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.

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.