Friday, March 16, 2012

Margie Hendrix - Women's History Month

I guess I have a soft spot for lady singers who were pushed to the background in spite of their undeniable talent.  Today's featured lady is Margie Hendrix, who is best remembered as a featured member of Ray Charles back-up singers the Raelettes.  

But Margie Hendrix's voice was far too powerful to be contained or hidden in the shadows. She belonged front and center and in this blog entry I hope to demonstrate why.

Unfortunately her tumultuous personal life would never allow Margie to see experience the glory she deserved.   So today please take some time to listen someone who SHOULD be considered a legend.

She started as a member of the original Cookies.

The harmonies of the Cookies were well regarded and they were soon sought out to add a "churchy" feel to this landmark recording by Chuck Willis.

It's Too Late" was one of the first r&b recordings to incorporate this essential ingredient for "a recipe for soul"- A recipe that Ray Charles would soon imitate.

He approached the Cookies about being his back up group. They agreed and were rechristened the Raelettes. Margie's voice was utilized by Ray to full effect. It can definitely be argued that his best records were made with Margie as singing partner.

And now for some examples.  First I want to focus on a few tracks from the Ray-Margie partnership (one which included a romantic relationship as well as a child shared) and then I want you to listen to some of Margie's solo records. SOLID GOLD!

Here's the first of three videos of live footage of Margie in action with Brother Ray.

And now some solo records. They are some of the best records ever made and a powerful example of FEMINIST soul!

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Sweet Inspirations - Soul Royalty - Women's History Month

Today I'm going to celebrate a family of soul royalty.  Some of these women were related to each other by blood, some were family in music.  They were some the biggest heavy-hitters in soul music history.  The cream of the crop in vocalists. Sadly they are probably best remembered as Elvis Presley's backup singers but they were so much more.  I'm talking about the women from "The Group" which evolved into The Sweet Inspirations. 

The history of this group began with a gospel group called The Drinkard Singers.  From the Drinkards came  future members of the legendary backup singers "the Group" - sisters  Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, their cousin Emily Drinkard (Aka Cissy Houston) and Judy Clay.  These ladies joined Doris Troy in backing some of the most famous soul records of all time.  Judy Clay, Doris Troy, Dionne and Dee Dee all left for solo careers and were replaced by Sylvia Shemwell (sister of Judy Clay), Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown.

Eventually Cissy Houston, Sylvia Shemwell, Myrna Smith and Estelle Brown became The Sweet Inspirations.  Their best known record was "Sweet Inspiration".  Cissy left the group for a solo career in the late 60s and the rest of the ladies went on to record some cool sides for Stax in the early 70s.   The Sweet Inspirations performed together on and off up until 2010 when Sylvia passed away.

Confused?  I put together a little chart to simplify the history.

What is truly astounding is the sheer number of incredible records released by this force of women collectively. And though they each have their own distinct voices, they also share a similar warmth  in their delivery.  

Today I want to take some time to celebrate some of my favorite records by these ladies as a group and as solo artists.

I'm going to include just one of the back-up performances by The Group because I really want to focus on the these artists as the leading ladies they really were.  

There is no denying that the contribution of these ladies was essential in making the records they backed true classics.

This is a cool live performance of Dionne Warwick in the early days, blazing the trail of soul-pop.

I hate to go for the obvious and post Doris Troy's most famous song, but I found this cute footage and couldn't resist.

Doris went on to record for the Beatles Apple label in the early 70s. This song is a scorcher and I believe it features George Harrison on guitar.

Judy Clay is one of my favorite soul singers ever! I do love a woman with a low voice. She also had a very fascinating career which included a very controversial late 60s album of interracial love song duets with Billy Vera.

I feel a little guilty because I really could write single blog entries for each of these ladies, but I wanted to emphasize their connection to each other.

Here's an early solo record by Judy which has become a northern soul classic.

She also cut a bundle of killer tracks for Stax in the late 60s after which she returned to back-up work.

