Thursday, May 31, 2012

His and hers and his: Don't Let Your Love Fade Away

I first heard Gene Williams's sublime "Don't Let Your Love Fade Away" years ago via Chicago collector/DJ/writer Dante Carfagna (who, incidentally, just compiled a great set of drum machine soul songs for Chocolate Industries).

After I flipped for it, I remember Dante telling me something along the lines of "yeah, that version's cool, but there's another version by Lee Harris that's even better." Of course, I had to track that down, too.

Lee Harris: "Don't Let Your Love Fade Away" (Forte, 197?)

Gene Williams: "Don't Let Your Love Fade Away" (Forte, 197?)

I love the rawness of the looser and slightly more lo-fi Lee Harris version-- especially the part with crude multi-tracking on his vocal-- but prefer Gene Williams's take, hands-down. It's just more emotional somehow and it's easily one of my favorite soul songs ever.

Bonus: Some time later, Forte label-owner and (depending on which set of credits you believe) the author or co-author of "Don't Let Our Love Fade Away" got his then-wife to record a version of the song which he leased to Excello.

Marva Whitney: "Don't Let Our Love Fade Away" (Excello, 1972)

In her hands the song is slightly retitled and radically rearranged. I'd probably like it a lot if I didn't know either of the other versions.

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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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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

You're blind, baby/A contest

The other day ago my friend Oliver Wang invited me to collaborate on writing about a classic breakbeat/all-around great soul song, the Emotions' "Blind Alley".

We wrote two posts as part of a recurring series he does over at Soul-Sides called "Sliced". In it, Oliver uses a nifty program called Scalar to annotate song files so a reader can listen to them and view Oliver's comments in real time.

In the first post, we talk about "Blind Alley" itself-- things like the performance, the arrangement and the distinctive stereo separation. In the second, we talk about the many many songs that sample and how different producers have manipulated portions of the song in unique ways. A good one I'd mostly forgotten:

Mathematics: "Steppin' 2 Me" feat. GZA, Inspectah Deck & Masta Killa (Unreleased, 2010)

For me it was a really cool exercise because although I'd enjoyed "Blind Alley" dozens if not hundreds of times, I'd never listened to it as closely before. Doing so, I seized on a lot of details I hadn't really noticed previously, like the corkscrewing guitar part during the verse or the baritone saxophone part in the second and third verses.

Similarly, revisiting a lot of the classic songs that sample "Blind Alley" made me think harder about how various producers have used tricks to pick apart elements of the song and fashion something new.

Speaking of which, after we wrapped up the pieces, Oliver suggested that we invite producers out there to offer us a new take on "Blind Alley". If you want in, visit here to download the sample and get the address to email submissions to.

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