Ben E. King

Spanish Harlem/Don’t Play That Song (Atco 1961/1962)

Ben E. King’s rendition of “Spanish Harlem” has always sparked a fire in the romantic side of this jaded fuddy-duddy due to its uncanny Vulcan mindmeld of 50s pop orchestration, 60s soul and simple, but poetic tales that never fail to inspire memories of lost loves. It is a perfect song. Maybe this has something to do with Phil Spector’s involvement in transforming simplicity into complexity, but I always believed that this was King’s only foray into Spanish/Latino influences and Les Baxter inspired exotica. Thankfully, I was painfully wrong and picked up this two-fer of his early work that contains moments that delve into the cha-cha while delivering flawless fakeries that suggest a night in Spain without an ounce of truth. This is not an insult because King delivers some really moving performances of love struck tales over some really dramatic instrumentation that attempts to deliver infinite variations on the mood of “Spanish Harlem.”

The songs occasionally pay a little too much lip service to senoritas and siestas, but this collection makes my heart ache for the days of songwriting teams devoted to the craft of pop.  Lieber & Stoller, Goffin & King among others contribute to the creation of a gloriously square interpretation of Spanish soul that renders me disgusted by today’s version of the hired hand.

The other side of the two-fer, Don’t Play the Song, mostly abandons the Latino trimmings and aims straight for Sam Cooke territory. However, it lacks the sweaty grit of Cooke’s live recordings and aims for the silky-smooth moments of his most popular tunes. It is more “You Send Me” than “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” as he enters crooner territory with all the velvet, suede and whatever smooth substances I can muster in these fleeting moments.  It belongs alongside the many moments recorded by the Stax, Atco and Motown labels that break my heart with a forceful cry, tale of woe or smooth enticement towards the wrong decison. If you only know Ben E. King from “Spanish Harlem” or “Lean on Me” then listen to this and discover why he deserves to be placed alongside James Carr, Solomon Burke, O.V. Wright and other geniuses of his time.

Various Artists

Chains and Black Exhaust (Jones 2002)

A Memphis DJ who wrote for Wax Poetics magazine released this comp of 60s and 70s of downright raw and nasty funk and rock in the vein of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain minus the long, drawn out monologues about, well….maggots on the brain. This comp is a tribute to the influence of  Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel to be exact. Most, if not all artists are African-American funk bands who are in love with the power of Motor City rock and roll. Some of the instrumentals have been sampled by hip-hop artists and it’s not surprise since the instrumental tracks picture a world where George Clinton took over Stax records.

The most “recognizable” band on here is Black Merda whose self-titled album is fiercely funky psych-rock album, but you will want to track down the scarce discographies of LA Carnival, Sir Stanley and other lost pioneers of an era where funk-rock didn’t mean a bunch of surfers wearing socks on their ding dongs. It is a perfect snapshot of a time where Motown, Stax, Nuggets and fried guitar riffs all went together like peanut butter and jelly. In particular, Grand Am’s “Get High” mostly consists of the aforementioned chorus and puffing sounds, but the guitar playing on this is so primitive and unhinged that it bashes you on the noggin. I cannot tell you much about the artists here because many of these tracks were neglected by history and only resurfaced due to the diligence of this wonderful DJ. I only wish today’s soul music and r&b could achieve the psychedelic pinnacles achieved here.