This one is a gospel inspired message song from the soundtrack for the film "Uptight"

Dee Dee Warwick has been overshadowed by her sister Dionne's super stardom. It's unfortunate because she really has one of the sweetest, warmest voices in soul. The production on this record is superb.

I just stumbled on this rare clip of Dee Dee in action! What a treat for a nerd like me!


This cover of the Everly Brothers classic is my favorite Sweet Inspirations recording. Chokes me up everytime.

They also have some great uptempo numbers but I can't seem to find them on-line, so instead, here's another exquisite ballad.

And now solo Cissy! 
Again, many of my favorites aren't on-line but I found a couple of good ones to share with you.

And I also LOVE this post Cissy Houston Sweet Inspirations cut.

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town

Monday, March 5, 2012

Women's History Month - Merry Clayton: Rock n Soul Singer

When I was 12/13 years old I spent a good 6 months of my life in the movie theater.  What was I doing?  Watching Dirty Dancing of course....11 times.  And each time this one song would come up that did not fit amongst the oldies featured in the film.  I didn't like the song at first, but like so many other 13 year old girls who listened to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack endlessly, it grew on me.  The song was "Yes" by Merry Clayton, a woman who would only be known to me as "that lady from the Dirty Dancing" soundtrack for the next 8 years.

Then one day at the ripe ol' age of 21, I was browsing through the KAOS record library and had an interesting discovery.  It seems this "Merry Clayton"person had recorded PRIOR to Dirty Dancing. Thus began a journey of discovery - a journey that would take a long LONG time in the days when there was very little info about her on-line.  But that just made each fact I learned and each song I discovered so much more mind-blowing.  So here's her story.

Merry Clayton was born on Christmas day 1948 in New Orleans.  She was named "Merry"- get it?  At age 15 she recorded the original version of "The Shoop Shoop Song" before Betty Everette turned it into a hit. 

A handful of other hot singles were cut before she entered into a long career of straddling the fence between rock and soul as one the THE greatest back up singers of all time. She in fact was a member of the Raelettes (Ray Charles back up group) briefly but she didn't really hit her stride as a backing vocalist until the late 60s. Here are just a few of the artists who went to Merry Clayton when they wanted to make their records sound a lot more soulful:

- Neil Young (1968)
- Joe Cocker (1969 & 1974)
- John Phillips (1970)
- Phil Oches
- Leon Russell (1970)
- Linda Ronstadt (1971)
- Buffy Saint Marie (1971)
- Barbara Streisand (1971)
- Carole King (1971)
- Jerry Garcia (1972 & 1978)
- Ringo Starr (1973)
- Lynard Skynyrd (1974)

Her most celebrated back up work was for the Rolling Stones on the Let it Bleed album from 1969.  The Song "Gimme Shelter" really should have been credited as 'The Rolling Stones with Merry Clayton".  Her vocals really make the song the rock n roll riot protest anthem that it is.

She also recorded a few solo incredible singles and albums during this period including her own version of "Gimme Shelter".  You can hear some selections of those below.

In addition to singing, Merry did a little acting as well.  She originated the roll of the Acid Queen for the London stage version of the Who's "Tommy".  In the eighties she acted with "Maid to Order with Ally Sheedy and also  appeared on Cagney & Lacey.

Please take a moment to listen to one of the most arresting vocalists of our time.

Here it is - the original version of "the Shoop Shoop Song".  for some reason youtube won't let me embed this one so please click on the link

I really dig this early cut! One of my favs!

Lets get into the back up work.  I want to start with the most famous, "Gimme Shelter" first the stones version featuring Clayton and then her own version.

And here are a few other songs she backed.

This is my favorite. Merry played both sides of the fence in this famous music fued. She did a cover of Neil young's Southern Man and then did backing vocals for Lynard Skynard's response to Southern Man. Amazing! Check it out.

Here is Merry as the Acid Queen

Here are a couple more incredible Merry Clayton Cover's of rock classics. There are many more but they aren't on youtube.

