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DEEP # 1/2018 (March)

  It was a pleasure to talk to Mr. Thom Bell after, I think, eight years and find out that he hasn’t forsaken music completely.  I also talked again to Mr. Lavel (“Memphis”) Jackson out of Saginaw, Michigan – both a Dramatic, and a solo artist – and in his case it was only two years since our last contact.  Other featured items in my column this time are new CD releases, including one excellent retro compilation, and - on top of it all - my world-famous list of top-ten records in 2017.

Interviews:
An Interview with Thom Bell
An interview with Lavel Jackson

New CD release reviews:
Robert Finley: Goin’ Platinum!
Lavel Jackson: I'm Blessed
Memphis Jackson: Going Home
Wilson Meadows: The Facts of Life
O.B. Buchana Parking Lot Love Affair
Z.Z. Hill: That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968



THOM BELL

  A maestro of the highest order and creator of sweet and sophisticated sounds, Mr. Thom Bell turned 75 recently.  The exact date was January 27 – not 26, as mentioned in many sources.  He moved from Jamaica to Philadelphia at the age of four and studied to become a concert pianist, which is one of the reasons you can hear so many elements from classical music in Thom’s arrangements.  There’s a profound feature on Thom as an insert to my Spinners story (part 3) in our printed paper # 1/2003, and below I’ve compiled some of the milestones in his career.

  Thom and Kenny Gamble first met in 1960 and as a duo called Kenny and Tommy released a tender post-doowop ballad in 1962 called Someday You’ll Be My Love on the Heritage label.  After that for a minute they both played in the Romeos, but Thom had left the group by the time it released a couple of singles under the name of Kenny Gamble & the Romeos/Floaters in the mid-1960s on Arctic.  Thom went on the road with Chubby Checker as his pianist and conductor and right after that became a studio musician at Cameo-Parkway. 

  In 1966 Thom’s first production on the Moonshot label was a song titled He Don’t Really Love You for a group, which at the time of the recording called itself the Five Guys but later became the Delfonics.  Under Thom’s guidance the group became a household name with such hits as La-La-Means I Love You, Ready or Not Here I Come, You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine, Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) and Trying to Make a Fool of Me between 1968 and ’70.  At the same time Thom worked as an arranger for Gamble and Huff mainly on their Neptune label.

  During the Delfonics era Thom’s main writing partner was William Hart, but after 1971, when the Stylistics came along, Linda Creed took over.  The list of the hit songs that Thom produced, conducted, arranged and co-wrote for the Stylistics up till 1974 is impressive: Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart), You Are Everything, Betcha by Golly, Wow, I’m  Stone in Love with You, Break up to Make up, You Make Me Feel Brand New and three gold albums.

  Both artistically and in sales, Thom’s biggest group in the 1970s, however, was the Spinners, and starting from 1972 they turned almost every single they released into a smash: I’ll Be Around/How Could I Let You Get Away, Could It Be I’m Falling in Love, One of a Kind (Love Affair), Ghetto Child, Mighty Love, I’m Coming Home, Then Came You (with Dionne Warwick), Love Don’t Love Nobody – all of the above in just three years.  Since 1975 onwards we could still enjoy Living a Little, Laughing a Little, Sadie, They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play), Love or Leave, Wake up Susan, the Rubberband Man and You’re Throwing a Good Love Away.  Five of their albums were certified gold.

  In the 1970s Thom was at the peak of his career, so naturally everybody wanted to work with him.  Some of those he collaborated with in that decade and later included Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, the O’Jays, the Temptations, Ronnie Dyson, Johnny Mathis, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Dionne Warwick, Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, Elton John, Deniece Williams and James Ingram.

JOHNNY MATHIS, RUSSELL THOMKINS, JR...

  The list above prompted me to ask, if Thom still is in contact with any of those artists.  Thom Bell: “I was going to work with Johnny Mathis, but the last time I spoke with him, which was last year, it didn’t look like things were going to work out there.”  In 1956 Johnny chose show business instead of high jumping, and his recording career spans now 62 years.  “He just did a big show on TV, and he’s singing better now... and in the original keys, too.”  In September last year on Columbia they released a new CD, Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Song Book, and in December a 68-CD box set (yes, sixty-eight!) titled The Voice of Romance.

