DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Honey Cone Up)

“While You’re Out Looking for Sugar”
The Honey Cone (1969)
Billboard Pop: #62
Billboard R&B: #26
Recommended source: Greatest Hits

The Honey Cone, Edna Wright in the center

I came across an item on Facebook today which claimed it’s Edna Wright’s 75th birthday.  I wasn’t able to confirm the date anywhere else  (though she is listed as being born in 1944) but I’ll take any real or imagined occasion to celebrate her and her great group the Honey Cone’s not-so-little and all-too-forgotten place in the history of Rock and Roll America.

When the titanic writing/producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland split with Motown in 1968, they set out looking for artists to fill the rosters at their new labels Hot Wax and Invictus. The first act they signed was a trio of girl group veterans consisting of Wright (Darlene Love’s sister–the vocal and visual similarities were striking), Carolyn Willis and Shelly Clark.

The group’s history soon became an old, familiar one. Like the Chantels, Dixie Cups and Shangri-Las (among others) before them, they were the soul and success of their new label, made fabulous records, had a modest but indelible run of hits and were abandoned to their fate when the record company went out of business. Like those other groups, their identity remained largely obscure, except when they opened their mouths to sing. For the Honey Cone, that musical identity consisted of a nudge forward in what their label mate Laura Lee would soon term “Women’s Love Rights.”

Their biggest hit, “Want Ads,” was, even more than Lee’s hit, the culmination of the process–a new style of assertiveness that married the old girl talk timbres (vulnerable, yearning) to soul and blues themes that had mostly been left to males. The ethos could be summed up in a simple phrase: You better watch yourself!

But the road to “Want Ads” and similarly themed records like Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” (out of Miami, where she, too, would be the foundation stone for yet another process of somebody else making a lot more money than she did), began with the Honey Cone’s first Hot Wax release, “While You’re Out Looking for Sugar” (1969) a fine soul side that did just well enough on the charts to confirm H-D-H’s faith in bigger and better things to come.

It was a bold leap. There were scant role models at the time for the kind of sly but forceful pushback Edna and her group were insisting upon. No more pleading, no more begging, no more daydreaming and no more prizing the church over the street.

Once they got going, the new woman was here to stay, and not just on the Pop and Soul charts. Like all the great girl groups before them, including those H-D-H had guided at Motown (even the mighty Supremes), they were often dismissed as puppets.

Like all the great girl groups before them, it was never that simple. Put it this way: Except for “Want Ads,” Honey Cone’s entire catalog could qualify as its own subcategory of Diamonds in the Shade. There was a reason why, when Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland went looking for the foundation of their own vision, they signed Edna Wright first.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The Jive Five Up)

“Hey Nineteen”
The Jive Five (1982)
Not released as a single
Recommended source: Love Needs/Here We Are

Some folks have been dedicating Steely Dan’s original version to Aretha.

There’s no need for that folks. You know better. Only one group ever made “She don’t remember the Queen of Soul” hurt.

From their too-good-to-be-true Ambient Sount LP, Here We Are:

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (The “5” Royales Up)

“The Slummer the Slum”
The “5” Royales (1958)
B-Side, did not make the charts
Recommended source: It’s Hard But It’s Fair: The King Hits and Rarities

“There’s only one difference between me and you
You got money in your pocket and I got a hole in my shoe..
All from doing the Slummer the Slum”

Of all the dance crazes that never quite took off, The Slummer the Slum is the one I most wish had made Bandstand just to see if anybody would admit it had a good beat and you could dance to it.

It was made by my favorite fifties’ rock and roll band, which was called Lowman Pauling, who also wrote it, and released by the vocal group he accompanied, who called themselves the “5” Royales. (I reviewed their mind-blowing box set here.)

Pauling and the Royales hailed from North Carolina and started out on Apollo records in the late forties as a searing, southern-style gospel group. While still on Apollo, they began to move into the secular r&b market. Too hardcore to ever court much pop success, they nonetheless struck a chord with black audiences (the one above is in Cleveland) and had a nice run of hits that landed them a contract with the King label in Cincinnati, where their presence probably had something to do with the label’s subsequent ability to sign, among others, James Brown (a near acolyte) and Little Willie John.

Oddly enough, when they reached King, which should have given them a bigger reach, they stalled out for three years before Paul came up with the classics that established their name for good in the rock and roll universe: “Think,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Tell the Truth,” all successful for them at the time and later big hits for the obscure likes of James Brown, Ray Charles, the Shirelles, the Mamas & the Papas.

