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.”

 

February 19 – Plenty Of Approval For Seal

Happy birthday to one of the great voices of the ’90s, Henry Samuel! You know him better as Seal, and he’s 59 today.

Seal’s upbringing was far from idyllic. He was born to an African mother and South American dad in London, but spent much of his early childhood in foster care. When he returned to his parents, his dad was reputedly very abusive and by 17, Seal was done with them and chose homelessness at times rather than the family life. As well, he suffered from lupus, a painful condition which caused the prominent scars on his face. He did manage to go through school however, earning a diploma in architecture. He might have presumably gone on to a career in that, were it not for his great, “honey-toned” baritone voice. His friends loved his singing – he wasn’t so sure himself – and at 23, a girlfriend bought him a bass, a four-track recorder and “sort of bullied me into” singing, he told The Guardian years later. All the adversity he’d faced probably helped too. “There has to be some initial adversity,” he’s said, “that is what makes art.”

He began writing songs and got a short-term gig singing with a band called Push, which toured Japan. When they returned to Britain, he stayed overseas, joining a blues band in Thailand and spending a year or so in south Asia. That might have been the end of it were he not friends with a popular club DJ called Adamski when he returned to London. Adamski had Seal sing his song “Killer”, and it became a #1 hit at home.

That in turn got him signed to ZTT Records, the label started by ex-Buggles, ex-Frankie Goes to Hollywood mastermind Trevor Horn. Horn became a sort of “surrogate father” to the still-young Seal and produced his first two albums…which were both simply entitled Seal (taking a page out of Peter Gabriel’s playbook) and both went to #1 in the UK. That largely thanks to the first song he wrote when he’d become a serious musician, “Crazy” and a song he’d written years earlier but didn’t like : “Kiss From a Rose.” “Crazy”, his first single hit #1 in the Netherlands and Sweden and was a top 10 hit almost worldwide. “A Kiss From A Rose,” despite his own misgivings appealed to Horn. And not just the producer liked it, so too did Hollywood. Although the song didn’t initially explode off his second album, it was chosen for use in the Batman Forever movie and became a worldwide smash. “I owe my career to (film-maker) Joel Schumacher,” he’s modestly said.

Those singles off the first two albums, as well as ones like a re-recording of “Killer” and “Prayer for the Dying” helped his first two albums combine to sell well over ten million copies globally and make Seal one of the biggest names in ’90s music. He performed at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert and won the Brit Award for best male artist in 1992 and 1995. “Kiss from a Rose” brought him Grammys for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

Professionally, he’s had trouble keeping that momentum going. He’s recorded eight more studio albums since, most recently concentrating on older cover songs like “Let’s Stay Together” and “Luck Be A Lady”. With music, “the two things I care about – the voice and the song. But the song is literally untouchable.” And although he’s racked up eight gold or platinum albums at home, he’s not had the major international hits this century like he had in the ’90s. However, he’s seemed happy enough.

He was famously married to supermodel Heidi Klum (who took his name and became Heidi Samuel for awhile) for nine years and had three children with her, plus adopted a young one she’d had previously. They split up in 2014, but apparently remain close. Of late, he’s taken to reality TV, being a judge on America’s Got Talent and in Australia on The Voice.

His website doesn’t seem to have been updated of late, but with as many fans as he has and the voice he’s gifted with, it remains likely we haven’t heard the last splash from Seal.

December 11 – Green’s Classic Worth It…A Hundred Times Over

People getting married had reason to cheer 50 years ago – one of the greatest love songs ever hit the charts. Al Green‘s masterpiece “Let’s Stay Together” hit the U.S. top 40 on this day in 1971. Seemingly no one was more surprised than Al.

