One of the legends of soul music, George Jackson, passed away on Monday this week. If you never heard of George Jackson, that’s not really surprising. He earned most of his fame as a songwriter during his long career in the music business and released only a handful of songs in the 1960s. But many of his old recordings were unearthed and released for the very first time in recent years and reveal that in addition to being an ace songwriter, he was also an outstanding singer and performer.
Reading online obituaries, it’s not clear how old George Jackson was; Wikipedia and All Music list him as 78, while the New York Times and several other wire services gave his age as 68. However, most sources give his birthdate as 1936, so if that’s the case he’d certainly have been in his late seventies. But what is undisputed is how talented this man was. While he was signed to Fame Records in the 1960s, Jackson only released two singles, but he spent most of time at that label as a songwriter and producer.
Whether you realize it or not, if you are over the age of 35 you’ve probably heard some of the songs that George Jackson wrote, most notably “Minnie Skirt Minnie,” “One Bad Apple” (a hit by the Osmonds), “Old Time Rock and Roll” (a huge hit for Bob Seger), and “The Only Way is Up” (a hit for the electro/new wave act Yaz). He also wrote hit songs for Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Z.Z. Hill, Candi Staton, and other artists, most of who recorded for the Fame and Atlantic labels. As a singer, he recorded more than 100 solo tracks for Fame, but strangely, those recordings were never released and sat in the archives for nearly 40 years until they were finally put on various CD compilations by the UK reissue label Ace/Kent.
The first release of vintage George Jackson material came in 2009 with In Memphis: 1972-1977, a CD containing 21 tracks, some of which were recorded for the legendary Hi Records label. But, like his 60s output for Fame, these excellent songs also sat on the shelf for several decades. As a music fan, I’m both shocked and saddened that music of this quality went unheard for so many years. But luckily the music junkies at Kent Records realized what a goldmine they had, and continued to release more George Jackson compilations. The second in their series, released in 2011, was Don’t Count Me Out: The Fame Recordings, Volume 1. This collection contained 24 tunes, all of them delicious soul gems. Last year Kent followed that one up with another compilation, Let the Best Man Win: The Fame Recordings, Volume 2. Like the previous set, this one also contained 24 songs rescued from the vaults, every single one of them an expertly crafted soul gem. Honestly, the quality of these recordings is extremely high and the tunes are thrilling. But what elevates them all to a higher level is Jackson’s scintillating vocals and soulful performance. He sounds a bit like Percy Sledge with some Tyrone Davis thrown in the mix; heartfelt southern soul with an irresistible backwoods country vibe. I’m telling you, this guy should be ranked up there with Otis Redding, James Carr, Wilson Pickett, and other great soul vocalists of the era. He was that outstanding. Obviously, he had the rep as a great songwriter, but hearing him sing these songs it’s painfully obvious that he was also a first-rate singer. All the more shameful that these songs were never released and promoted when they were first recorded.
In addition to those solo collections, a few more George Jackson songs can be found on recently issued compilations such as Hall of Fame: Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults and Lost Soul Gems from Sounds of Memphis, both put together by the fine folks at Kent/Ace. Lost Soul Gems has two wonderful Jackson tunes, one of which is a rough mid-80s demo, just Jackson on piano and singing, an achingly beautiful tune titled “It’s Hard to Say No.” Once again, I find it mind boggling to think that music this special was shelved for so long. Did someone once say that the people running record companies were idiots? Well, here’s the proof.
For an interesting interview with George Jackson, check out this link:
Sadly, George Jackson wasn’t the only soul music legend to pass away in recent months. Last month we lost Bobby Smith, one of the main vocalists for the Spinners. He’d been singing with Spinners since their days with Motown in the 1960s, and of course during their hit run with Atlantic in the 70s. In February we lost soul-jazz pioneer Donald Byrd, the unheralded singer-guitarist Lou Bond (check out his self-titled CD that was recently reissued by Light in the Attic, the same label that revived the career of Rodriguez, the singer/star of the “Searching for Sugar Man” documentary), Cecil Womack (brother of Bobby, and member of Womack & Womack with his wife Linda, who was Sam Cooke’s daughter!), two members of the Temptations (Richard Street and Damon Harris), and the oldest sister in the Staple Singlers, Cleotha Staples. Back in January, Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner of the Ohio Players also passed away.