This is a James Taylor song

Merry does Dylan

And I'll close it with the Black National Anthem

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Women's History Month Day 4 - Justine "Baby" Washington

Today we turn our ears to Justine "Baby" Washington.  She's long been in my top ten favorite soul singers.  

You know how it is when you find that one singer who seems to be singing your story?  It feels as if they're plugged into you heart and are singing it all just for you?  I think the best modern comparison I can think of would be the way people are generally affected by Adele.  It's like she jumps through the speakers and plucks the tears right out of your eyes.  That's how I feel about Baby Washington. And I'm not the only one.  In fact, Dusty Springfield once named Baby Washington as her all-time favorite singer. It seems that Washington managed to capture and perfectly express the feeling of being misunderstood and alone (a feeling all too common for LGBTQ folks).  As the songwriter for many of her own recordings, loneliness is the theme Justine Washington crafted for herself.  Her vocals have been described as "haunting" and otherworldly, but like so many truly exquisite artists, it's really difficult to find words to describe exactly what it is she does that wrenches your heart and nearly brings you to tears.

She was born in South Carolina but most of her best known recordings were made as part of the "uptown" New York soul scene of the early 60s.  The scene is characterized by intricate lush arrangements and artful productions.  She started in the mid-50s as the youngest member of the girl group The Hearts, which is how she earned the nickname "Baby".  After leaving the group, she launched her solo career with a couple of labels before she landed on Sue Records, where she scored her biggest hits and recorded her most celebrated songs.

Please take a few moments to listen to just what makes her so great.

This is an early solo record. HAND CLAPS!

She also recorded as "Jeanette"

This was her biggest hit.

Dusty covered a couple of Baby Washington records and this is one of them.

This is a nice version of a song that was a hit for Little Anthony and the Imperials.

I would like to close with what I consider to be an incredible video of Baby Washington in a sparkling top performing to the Knights of Columbus in Maryland in 2009. Skip to about 3 minutes. She performs her song "Nobody Cares" followed by "Leave me Alone". At a couple of points she hands over the mic to a few audience members who sing parts of the song. It's very touching. I sure would love to have her come visit us in the PNW.

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Today I'm featuring the under-appreciated Louisiana soul belter, Carol Fran.  

I was first introduced to her music during my radio days in the late nineties through what was then some contemporary "soul-blues" recordings she released with guitar player Clarence Holliman.  The soul blues scene emerged in the 1980s after traditional soul music had lost favor with the general public.  It was in this scene that some 1960s soul artists (Irma Thomas, Etta James, Johnnie Taylor, Ann Peebles, Bobby Blue Bland, etc) were able to find a second career when record labels like Malaco, Black Top and Bullseye repackaged southern soul, called it blues and marketed it towards dudes who were really into "the Blues Brothers".  At least that's how I imagine the idea came about.  If you ever want to see the kind of dudes I'm talking about, spend a day at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival this summer and look for the shirtless middle-aged white guys.  I used to kind of resent this industry-created genre, but now I feel differently.  At least some artists were able to continue their careers after their music lost it's wider popularity.  Not to mention, had it not been for the "soul-blues" scene of the 80s and 90s, it probably would have been a lot longer before I had found out about Carol Fran since her mid-century records weren't exactly easily accessible in Olympia, WA. 

Carol is one of those artists who's had a lengthy career with very little commercial success.  Perhaps she was a victim to over-saturation of the soul market, or maybe she just didn't land on a label with enough power to get her radio play.  One thing is for sure, with the distinct quality of her voice and her creative delivery, she should have been a huge star.  Carol Fran stands out.  If you want to learn more about her you can find a detailed biography here and here's a great article about her

Please join me in appreciating some of her finest recordings.

Her earliest sides were cut for swamp blues/r&b label Excello.

This is sequel to the above.

One of my all-time favorites.

And listen to how she handles a ballad. I dare you not to melt into a great big puddle right here on the spot.

