of Grammy Awards (was) created just to give (her) its dues.” More recently, it’s won other accolades including Rolling Stone magazine which in 2004 listed it as the fifth greatest-song ever, but last year revised it to make the best ever. No one can say that song didn’t earn a little “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”