They soldiered on into the sixties without ever reaching the charts again themselves. Along the way, Brown, Steve Cropper, Eric Clapton and others paid lavish tribute and turned Lowman Pauling’s guitar into a foundational element of funk, soul and hard rock.

But he was a genius lyricist, too. Never more than here, where he limned out the politics of the Frozen Silence he wouldn’t live to see in a few hilarious, slashing lines that provide a prequel to War’s “The World is a Ghetto” and cut just as deep.

I don’t know any single record that’s a greater testimony to the bottomless nature of Rock and Roll America and fifties’ r&b.

“Don’t try to figure out where I come from
I could be a fat cat from Wall Street,
I could be the Purple People Eater’s son….
All from doing the Slummer the Slum….”

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Jeff Healey Band Up)

“That’s What They Say”
Jeff Healey Band (1988)
Not released as a single
Recommended source: See the Light

When Jeff Healey came into the spotlight in the late eighties, he was the latest in a long line of white hot white blues guitarists–the hook being that, like a lot of first generation black bluesmen, he was blind.

What really marked him off, though, was his singing, a dry, meticulous baritone that made him one of the last great blue-eyed soulsters.

Though he had only one big hit (the great “Angel Eyes”), the voice said he might have done better in earlier times.

And, whatever the times, why the record company didn’t release “That’s What They Say” as a followup single from his debut album is one of those mysteries only a record company executive could answer.

Well, and maybe all those people who thought the new ballad style, embodied by Whitney Houston, had something to do with gospel or soul.

Album cut or no, “That’s What They Say” has only grown for me over the can’t-believe-it’s-been-three-decades since. Unlike “Angel Eyes,” stunning in its own right, Healey wrote it and, as a work of lyric imagination, it was on a level with the polio-stricken Doc Pomus writing “Save the Last Dance For Me.”

As a example of blues paranoia, it sounds like a creeping future we hoped would never arrive….but, inevitably, did.

Until I started researching this post, I didn’t know Healey had passed away in 2008. I think one reason I was a little shocked was because, in his best music,  recorded in an age that defined hype and bluster, he sounded like he had all the time in the world….

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Soul Brothers Six Up)

“Some Kind of Wonderful”
Soul Brothers Six (1967)
Billboard: #91
Recommended source: In Yo’ Face Vol 1/2 (Okay, this set is great beyond belief. But, unless you’ve got something juicy on Donald Trump you can sell to the former FBI director of your choice, I’m not recommending you pay the $172.00 it’s going for on Amazon right now!…It’s one I’ve got, though, and I do hope you can find it cheap some day.)

They were the Soul Brothers Five at first. Five actual brothers out of Rochester, New York, trying to do an Isleys sort of thing in the mid-sixties. They didn’t have a Ronnie Isley in the family so, soon enough, they had to hook up with a lead singer, which was how they came to be fronted by the great John Ellison.

And the rest was history!

Well, except they didn’t have too much success, not even after Jerry Wexler ran across them in Buffalo and was impressed enough to bring them down state to Atlantic records. They were a band, not just a vocal group–though I haven’t found a yay or nay on whether they played the rock steady soul riffs Ellison wrote for them in the spring of 1967.

He definitely sang the words, a kind of pastiche of R&B titles and catchphrases that, strung together just so, added up to one of the deepest soul cuts ever.

Too deep, as it happened, to do more than scrape the pop chart, miss the soul chart altogether, and then lay in the rough dirt of the underground (you know, “diamond…in the shade”), waiting for Grand Funk to dig it out, cover it note for note, scream for scream, and ride it to #3 Pop in the mid-seventies, with a record that was about half as good….and still plenty fine.

Because half of this is twice of almost anything you want to throw it up against it…

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Addrisi Brothers Up)

“We’ve Got To Get It On Again”
The Addrisi Brothers (1972)
Billboard: #25
Recommended source: Have a Nice Day: Volume 8

The Addrisi Brothers, Dick and Don, started out imitating the Everly Brothers in the fifties (well, after they failed an audition for the Mouseketeers anyway) and, thanks mostly to their songwriting abilities (the big one was “Never My Love”), hung on through disco. Don passed away from pancreatic cancer in the eighties.

They had one great record on their own and it was one of their periodic rides up the charts though nowhere near as big as it should have been. You could still hear it now and again on Oldies and AC formats in the late seventies where I first encountered it. In all but a few places, it has long since vanished from the radio.

