Friday, October 28, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: SWEET SOUL MUSIC

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 28, 2005

Southern soul music of the 1960s -- which for my money was one of the major pinnacles of American music -- represented not only a joyful triumph of Black culture but provided a vibrant example of the possibilities of integration.

The music that came out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals -- which was rawer and grittier than the more polished pop of Motown -- featured amazing Black singers. The Stax/Volt galaxy, for instance -- Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas and Percy Sledge. But you can’t overlook the contributions of certain talented Caucasians to this glorious sound.


Guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn -- members of Booker T & The MGs who performed on countless classic soul records -- are high on this list. So are songwriter/producer Dan Penn and keyboardist/songwriter Spooner Oldham. These guys are living proof that soul knows no color line.

This duo is responsible for the recently released Moments From This Theatre: Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham Live, recorded from various concert performances in the British Isles while touring with Nick Lowe in 1998.

Unlike the countless hits that bear the mark of Penn and/or Oldham, this CD isn’t a high-charged, sweaty, Dionysian strut. Instead, it’s low-key, a little moody, full of quiet intensity. These still waters indeed run deep. The soul’s so thick, you might break the knife if you tried to cut it.

Penn strums an unassuming guitar, singing lead (on all but one song) with his mournful drawl. Oldham’s gospel-drenched Wurlitzer piano sounds almost otherworldly.

The duo leads us through some of their best-known material, starting out with “I’m Your Puppet,” originally a hit for James and Bobby Purify.

There’s “Sweet Inspiration,” a faux gospel tune that was a minor hit and signature song for a girl group appropriately called The Sweet Inspirations (who later would become backup singers for Elvis Presley’s touring ensemble); “Cry Like a Baby,” a hit for a young Alex Chilton with his ‘60s band The Box Tops; a lesser known and unjustly overlooked Percy Sledge hit “Out of Left Field”; and “A Woman Left Lonely,” best known for its version by Janis Joplin.

Probably the best-known -- and probably the best period -- Penn songs -- “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and “Dark End of the Street” are both here. These songs, both high in gospel influence, are like emotional bookends. The former is a sturdy declaration of everlasting fidelity, sung not from a starry-eyed, giddy, “I’m-in-love-I’ll- promise-anything” perspective, but as a hard-won, well thought out piece of wisdom. It’s a pledge of respect and a demand for respect.

The latter is a confession of shame and weakness, but a nonetheless sincere cry of devotion to an illicit romance. While “Do Right” implies that some kind of moral crisis has been vanquished or averted, the narrator of “Dark End” is sinking fast and isn’t even sure if he wants to be pulled out.

My personal introduction to both of these songs, which were co-written with Chips Moman -- were on Gilded Palace of Sin, the first album by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

“Do Right Woman” first was recorded by Aretha Franklin. Between her 1967 record and the Burritos’ 1969 version, the song was covered by William Bell, Joe Tex, Cher and Delaney & Bonnie.

“Dark End of the Street” has been around the block even more. It’s been covered by Aretha, Percy, Joe Tex, Dolly Parton, Gary Stewart, Ry Cooder, Gregg Allman, Lazy Lester, Richard & Linda Thompson, Porter Wagoner, Elvis Costello The Afghan Whigs, and most recently, Frank Black (on his latest album Honeycomb, which features performances by Penn and Oldham).

“Everybody keeps asking me what’s my favorite version of `Dark End of the Street,’” Penn says, introducing the song here. “As if there was any others but James Carr’s.” Carr was the first to record it in 1966.

There are several lesser known tunes here too, “I Met Her in Church” (an obscure Box Tops song) and the funny country funk of “Memphis Women and Chicken” standing out.

Penn and Oldham did their most important work in the shadows of more famous singers. But this short excursion into the spotlight only enhances their invaluable contributions.

(The Web site for Proper Records has no information on this CD at this writing. If you can’t find it in local stores, just Google the title and you’ll find several online vendors who have it.)

*If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry by Marah. Like the best work of this Philadelphia band, this new album is raucous and rootsy.

Brothers David and Serge Bielanko, who make up the core of the band, do little to discourage comparisons to Springsteen and Gasoline Alley-era Rod Stewart.

But don’t assume Marah is some kind of classic-rock revivalist band. The more records they put out, the more distinct they sound.

One of my favorite songs here is “The Hustle,” in which Dave sings of leaving the maddening pace of the city (“Claim me a country hill and a woman with which to grow old …”), though the frantic rhythm and the pounding guitar paints a picture of a crazed but seductive urban world to which you know he’ll always go back.

“The End” (no, not The Doors’ song) starts out with a gentle dobro riff over a shuffling beat. The song goes quiet for several seconds before coming back with an urgent melody that Lindsey Buckingham would have killed to have written.

But the high point of this record is “The Dishwasher’s Dream,” a Dylanesque (harmonica and all) nightmare of working class angst, blood and suicide and Cheetos and dope. The melody sounds like some Irish outlaw ballad.

No, If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry doesn’t measure up to Marah’s greatest album Kids in Philly. But it’s a worthwhile listen.

The Steve Terrell Spook-tacular: A Santa Fe Halloween tradition for the past 200 years. Tune into Terrell’s Sound World, 10 p.m. to midnight Sunday, 90.7 FM or web casting at www.ksfr.org.

Laurell Reynolds will be filling in for me tonight on The Santa Fe Opry, 10-12 on KSFR

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