Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Early '70s "Soul Country" on the Charts: A Playlist

Although "soul country" never officially took flight, the early '70s were the era when such a genre might have, and John C. Pugh even voiced concerns about its hypothetical eventuality in a 1971 Music City News (I talk about this on pp. 180-181 of my book). Stations specializing in hybrid radio formats were certainly poised to accept such a genre, with the high profile success of African-American country star Charley Pride dropping hints, even though he was never less than 100% country.

Although the other notable African-American country artists of the era - O.B. McClinton and Stoney Edwards - were also too hardcore to qualify as "soul country," a few soul artists came close. Among these were the Pointer Sisters, whose "Fairy Tale" (1974) would only qualify as such because it is a faithful country diversion recorded by an otherwise soul-focused group. ("Fairy Tale," incidentally, won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal by a Duo or Group Performance; future country credentials for them came in the form of Conway Twitty turning their "Slow Hand" into an early '80s country hit.)

The most consistent dabbler in soul country was Dobie Gray, especially with his 1973 Loving Arms album. Gray even based himself in Nashville in the eighties and has the distinction of being one of the very few black artists to infiltrate the country charts during that decade, with his biggest country hit being "That's One to Grow On" (#35) in '86.

The other early '70s country soul experimentalists were the Chi-Lites, who got name checked by Nashville promotional executive Chuck Chellman in a late seventies Music City News. He referred to recent adds of the Chi-Lites to country station playlists as evidence that country's dalliance with rock music was leading to far greater travesties.

When I first read that, I automatically assumed that "Oh Girl" was the track in question, with its laid back, harmonica-driven feel. A recent listen-through of the group's 1973 Letter to Myself album, though, has me convinced that the interloping song in question was "My Heart Just Keeps on Breakin'," which reached #92 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is a unique hodgepodge of barnyard fiddle, drawled vocals, Philly soul polish with pizzicatto strings and street corner doo wop. Soul country if there ever was any.

The following 16 songs are my picks for the ultimate "soul country" hybrid records that could have easily crossed over from soul radio playlists to country radio playlists in the early '70s. Most of them, though, succeeded in bringing songs and sounds directly from the country repertoire to the soul charts. All of these charted on - or bubbled under - the Billboard Hot 100 between 1970 and 1974 and are listed chronologically. (None of the songs, by the way, appeared on the Simon Country album picutred above.)

1. Brook Benton with the Dixie Flyers - "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" (Billboard #45, entered 5/30/70, soul #31). Written by Joe South. Produced by Arif Mardin. 45: "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home"/"I've Gotta Be Me" (Cotillion 1970). LP: Home Style (Cotillion 1970). 

Benton's version of Joe South's "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" gave a deeply sentimental voice to the lyrics about highways, drag strips, and drive-in theaters blighting up the country fields of his youth.

2. Candi Staton - "Stand By Your Man" (Billboard #24, entered 8/29/70; soul #4). Written by Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette. Produced by Rick Hall. 45: "Stand By Your Man"/"How Can I Put the Flame Out (When You Keep the Fire Burning)" (Fame 1970). LP: Stand By Your Man (Fame 1970).

Staton's declaration of "after all, he's just a man," doesn't sound any less resigned than Tammy Wynette's original.

3. Joe Simon - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Billboard #69, entered 5/15/71; soul #13). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by John Richbourg. 45: "Help Me Make It Through the Night"/"To Lay Down Beside You" (Spring 1971). LP: The Sounds of Simon (Spring 1971).

Other than Sammi Smith's classic country version of this Kris Kristofferson-penned song, all other versions of it that charted in the Billboard Hot 100 were by soul artists, and they're all on this list.

4. Dee Dee Warwick - "Suspicious Minds" (Billboard #80, entered 6/26/71; soul #24). Written by Fred Zanborn. Produced by Dave Cranford and Brad Shapiro. 45: "Suspicious Minds"/"I'm Glad I'm a Woman" (Atco 1971). LP: (no album appearance).

The last Hot 100 appearance for Dionne Warwick's younger sister.

5. Joe Simon - "All My Hard Times" (Billboard #93, entered 9/25/71; soul #26). Written by Joe South. Produced by John Richbourg. 45: "All My Hard Times"/"Georgia Blue" (Spring 1971). LP: The Sounds of Simon (Spring 1971).

This is the second song written by Joe South on this list ("Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" is the other), although it's really just a minimally adjusted version of the folk song "All My Trials." Ray Stevens' version of "All My Trials," coincidentally, charted on the Hot 100 around the same time as this, while Mickey Newbury would incorporate the song into his Top 40 hit "An American Trilogy" later the same year.

