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…

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (When the Singers Ruled Motown and I Spy Goes Places We Haven’t Caught Up To Just Yet)

Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection 1959–1971 (Disc One)

“Disc One” runs through the latter part of 1964. It’s nowhere near a complete record of the label’s hits from the period–not even of its really big hits. But it’s a telling overview just the same.

For anyone who may not know, “Motown” was the brain-child of Berry Gordy, Jr., who, along with Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, was one of the three truly essential men in the rise of rock and roll from a sub-genre of rhythm and blues to the cultural cataclysm that was already well established by the time the Beatles arrived in America.

What is less well known–or at least recognized–is how much early Motown depended almost completely on singers.

Mind you, this is before the Temptations or the Four Tops or the (generally underrated) Supremes. And before Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or even Smokey Robinson became the powerhouse geniuses of later years. This was the era of the Marvelettes and Mary Wells and one shots like Barrett Strong and the Contours.

But on the first fourteen tracks of this particular collection, which run from Strong’s “Money” to Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips–Part 2″ and cover four full years, there is not a single case where the lead vocal isn’t the strongest element on the record (with only the wild, doo-wopping vocal arrangement on the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” coming anywhere close to one-upping the lead).

Mind you, a good bit of the writing, producing and arranging talent that would mark mid-Sixties’ Motown’s glory run was already in place.

So were most of the crack session men who became known as the Funk Brothers.

But none of them were quite there yet, especially in the first year or two, when any new label’s very survival is at stake.

What was there was a glorious run of fantastic lead vocals. If the Supremes are underrated (far too often dismissed as producer’s pets–as though that has ever really opened a door for anyone who didn’t have the talent to step through it to begin with), then the Marvelettes and especially Mary Wells are, outside of the usual cult circles, criminally neglected.

Later on, even singers as great as the Temptations or the Tops’ Levi Stubbs or Marvin Gaye did not have to CARRY records the way the label’s early vocalists did. Beginning with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” in the summer of 1963, the rest of the label’s talent pool began rapidly catching up. By the time the label’s really big acts broke through, the instrumental tracks alone on records like “My Girl,” or “Come See About Me” or “Uptight” or “Heard It Through the Grapevine” could have carried many a lesser talent to the top of the charts.

But there at the foundation, Barrett Strong (whose vocal on “Money” is every bit as great as John Lennon’s on the epic Beatles’ remake–it’s the rest of the track that comes short) and the young, still unpolished Smokey Robinson and Gladys Horton and Mary Wells and all the rest had to put it over on their own.

And they did.

The rest of the box lets you hear how much Berry Gordy learned from the experience–how deeply he understood the importance of voices. Because he spent the rest of the decade not only developing the locals (Tempts, Tops, Supremes and so forth) but rounding up singers like Gladys Knight and Ronnie Isley and the Spinners from afar.

Then, of course, he forgot.

Not only did he let much of that talent slip away at the end of the decade (with Knight, the Isleys and the Spinners becoming three of the biggest acts of the seventies elsewhere) but he lost the knack–or perhaps the will–to seek out new talent of the same caliber. From 1970 onward, only the Jacksons and the Commodores came anywhere close to matching the singers of Motown’s earliest days, let alone its peak.

Not coincidentally, they were the label’s biggest acts as it passed–also not coincidentally–from being an iconic cultural force to being that greatest of all American Dreams….a successful business enterprise.

Pity, that.

I Spy: Season One (1965)

The Robert Culp/Bill Cosby spy series has been sitting on my shelf for a few years, saved for a rainy day. Lots of rainy days this week, so I began working my way in.

Nicely done for its period, meaning for any period. Of course it has weaknesses, but good things are always good. Played by two white guys it would have been just as enjoyable, assuming the second white guy was as gifted and relaxed in the role as Bill Cosby–unlikely but not entirely impossible.

But what’s really striking about this “groundbreaking” series is that, unlike pretty much every other dare television has ever taken (including, I suspect, the ones it is taking right-now-this-very-minute-in-case-you-hadn’t-heard!), it’s precisely the groundbreaking element–the easy, natural relationship between the two leads–that hasn’t dated.

