Solomon Burke--Home in Your Heart/Percy Sledge--It Tears Me Up/Clarence Carter--Snatching It Back/Wilson Pickett--A Man and a Half | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Solomon Burke--Home in Your Heart/Percy Sledge--It Tears Me Up/Clarence Carter--Snatching It Back/Wilson Pickett--A Man and a Half 

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HOME IN YOUR HEART

Solomon Burke

Rhino R2 70284

IT TEARS ME UP

Percy Sledge

Rhino R2 70285

SNATCHING IT BACK

Clarence Carter

Rhino R2 70286

A MAN AND A HALF

Wilson Pickett

Rhino R2 70287

Southern soul--the funky, gospel-drenched music that arose from the fusion of sanctified fervor and R & B grit in the 50s and 60s--was both staunchly traditional and ecstatically revolutionary. Incorporating everything from gospel call-and-response to high-powered contemporary rhythms and melodic patterns, it proclaimed its African American roots while transcending the working-class simplicity of the blues. The result was a sense of uplift--both spiritual and worldly, individual and communal--that reflected and encouraged the rising sense of identity and racial pride among young African Americans at the time.

Intertwined with 60s civil rights optimism, southern soul was at once entertainment and testament to racial and political solidarity--a fusion of the personal and political that's only now finding a resurgence in rap and other forms of youthful African American outrage. But it's a measure of how far we've fallen since the 60s that contemporary message music is almost unredeemingly angry and bleak, and that the dances that accompany it are mechanical, fierce, and convulsive. It seems there's little place for melody or gracefulness in the harsh cadences of urban life in the 90s.

Now Rhino Records has undertaken a major enterprise: reissuing Atlantic Records' catalog of 60s-era southern-soul artists. The singers represented on these four CDs, the first reissued, were seminal soul stylists, and these recordings show that the power of their music has diminished little over the years.

Solomon Burke signed with Atlantic in late 1960; within a few years he was their major soul artist. Home in Your Heart features Burke's most important Atlantic releases. Unfortunately they're not in chronological order, so we can't easily grasp his development over time. "Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)," the sixth cut here, was actually recorded during Burke's first-ever Atlantic session; it was also his first big hit, in 1961. It's a pretty dreadful affair--overwrought arrangement, cornball lyrics, weepy angelic choruses--but Burke's voice already hints at his soon-to-be-trademark fusion of worldly and spiritual yearning.

Aside from the chronological incorrectness, there's little to criticize here. Burke's voice is quite simply one of the wonders of the pop-music world: he dips into a rich baritone croon, then ascends into one of the most ear-shattering gospel screams ever recorded, modulating and looping through countless harmonic and tonal variations on the way.

"Home in Your Heart," the opening cut, offers a one-shot lesson in the art of Solomon Burke. He immediately establishes his musical personality: hothouse passion, unsurpassed vocal facility, and glorious excess. He starts off with the patented Burke scream, then descends into a tender baritone, with a lurching rhythm and a deep-voiced "a-hoom, a-hoom" chorus booming in the background. There's a wailing sax break, and Burke is out front with outrageous promises to smother his lady in finery and travel through hills and valleys to win her love (his obsessive "got ta, got ta, got ta" finale, by the way, predates Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" by four years).

There are gems everywhere: "Looking for My Baby" shows not only Burke's magnificent range but the influence he had on Elvis Presley, who used many of the same vocal devices. "Down in the Valley" has such a soaring feel you almost forget it's a song of loss ("I remember the first kiss / Oh, how it thrilled me so / Now all I can feel right now / Is that cold wind blow"). The arrangement hasn't aged well--the instrumental break sounds like Herb Alpert staggering down Bourbon Street--but Burke's voice cuts a swath through it all. "Got to Get You off My Mind," one of his most perfectly realized efforts, is a song of loss and betrayal sung so joyfully that one feels that the eventual redemption is more important than the pain. "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" is his classic "I'm so happy to be here tonight" rocker, with a vamping organ and a characteristically grandiose preaching interlude: "There's a song I sing, and I believe if everybody was to sing this song, we could save the whole world!" It may be the definitive Solomon Burke testament to the universality of romantic hunger; he turns a song about love into a global humanistic anthem.

Then there's "The Price," one of the most astounding soul songs ever recorded. The spoken sermon isn't preached so much as it pours out of him like a flood; you almost expect Burke to start speaking in tongues. The spine-chilling chorus--"You cost me my mother / The love of my father / Sister / My brother, too / See now what you've cost / And I know just what I've lost / And I know what's the price I've paid for loving someone like you"--evokes obsessional love with an intensity unmatched anywhere this side of Otis Rush's harrowing "My Love Will Never Die."