6. O.C. Smith - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Billboard #91, entered 11/13/71; soul #38). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by 45: "Help Me Make It Through the Night"/"Diamond in the Rough" (Columbia 1971). LP: Help Me Make It Through the Night (Columbia 1971).

O.C. Smith was soul country before soul country was cool.  His version of Bobby Russell's "Little Green Apples" hit #2 in 1968, and here's what's especially interesting: it won the Grammy Award for country song of the year although it never appeared on Billboard's country singles chart.

7. Ray Charles - "What Am I Living For" (Billboard #54, entered 12/25/71). Written by Fred Joy and Art Harris. Producer: Joe Adams. 45: "What Am I Living for"/"Tired of My Tears" (ABC/TRC 1971). LP: Volcanic Action of My Soul (ABC/TRC 1971).

This oft-covered song was recorded first by Ernest Tubb in 1958.

8. Gladys Knight and the Pips - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Billboard #33, entered 3/25/72; soul #13). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by Clay McMurray and Johnny Bristol. 45: "Help Me Make It Through the Night"/"If You Gonna Leave (Just Leave)" (Soul 1971). LP: Standing Ovation (Soul 1971).

In her spoken intro, Gladys Knight puts the widespread appeal of Kris Kristofferson's song into perspective: "I'm imagining a lot of happy people, and most of you are with someone you love. Well, you are the lucky ones."

9. Candi Staton - "In the Ghetto" (Billboard #48, entered 6/24/72; soul #12). Written by Mac Davis. Produced by Rick Hall. 45: "In the Ghetto"/"Sure as Sin" (Fame 1972). LP: Candi Staton (Fame 1972).

What to make of the appearance of campfire harmonica in this version's arrangement of "In the Ghetto"? Maybe to remind us that the city song comes from a country industry point of view.

10. Bettye Swann - "Today I Started Loving You Again" (Billboard #46, entered 1/27/73; soul #26). Written by Bonnie Owens and Merle Haggard. Produced by Rick Hall and Mickey Buckins. 45: "Today I Started Loving You Again"/"I'd Rather Go Blind" (Atlantic 1972). LP: (no album appearance).

The Louisiana soul singer Swann recorded a version of this for Capitol in 1969 (crediting only Merle Haggard as the writer). This later version on Atlantic would be her final Hot 100 appearance.

11. Dobie Gray - "Drift Away" (Billboard #5, entered 2/24/73). Written and produced by Mentor Williams. 45: "Drift Away"/"City Stars" (Decca 1973). LP: Drift Away (Decca 1973).

Written and produced by Paul Williams's brother Mentor, "Drift Away" remains a staple on oldies and Adult Contemporary playlists. A version by Uncle Kracker went back to the Top Ten in 2003. Surprisingly, none of Dobie Gray's early seventies output made the soul singles charts.

12. The Chi-Lites - "My Heart Just Keeps on Breakin'" (Billboard #92, entered 6/9/73). Written by Eugene Record and Stanley (Stank) McKenney. Produced by Eugene Record. 45: "My Heart Just Keeps on Breakin'"/"Just Two Teenage Kids (Still in Love)" (Brunswick 1973). LP: A Letter to Myself (Brunswick 1973).

As I said above, this is "soul country" if there ever was such a thing.

13. Dobie Gray - "Good Old Song" (Billboard #103, entered 12/1/73). Written by Mentor Williams and Ron Davies. Produced by Mentor Williams. 45: "Good Old Song"/"Reachin' for the the Feeling" (MCA 1973). LP: Loving Arms (MCA 1973).

14. Gladys Knight and the Pips - "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" (Billboard #3, entered 2/16/74; soul #1). Written by Jim Weatherly. Produced by Kenny Kearner and Richie Wise. 45: "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" (Buddah 1973). LP: Imagination (Buddah 1973).

A new version of a Jim Weatherly-penned song that Ray Price charted with in '73 (#82) and which ended up being Price's very last Hot 100 hit.

15. Dobie Gray - "Watch Out for Lucy" (Billboard #107, entered 9/21/74). Written by Lonnie Mack. Produced by Mentor Williams. 45: "Watch Out for Lucy"/"Turning on You" (MCA 1974). LP: Hey Dixie (MCA 1974).

MCA's art department took the problematic Confederate flag route for the Hey Dixie album's lettering.

16. The Pointer Sisters - "Fairytale" (Billboard #13, entered 10/5/74; country #37). Written by Anita Pointer and Bonnie Pointer. Produced by David Rubinson and Friends, Inc. 45: "Fairytale"/"Love in Them There Hills" (ABC/Blue Thumb 1974). LP: That's a Plenty (ABC/Blue Thumb 1974).

Although "Fairytale," a Grammy winner for Country Vocal Group performance, might have felt like a breakthrough at the time, it really only ended up representing the end of a highly experimental era at the beginning of a carefully formatted one.