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Soul Music Legend: George Jackson

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For an interesting interview with George Jackson, check out this link:

http://www.soulexpress.net/georgejackson_tribute.htm

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.

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Spinners

Philly Soul was a very popular musical genre throughout most of the 1970s, and one of the most popular groups of that era was the Spinners. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the most popular producers of the Philly Soul sound, and they even started their own Philadelphia International label to release music by their acts, but another producer, Thom Bell, also has lots of success with this sweet soul sound and the Spinners were his personal pet project.

Even though they get pigeonholed as a Philly Soul act, the Spinners were actually from Detroit and recorded for many years on the Motown label. In fact, in the UK they recorded as the Detroit Spinners because there was a folk band in Liverpool also using the same name. Throughout much of the 1960s, the Spinners toiled away at Motown, releasing some very good music, but they never received the promotion that top-tier Motown acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops enjoyed and their records never became huge hits.

And then a funny thing happened. Label mate Stevie Wonder had written a new song, “It’s a Shame,” for the Spinners to record. But it wasn’t until 1970, a full year after they recorded it, and just when the group’s Motown contract was about to expire, that the song became a big hit. By that time, the Spinners were clearly frustrated with Motown and had jumped ship to Atlantic Records, where Thom Bell embraced them. The first result of their work together, the self-titled Spinners album in 1973, one of the greatest soul albums ever made. As a teenager I originally bought it on 8-track tape a few months after it came out. I later wore out copies on cassette, vinyl, and now CD. Obviously, I cherished this album greatly growing up, but decades later, these songs still sound sweet and magical. The hit singles “I’ll Be Around”, “One of a Kind (Love Affair)”, “Ghetto Child”, and “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love” are the most obvious gems on there, but dig deeper and the quality of the songs does not diminish. “We Belong Together,” “Just You and Me Baby”, and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (a tune also recorded by Wilson Pickett, Doris Duke, Johnny Adams, Wet Willie, Keb’ Mo’ and others) are just a few more of the tasty gems on this classic album.

The follow-up album to Spinners, Mighty Love, was another seamless masterpiece, nearly as good a collection as the first Atlantic album. Songs like “Since I Been Gone” and “I’m Coming Home”, although not hit singles, ranked up there with some of their strongest material. Singers Philippe Wynne and Bobby Smith (they alternated lead vocals on various songs) were both in fine form, their superlative vocals elevating each song to a soulful high. During the rest of the decade, the Spinners continued to release strong albums — most notably Pick of the Litter and New & Improved — fortified with hit singles such as “Games People Play”, “Then Came You” (a duet with Dionne Warwick), “Sadie”, and “Rubberband Man.” Their output slackened towards the end of the decade after Wynne left the band in 1978 to pursue a solo career, and by the mid-80s the Spinners had all but vanished from the charts. But during that impressive run in the 70s they gave us some sensational music to savor.

Some people dismiss the Spinners as just another lightweight Top Forty act, complaining that their albums were “over produced” and too syrupy, a criticism stemming from Thom Bell’s frequent use of brass and string sections. Other critics point to the fact the Spinners didn’t write their own material, and the lyrical content of the songs lacked the social dynamic found in music by 70s soul artists such as the O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. But all that sniping is missing the point. Bell’s production gloss doesn’t take away from the magic of the music. Get past the hit singles and listen to those albums, ya’ll! The Spinners recorded solid albums that lacked the usual filler associated with pop acts of that period. Even if they didn’t write the songs themselves, their heartfelt interpretation of these compositions was nothing short of breathtaking. This is music that floats above the mediocre scrum of pop, songs that stick in your head, and make you smile. And that’s a good thing.

 

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