The Best Ever?

Strangely, one of the best Soul albums ever was released in the UK in 1968. It was manufactured by Polydor Records and pressed at the CBS Pressing Plant in Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire, UK. The music on the album was a distillation of Soul music by artists on the Atlantic label, with a strong flavour of Memphis and Muscle Shoals. If you are looking for an introduction to Southern Soul from the USA, this is what you need. The track listing is a roll-call of the very best of the genre:

Side 1

  1. Wilson Pickett:  Mustang Sally
  2. Carla Thomas: B-A-B-Y
  3.  Arthur Conley: Sweet Soul Music
  4. Percy Sledge: When A Man Loves A Woman
  5. Sam & Dave: I Got Everything I Need
  6. Ben E. King: What Is Soul?

Side 2

  1. Otis Redding: Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
  2. Eddie Floyd: Knock On Wood
  3. Solomon Burke: Keep Looking
  4. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)
  5. Percy Sledge: Warm And Tender Love
  6. Wilson Pickett: Land Of 1000 Dances

The first song on the album “Mustang Sally” was written by Mack Rice and recorded by him in 1965. Wilson Pickett’s version appeared a year later, recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals and produced by Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and Rick Hall, the boss at FAME. Wexler deliberately used the Muscle Shoals venue to get the Southern feel he wanted.  Pickett’s version climbed to number six on the R&B charts and number twenty-three on the Pop charts in 1966. In the UK it reached number twenty-eight on the Singles Chart.

Wilson Pickett  (Wikipedia)

The second track B-A-B-Y was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, song-writers at Stax Records in Memphis. It was recorded by Carla Thomas in 1966 and released on the Stax label. The single reached number fourteen on the US pop chart and number three on the R&B chart.

Carla Thomas  (Wikipedia)

Song number three is “Sweet Soul Music”, written by Arthur Conley and Otis Redding. It was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, with Otis Redding producing, and released in 1967 on the Atco label. In the US, “Sweet Soul Music” reached number two on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B chart, selling over a million copies to receive gold certification. In the UK it reached number seven on the UK Singles Chart. Unfortunately, in writing the song, Conley and Redding had based the tune on a Sam Cooke original called “Yeah Man”. When Cooke’s business partner, J. W. Alexander, became aware of this, he sued both Redding and Conley for stealing the melody. A settlement was reached whereby Cooke’s name was added to the writer credits and Redding agreed to record some songs from Kags Music, a Cooke/Alexander business.

Arthur Conley  (Wikipedia)

Track four is “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge. The song was written in Muscle Shoals by two members of the Esquires, a local band featuring Sledge as lead singer. Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright put the song together one Friday night, as they were practising for a performance at a dance club. They worked on the song the following day with Percy Sledge and took the result to a local DJ Quin Ivy, who suggested some improvements to the lyrics. The song was initially recorded by Percy Sledge at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals, before being re-recorded at Quin Ivy’s Norala Studios. The musicians on the recording included Spooner Oldham (organ), Marlin Greene (guitar), Albert “Junior” Lowe (electric bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Rick Hall sent the recording to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, who signed Sledge to the label. The single was released in April 1966 and went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts. In the UK it reached number four in 1966 and then number two when it was re-released in 1987, following its successful use in a Levi Jeans TV ad.

Percy Sledge  1974

Sam & Dave come next with “I Got Everything I Need”. The song was the B-side of “Hold On, I’m Comin'”, released in 1966 on Stax in the USA and on Atlantic Records in the UK, and was written by Isbell, Floyd and Cropper. Eddie Floyd, Alvertis Isbell and Steve Cropper formed one of the song-writing teams at Stax. The single peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot R&B singles chart and at number twenty-one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sam & Dave

The last song on side one is Ben E. King’s “What Is Soul?”, written by King and his producer Bob Gallo and recorded in New York City. King had been working hard to bring a new edge to his singing, to match the new generation of soul singers. The horn arrangement on this track shows the influence of Memphis too.