The only fight I ever had with him was about ‘Let’s Stay Together’” said Willie Mitchell. “He thought it was not a hit.” Mitchell was Al’s boss at the Memphis-based Hi Records and the producer of the album (which ended up being of the same name). He and drummer Al Jackson, of Booker T & the MGs, had come up with the tune, and Al wrote the classic lyrics quickly. But he didn’t especially like them, or his singing of it. He did close to 100 takes to try and get it right but still wasn’t pleased with its sound. Happily, Mitchell battled him over it. According to Rolling Stone, the recording sessions were finished late on Friday, “the single was pressed on Monday and by Thursday Green was told it was entering the charts at #8”… which was higher than any of his previous ones had ever gotten.

With timeless lyrics like “loving you forever is what I need…whether times are good or bad, happy or sad” and Al’s great, soulful delivery it seemed an obvious can’t-miss. And it didn’t. It became his only #1 American single and ended up as the #1 R&B song of 1972. Overseas, it got to #7 in the UK, where it’s his only platinum single. It helped the LP become both his first top 10 hit one (getting to #8 overall) and his first one to go gold. It was also his first in a string of six-straight ones to top R&B charts. The album was also noteworthy for his great take on the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?”

Its popularity has never waned, seemingly. It’s shown up in movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Jersey Girl, and TV shows like Ally MacBeal and Parks & Recreation, and recorded by hundreds of other artists. Those span a gamut of musical terrain from Donny Osmond to Billy Paul to actress Linda Carter, but most notably include Tina Turner who covered it to spur on a career resurgence in the early-’80s. Little surprise then that in 2010, the Library of Congress honored it as a work that was “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Only two years after that, then-president Barack Obama sang a bit of it… after Green had been an “opening act” for the presidential speech.

Probably fair to say Willie Mitchell called this one right. Perhaps it can be in one of Reverend Al Green’s sermons one day. One about God moving in mysterious ways!

October 30 – Windy City R&B Stars Blew Onto Scene 50 Years Back

We know Detroit – Motown – was the center of the vibrant R&B-crossed-with-pop sound of the ’60s and ’70s, with great artists like Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations. You might also know Philadelphia was also a mecca for that soul sound, with the likes of the O’Jays, Spinners and Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes. But they weren’t the only cities that were centers of Black music in the Vietnam era. Take for Chicago, for instance. At the time the second largest city in the country, it was no surprise they had an active music scene and was a center for soul and blues music. At the forefront, possibly the longest-running R&B band out there, the Chi-lites.

The Chi-lites were started by a bunch of high school friends in the city back in 1959. Remarkably, they are still active, with one of the originals from the ’50s, Marshall Thompson. They formed as The Chanteurs, but didn’t like that name for long. They wanted to change to The Hi-lites, but found there already was a group with that name so they modified it to give a nod to their hometown. Enter, The Chi-lites.

The harmonic soul singers put out their first single in 1964, and after signing to Brunswick Records, their first LP in 1969. They really got going though on this day in 1971, when their hit “Have You Seen Her?” made the American top 40. It was their first hit; they’d go on to score a chart-topper the next year with “Oh Girl” and notch seven more top 10s on the R&B charts by 1974.

Have You Seen Her?” was an unusual record in that it was a bit long for a single of that period – 5’08” – and that it began and ended with a spoken word bit. That part was inspired by something Isaac Hayes had done on a 1969 album, and was edited out by some radio stations who felt it slow and making the song too long. The spoken narrative, beginning with “One month ago today, I was happy as a lark…” before detailing how she’d gone away and now he couldn’t be happy no matter where he was or what he did, was spoken by Eugene Record, the group’s leader and also the main writer. He co-wrote this one with his girlfriend, singer Barbara Acklin.

Recently, the Chi-lites were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and they (including 79 year old Thompson) say they plan to be touring again soon.

January 31 – Al Sent Spirits Up On A ‘Hi’

One of the all-time greatest soul records came out on this day in 1972Al Green‘s Let’s Stay Together.

