Wednesday, May 30, 2012

His and hers: Almost

If you follow rap music from the past 10 years or reggae from any era, you're probably used to hearing multiple vocalists make numerous different songs over a single track.

In older soul and funk music, it's a much rarer thing. Nonetheless, there were some American soul labels that recycled backing tracks. I imagine penny-pinching was a big part of their motivation-- it's cheaper to use tracks you already have than to record new ones-- but I wonder if the desire to sneak one by consumers wasn't sometimes accompanied by a desire to give a track that should have been a hit another airing.

The resulting songs aren't exactly covers-- to me, using that term implies an artist taking a song that's associated with else and attempting to put a distinctive or different spin on it-- but instead more like alternate versions. I plan on posting a bunch of these soon and I figured I'd start with a favorite.

Ollie McLaughlin owned three Detroit labels, Carla, Karen and Moira, all named after his daughters. Although these were no rival to Motown, he managed to score some national hits (Barbara Lewis's "Hello Stranger", the Capitols' "Cool Jerk", Deon Jackson's "Love Makes the World Go 'Round") and record plenty of great songs. (Solid Smoke's two Detroit Gold compilations are a great introduction to the music he released on the labels.) In 1967 and 1968, McLaughlin released two different versions of "Almost":

Jimmy Delphs: "Almost" (Carla, 1967)

Bettye Lavette: "Almost" (Karen, 1968)

I'll always associate the Bettye Lavette version with Mr. Fine Wine, who played it on his first Downtown Soulville broadcast after the 9/11 attacks. (Real audio here.) As a DJ who has occasionally tried to program records in response to momentous news or calamitous events, my experience is it's sometimes hard to choose records that are equal to a situation. If you miss the mark, it can easily come off as trivial, glib or corny, which sucks. Finewine's broadcast was just an amazing selection of soul songs that tapped into a lot of the emotions that were in the air at the time: fear, despair and confusion obviously, but also hope that better things would prevail.

As much as I like the Jimmy Delphs version, I like Bettye Lavette's a little more. That said, I have a harder time appreciating her music ever since reading the profile the New Yorker published a couple of years ago. She just came off so jaded and indifferent to music.

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Blogger topomodesto said...

I love this Bettye LaVette take, and regardless of her as a personality, her music comes off as heartfelt and touching. Why hasn't anyone released a proper anthology of her 60s recordings yet?

May 31, 2012 at 11:02 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Yeah, I guess what got to me about the article is, having loved her singing for years precisely because it communicates such a depth of feeling, I expected her to feel some enthusiasm about music or, at the very least, her musical gifts. Reading how blasé she was about it all, I found myself wondering: is there really feeling there or is it just a trick?

Re: a '60s anthology, I've often wondered that myself and can only assume it's a licensing issue. It annoys me that all the great Calla and Karen stuff is out of print while the lesser, later stuff on Silver Fox, Atco, etc. is widely available. Her 2 Atlantic 60s singles are available on that Child of the Seventies set, but it would be good to hear them along with more similar stuff.

May 31, 2012 at 11:40 PM  

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