Ben E King

The B side goes back to Memphis for Otis Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)”. The song was written by Redding with Steve Cropper, guitarist with Booker T & the MGs, and released on the Stax subsidiary Volt label in the US and on Atlantic Records in most other countries. The harmony vocal line was sung by Stax song-writer David Porter. The single charted in the US and the UK but only reached the lower echelons.

Otis Redding

Track two lifts the tempo again with Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood”. The song’s producer was Stax’s co-owner Jim Stewart. Floyd co-wrote the song with Steve Cropper, who tells the story of the song’s genesis. It was written in the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum, in memory of the work of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated at the hotel on April 4, 1968. Many black artists stayed at the hotel when visiting Stax, so it was a convenient place for Cropper and Floyd to work. The single was released by Stax Records in 1966, peaking at number twenty-eight on the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching number one on the Soul Singles chart for one week. In the UK it reached number nineteen on the Pop chart. In terms of Memphis Soul, the song is iconic. Nearly thirty years after its release the song was awarded gold certification by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) on July 17th 1995.

Eddie Floyd

Solomon Burke’s “Keep Looking” is next. The song was written by Burke, his wife Dolores Burke and Mark Burke and released on Atlantic Records in 1966. Like other soul singers, Burke had a strong connection to the church. He brought a preacher’s skills to the art of performing, exemplified by the spoken introduction to this song. Jerry Wexler rated Solomon Burke very highly: “….all singing is a trade-off between music and drama, he’s a master at both”. Burke saw his performances as spiritual gatherings, where the audience needed to become totally engaged in the music, so he was at once singing and acting, entertaining and exhorting the audience. Burke was probably the first artist to refer to himself as a “Soul singer”, in a conversation with a Philadelphia DJ who had asked what kind of singer he was. This track shows Soul music’s strong links with Gospel music.

Solomon Burke

That link is reinforced by track number four, Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)”. Aretha, like Solomon Burke, had a strong church up-bringing and brought a religious intensity to her singing of this song. It was Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records who recognised Aretha’s talent, after she had spent six largely fruitless years working at Columbia Records. He helped sign Aretha to Atlantic in 1966 and, in January 1967, sent her to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals to work with Rick Hall and his studio musicians, plus Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill (from Stax) and sound engineer Tom Dowd (from Atlantic).  Wexler could see that Aretha needed to sing “Soul” music, not jazz or blues or standard ballads. Aretha spent one day at FAME recording this song and starting work on another. The rest of the session was cancelled, following an altercation between Aretha’s husband and members of the FAME team. (The story is told in another article on this site). Aretha never looked back! The single was released in February and went to number one on the R&B chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100.

Aretha Franklin

The fifth track on side two proves that Soul music can also include a bit of romance. Warm and tender it certainly is. This Percy Sledge version of a Bobby Robinson song was the follow-up single to his first major hit on side one of this album, with Quin Ivy producing. The song was released in 1966, reaching number seventeen on the Pop chart and number five on the R&B chart. Surprisingly, it only managed number thirty-four on the UK’s Pop chart.

Trying to save the best till last maybe, Wexler chose Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” as the final track. The song had been written in 1962 in New Orleans by Chris Kenner and had been recorded by quite a few artists prior to this version appearing. Wilson Pickett had been recording in Memphis at Stax, but decided to go to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals for a series of sessions to reinvigorate his work. This track was cut at the first session, with the FAME rhythm section and the Memphis horns in the studio. The excitement Pickett was looking for certainly comes across. When the track was released by Atlantic Records as a single in 1966, it went to number one on the R&B chart and number six on the Pop chart. In the UK it went to number twenty-two on the Pop chart.

On Chris Kenner’s original version of the song, there is a spoken introduction that explains the title: “Children, go where I send you / (Where will you send me?) / I’m gon’ send you to that land / the land of a thousand dances.”

Jerry Wexler

That land is the land of Soul music, set out on this album in all its richness. The inputs are from the iconic centres of Southern Soul, New Orleans, Memphis and Muscle Shoals, in various combinations, plus a bit of New York, all put together and master-minded by the genius of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. If you want Soul music, this is hard to beat!


Photo of Percy Sledge: Gene Pugh  1974   (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo of Solomon Burke:   Tom Beetz   2008