Graded on a Curve: A Crate Digger’s Collection of Rare Soul

There has been no shortage of single and various artist Soul anthologizes over the years, but most came encoded on compact disc and ranged in worth from outstanding to moderate to shoddy. Vinyl sets became few and far between, but recently that circumstance has begun to change. Behold A Crate Diggers’ Collection of Rare Soul, a compilation of three 180gm LPs assembled by Rhino Custom in an edition of 1,000 copies and currently available only through Popmarket.

The purported scarcity of the originals corralled here, everything initially issued on 45s from ’64-’75 either by Atlantic and its subsidiaries Atco and Cotillion or Warner Brothers and its sub-label Loma, offers a fine angle of presentation. However, the secret to any various-artist comp, and especially one devoted to a genre so deeply tied to the emotional, is not rarity but listenablity, though the opportunity to hear these selections on vinyl is an unequivocal plus.

A Crate Diggers’ Collection of Rare Soul smartly drafts a smattering of ringers and immediately taps into a cornerstone of the style. Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” was issued posthumously by Atco in ’68 both as a single and on The Immortal Otis Redding. Oft covered and sampled as it features the confidence, precision, and verve of Otis, Booker T & the MGs, and the Memphis Horns, there’s simply no substitute for the original.

Another stone beast is ’66’s deep and slow groover “You Put Something on Me” by Don Covay & the Goodtimers. A somewhat slept-on soul figure both at the time and hence, akin to the majority of the artists on this set Covay was recorded by Atlantic, but like “Sookie Sookie” before and “Somebody’s Got to Love You” after it, “You Put Something on Me” failed to chart, which is difficult to fathom since it pairs with “Hard to Handle” as the best track on this set’s first side.

Solomon Burke is also assessed as unfairly overlooked, and while ‘68’s “Meet Me in Church,” a b-side from the end of his Atlantic period, is far from a high point for the former King of Rock ‘n’ Soul (it appears on his seriously hit and miss album I Wish I Knew), its allegiance to the sanctified goes down pretty well. Bluntly, “Meet Me in Church” is unlikely to get pulled out for anybody’s DJ set at the club, but it does reinforce how time spent in pews on Sunday was basically obligatory for soulsters of this era.

Baby Washington’s best and her biggest was recorded during a long ‘60s run for the Sue label, but “I Don’t Know,” cut in ’69 for Cotillion, is gutsy and flaunts ample horn-chart warmth, enough so that newbies to her work should easily comprehend why Dusty Springfield once ranked Washington as her favorite singer.

Wilson Pickett’s “I’m Sorry About That,” the flip to ‘67’s “Funky Broadway” and part of his indispensable The Sound of Wilson Pickett from the same year, starts side three with a killer Muscle Shoals slow burner. Chips Moman and Spooner Oldham are in the crack band as Jerry Wexler handles production, and this is textbook soul from one of the greats.

Still active after a long productive career, “Your Turn to Cry” comes from Bettye LaVette’s second go-round with Atlantic, an association shortened when the 45 didn’t rise to commercial expectations. The lack of sales was no fault of LaVette or her Muscle Shoals backing; this is a monster that should’ve been big and that the aborted LP from this era belatedly came out in 2006 as Child of the Seventies is a fine turn of events.

Side four begins and ends with tracks from artists largely known by the general public for one song; in the case of Percy Sledge it’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which gave Atlantic their first gold single. ’67’s “Hard to Believe,” vocals drenched in emotion as the band fires on all cylinders, comes from his peak period. For Arthur Conley the hit was the homage “Sweet Soul Music” co-written with Redding. He’s represented here by “Shake Rattle, Rattle & Roll,” a sturdy ’67 update for Atco of Big Joe Turner’s R&B/R&R behemoth.

In between Sledge and Conley is “No Time to Lose” from the exquisite Carla Thomas. Though issued by Atlantic, this is the sound of Stax ’64. Thomas is in fine voice, the backup singing is dynamic and unsaddled by cliché, a few wild drum fills emerge and the guitar playing from co-writer Steve Cropper is choice.

Side five starts with a contrasting pair. First, the smoking earthiness of ‘69’s Otis-revamp “Sister Pitiful” from the immensely talented Judy Clay for Atlantic; it’s followed by “Stay with Me” by Lorraine Ellison. Recorded in ’66 by Warner Brothers with a full orchestra behind her, it’s a gut-wrenching passion-soaked gem.