The Reverend’s fourth album was his first to hit #1 on R&B charts and first to go gold in the U.S., perhaps a more significant achievement than one would think at first, as he was on the fairly small Hi Records label rather than one of the biggies. While his following album (I’m Still In Love with You) would sell even better, most agree this was Green’s shining moment. The title track and his version of the Bee Gees “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” are classics by any standard and Rolling Stone retroactively gave the record a perfect 5-star rating, calling his voice “something to marvel at.” Indeed. The BBC in 2011 lauded his “effortless grace” on this, his “high-water mark.”

And yes, Al is a “reverend” – he’s an ordained minister working in Tennessee and won eight Grammys in the ’80s for gospel albums like Trust In God after his mainstream career had dropped off a bit (albeit after a significant run of eight gold singles between ’71 and ’74)

December 10 – Young Otis Garnered A Lot Of ‘Respect’

Yet another great one was taken too soon by an airplane crash. Otis Redding died on this day in 1967, at age 26. He along with a pilot and four members of the Bar-kays band (one managed to survive) died after their small plane crashed in a frigid lake near Madison, Wisconsin, their destination after a show in Cleveland. An official cause was never found, but the weather was poor at the time and visibility next to nil.

Otis’ life seemed to have always been lived in fast-forward. After growing up poor in south Georgia, he’d taught himself guitar, piano and drums before he was a teen, left school at 15, won a talent contest in Macon at age 17 which led to a number of shows around that city and other spots receptive to Black artists in the South. Soon he was playing in James Brown’s backing band, met his sweetheart Zelma when she was only 15 and he two years older. He’d married her and had a son all by the time he was 20!

By the mid-’60s he was signed to Volt records, touring extensively and had a Top 10 album in the UK and was doing well as a songwriter (Although Aretha Franklin had changed the arrangement a little and added the spelled out “R E S P E C T” , he’d written her signature tune) and had managed to buy a 300-acre farm in his home state. In 1967 he won over a new type of fan, Whites and rockers , when he appeared to great applause at the Monterrey Pop Festival. He had just recorded “Dock of the Bay” in the weeks prior to his death, drawing on the Beatles as well as more typical R&B influences like Little Richard. The record company didn’t like it, but the public did- it went on to be released posthumously and was his first #1 single in North America and earned a gold record.

He’s now inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as being “synonymous with soul music.” Rolling Stone magazine would seem to concur. They ranked him as the eighth best singer of all-time, ahead of such R&B or soul stalwards as Al Green and Little Richard. They note “it wasn’t the size of his voice. We knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang. He was all emotion.” As were a lot of people this day 53 years ago.

October 23 – Green’s Golden Year

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 48 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 1 – Hathaway Had A Way With Song

One of the great soul voices of the ’70s. Donny Hathaway was born 75 years ago today in Chicago, where he began his musical career.

Donny’s grandmother was a respected soul singer and like so many others, he developed his singing chops in church, he began taking piano lessons at just three as well. He studied art in Washington which ended up being quite fortuitous for him – there he met Roberta Flack, who would later help him become a star. First though he worked as producer for Curtis Mayfield and session musician for Mayfield, the Staple Singers and Aretha Franklin in the late-’60s before signing to Atco Records as a solo artist.

By 1970 Rolling Stone was already calling him “a major new force in soul music.” Although his first two albums went gold in the U.S., it was the third, on which he teamed up with Roberta that really made his career. “Where is the Love?” hit the top 5 and propelled his album into the top 5 as well. The pair hit gold again later in the decade with “The Closer I Get To You” and his only British top 10 hit, “Back Together Again” which was released posthumously in 1980.

Unfortunately, Hathaway was schizophrenic (and also possibly bipolar) and wasn’t good at taking his meds, which made him difficult to work with, increasingly so through the ’70s. He died in New York in 1979 at age 33, after falling out of a hotel window in what was ruled a suicide. Hathaway’s influential voice lives on though; Justin Timberlake and Amy Winehouse both called him their favorite singer of all-time.

July 22 – Wasn’t Too Late For A Gold Record For Cornelius Family

Pity Billie Jo! She was the fourth, and erstwhile 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 Judaism 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.