Too bad, because “We’ve Got To Get It On Again” has a unique vibe. Evidently the brothers worked best when writing from personal experience. “Never My Love” had grown out of a conversation Don had with his fiancee. “We’ve Got To Get It On Again”–distinctively brooding and intimate for all its pop sheen–was originally slated as a B-side. Some DJ in Boston turned the record over and the phones lit up. Pretty soon it was the A-side. Dick came home one day shortly thereafter and his wife said “You’re on the radio.” He thought great. Assumed it was the A-side.

“No,” she said. “The other one.”

The other one?

“You really should have told me first,” she said, “before you put it out there for millions of people.”

Honey, it was a B-side

Coincidence or not, these days, Dick lives in Argentina. Pretty sure he lives there without that particular wife.

His best record lives on in the shadows.

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wilbert Harrison Up)

“Let’s Work Together”
Wilbert Harrison (1969)
Billboard: #32
Recommended source: Let’s Work Together

As “Let’s Stick Together,” this number started life as an early sixties’ side by it’s composer, Wilbert Harrison, which paired the odd rhythm and Harrison’s characteristic dry vocal with a standard lover’s plea.

It was one of those records that sounded like it ought to be a big hit some time, for somebody, under some name or other.

In the UK, eight years later, it was. Canned Heat (who held off releasing their version in the States–where it made #26–while Harrison’s was still on the chart) took it to #2 across the pond and, a few years later, Bryan Ferry took it to #12.

Here at home, Harrison’s plaintive turn, by 1969 re-purposed as a call to brotherhood and released as “Let’s Work Together,” stalled outside the Top 30.

It’s probably more famous than most records that suffer a similar mid-charting fate. If so, that’s partly because its quality (rooted in duality–a celebration of the late sixties’ communal ethos by a black man who had more to gain from its acceptance and application than most of its more celebrated practitioners and, perhaps as a result, could not deliver the uplifting lyric with the expected bound-for-the-top smile in his throat) could not quite be denied and partly because, over the years, big name critics like Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus have harkened back to it in famous forums.

I’m glad they did, because that’s how I found it (I wrote about the fine album Harrison made around it here).

What specifically brought it back to mind this week (besides the times we live in, of course…the humor of it all) was running across Canned Heat’s version, also terrific, on YouTube. I post it here for comparison’s sake (it couldn’t qualify as a Diamond fully in the Shade itself because it made the Top Ten in the UK). I promise it’s a treat musically, from a too-often forgotten band. That it features a bunch of Top of the Pops young lovelies (a couple of whom can actually dance, not always a given in these scenarios, then or now) is, I assure you, entirely beside the point. My purpose here is purely educational.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Jigsaw Up)

“Love Fire”
Jigsaw (1975)
Billboard: #30
Recommended source: Anthology

Jigsaw was a British band that had a history indistinguishable from dozens of other almost-might-have-beens until they scored a big international hit with “Sky High” in 1975.

Like a lot of things that seem to come from nowhere, it came from somewhere…and not just anywhere.

The band’s leaders, Clive Scott and Des Dyer had knocked around as a hard rock outfit since the late sixties, been talked into a new pop direction by the suits at their label after six years worth of stiff singles, then dumped unceremoniously when that didn’t get them anything but another stiff.

Along about then, their career seems to have been rescued by a song they wrote in the new vein called “Who Do You Think You Are?” becoming a big hit in the UK for the immortal Candlewick Green (who even I, an aficionado of this stuff, confess I don’t remember) and a small hit in the U.S. for Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (following up their own immortal “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” which damaged or enlightened teenage lives in about equal measure back in ’74).

That all led to another label, another album, another bite at the apple, which turned out to be “Sky High,” one of the best singles of the era and perhaps the finest example of Power Pop Disco (the only competition is Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove”….don’t make me judge!).

And then, of course, they had to follow that up.

Which they sort of did

“Love Fire” is “Sky High” made over. Not quite as compelling all around, unless it catches you in the right mood…and you wonder what would have happened if the two singles had been released in reverse. Would “Love FIre” have then been the breakthrough and “Sky High” the re-hash?

Perhaps. I don’t think it would have changed the chart positions. It would have left me with one less earworm to track down when I first started listening to the radio, though. “Sky High” was, ever after, easy to find. Having missed “Love Fire” in the record stores when it was released, I had to wait for the years to go by  (and Rhino’s Have a Nice Day series) to hear it again.