The 1968 "I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)" is Burke's classic message song, a song he claimed was banned in certain parts of the south. Perhaps the most fascinating numbers, though, are the lesser and lesser-known cuts. "Stupidity" is a bizarre dance tune that in its own way echoes the adolescent iconoclasm of Chuck Berry ("Baby, do the Stupidity . . . cuz we do it every day in school!"). In "Can't Nobody Love You" Burke croons gritty-sweet over a moodily strummed guitar, sounding as if he were sitting in a Venice gondola but soulful as ever.

Burke winds his way through country-western ("Detroit City"), fluffy dance tunes ("Dance Dance Dance"), and even a few bars of pure, unadulterated rap (recorded in 1968!) at the beginning of his version of the Lee Dorsey standard, "Get Out of My Life Woman." About the only thing that fails to ignite is Burke's cover of Ray Charles's "What'd I Say." The musicians don't measure up to the Ray Charles Orchestra, and for once Burke's voice isn't quite up to the task: his spoken intro sounds oddly tentative, and his phrasing, based on the steady rock of gospel, lacks Charles's hip swing.

If Solomon Burke was the Bishop of Soul, then Percy Sledge was the High Priest of Heartbreak. Sledge delivered a ballad in a shattering wail--like a man tottering on the verge of psychic surrender, on his knees to a love he knows is doomed. Even his optimistic love songs are permeated with a sense that failure is inevitable. This is the closest soul music has come to the tortured romanticism of a Leonard Cohen.

"When a Man Loves a Woman" is of course Sledge's monument. It's the opening cut on It Tears Me Up--and it was his first recording, done at the town of Sheffield in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama in late 1965. Its effect was nothing short of apocalyptic: the recording lured Atlantic's Jerry Wexler to Muscle Shoals, where he eventually produced some of soul music's most important hits. The song sold millions of copies, and set standards for soul balladry that some feel have never been equaled. Sledge's voice soars with a transcendent, aching hopelessness over the haunting Farfisa organ droning in the background--even the notoriously out-of-tune horns toward the end only enhance the bare-boned authenticity.

It Tears Me Up reminds us that "When a Man Loves a Woman" was only one of several classics Sledge recorded. Some of the tunes here are throwaway B-side fodder, but then there are epics like the title song. Sledge's intense delivery transcends the bathetic teen-romance lyrics: when he sings "I feel like I'm dying / Oh, I must be dying" he sounds as if he's really teetering on the edge of emotional collapse.

Unlike many other soul artists, Sledge tended to evoke a romantic rather than erotic tug. That could sometimes get him in trouble: "Love Me Tender" is almost as corny as Elvis Presley's version but lacks the saving grace of the King's trembling vibrato, which suggested smoldering passion. Sledge sings it with an asexual, almost prepubescent romanticism. Other places, though, he shows surprising emotional range. He unleashes a terrifying scream toward the end of "I'm Hanging Up My Heart for You," and on the standard "Drown in My Own Tears" he finds a frighteningly bleak and desolate landscape.

"The Dark End of the Street," James Carr's epochal hit from 1966, was a natural choice for Sledge: it's one of the most desperate soul ballads ever written, a tale of furtive love suffused with guilt, dread, and icy paranoia ("They gonna find us, they gonna find us!"). Sledge's heart-tearing vocals prevail over even the most trivial lyrics and melodies; when everything falls together, as on "Dark End of the Street," you feel as if you've glimpsed the naked terror of a suffering man.

Clarence Carter's Snatching It Back is the perfect antidote to the starkness of Sledge's vision. Carter spins tales of love, sex, victory over hard times, and outrageous erotic slapstick with the growling good nature of a very sexy back-porch philosopher. He's probably best known to white audiences for "Patches," his unlikely crossover hit from 1970, which featured his voice at its most lugubrious in a sentimental tale of a farm boy's triumph, with the aid of heroically suffering parents, over an impoverished childhood. But Carter's real specialty is illicit love: stealing away, cheating, doing somebody wrong or being done wrong yourself. His world is full of lovable rogues, cuckolds, seductresses and their beaus, all rolling and tumbling in a riot of erotic desire.

The tunes are presented mostly in chronological order, allowing us to follow Carter from "Step by Step," the recording that introduced him to the Fame studio, also in the Muscle Shoals area, through his later, more fully realized works. The protean elements of Carter's style--a steamy down-home gospel feel, passionate vocals, sinewy power, and a sense of uplift behind even the most despairing sentiments--were there from the beginning. By the time of "Tell Daddy," recorded in 1966, he'd found his own voice.

Carter's trademark is a greasy, lecherous laugh, which gives his stories a kind of leering impetus. Some tunes ("Looking for a Fox") are virtually built around it; others ("Doin' Our Thing") incorporate it like a punctuation mark. Unlike Percy Sledge, who sounds helpless in the face of doomed romance, Carter wears desire as a badge of masculinity. On "I Smell a Rat," he even makes it sound fun to be cuckolded (maybe because he anticipates being "the cat to catch this rat!").

