The Complicatist : Blue Eyed & Soulful
From the Righteous Brothers to Yelawolf and beyond…
by Gordon Campbell
For a while in June, the top two singles on the US Billboard charts featured Iggy Azalea, an Australian model turned hip hop performer. To some, this may seem like just the latest chapter in a long saga of whites ripping off black culture, while enriching themselves in the process. Obviously, there’s some truth in the stereotype. Yet it can also obscure the positive collaborations – in jazz, soul music and hip hop – between musicians who treated each other as creative equals, race regardless.
For example : last year’s Muscle Shoals documentary was a reminder that on some of soul music’s most hallowed tracks, the studio band consisted of a bunch of white guys from rural Alabama. I’m talking about on Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ ‘Natural Woman’ and ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You” Wilson Pickett’s “ Mustang Sally” and “Land of A Thousand Dances,” Joe Tex’s “Hold On To What You’ve Got”, Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” some of the biggest hits by Clarence Carter, Candi Staton’s “ I’m Just a Prisoner” ….all the way down to classic deep soul obscurities like Johnny Truitt’s ‘Your Love Is Worth The Pain.’ In fact, the iconic piano intro on Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man” was improvised in the studio by a skinny white kid called Spooner Oldham. The producer on many of those tracks cited above was Rick Hall, the son of poor white sharecroppers from Mississippi.
No big deal, in one sense. Here’s how Mike Cooley of the Drive By Truckers put it in an interview a few years ago:
I’ve heard ‘em all – white guys and black folks from that era – talk about music back then. It was completely integrated. There was no black music or white music, or white or black artists. The drummer was just the drummer, not the black guy who played drums. It all changed as soon as Martin Luther King was assassinated, a wedge was driven in there, and it’s actually since then become far more segregated than it ever was. But through the period of segregation, and all the extreme violence that went on to maintain it, everything that was going on musically, in the same South, at the same time, was more integrated than at any time before or since – and it’s the stuff that everybody keeps going back to, that’s pretty much widely considered to be the greatest contemporary music ever made.’
The Muscle Shoals situation was not unique. In Memphis, Booker T and the MGs were a racially integrated band with white guys Steve Cropper on lead guitar and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. In the 1950s, two Jewish guys from New York – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – had been the creative team behind Big Mama Thornton’s “ Hound Dog” and hits by the Coasters and a raft of other black groups. No doubt, whites have generally made more money from the music business. Yet creatively, it wasn’t entirely a one way street. Here are a few examples :
Eddie Hinton When the Muscle Shoals studio band split with Rick Hall in 1969 and formed their own celebrated recording studio across town at 3614 Jackson Highway, they took Eddie Hinton with them. Hinton was a white guitarist, singer and writer who seemed destined for great things. That’s Hinton playing on the R. B. Greaves hit “Take a Letter Maria”, on the Dusty Springfield In Memphis sessions and on many, many others.
Bad luck, mental illness and his related addiction problems stopped Hinton from ever reaching the stardom predicted for him. Since his premature death in the mid-1990s, a lot of Hinton’s demos and out-of-print records have surfaced, thanks to the devotion of Hinton fans in Britain.
‘Hard Luck Guy’ is not only an accurate verdict on Hinton’s life, but tips its hat to Otis Redding while doing him proud. ‘Letters From Mississippi’ was recorded soon after Hinton had been rescued from living homeless on the streets in Decatur, Alabama…It’s a sad story, but Eddie Hinton is proof positive that hard times, soulfulness and talent can be entirely colour blind.
Alabama Shakes Here’s a recent example of the retro r&b that Hinton did so well. This is an intimate, record store version of one of the highlights from the first Alabama Shakes album. At 25, lead singer Brittany Howard is just as compelling here as she was onstage at the Power Station in Auckland 18 months ago.
Righteous Brothers, Long before they became an inspirational tool for Phil Spector, the Righteous Brothers (Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield) were regulars at the Rendezvous ballroom at Newport Beach, a hangout for Dick Dale and other surf musicians, and for Southern California’s early garage rock bands. A couple of years ago the Orange County Register newspaper published a terrific history of this era – and the role of the Righteous Brothers in it – available here.
