Tuesday, April 1, 2008
"Let's Do It Over": Joe Simon, John R., Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham
My apologies out there: I've been busy with out of town visitors and various meetings and such and didn't get a chance to update the blog last week. And, to make things worse, haven't really gotten the chance to prepare anything for this week. So, I fall back on one of my stand-bys: the best of Dan Penn hits. This week, the first partnership with Spooner Oldham, the first hit for Joe Simon, and an early encounter with Muscle Shoals: "Let's Do It Over."
The success of Vee-Jay 694 is another story of the confluence of many talents with great timing and circumstance.
Joe Simon had recorded a few unheard singles for the California based Hush label, which got him the notice of Chicago based Vee-Jay records. If it were 1963, Vee-Jay would have been a good home for his smooth easy singing style, with a roster boasting Jerry Butler, Jimmy Reed, The Dells, Betty Everett, Gene Chandler, and the Four Seasons, not to mention distributing the early Beatles 45s. But by 1965, Vee-Jay was in many legal battles with EMI and Capitol over the Beatles and being sued for back payments by Frankie Valli. Although good singles were still being released, the company was on the verge of losing it all in 1965. Simon had moderate success with "The Adorable One" (609) and "When I'm Gone" (663), but it wasn't till he met John R. that things began to get rolling.
John Richborg, known throughout the South, especially in the black community, simply as John R., was one of the disc jockeys on the ultra-powerful WLAC Nashville. John R. broke many an R&B artist in those days with his 50,000 watts of power and, of course, a great ear. Otis Redding, James Brown, Chuck Berry are just some of the greats that owed part of their success to the man. When Joe met John, he suggested to Vee-Jay, as he had begun to do for others, to take Joe down to a small Northern Alabama city, Muscle Shoals, to record.
Muscle Shoals wasn't quite on the map yet for soul music in 1965. Things had gotten started, but things were also going away, and the studio, well Rick Hall in particular, was unsure of their sound (and thus their future). Arthur Alexander and Jimmy Hughes (coincidentally, "Steal Away" was being distributed by Vee-Jay) had already broken big out of Muscle Shoals, but Arthur was in Nashville and so soon was original group. In late 1964, David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, and Curly Putnam had been lured away by the bigger paychecks in the Music City, But with their departure, some of those waiting in the wings stepped up in influence at FAME, notably Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.
Dan and Spooner had been around Muscle Shoals for a few years, playing the fraternity circuit in white R&B bands and hanging around the studio. By early 1965, Dan had a job as house writer for Rick and, as quoted by Barney Hoskyns: "All I really cared about was the studio. I hadn't thought of cuttin' my own records or anything for a long time. I wanted to be a writer and a record produced." Spooner was playing second fiddle (or piano as it were) to Briggs, but getting big calls whenever he could. But with their departure for Nashville, Dan's band (formerly the Mark Vs, then Dan and the Pallbearers) petered out and Spooner was now the keyboard player. The rest of the FAME gang were also brought in around this time, with Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins joining the fold. And along came a Joe Tex hit and a Joe Simon follow.
Buddy Killen had brought down Joe Tex with an iffy song. Joe recorded "Fresh Out of Tears," and according to Killen it took forever, then they threw together a song Joe had penned himself and been kicking around: "Hold On to What You Got." Killen told the musicians he "wanted straight out country chords." After some overdubbing and messing around with the tapes up in Nashville, Killen released the record and it sold 50,000 copies in the first day. Joe Tex was on the map and the idea of country soul was in full force in Muscle Shoals. Much as with the early career of Jimmy Hughes and the Wallace Brothers, it was Dan Penn and the musicians who pushed the famously hard-headed Rick Hall into producing a different kind of song. Not coincidentally, according to Dan, it was the kind of music he had been hearing on WLAC.
"Let's Do It Over" was the first real song Dan and Spooner wrote together. And it was the first real hit for Joe Simon, spending 17 weeks on the R&B charts, peeking at #13. The song really spotlights what's so great about Joe Simon--his delivery. Joe may be the most underrated of all the great soul singers because everything seems to come so effortless and natural to him. His rich baritone just ebbs and flows with the song, constantly bringing the song up ("Full of your prec-cious love"), then settling himself ("Looking back"). The imploring nature of the lyrics really allows Joe to ease back and be emotional at the same time--it's almost as if he's singing in an audible whisper with immaculate clarity. Upon each listen, I find new lines of the song that stick out differently than the last time.
