Hold on tight there, because this month we’re on a whistle-stop tour of some of America’s greatest soul cities – with a handful of some truly great R’n’B sides to savour as we go!
Our starting point is the Big Apple, or rather Bayonne, just across the Hudson River in New Jersey. That was where a High School vocal group called The Creators was formed in early 1964. By March the following year they’d changed their name to The Ad Libs and were riding high in the US top 10 with The Boy From New York City.
Irish potato company Albert Bartlett have used this track, which never made the charts over here, in an ad which features one-time Desperate Housewives turned new-look Dynasty star Jesse Metcalfe jogging around the streets of London.
In fairness The Boy…was a 1978 top 10 hit in the UK on Magnet thanks to rock’n’roll revivalists The Darts – and was also the title of a compilation album by pastiche merchants Manhattan Transfer a couple of years later. But the original version remains far and away the best.
It was released on the Blue Cat label, a subsidiary of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Red Bird imprint and the home of girl group smashes like The Dixie Cups’ Chapel Of Love and The Shangri Las' Leader Of The Pack.
Admittedly Elvis’ composers of choice received no songwriting credits for this mini-masterpiece. But they did produce it and today it remains one of the most finger-poppingly fantastic floorfillers in their entire canon – with an arrangement which just keeps on giving the more you listen to it. Doo wop doesn’t come better than this.
Our next port of call is Detroit where the Rev C.L. Franklin moved from Mississippi in the late 1940s. There he brought up a family of five children including the singing siblings Erma and her younger, soon-to-be Queen Of Soul sister Aretha. Although the elder girl caught the ears of fledgling songwriter and local label boss Berry ‘Mr Motown’ Gordy Jnr as well as the Chess brothers in Chicago, it wasn’t until 1967 that Erma Franklin, now signed to Shout, carved her own niche in pop history with the original recording of Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy’s stone classic (Take A Little) Piece Of My Heart.
Often described as the best single Aretha never made, it was Janis Joplin and The Holding Company who hit with the tune the following year, after a bewitching appearance in the Monterey Pop movie. Erma had to wait until 1992 for her moment of fame when Piece… was recruited for one of Levi’s legendary TV ads, and made number 9 in the UK Top 40.
But it’s her 1970 recording of (I Get The) Sweetest Feeling which interests us here. British Airways has licensed it for a Friendly Lemon spot, one of three extremely oddball ads in its current Club Class campaign. http://tinyurl.com/dxg5lpt
This Van McCoy-penned title first nibbled the US Top 40 by Jackie Wilson two years earlier and would re-emerge as a Top 10 Northern Soul hit here in 1972. Franklin’s version was released by Brunswick as a double header with another Wilson track, The Whisper’s Getting Louder, which was also destined to become a big Twisted Wheel favourite. Sadly neither made the charts leaving Erma Franklin, who died of throat cancer in 2002, consigned to the bargain bin of history as one of soul’s long list of one hit wonders.
The same could be said of Jean Knight – although she is still an active performer and so could conceivably bounce back at any time. Maybe the inclusion of her signature track Mr Big Stuff in M&S’ all singing, all dancing Greatest Hits Of Christmas commercial will do it for her.
Knight’s native New Orleans’ vocals coupled with the downhome cross rhythms laid out by the house band at Malaco studios in Jackson, Mississippi combined to create a piece of peerless proto-funk which sounds as fresh today as it did in 1971.
The story goes that she was hired to cut a simple demo of Mr Big Stuff to be shopped around to other artists. It was only after nobody was interested that Stax were persuaded to put out producer Wardell Quezerque’s recording, naked and unadorned. The result? A number 2 hit which sold over 2 million copies and was nominated for the Best Female R&B Vocal Grammy – only to lose out to Aretha Franklin’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. Inevitably perhaps Knight soon fell out with producer and label alike and, other than recording a Top 50 US version of the novelty tune My Toot Toot in 1985, has never troubled the charts since.
Finally we must doff our caps to M&S a second time this month. Alongside the likes of Rod Stewart, INXS and Kool & The Gang, their aforementioned Christmas TV campaign also contains a snatch of Labelle’s 1975 camp classic Lady Marmalade. The erstwhile Patti Labelle and The Blue Belles hailed from Philadelphia but with the Crescent City’s premier producer Allen Toussaint at the controls – and backed by The Meters no less – they offered a musical tour of the French Quarter complete with the hookers’ refrain of Voulez-vous Couchez Avec Moi?
The song itself was written by Four Seasons’ acolyte Bob Crewe after he’d been propositioned on the street in New Orleans. It subsequently became a global smash and made the top slot twice over in the US – firstly on original release (when it settled at number 17 in the UK) and then again in 2001 after it was covered for the Moulin Rouge movie soundtrack by a ‘supergroup’ consisting of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink. Among the many others who have reasserted Lady Marmalade’s glam credentials are All Saints, En Vogue, Beyonce, Sugababes and Leona Lewis. A bit too disco for purists perhaps, but the real deal nonetheless.