  “I’ve talked to Henry Fambrough of the Spinners last year, and to Russell Thomkins (of the Stylistics).  Russell is doing very well.  He takes very good care of himself, and he’s singing better now.  He looks fantastic and sounds fantastic.  I did a show with him last year.  I was honoured The Trustees Award by the Recording Academy.  Kenny Gamble gave me the award, and Russell was on the show, and Dionne Warwick was on there.”  The Recording Academy’s Trustees Award honours contributions in areas other than performance, and it’s a Lifetime Achievement award.  The ceremonies took place in June 2017 in New York, and that night Russell sang You Make Me Feel Brand New and Dionne did Then Came You

  When I spoke with Thom in 2008 for my Deniece Williams Story (http://www.soulexpress.net/deniecewilliams_part3.htm), he told that he was asked to conduct the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra later that year.  “They were going bankrupt.  They had to refinance everything.  It didn’t look like they were able to do it in time, but they finally pulled through but they didn’t have enough money to work with any outside music conductors.  In fact, I think they had to cut off a few of their people out of the payroll.  There are a lot of classical orchestras over here that have gone bankrupt and are not playing anymore.  They’re trying to work out their finances.”

  When listening to Thom’s innovative and lush arrangements, you can enjoy only real live instruments playing - no synths or computers domination.  “I don’t do that (machines).  That’s one of the main reasons, why I left the industry years ago.  The machines are good for some people, but not quite right with me.  I’ve talked to Burt Bacharach and Quincy Jones, and they don’t fool with those things at all.  I’m still in the generation of live, real musicians.”

  “I have retired, except for writing music for a children’s book, which will be out soon.  And my attorneys are working on a biography project right now.  There are a couple of companies that are bidding for it.” (Interview conducted on February the 8th, 2018).


ROBERT FINLEY *

  I talked to the 64-year-old Robert right after the release of his great debut album, Age Don’t Mean a Thing, a year and five months ago - http://www.soulexpress.net/deep5_2016.htm#robertfinley – and alongside the record we also went through his chequered career.  His much-anticipated follow-up, Goin’ Platinum! (EES-002; www.easyeyesound.com), was officially released in December 2017, but unfortunately this time Robert wasn’t available for interviews.

  Dan Auerbach is a 38-year-old blues-rock musician, who hails from Akron. Ohio, and is best known for his work as a guitarist and vocalist in the Black Keyes, as well as his solo recordings.  He was exposed to Robert’s material and as the first project last spring those two cut a five-song EP called Murder Ballads, which actually is a soundtrack to Gabe Soria’s graphic novel by the same name.  You can purchase the EP and the book only as a package, but two of those songs – Bang Bang and In the Pines – appear as videos on Robert’s website at www.robertfinleymusic.com, and two (Three Jumpers and The Empty Arms) are re-released on Robert’s new CD.  Butter Sandwich is available only on that EP, and Robert’s only non-CD song, Merry Christmas, I Love you, was published on YouTube last December.

  Goin’ Platinum! was cut at Dan’s Easy Eye Sound studios in Nashville, Tennessee, and among musicians you can spot such names as Gene Chrisman on drums, Duane Eddy on guitar and Bobby Wood on keys.  Dan produced the set and wrote or co-wrote all ten songs, collaborating with Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, Nick Lowe, John Prine and David Ferguson.

  In his music Robert has switched from highly emotive soul sounds to a sort of more modern jump music, which contains elements from swamp “alligator” blues, boogie-woogie type of party stomps and also southern rock mingled with “ragtime r&b.”  The set opens with an irresistible, multilayered r&b rocker called Get It While You Can, which is followed by a rousing mid-tempo beater named Medicine Woman.  They’ve shot videos for both of them.  We still go back to the 1960s on a cheerful, fast rocker titled Honey, Let Me Stay the Night

  Among more poppy, finger-snapping ditties there’s the infectious If You Forget My Love along with the jolly, country-tinged You Don’t Have to Do Right and a toe-tapping, bombastic chant called Real Love Is like Hard TimeThree Jumpers is a slightly bluesy number with a galloping clip-clop beat, while Complications is a big-voiced mover.  The poignant Empty Arms is one of the only two downtempo songs, and the other one is the churchy, falsetto-led Holy Wine (also on video).  On Goin’ Platinum! they’ve replaced the more passionate end of soul music with old-time, feel-good floor-fillers, nice melodies, marvellous singing and full orchestration with horns and background vocalists. (Acknowledgements to Karoliina Kanerva).


LAVEL JACKSON

  Lavel Jackson hails from Saginaw, Michigan, and he has released his ninth solo CD in seventeen years, and – as if that respectable amount of projects and self-written songs weren’t enough - he has also sung the second tenor in the Dramatics for the last two years.  You can read about his past career and how he joined the Dramatics at http://www.soulexpress.net/deep2_2016.htm#laveljackson   


  The inspirational I’m Blessed (www.laveljackson.com) was produced and arranged by Lavel himself and he wrote or co-wrote seven songs out of the eleven on display.  Lavel: “The official release date was March the 1st in 2018.  It was actually a project I was working on before I started singing with L.J. Reynolds and the Dramatics.  I released the first single off it, No Weeping, before I joined the group” (2015).