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town

Friday, March 2, 2012

Women's History Month - The Bobbettes

Today I'm featuring one of the original "girl groups," the Bobbettes.

Check out this short interview to hear a couple of the Bobbettes talk about the groups' beginnings in Spanish Harlem.  Also some interesting facts about Mr. Lee.  Skip to about 1:20.

They were the first girl group to have a # 1 R&B hit that also reached the top 10 on the pop charts.  Of course I'm talking about "Mr. Lee".  If you're from my generation you were most likely introduced to "Mr. Lee" through the film "Stand By Me."  However, even if it hadn't been one of the many jewels on that soundtrack, you most likely would have encountered the song because it is one of the best records EVER.  The internet tells me that the song was originally written as a slam on the girls' teacher, Mr. Lee.  Atlantic Records reportedly made them change the lyrics to make the song less controversial.

"Mr. Lee" was their biggest hit and though the group stayed together until the mid-70s, they failed to reach that kind of chart success again.  But who cares?!  Too much of 20th century music history writing is focused on hits and chart success.  The simple fact is that these girls were a group of ATOMIC FIREBALLS - sweet, explosive and they set the listener on FIRE!

Why do I love the Bobbettes? Let me count the ways:

1. They wrote at least half of their songs. 

2. They were far more gritty than most of their fellow girl group counterparts at the time (see the Chantels). 

3. Incredible harmonies with really interesting, unique, multi-layered parts that made their records ultra energetic.

4. Sass.  Pure and simple.  I love me some sassy ladies!

So, today I ask you to celebrate Women's History Month by listening to these choice Bobbettes selections.


There are so many good ones. It's really hard to restrict myself here. Check this one out!

This is an answer to Chris Kenner's "I Like it Like That". 
It's superior to the original as far as I'm concerned.

They are rumored to have done backing vocals on this classic.

Here we have a fine mid-60s effort.

This super feminist message song has become a northern soul favorite. 
Take a listen and you'll see why.

And we'll close out our Bobbettes listening session with this cover of a pop classic.

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Women's History Month - Shirley Goodman

I will be celebrating some of my favorite ladies from the golden age of R&B and soul all though March. This is not so much a history lesson as it is simply a chance to share my appreciation for some really incredible ladies!

 I'm starting with the late Shirley Goodman, originally from New Orleans. She is probably best remembered as half of the R&B duo of Shirley & Lee, who recorded two of the best records of the 1950s, "Feels So Good" and "Let the Good Times Roll" as well as many other fabulous examples of traditional New Orleans R&B.  Also she was cute as a button!

 Shirley isn't really celebrated very much. I suppose that's because most of her work was as half of various duos- Shirley & Lee, Shirley and Jessie (Hill), Shirley & Company, etc. And yet, she possessed one of the most charming and unique voices in the history of American music. Also Shirley will surprise you. Her voice pops up where you least expect it, as it did as a backing vocalist on the Rolling Stones "Exile on Main Street" lp.

 I adore Shirley, so today I ask you to take a few minutes and listen to her magic on the cuts I've posted below.

"Feel So Good" was the first 50s R&B song I completely fell in love with, sparking a life-long obsession with the best music ever laid on wax.

After Shirley split with Lee she teamed up with another New Orleans legend. Jessie Hill is best known for his iconic R&B anthem "Ooh Poo Pah Doo." My favorite record by Shirley & Jessie is not available on youtube, however this one is also is a Northern Soul classic. Here we have Shirley with "and Company". I've never bothered to learn more about "& Company" but I do find him to be pretty awesome. Prior to recording this MAJOR hit, Shirley was resigned to a life outside of the music biz. It was Sylvia Robinson who coaxed her back into the spotlight to record for her All Platinum Records. THANK YOU SYLVIA, because this is by far one of my favorite disco songs! Finally, this is a special reunion between Shirley & Lee on the show Midnight Special during Shirley's "Shame Shame Shame" era. Note Lee's outfit.

- Post by Portland's DJ Action Slacks of Sugar Town