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.

James and Bobby Purify

Shake a Tail Feather! (Sundazed 2002)

On one hand, cousins James and Bobby Purify were quite indebted to the feel good, soulful pop of Sam and Dave, but their performances were more complex and conflicted to the lovely, but one-dimensional music of their more famous influence. Yes, the Purify’s mined the Stax sound while recording at Muscle Shoals and many of their best tunes are toe-tappers that rival any other southern soul act of the 60s, but their melancholy moments are what set them apart from their peers.

Their most popular tune is by far their most moving. “I’m Your Puppet” is a Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham number that epitomizes the joys of total surrender to love. Obviously, there is fairly obvious metaphor at work here as they compare themselves to simple puppets at the behest of a mystery lover, but there is something sort of romantic and sad about this tune. Their depiction of infatuation can be interpreted as a puppy dog ode to the lengths a man will go to be loved, but the lyrics also celebrate the fact that this love can “make you do right or make you do wrong” as well. I always felt their was an undercurrent of masochism that would endear this to any r&b fans in the throes of a BDSM fetish. As usual, it is probably a better example of my dumb ass looking too deeply into the lyrics, but I like to view it as a parable about the double-edged nature of passion.

I’m also a big fan of “You Left the Water Running” which is another Penn/Oldham number that buries a wallow in misery in catchy instrumentation. Basically, it is about a woman who cheats on her man and turns on a spigot that unleashes a neverending torrent of tears. The tears flow until waves of anger overtake him and he issues a warning that she will regret her infidelity and there will be hell to pay when the bill for these wasted tears arrive. I’m always such a sucker for morbid, self-destructive messages wrapped in frilly pop confections, so this one is simply perfect. Overall, this collection of singles and b-sides should appeal to Stax junkies and patrons of the church of James Carr and Solomon Burke. It is such a joyous collection, but one that invites you to dig a bit deeper and see the tears that lurk beneath our grins.

On a completely unrelated note, I love that James eventually replaced his cousin with another Bobby and went on his merry way. I knew there was something cutthroat lying underneath it all.

Darrell Banks-Is Here!

August 19, 2008

Darrell Banks

Is here! (Atco 1967)

This is an album of pleading. Darrell Banks may venture into upbeat territory and belt a few over a bed of Stax horns and rhythm guitar, but his specialty is emoting to his heart’s content. He belongs in the esteemed company of contemporaries like James Carr, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding, but his life was cut short when he was shot by an off-duty Detroit police officer who was cuckolding Banks. He only released two albums and seven singles, but his limited output is so heartsick and yearning for love that it makes his untimely death even more tragic.

Darrell Banks Is Here! may be his debut album, but his weathered and weary voice sounds as if he has recorded dozens more and been wronged more times than he can bear. The highlight and most painful track is “I’m Gonna Hang My Head and Cry” which captures the feeling one has when they fuck up a relationship and finally realize that you only get to screw up once and it will never be the same again. Innocence has been lost and he knows he can never regain it.

“Here Come the Tears” is another plea for a return to the status quo. I view it as a sequel to the aforementioned song as Banks becomes obsessed with the memories of this woman he lost long ago. His love is still strong, but there is no way to bridge the gap to when this love was mutual. He reads old letters and bawls like a baby and prays for a way to fix the cracks and make it right. However, there is a resignation in his voice that signals a realization that he is forever doomed to only have mere letters to remind him of better days. He pleads in vain, but cannot help doing so because he cannot reconcile the fact that he ruined a good thing.

There was an abundance of classic r&b albums released during this time, but none were as desperate and full of remorse as Darrell Banks Is Here.

Jerry Jackson

Shrimp Boats A-Comin’, There’s Dancin’ Tonight (Bear Family 1990)

There was something so refined, soulful and stately about the 60s r&b/soul recordings from singers with their roots in gospel. James Carr, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Al Green and Ben E. King were strongly influenced by their experiences as preachers and choir members. Excluding Al Green, whose music always treated religion and raw sexuality as the same thing, their music possessed a spiritual quality that even laced their romantic appeals and sad serenades.

A lesser known, but worthy contemporary of these gentlemen is Jerry Jackson. Jackson got his start as a Brill Building songwriter whose songs were recorded by Perry Como of all people.He had some minor hits and was more popular in the England’s Northern Soul scene and Jamaica. The Kapp label signed him and tried to mold him in the image of The Drifters and Ben E. King and it was a good fit for his optimistic crooning. His cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” is yet another in a long line of lame 60s covers of his work, but the rest compare favorably to Sam Cooke’s ballads of the early 60s, but cannot hold a candle to his more rambunctious tunes. Overall, he’s got a really smooth, elegant voice and his selection of songs really should interest anyone in love with the giants of the era.