Closing side five is James Carr. Perhaps the epitome of the undersung soulman, it’s less arguable that his “Dark End of the Street” is amongst the very greatest of the genre’s singles. Due to emotional problems (bipolar disorder), Carr has also been called the Syd Barrett of Soul, and after his label Goldwax went kaput his behavioral issues reportedly caused Capitol to have a change of heart over buying out his contract. ‘71’s “I’ll Put It to You” is the excellent b-side of his sole 45 for Atlantic.

Encountering problems of a different sort was Mary Wells, “Me and My Baby” coming from her troubled post-Motown run. Succinctly, Wells’ commercial fortunes after leaving Gordy’s ship were lesser and fewer, though she did hit the R&B Top Ten in ’65 with “Dear Lover” for Atco, landing there after a short stay with 20th Century Fox. The following year’s “Fancy Free,” an enjoyable slab from a gifted performer, didn’t fare as well. The impeccably delivered “Me and My Baby” was the flip.

If it seems as if Warner Brothers is getting the short shrift, please understand Atlantic specialized in soul while the WB was attempting to tap into the market the best way they knew how; through trial and error. Naturally, this resulted in a few high-quality one shots, for example the Southern oomph of ’68’s “It Takes a Whole Lot of Woman” from legitimate ciphers Jerry Combs & the Mannix as pressed on Warner Brothers-Seven Arts.

It contrasts with ‘66’s “Don’t Come a Knockin’” by Mary Lee Whitney, a one and done for Warner Brothers’ Loma subsidiary, an enterprise managing to last from ’64 to ’68 and here striving for high (though not glossy) production values. A decidedly Northern soul proposition, the strings don’t sap the energy and Whitney is more than capable at the mic; she later backed up Stevie Wonder on Songs in the Key of Life.

“Your Search is Over” is Walter Foster’s ’65 Loma b-side to “Waitin’,” a James Brown number that sounds like it. And though the flip is written by Rudy Clark, it doesn’t stray far from a Brownian template itself, particularly in a brass wiggle highly reminiscent of the performance immortalized on Live at the Apollo. And “Your Search is Over” might’ve been a byproduct of Warner Brothers’ bags of moolah, but it still registers like a budget production, though that’s not really a knock. It’s also a year or two behind the cutting edge, and that’s not a putdown either.

Not everything on Loma is an obscurity. ‘67’s “Sho Nuff (Got a Good Thing Going)” is from J.J. Jackson, wielder of an interesting résumé including work with soul-jazz organist Brother Jack McDuff and time spent in England where he waxed oldie-station warhorse “But It’s Alright” and even penned a flip-side for the Pretty Things. Back in the States he touched down at Loma for a few 45s of which this was the first. A single of cheerful intensity enhanced by an organ thankfully fading into the background, Jackson works up a Redding-esque head of steam.

And Warners doesn’t shoulder all the lesser-known picks here. “Can’t Find No Happiness,” released in ’68 by Atco isn’t as obscure now that Barbara Brown’s stuff both solo and in the family group Barbara & the Browns has been retrieved and compiled by Ace. She was far from under-recorded; first she was on Wilmo, making the Top 100 with “Big Party” after it was picked up by Stax, then the XL label, its owners leasing out songs to Atco, Cadet, Tower, and the Sounds of Memphis imprints, none of which charted. This gritty little belter should’ve.

Warner Brothers’ adeptness increased over time. Alice Clark’s “You Hit Me (Right Where it Hurt),” was issued in ’68 on Seven Arts but is utterly Motown in conception. Clark surely falls on the unknown side of this set’s spectrum, though she did cut an LP in ’72 for Mainstream; this is the a-side of her second 45 (her first for the Rainy Day label was produced by Billy Vera), and it proved big enough with Northern soul acolytes that it was given an “unofficial” repress on 45.

Additionally, Atco harbored a sub-niche of offering the later efforts of prior chart successes. For instance Darrell Banks, who started out strong commercially but trailed off pretty quickly; some will say it’s karma for a shady writing credit on “Open the Door to Your Heart,” his debut for the Revilot label. “The Love of My Woman,” a nifty combination of finesse and sweat, was his final disc for Cotillion after Atlantic switched him over from Atco. Banks moved on to Stax but his life was ended by tragedy, shot dead in Detroit in ‘70 by an off-duty cop who was involved with the woman Banks was seeing.