  The CD was cut at Lavel Jackson Studios.  “That’s my personal studio that I have in my home.  I’ve been doing home studio projects for close to twenty years now.  I use real instrumentation on most of my projects.”  Indeed, the set features musicians on keyboards, bass, drums and guitar, and also a background choir, which becomes rather dominant at times.

  The first single and the opener, No Weeping, is a catchy pulsator with a hurried beat, whereas many of the rest of the tracks are more downtempo and more intimate numbers.  Some of them are quite melodic, too, like the Father I Owe and the tender Show Me the Way, but most of them fall in their arrangements in the “Christian contemporary” category – Jesus, Keep Blessing Me, Why He Loves Me, Heaven and If You Want It.

  Higher Ground is a song deriving from the 19th century, and here that song is turned into an urban, almost unrecognizable form.  “That song I chose, because - when I started singing in church over twenty years ago – that was one of the first songs we learned as a choir.  I really like the lyrics of the song.  A friend of mine, Robert Pierson, played the keyboards and he came up with that arrangement for me.  I like Stevie Wonder’s version of Higher Ground, too.”

  Let the Music (Get down in Your Soul) is written by Frederick Knight, and this uptempo, spirited song was first cut by Rance Allen Group in 1979.  “I heard that song for the first time a couple of years ago.  I actually wanted to meet Rance Allen and see, if it’s possible we can do it together, but it never happened.”

  The third song Lavel himself didn’t write, Lord Help Me, is created by Billy Preston and Joe Greene, and we know this slow and intense song best by Donny Hathaway’s spiritual rendition from 1972.  “Donny Hathaway is one of my all-time favourite singers.  I actually heard that too a couple of years ago for the first time.  I wanted to keep everything similar to how he had arranged it, the same structure.  I did the background voices myself.  It was my appreciation to Donny Hathaway.”


GOING HOME

  There’s also another, secular CD that Lavel has recorded recently.  “Going Home is just a collection of Old School Soul and blues music that I had the pleasure of writing and recording under the name of Memphis Jackson.  I perform my original music in clubs and I’ve been told I sound like I’m from Memphis, Tennessee.  So some people started calling me ‘Memphis.’  I thought it was cool, so I kept it.”

  “The CD is not actually released.  I started recording it in August last year and that was a project I wanted to release, but during that project I started to work on my gospel CD, so I released the gospel CD instead.”  The Going Home CD was co-produced by Lavel together with Andy Reed out of Bay City, Michigan.  “Andy Reed is a friend of mine.  I used his studio.  I wrote all the songs and went to his studio, because I really like the stuff he’s done in the past and the musicians he’s working with.  I perform some blues & soul type of stuff locally, so I was looking for the old-school Stax Records kind of soul sound.”

  A real rhythm section fortified with trumpet and harmonica is backing Lavel up on songs, some of which have true potential.  Many of them have a leaning to blues, but of the more perky ones the smooth All She Needs, the poppy Can’t Fall in Love, the movie score type of Never Giving Up and the nostalgic Sweet Soul Music are all delightful numbers.  “Actually I’m talking to some old-school recording artists, who are working with the Dramatics on the road, so quite possibly some of those songs will be picked up by those artists.  When I perform blues locally, I offer the Going Home CD to that audience.”

  “I write all the time, and when I have a lot of songs I just release them by myself.  I’m Blessed is probably the first CD that I’m actually promoting.”  Besides the Dramatics, Lavel also works with two other bands, Soul Xpress and the Experience.  “The Experience does a lot of tributes and if they do a Stevie Wonder tribute they call me to see, if I’m available to do it.  That is maybe once or twice a year.  With Soul Xpress I work more often, because that’s the band I use for my original stuff.  We work more, but they know my priority is L.J. Reynolds and the Dramatics for doing shows and concerts.”  (Interview conducted on March the 5th in 2018).


SOUTHERN SOUL STEW

WILSON MEADOWS

  Wilson Meadows, “The Gentleman of Soul” and a singer with a distinguishable vibrato, has released a new CD after four years called The Facts of Life (MUI-CD 10218; www.musicaccessinc.com) and it’s produced by Stevie J Blues and Will Brown.  Wilson has composed all ten songs, and at least four of them have appeared on his earlier CDs – I’m Falling, Still My Love, We Can Fall in Love and Tell Me You Love Me.  Two new songs – a smooth and tender ballad named Good Thang and a mid-tempo toe-tapper titled Jump on it – were produced by Harrison Calloway, who passed two years ago, so this CD has been in the making for quite a long time.

  The first single, a catchy mid-pacer called A-T-TI-TUDE, features some real instruments, but – whether it’s the studio, or the engineering – the track sounds a bit muffled.  The same goes to some other mid-tempo tracks, too – Don’t Turn Me Down, Us and Lady Luck.  However, especially Us introduces a new feature in Wilson’s music - a strong jazz element.  Props for that!  Personal favourite is the pretty and atmospheric Good Thang.