Carter's not just a sex fiend, however. His tales of infidelity and cheating often include a fatalistic acknowledgement of the inevitable payback; occasionally, as on the lovely "I'd Rather Go Blind," he'll acknowledge desperation or heartbreak without irony, but he seldom drowns in his own tears for long.

Behind even the most scabrous of Carter's outings lies a celebration of roots that transcends his occasionally cloying bedroom imagery. His evocations of maternal wisdom and the eventual triumph of love are the essence of soul music's redemptive message. Even the bathetic "Patches" is a celebration of core African American values: hard work, family loyalty, and perseverance during hard times.

Still, Carter is most fun when he's most naughty. "Back Door Santa" melds that greasy chuckle with Santa's "Ho ho ho," and features Carter's predictable but unfailingly entertaining double entendres ("I ain't like old Saint Nick / He don't come but once a year"). "Making Love (at the Dark End of the Street)" is an outrageous reworking of the James Carr classic. Carter begins with a lecture on "making love" throughout the animal kingdom, then continues on through a description of various places in which human beings like to make love (similar to the erotic litany in his more recent "Strokin"'). He finally suggests that "the dark end of the street" is the best and safest place to carry on, especially if you're with someone you shouldn't be with. Carter transforms a stark tale of furtive romantic desperation into a ribald celebration of cheating.

A Man and a Half, the Wilson Pickett collection, showcases one of the most incendiary talents in the history of R & B. Fiery, unpredictable, reveling in his nickname, the "Wicked Pickett," he's had his professional ups and downs, among them violent confrontations and, most recently, drug-related legal problems. But through it all he's maintained a standard of quality unsurpassed in the annals of soul.

Again, the songs are presented in fairly accurate chronological order. Pickett's breathtaking 1962 appearance as lead singer on the Falcons' "I Found a Love" is nothing short of revelatory: his larynx-ripping vocal utterly overwhelms the primitive recording, and the lyrics ("The way that woman walk / She suck my little soul dry") give us a premonition of the obsessive meld of sensuality and aggression that characterizes his best work. "If You Need Me" was cut in 1963 as a demo for Atlantic, which promptly gave the song to Solomon Burke, but Pickett's version is still riveting: where Burke wraps the song in romantic warmth, Pickett screams it in desperation.

After "Come Home Baby," an early effort on Atlantic that paired Pickett with the great New Orleans vocalist Tami Lynn, Wexler brought Pickett to the Stax studios in Memphis. The results were astounding. On a single day in 1965 Pickett waxed "In the Midnight Hour," "Don't Fight It," "I'm Not Tired," and "That's a Man's Way," each a classic. Testifying hoarsely, with that skin-tight Stax rhythm section funking behind him, Pickett seems to have blossomed from a hungry young R & B wailer into a mature talent almost overnight.

After several other landmark sessions at Stax, Wexler brought Pickett to the Fame Studio in 1966. Both the band and the singer achieved new levels of declamatory grittiness: "Land of 1000 Dances," "Three-Time Loser," "Soul Dance Number Three," "Funky Broadway" (the song that introduced countless wide-eyed white kids to the term "funk" in 1967). The music exploded out of Muscle Shoals with almost prophetic force: during this time Pickett virtually defined both the sound and the stance of 60s-era hard soul.

All these and more are included in the Rhino two-disc anthology. The second disc follows Pickett through 1971. Although his popularity among white listeners had flagged, he remained a potent force among black listeners: his 1971 "Funk Factory" reached number 11 on the R & B charts. Experiments like a cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and a rather labored attempt to extract some meaning from the notorious bubblegum anthem "Sugar Sugar" could not eclipse the man's talent. "Mini-Skirt Minnie," previously unreleased, is a hard-grinding little gem; "Fire and Water" is an impressionistic bit of stripped-down psychedelic soul; and "(Your Love Has Brought Me) a Mighty Long Way" features Pickett's bluesy harmonica at the beginning, then segues into swirling funk.

Probably the most memorable cut, though, is the live recording of "In the Midnight Hour," done in Los Angeles on August 8, 1965. It opens with a remarkable gospel-style call-and-response introduction between Pickett and the emcee, a radio personality named Magnificent Montague. The Stax rhythm section kicks in with a full-bodied soul groove spilling exhilaration; the crowd explodes as Pickett ascends into an endless series of shouts, screams, groans, and throaty exhortations.

This track offers a taste of the transcendent communality that typified 60s-era deep soul performances--it sounds like the culmination of everything the soul movement ever strove for. It also offers a chilling glimpse of the social and psychic denouements that eventually shattered those fragile dreams of celebration and freedom. At the conclusion of "In the Midnight Hour" Montague chimes in with variations on his apocalyptic signature phrase--"Burn, baby, burn!"--which less than 72 hours later would become a war cry as Watts exploded into flames.

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