At 19, Medley wrote “Little Latin Lupe Lu” for his high school girlfriend, Lupe Laguna. Famously, Moonglow Records sent no publicity photos out with the single, lest black radio stations find out too soon that this wild and soulful track was actually by a couple of crewcut white kids from Orange County. The brass-heavy “My Babe” is from the same era. The bluesy guitar is by Barry Rillera, praised by Jimi Hendrix as an innovative guitarist of the time. Reportedly, Rillera swapped guitar tips with the Beatles while touring with them in 1964.
Travis Wammack, Clarence Carter, Alex Chilton
White and black versions of the same song, about sneaking around. One features Travis Wammack, a session guitarist from Texas. The other version is by Clarence Carter, a blind black guy from Alabama. Both tracks were recorded in Muscle Shoals, one at Rick Hall’s Fame studio with his regular house band of white guys – Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, David Hood, Spooner Oldham, Tommy Cogbill, Dan Penn etc – while the Wammack version was done at the same studio a few years later.
But can’t you slip away?
Without him knowin’ you’re gone
Baby we could meet somewhere
Somewhere where we both are not known
And yes can you slip away, slip away, slip away?
I need you so
Oh can you slip away baby?
I’d like to see you right now darling
And here’s the same thing, one more time. An 18 year old Alex Chilton does “ Soul Deep” with Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn Chips Moman etc and the Box Tops, while Clarence Carter – with Oldham and much the same crew in tow – does his version. Both great, both from the same creative soil.
Grayson Hugh, Bobby Caldwell. A couple of excellent one hit wonders. Grayson Hugh’s “Talk It Over” lit up the radio in the late 1980s, but Hugh never managed to transform its success into much of a career. It had been the same story ten years earlier with Bobby Caldwell, whose disco era ballad “What You Won’t Do For Love” was a smash hit on r&b stations that never realized that this Bobby wasn’t brown. Great tracks, though.
Timi Yuro “Hurt” by Timi Yuro is one of the first examples of blue-eyed soul music, though since Yuro was actually Italian-American, the term doesn’t fit her particularly well. Hard to pigeon-hole this song in fact, to any genre ; it is just a lovely, forlorn ballad that the-then 22 year old Yuro sings as if her heart has been torn asunder. On her follow up “What’s A Matter Baby?” it was payback time. On that track, Yuro sounded scarily triumphant about the hurt her no-good lover was getting as his due. Yuro remained popular on the northern soul circuit in Britain, and enjoyed belated stardom in the Netherlands during the early 1980s. She died in 2004.
Chris Clark Motown was a Detroit-based hit machine famously owned, operated and performed by blacks but it found a massive audience among white Americans as well. In the mid 1960s, Chris Clark was a white singer and sometime girlfriend of Motown CEO, Berry Gordy, who tried to market her as a US version of Dusty Springfield.
Clark never got the hits she deserved, though her tracks did become staples on Britain’s Northern Soul circuit.
Further trivia note : Clark eventually became the fourth wife and widow of Ernest Tidyman, the white guy who wrote the novels about the black detective John Shaft, which inspired the Shaft film, TV series and Isaac Hayes hit single.
Yelawolf The Michael Atha who became Yelawolf was born in Alabama of Cherokee and white American descent, and got raised in Nashville’s housing projects. He got into hip hop as a teenager, and “Pop The Trunk” remains to this day his biggest hit. Extra points for the observational detail in the lyrics, which describe the sort of scene familiar from the movie Winter’s Bone, although this one is located in Alabama ….
Meth lab in the back and the crack smoke spills through the streets like an early morning fog
Momma’s in the slaughter house with a hatchet helping Daddy chop early morning hog
I’m catching Zs like an early morning saw when I woke up to the racket yawn and pause
What the fuck man I can never get sleep man, peeped out the window what’s wrong with ya’ll?
Stood up in my Crimson Tide Alabama sweat pants and threw my pillow
Looks like Daddy caught the motherfucker that tried to sneak in and steal his ammo
They don’t know that old man don’t hold hands or throw hands naw he’s rough like a Brillo
Went to the Chevy and pulled out a machete and that gun is heavy and tall as the midget willow…….
Two men stand, one’s gotta go
One falls down to the ground, one walks down to the road
Momma better call the police
Now he’s screaming no
Took a buckshot to the chest with a rock salt shell and he’s moving slow
All this blood has spilled, enough to give a penguin chills
Hot enough to make a potato smoke at the tip of a hollowed steel
In the valley of the hollowed fields
In the valley of the hollowed till
This ain’t a figment of my imagination buddy, this is where I live… ‘Bama!