As far the band goes, there's a couple of hints of what FAME would become, with Jimmy Johnson's gentle county pick and the ease of the backing vocals and horns. But there isn't any of the cliches that would later come to represent the Muscle Shoals sound, but I think that works in Joe's favor, allowing him to set the phrase and tempo of the song. Anyway, I just love how he gently he pleads with his woman, asking her yet in that calm tone of voice that just oozes confidence. And that to me is one of the great aspects of the Penn-Oldham collaborations: the emotion can always go either way. Depending on the strength of the singer, "Let's Do It Over" could be either the desperation or the conviction as the dominant element. But when they're done right, it's never that simple. No matter how easy the singer sounds.
Irma Thomas also recorded a version of "Let's Do It Over" when she was sent by Chess to Muscle Shoals in 1967. Although it was never released as a single, it was put out on the album "Down At Muscle Shoals," and it shows the band in full force by that time--with all the cutting riffs and edge even on the ballads. Don't get me wrong, Irma's version is stellar, but I prefer Joe's because she doesn't quite implore that emotional ambiguity to the tune. Hers is definitely heart-felt and renching, but the vocals never reveal that other side of the lyrics. (Toussiant McCall also recorded a good version of the song, that didn't get released by Ronn at the tie, but that's for another post).
Soon after this singe Vee-Jay went belly up and things worked out for everyone (well, everyone else), as Joe went to Sound Stage 7, the new R&B label from Monument with John R. as the head of the A&R department and released a ton of great singles and had bigger hits. Dan and Spooner continued to write and play together in Muscle Shoals, then in Memphis, and had bigger hits. And FAME brought in everyone and had bigger hits. John R. died in 1986, but his impact still rings out over the airwaves. Dan and Spooner still play (together and apart), write, and produce. And Joe, well, he's a Bishop in Flossmore, Illinois, about 20 minutes south of where I live, and records Gospel albums. Check it out and you'll immediately recognize that voice and, well, he's still got it.
There's a great discography with some sound clips, including "Let's Do It Over" by a great purveyor of Deep Soul, Sir Shambling, here.
One of these days, I'll just throw up a podcast of the quintessential recordings of Dan Penn songs: everything from the obvious (James Carr's "Dark End of the Street," Aretha's "Do Right Woman," Percy Sledge's "Out of Left Field," "Solomon Burke's "Take Me (Just As I Am)") to the lesser known (Ralph Soul Jackson's "Cause I Love You," Tony Border's "Cheaters Never Win," Van Broussard's "Feed the Flame," Clarence Carter's "She Ain't Gonna Do Right").
The Flying Burrito Brothers; Dark End of the Street; Sin City
Joe Simon; Let's Do It Over; Vee-Jay 694
Jimmy Hughes; Why Not Tonight; Fame 1011
Willie Hightower; If I Had a Hammer; (s/t; Astralwerks)
Irma Thomas; Yours Till Tomorrow; Down at Muscle Shoals; Chess
Percy Sledge; It Tears Me Up; Atlantic 2358
Johnny Ace; Pledging My Love; Memorial Album; MCA
Bobby Charles; On Bended Knee; Chess Masters
Al Prince; True Love; Ronn 39
Johnny Adams; I Won't Cry; (Reconsider Me; Collectibles)
Bobby Bland; How Does a Cheating Woman Feel; The Duke Recording
Oscar Toney, Jr.; Turn On Your Love Light; For Your Precious Love; Bell (Rev-Ola)
Wilson Pickett; You Can't Stand Alone; The Sound of . . .; Atlantic
Little Carl Carleton; Competition Ain't Nothing; Backbeat 588
Arthur Conley; One Night Is All I Need; More Sweet Soul; Atlantic
Tony Borders; What Kind of Spell; South Camp 7009 (Cheaters Never Win; Soulscape)
Solomon Burke; You Can Make It If You Try; Atlantic 2185
Eldridge Holmes; Love Affair (Carolina Soul Survey; Grapevine)
Warren Storm; Tennessee Waltz; King of the Cajun Dancehalls
Joe Perkins; I'm Not Gonna Leave; Sapton 100
Cookie & the Cupcakes; Got You On My Mind; Chess 848 (King of Swamp Pop; Ace)
Bettye LaVette; I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am); Scene of the Crime; Anti
Tony Joe White; Whomp Out on You; Black & White; Monument
Sam & Dave; I Get What I Want; Complete Stax Singles; Rhino
Mighty Sam; Baby Come On Home; Amy 11,022 (Complete Amy Recordings; Sundazed)
Candi Staton; I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart . . .; I'm a Prisoner; Fame
Percy Wiggins; Book of Memories; Atco 6479 (Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers)
Wanda Jackson; Funny How Time Slips Away; Love Me Forever; Capitol
Aaron Neville; For the Good Times; Make Me Strong (Charley)