It had stuck.

And it still sounded pretty darn great to me…not something I could say about every recovered memory mind you….

“Love Fire” was the last real blast for Jigsaw. They soldiered on and then went the way of all rock and roll flesh. Nothing left but a smile!

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Sly and the Family Stone Up)

“Soul Clappin’”
Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
Unreleased
Recommended source: Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection

Sly and the Family Stone worked at such a white hot pace in their 1967-72 heyday that, like the 65-67 version of the Byrds and the 75-79 version of Fleetwood Mac, they left an album or two worth of fine material in the vault and still laid a claim on being the best band of their time.

The Family’s extras emerged from the shadows in 2007, when their first seven albums were remastered and released as a box set.

I’ve been giving the albums a close listen for the first time this week (Stand and There’s a Riot Goin’ On having been longtime favorites–mine and everybody’s) and what struck me about the nature of the extras is that, where the Byrds and Fleetwood Mac were prone to leaving off their oddball stuff, Sly and company were more likely to leave off their straight stuff.

Hence, “Soul Clappin'” (sometimes, for no evident reason, listed as “Soul Clappin’ II”), which is “Dance to the Music” slightly straightened out….and just about as pleasurable. “Dance to the Music,” one of the most revolutionary records ever, is worth its own essay. But “Soul Clappin'” carries its own weight. It suggests that if Sylvester Stone had been so inclined, he could have included “the hippies and the squares”–instead of telling all the squares to go home–and gone toe-to-toe with Stax and Motown on their own turf….instead of pulling them onto his.

Genius is like that, sometimes.

 

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Elton John Up)

“Lady Samantha”
Elton John (1969)
Did Not Make the Charts
Recommended source: To Be Continued (Box Set)

and

“Part Time Love”
Elton John (1978)
US #21
UK #15
Recommended source: A Single Man

I started listening to the radio seriously in late 1975. I was aware of Elton John before that. It was hard not to be at least aware (though if anyone could have managed it, it would have been me).

I didn’t have much of an opinion about him, even after I started listening to the radio. 1976 was sort of the break point. I loved “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (still do), liked the others he had out at the time (still do, especially “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”). But, as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was a duet, the first record of his alone that I took entirely to heart was an obscure side I discovered when I plucked The History of British Rock Vol. 2 from some bargain bin or other, along about 1977. I was still in my discovery days. There were a dozen or more classics I encountered for the first time on this particular set (and, yes, I still have it), everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “The Mighty Quinn” to “Something in the Air.”

“Lady Samantha” didn’t take a back seat to any of them.

Knowing, by the chart book I was then busy memorizing (it came natural as I’d been a baseball stat freak), that, unlike those other records, it had never been a hit in either the U.S. or the U.K., I had one of my first inklings that my own taste might not line up with everyone’s, even when it came to the 60s, so it was a more than usually valuable marker.

As the seventies progressed, my stubborn streak would become more and more necessary.

“Part Time Love” was the next Elton record that I really loved and it came and went like a cool breeze. It followed a string of flops (by his standards) and didn’t do much to get him started again. By the time he did get started again (some time after the Thom Bell collaboration “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” had provided a nice respite for audience and artist alike in 1979) he was a changed man and a changed artist. He would remain a consistent hit-maker for another two decades. He would never matter again.

“Part Time Love” came and went so fast I didn’t have chance to score it on a 45 and years of hunting the used oldies bins proved fruitless. Once it left the radio, I never heard it any place except my head until a full decade later, when I picked up the album A Simple Man for .99 cents (less than I would have paid for the single in ’78) at my then favorite, now deceased, local record store.

All those years, my head was enough. A decade further on, when I was putting my first mix-tape of beat records together (there were dozens eventually and, still another decade on, I transferred most of them to CD), and I was looking for something to segue out of “London’s Burning,” I knew there was only one record that would do the trick. I still listen to the mix-disc regularly and every time I hear Paul Buckmaster’s soaring arrangement bleed out of London punk–and subsume and subvert it, all of it–I can’t keep from smiling.

I’ve learned to love a lot of Elton John’s music in the years since 1978, even some that he made after he stopped mattering as anything more than a celebrity hit-maker. But I never forget that I came to the biggest solo artist of my youth through the great records he made just before and just after he was King of the World.

That, too, makes me smile.