I don’t mean that their relationship feels contemporary. Just that it feels like a world that never arrived.

Robert Culp’s commentary on several early episodes stresses that this particular sort of interracial relationship “had never been done,” (at least on television) and he’s right about that. The closest any white/black relationship had come anywhere on-screen to feeling so naturalistic was actually the Mammy/Scarlett duet pulled off by Ms. McDaniel and Ms. Leigh in you know what.

But Culp and Cosby went that one better because they stepped outside of the time-space continuum and made the impossible–a black American and a white American interacting on a daily basis in a public space with no sliver of race laying between them, as though history had never happened–seem easy as pie.

Culp says in his commentary that it was a conscious decision between himself and Cosby to make race a nonissue–that their statement would be to make no statement.

Fair enough.

But I don’t think he gave himself and his co-star enough credit. There is nothing harder than making a statement by making no statement and this particular nonstatement statement has never been made quite as convincingly since.

So good for them. Good for Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, who turned out to be a couple of splendidly unique human beings.

Shame about the rest of us.


SEGUE OF THE DAY (5/18/13–Lester Flatt and Ronnie Isley)

About this time a year ago, I found out I was going to have to replace my roof and my hardwood floors by the end of the year in order to keep my house insurable. These things got done, at the expense of reordering my life for months on end. And I’m just now returning to something like “normal” status, meaning, among other things, that my record player is fully operational again.

So here in the last week or two I’ve been pulling vinyl like mad, acquainting and re-acquainting myself as it were.

And sometime Saturday in the very early a.m., I was sure I had found the “new” acquaintance of the week/month/year when I discovered Flatt–on an old double-LP titled Bean Blossom (a live recording from Indiana’s Bean Blossom bluegrass festival in 1973 which I’ve had for years but have rarely played and never really paid strict attention to before)–turning “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” aka “The Theme From the Beverly Hillbillies” into a laconic, world-weary, working man’s blues.

Flatt’s studio version was already far dryer and a good deal more cautionary than the chipper version that resides in the national subconcious via endless re-runs, but here, he made lines like “poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,” sound like they were being sung from the bottom of a mine.

So that had to be it, right? The new thing most likely to expand my consciousness here in the latter stages of my recovery phase?

Really, I should know better.

No matter how tired I get, I should never forget that rock and roll is bottomless.

Not twenty-four hours later, I’m in my car listening to the final album in a stark-raving incredible five album set from the Isley Brothers which, in amongst the hardcore funk-rock and straight soul, features lots and lots of covers of White America’s AM Gold playlist circa the early seventies, nearly every one of which they transformed.

Seriously: “Ohio” to “Summer Breeze” to “Listen to the Music” to “Love the One You’re With” to “Fire and Rain.” Good records, great records, trash records. It would be easy to think it was just catch-as-catch-can, trying to keep up with the era’s insane recording schedules–easy except Ronnie Isley kept finding ways to make everything personal.

“Just yesterday morning,” he sings “they let me know you were gone.” And suddenly it hurts. There’s no distance, no comfort, no displacement, no opacity, no self-pity, just real fear and real transcendence. As if somebody or something is really and truly gone.

Same with “four dead in O-hi-o.” Same with “There’s a rose in the fisted glove.”

And so on and so forth.

But even with all that coming at me during my drive times this week, I wasn’t any way prepared for Ronnie to take on Jonathan Edwards’ consummately fey (and consummately catchy) “Sunshine,” which, I confess, I never knew meant anything at all after hearing Edwards sing it a few hundred times on the oldies’ stations of yesteryear (most often with me shouting right along, incidentally).

Here, it starts out sounding like a man who is standing next to Lester Flatt in that imaginary mine, shouting up–“Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancing”–and then follows along as he proceeds to lift himself up inch-by-inch until he can just about see the light.

But don’t take my word for it…go have a listen–as “He’s got cards he ain’t showing,” takes on new meaning in the mouth of a black man negotiating the fall-out of post Civil Rights America as the New Jim Crow began to meet the Old Jim Crow and he helps you ponder the paths not taken–bear in mind Ronnie’s own maxim that rock and roll was the only music that let everything in:

The Isley Brothers “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” (Studio recording)