After two decades as a gospel singer in groups like the Highway QCs and Fairfield Four, Roscoe Robinson had his biggest hit for Wand in ’66 with “That’s Enough.” Atlantic’s ’69 b-side “Leave You in the Arms of Your Other Man” sports big clean bluesy guitar and bold horns in a slow dance tempo with swooping femme backing; it didn’t hit but is a sure winner.

Bettye Swann had a few minor scores with Atlantic, but she went to #1 R&B (and #21 Pop) in ’67 with “Make Me Yours” for the Money label. Her assured “Kiss My Love Goodbye” features a solid vocal, a spiffy string-powered and horn-accented arrangement, and a Morse code guitar line recalling the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” And New Orleans exponent Alvin Robinson is justifiably renowned for his output on the labels of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. “Baby Don’t You Do It,” cut in ’68 for Atco, is a magnificent version of a Marvin Gaye nugget.

There’s also ’66’s “Bye Bye Baby” from Dee Dee Sharp to consider. She’s best known for “Mashed Potato Time” and a short partnership with Chubby Checker via Cameo/Parkway; i.e., she touches down right in John Waters’ wheelhouse. Recorded in Memphis, “Bye Bye Baby” brandishes a tougher sound than her teenybopper past. With the lack of horns it kinda connects like bolder Motown. And in ’68 Atco paired her with Ben E. King for the musically raucous “We Got a Thing Going On,” one of this set’s biggest treats.

The growth of Sharp compares well with “I May Not Be What You Want,” a ’72 track for Warners that finds Bobby Sheen, the former Bob B. Soxx of the Blue Jeans (from the early-‘60s stable of Phil Spector and “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah” fame) reeling off a pleasant slice of mainstream soul. But of all the tunes culled from Warners, the likely pick of the litter is the pop-soul of Carl Hall’s “Mean it Baby.” Waxed for Loma in ’67, it’s strongly sung in front of an engaged band and well produced by Jerry Ragavoy.

Atco could do the mainstream thing as well; please see J.P. Robinson’s “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away” a sing-along excursion from ’71 flaunting electric piano and faux sitar. The same label pressed Ted Taylor’s “Feed the Flame,” a ’67 gospel-infused b-side from a veteran that recorded earlier for Ebb, Duke, Okeh and Ronn.

Also churchy and also on Atlantic is ‘70’s “I’ve Got Enough Heartaches” from Mighty Sam McClain, though in somewhat of a reverse, it’s precedes a lengthy blues career and collaborations with musicians from the Middle East. And a swell surprise is the subtly tense “Can I Be Your Main Thing,” from ’71 for Atlantic by Clarence Carter protégée Margie Alexander.

Speaking of Carter, his “Scratch My Back and Mumble in My Ear” is herein. Certainly a higher profile inclusion due to a long string of hits led by three pop Top Tens, the blind soulman is also well-known by a particular sect of grownups for his brand of ribaldry; this minor R&B charter for Atlantic in ’71 lands right in that zone. Frankly, Carter’s nowhere close to a personal genre favorite, though this does have production by Rick Hall in its favor.

I’m more partial to Jackie Moore’s “Wonderful, Marvelous.” Previously scoring big with “Precious, Precious” for Atlantic, her other successes include this ’71 team up with the Dixie Flyers. That means it’s unabashedly southern, the Flyers adding punch to Moore’s expressiveness, an approach comparable to but not imitative of Aretha Franklin.

Jumping forward to ‘75 brings a doozy by Sam Dees for Atlantic. Noted as a top-flight songwriter and an underappreciated singer, “Save the Love at Any Cost” is enveloped in soaring strings as Dees belts it out with considerable aplomb. Impressively, neither this nor its a-side “Fragile, Handle with Care” were part of the vinyl sequence of his highly regarded ’75 album The Show Must Go On (they were tacked onto the ’13 CD reissue by Real Gone Music). A lot of later soul gets weakened by a veneer of glossiness, but this gets the job done in efficient fashion.

Paul Kelly’s “Love Me Now” from ’72 is a nice mixture of finesse and intensity, with prominent strings and angelic backup singing assisting a quietly stirring performance. Tapping into positive vibes, Kelly’s career somewhat suggests Mayfield and Gaye, though even as he recorded for Warner Brothers (who bought his Happy Tiger output) the Southern origins (Miami to be exact) are impossible to miss. These days Kelly is a cult figure, his work reissued by Water and Warner Archives. “Love Me Now” lends A Crate Diggers’ Collection of Rare Soul a terrific finale.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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