O.B. BUCHANA

  Talking about mainstays and perseverance, Parking Lot Love Affair (www.eckorecords.com; ECD 1173) is O.B.’s 14th Ecko CD with fresh material since 2004!  It also seems that the more he keeps churning them out, the more he becomes like a personal trainer in terms of guiding you to dance.  I’m not complaining as long as his uptempo tracks are as good as some of the club floor-fillers here, such as I Wanna Get with You and Teach Me How to Swing.

  Customarily, John Ward produced and co-wrote all songs, some with Aubles himself, some with Henderson Thigpen, John Cummings and others.  There’s a Caribbean touch to a couple of mid-tempo ditties – Keep on Rollin’ and Jam on with Me – but the personal favourite in that sector is Goody Goody Good Stuff.  The title track and the nostalgic Las Vegas Mississippi are the two slowies on the set.


COMP-ART-ment

Z.Z. HILL *

  Although Arzell Hill (1935-84) never quite made it to the big league, more dedicated soul music fans kept a close eye on his career already in the 1960s and praised his effortless and stirring blues & soul style.  Now all those gems are available on That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968 (CDTOP 2 476; http://acerecords.co.uk/thats-it-the-complete-kent-recordings-1964-1968; 49 tracks, 2 h 18 min.; notes by Tony Rounce).

  This Texas-born artist first entered the studio in 1960, had his first singles released on brother Matt’s labels before he was signed to Bihari Brothers’ Kent imprint in Los Angeles in 1964.  Disc 1 of this twofer makes available all Z.Z.’s 15 Kent singles in chronological order, mostly self-written, and there’s not a single dud on display.  There are both memorable and compelling mid- or uptempo numbers – such as Have Mercy Someone, What More, That’s It, Everybody Has to Cry, Baby I’m Sorry and You Got What I Need – or smooth ballads like Someone to Love Me, Happiness Is All I Need, I Found Love, You Can’t Hide a Heartache and What Am I Living For

  As that last example indicates, not all songs came from Z.Z.’s pen.  Starting from 1966 - after Joe Bihari - Marc Gordon, Arthur Wright and Mike Akopoff took production helms and chose for Z.Z. also outside songs by Rosco Gordon (No More Doggin’), Fred Hughes (co-writer on You Can’t Hide a Heartache), Allen Toussaint (the heartfelt Greatest Love), Jimmy Holiday (Everybody Needs Somebody), Arthur Adams (You Just Cheat and Lie), Sam Cooke (Nothing Can Change the Love I Have for You) and even Tim Hardin (Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep), to name a few. 

  Disc 2 gives us Z.Z.’s second album, A Whole Lot of Soul, from 1967 in its entirety.  It includes Z.Z.’s versions of the big soul hits of the day, and among those twelve (stereo) tracks there are four tracks that are lifted from those earlier (mono) singles.  Most of the material on the album is down-tempo, and the only exceptions are Knock on Wood, Midnight Hour and Make Me Yours.

  Next five tracks (# 13-17) are originally unissued cuts that have appeared only on later compilations.  You Won’t Hurt No More is melodically too close to Every Little Bit Hurts for comfort.  The self-penned You’ve Got Me Chained to Your Love is an intense r&b ballad, and similarly Please Take Me Back is a bluesoul ballad.  Personal favourite is an easy and infectious mid-pacer called My Girl Has Gone Away.

  The rest five tracks (# 18-22) are Kent recordings, which were re-released in the early 1970s as remixed, sweetened versions after Z.Z. had gained some success on Mankind, and I must admit that You Don’t Love Me is quite cleverly turned into a fast, spirited roller.  Nothing Can Change This Love (I Have for You) is all the more enchanting when veiled in strings.  As a proud owner of both of those Z.Z.’s Kent albums and a number of singles, it was heart-warming to return to these captivating sounds on a CD, with many bonus tracks on display.  A highly recommended compilation for 60s basic soul music aficionados... and, come to think of it, for everybody!

MY TOP-10 in 2017

(full-length, new official releases)

  1. Don Bryant: Don’t Give Up On Love
  2. Wee Willie Walker and the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra: After A While
  3. Latimore: A Taste Of Me: Great American Songs
  4. Will Downing: Soul Survivor
  5. Robert Finley: Goin’ Platinum!
  6. Sweet Angel: Can’t Walk Away
  7. Nellie Tiger Travis: Mr. Sexy Man
  8. Willie Clayton: Crossroad Of The Blues
  9. Uvee Hayes: Nobody But You (EP)
  10. O.B. Buchana: Swing On With O.B.

© Heikki Suosalo


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