My daughter – The Flower – loves soul music. I know that she knows Motown and Aretha and Al Green, but I wonder if she knows these favorites of mine:
One of the most neglected soul masters – and one of my favorite soul artists -- is Johnnie Taylor, "The Philosopher of Soul." He had several careers – young gospel star, gritty soul shouter, master of the slow grind, balladeer, disco king, blues traveler – but they were all compromised in some way. Sam Cooke outshone everybody in the gospel arena, his name was often confused with Little Johnny Taylor, and Otis Redding was clearly the #1 male singer for Stax Records, Johnnie's label. Even his biggest record – "Disco Lady" – is kind of a joke, though it was the first-ever platinum single.
But for a several years, Johnnie released a series of powerful, trenchant soul records, distinguished not only for wonderful, passionate singing, sophisticated arrangements, expert playing, and songwriting, but for their insight and commentary about the African-American experience. He wasn't "the Philosopher of Soul" for nothing.
His songs talk about cheating ("Steal Away," "Who's Making Love," "Woman Across the River," "We're Getting Careless With Our Love") ... striving ("Toe Hold," "Take Care of Your Homework") ... feelings of inadequacy and conscience ("Mr. Nobody Is Somebody Now," "I'm Not the Same Person") ... and fears of being cuckolded by the legendary woman-stealer "Jody" ("Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone," "Standing In For Jody.")
Unlike a lot of soul music, his music didn't sugarcoat life for black people in white America; it revealed it.
I recommend CHRONICLE: The 20 Greatest Hits, or better yet, LIFETIME, the three-disk box set.
Johnnie Taylor – live in Dallas -- 1989
Johnnie Taylor – live on "Soul Train" – "Stop Doggin' Me Around" – one of his great slow grinds, even without the back-up singers
Johnnie Taylor – live on "Soul Train" – "Who's Makin' Love" – covered by the Blues Brothers (!?!)
Johnnie Taylor – Live at the Summit Club – a sizzling show from 1972, even with a ragged pick-up band
Johnnie Taylor – "I Believe In You (You Believe In Me)" -- #1 R&B hit and #11 Billboard Hot 100 – great song and arrangement by Don Davis, Johnnie's main musical partner
LORRAINE ELLISON – "STAY WITH ME"
I'd love to her to hear this great, one-shot masterpiece from 1966. An unquestionable classic by one of the most misused of all the soul singers, "Stay With Me" has been covered by Bette Midler and many others, but no one does it like Lorraine Ellison. For all the emoting that exists in soul singing, this is perhaps the most passionate, desperate singing in the entire genre.
The recording of the song resulted from a happy accident. Frank Sinatra cancelled a recording date, and Warner Brothers records would have been stuck with paying the twenty-five piece orchestra. So writer-producer Jerry Ragovoy ("Time Is On My Side, " "Piece of My Heart," "Cry, Baby") quickly slotted Lorraine into the session, and on the first take with the full orchestra, she uncorked this amazing vocal.
As critic Dave Marsh (who picked "Stay With Me" as the 935th greatest record of all time) wrote, "The combination of Lorraine's gospel background and producer Jerry Ragovoy's penchant for over-orchestration emerges as a disc that, for all its undeniably overwrought schlockiness, is oddly prescient in forecasting the excessively enunciated divas of the seventies and eighties. If you covet screaming and romantic angst (does that mean, if you're a normal soul ballad fan?), you'll love this, too."
LORRAINE ELLISON – "Stay With Me" – the classic
THE FIVE ROYALES
I'd make sure that she spent a lot of time listening to The Five Royales. One of the most influential of all vocal groups, it straddles the R&B and soul genres, and isn't mentioned often enough. But its pioneering fusion of gospel, blues, and doo-wop with a healthy dose of innovative rock guitar makes it a "must listen to" group.
The Five Royales didn't have that many hits, but "Dedicated to the One I Love" was a hit for them on the R&B charts in 1958, but it was an even bigger one for both the Shirelles (twice! in 1959 and 1961) and the Mamas and the Papas (1967).
Lowman Pauling's songwriting and guitar-playing are really what make the Five Royales, although their singing is so smooth and accomplished that they were virtually the only vocal group of its genre that didn't do elaborate dance routines; the Five Royales just sang.
Pauling's stinging guitar licks and the unique way he alternated playing lead and rhythm made him an important figure for all players who came after him. Eric Clapton and Steve Cropper cite him as a key influence. (In Greil Marcus' indelible comment from STRANDED: "Once upon a time, Eric Clapton would have paid to hold his coat.")
I was happy to see that the Five Royales were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Better late than never.
The Five Royales – "Dedicated to the One I Love"
The Five Royales – "Tears of Joy"
The Five Royales – "When You Walked Through the Door"
Lowman Pauling's Musical Legacy
... There are more.