File under “Genius in Context”:
Fame was both a studio (in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and a record label. It had the usual southern-soul dynamic–blues-drenched whites (led by owner Rick Hall) running the business end, an inter-racial mix of writers and session players, mostly black vocalists (a dynamic well demonstrated by the cover of Ace’s three-disc box pictured above).
The box is–no surprise–epochal. There are a few pedestrian sides on the first disc (early on, when the sound was still developing). After a few hits and misses, it kicks in and, from there, the set never flags.
There’s no shortage of stunning individual moments among the awe-inspring embarrassment of riches, not a few of them deriving from vocalists like Joe Tex (whose importance in the development of Southern Soul is fully demonstrated here by the quantum leap his first Fame-recorded hit “Hold What You’ve Got” represents over what came before) and Otis Redding (impossibly warm and winning on his version of “You Left the Water Running”) who were generally associated with other labels and/or studios (Dial, Stax, etc.)
On the third disc, there’s even a segue that would have been the peak of practically any other day: Clarence Carter’s “Patches” (about a poor black sharecropper’s son hanging on and pulling the family through because of a promise made at his daddy’s dying bed) sliding straight into Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (about a poor “white trash” girl taking her mama’s death bed advice and getting out the only way she can–by becoming a prostitute). All that, plus a nice soul version of “Double Lovin’,” courtesy of originator George Jackson, which actually proves how great the Osmond boys really were and how foolish they (or their management) were to leave a studio that would have allowed them to compete with the J5 right down the line.
Right in the middle of all that–about a third of the way through the second disc, with the flood-tide of the era’s soul talent flowing freely–another quantum leap occurs.
It shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man,” was her first big hit, and everybody familiar with the period knows it represented lift-off–for her and for soul generally–after years of being a perpetually underachieving pop-oriented second-stringer at Columbia.
It was also the only master she completed on her contentious visit to Muscle Shoals (a visit specifically inspired by the success of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which as I’ve written elsewhere, makes Sledge one of the most important artists of the era all by itself). When it became the title track of her first monumental album on Atlantic, it was the third side. Thus, the permanent context was a slot following “Respect” and “Drown In My Own Tears.”
Not that it ever sounded less than great–there, on the radio, on the various greatest hits packages it so often led off–but nothing on earth would sound truly startling following those cuts.
So this was the moment when I was able to finally gauge its impact in its own time. Coming straight out of two of the greatest soul/funk go-rillas ever made (Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” and Clarence and Calvin’s “Thread the Needle,” this version featuring studio chatter to die for, not to mention copious amounts of Clarence Carter’s inimitable laugh of freedom), “I Never Loved a Man” raises the vocal stakes from the very first breath.
Stepping into a scene that was already producing some of the greatest music of the century–and represented the most exciting development in one of the most far-reaching artistic movements in the history of man, the very height of what I call “the revolution”–the voice alone sweeps everything before it.
“Here, now,” it says, “get ready to stand on the next mountain.”
Just like that. One minute, the mountain was somewhere around here:
Next minute it was just about here (sans chatter, unfortunately not available on-line)…
Then, in an instant, it was, definitively….here…where it stayed: