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The Age of the Afro: '70s Soul Vol. 2

February 2nd, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Before we launch into the second part of the Age of the Afro series, let me thank the kind people who commented so generously and positively on the first installment — and, indeed, everybody who posts comments. Any blogger, certainly the music writers, will agree that comments validate our efforts, and encourage us to carry on. So, on to the next lot of ’70s soul classics.

Diana Ross – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.mp3
It’s difficult to say whether this 1970 hit is really a soul song. The better-known cover of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s lovely duet a couple of years earlier (don’t feel sorry for Marvin, he eclipsed Gladys Knight with his cover of “I Heard Through The Grapevine”) straddles the genres. In part it certainly is luscious Motown soul, in part it sounds like a Broadway musical showstopper. The high camp is at once touching and hilarious. You have to adore a song that can move the listener to (unintentional) laughter while at the same time touch them with the rather desperate stalker sentiment. Rarely has La Ross sung better as she does here. When she speaks the dramatically phrased words: “Remember what I told you the day I set you free” and then launches into the “Aa-haaas” and “Oo-hoos” and that fierce “Eouw” as the backing singers do the chorus and the music punches your guts, shivers must run down your spine if you are at all human. One is willing to believe what she sings: with her enormous feet, not any obstacle should be big enough to keep her from “you”. Just look at the album cover.

Lou Rawls – Trade Winds.mp3
The voice! Much of Lou Rawls’ reputation hinges on his distinguished career as a jazz singer. But his popular fame flows from the mid-70s Sound of Philadelphia hits such as “Lady Love” and “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”. “Trade Winds” is from that era, and superior to the hits. First recorded by Roberta Flack in 1972 (released on the b-side of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”), it appeared on the Philadelphia International All-Stars sampler album Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto (1977), to which several label mates contributed, including the O’Jays, Billy Paul, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. It surely implies no disrespect to Roberta Flack and Randy Crawford, who later covered “Trade Winds”, that Lou’s version is the definitive reading of this social consciousness song.

Betty Wright – Tonight Is The Night.mp3
Everybody: think back to your very first time. That is Betty Wright’s instruction to her live audience on this rather cute song about losing her virginity (imagine, by contrast, Millie Jackson recounting her first sexual experience!). The 3-minute entry intro is endearing in its own right, as Wright explains how the song was just meant to be a poem and recalls her mother’s reaction to the notion of it being recorded. The song proceeds from “I”m nervous and I”m tremblin”, waitin” for you to walk in. Tryin” hard to relax, but I just can”t keep still” to Betty’s thrusting “And I love you, baby, “˜cause you gave me, uh-uh, pure love, yeah”.

Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack – Be Real Black For Me.mp3
A track from Donny and Roberta’s first album together, released in 1972, this is one of the most tender songs in the ’70s soul canon, which already is so rich in such numbers. The song conveys such intimacy and vulnerability that I imagine Hathaway and Flack must have recorded it while naked (in an entirely non-pervy way, of course). I cannot think of an earlier example of a love song being so explicitly black pride, if only briefly (“Your hair, soft and crinkly…”). And, oh, hearing two of the finest soul singers ever on the top of their game is such a joy. Hip hop fans will recognise the sample used by Scarface on the excellent “My Block”.

Kool & the Gang – Summer Madness.mp3
And here’s a song with an even more famous sample, used by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime”, one of Will Smith’s few redeeming graces. “Summer Madness” is a product of Kool & the Gang’s funk era, before their descent via poppy disco to weak balladeering. This instrumental grooves along sweetly and infectiously, with the hook borrowed by Smith and that impossibly high sound which will have the funky dogs in your neighbourhood swaying gently to the glorious sounds of Black America in the ’70s.

The Trammps – Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart.mp3
It is always an interesting exercise to observe which songs are being downloaded more than others. When writing posts, I tend to make guesses which tracks will be downloaded often, and which will be the Cinderellas. I have a fear that this Philly soul number might be unjustly overlooked. That would be a pity: The Trammps’ catchy reinvention of this 1930s standard, previously sung by the likes of Judy Garland (for her MGM audition, apparently, and on film later) and Frank Sinatra, deserves to be played, heard and appreciated for its wonderful interplay of funk and doo wop. “Zing” was released in 1974, before the Trammps turned to disco, the genre for which they are generally remembered, especially the might “Disco Inferno” track on Saturday Night Fever.

The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself.mp3
If we still require proof that the record-buying public is overwhelmingly populated by idiots, consider this: “Respect Yourself” by the Staple Singers was a US hit in 1972, reaching #12. Fifteen years later a self-indulgent actor with the musical talent of a meddling karaoke singer records the song and scores a top 10 hit in the US and in Britain! I was thinking of including “I’ll Take You There” instead (to highlight the sample on “Let’s Talk About Sex”), but in the context of ’70s soul, the message of black self-empowerment as articulated on “Respect Yourself” seems more pertinent.

Al Green – Let’s Stay Together.mp3
Ask any number of ’70s soul aficionados, and chances are that a good number will elect 1971’s “Let’s Stay Together” as the greatest soul song of the decade. Unless they try to show off their knowledge and nominate an obscure album track, which nonetheless would possibly be by Al Green (except in my case, it might be an obscure album track by Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack). This song has it all though: the beautiful lyrics performed so sweetly by Al Green with all his vocal idiosyncracies rolled into one performance, the fantastic score with the incredibly sexy horns hook, the driving drum, and a general sense of intimacy that envelops the listener. Why should it not be considered the greatest soul song of all time?

  1. Phil
    February 4th, 2008 at 15:17 | #1

    I beg to differ – the Trammps track is the one I downloaded first! This and “Hold back the night” are more of what I remember them for rather than Disco Inferno. Great mid-70s dance tunes.

  2. Rol Hirst
    February 5th, 2008 at 13:27 | #2

    You’re right about that Diana Ross song, it really punches you in the gut.I was about to contest your ‘Best Soul Song of the 70’s’ thing for Al Green by suggesting William Bell’s ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’… then I checked and saw that it was actually released in the 60’s. I’m no use being a smart-alec.Still, I prefer Green’s ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?’ myself.

  3. german albgardis in Amerika
    July 18th, 2008 at 19:51 | #3

    Hallo, tut mir leid, dass ich schon wieder meckern muss: der Diana Ross track is gone, probably because it hasn’t been downloaded for 60 days? Echt schade. Ich habe extra nachgeguckt in meinem eigenen Archiv (bei knapp 30.000 mp3s isses ja durchaus denkbar, dass ich den Titel habe), aber nee, hab’ich nich. Daher meine Bitte, ob Du vielleicht, wenndemal Zeit hast? Danke!

  4. albgardis
    July 22nd, 2008 at 19:38 | #4

    Thank you so much for re-uploading the Diana ross file, I really appreciate it! And I can handle divshare now, I figured out I have to re-boot if it would not work. After re-booting it usually opens. I mention this in case anyone else with a dial-up has similar problems.Thanks, Dude!

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