Thursday, October 30, 2008

Percy Wiggins - Can't Find Nobody (To Take Your Place) (Atco 6479)


Can't Find Nobody (To Take Your Place)

Percy Wiggins was there.

He was singing Gospel at the Greater White Stone M.B. Church in Memphis by the time he was six years old. By age 13, he had formed his own group along with his sister Maxine and his brother Spencer, The New Rival Gospel Singers. The group would go on to have their own 15 minutes of fame every Wednesday night, when they broadcast on WDIA accompanied by pianist Helen Shields. Percy and Spencer later joined another sacred ensemble called The Parker Aires and hit the Gospel Highway, sharing the stage with such luminaries as James Cleveland and Sam Cooke.

As we discussed in our post about Spencer last year, the legendary Nat D. Williams was a key figure in the history of Memphis. As the enormously popular host of WDIA's Tan Town Jamboree, he was heard all over the mid-south. He was also listened to by generations of East Memphis students as the history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. Percy's grade alone would produce such figures as David Porter and Maurice White, who would go on to join other Booker T graduates like Booker T Jones, Rufus Thomas, Bowlegs Miller, William Bell, Andrew Love, Louis Williams and J. Blackfoot in creating this music we call soul.

Percy and Spencer would sing together throughout high school in vocal groups like the Five Tees and the Four Stars. Groups which at one time or another included Tyrone Smith, David Porter, Maurice White and other members of the Booker T Glee Club. These groups sang in city wide competitions, often pitted against cross-town rival Manassas High School's Teen Tones, which featured a young Isaac Hayes. By the time Percy graduated in 1961, both he and Spencer were singing professionally in local clubs. Before long, however, he decided to further his education, and enrolled in Tennessee State.

He met a young guitar player (and fellow Memphian) named Larry Lee there 'up on the hill', who brought him around to the clubs on Jefferson Street. With Percy's incredible vocal chops, he was soon holding down gigs at places like the Club Steal-A-Way (where he would work with Sir Lattimore and his Twirlers) and the New Era Club. He got to know everybody in town (like Hendrix), and by 1965 he was part of a Nashville R&B revue that went to Europe to perform before our Vietnam era troops stationed there.

When he got back, Larry introduced him to Jerry Crutchfield, who was then just starting out as a songwriter and producer. Jerry got him signed to RCA in 1966, and brought him down to Bradley's Barn, which was at that time the cutting edge studio in Music City, with the first three track machine in town. Crutchfield composition The Work Of A Woman was supposed to be the 'plug' side, but it's the great flip It Didn't Take Much (For Me To Fall In Love) that's still getting spun today, and has become a hot Northern Soul record routinely bringing in over a hundred bucks on eBay!

Jerry got Percy signed to Atlantic in 1967, and they placed him on their Atco subsidiary (the label where Arthur Conley had just busted things wide open with Sweet Soul Music). Once again recorded at Bradley's Barn, this great record we have here today was co-written by Crutchfield and Larry Lee, and I'm sure that's Larry on that stinging guitar. You can bet the farm that that's Billy Cox on the bass as well, as this is the period when the Jefferson Street crew was acting as the house band out there. Arranged by Harrison Calloway, it was recorded just before he and Aaron Varnell headed to Muscle Shoals. I love the doubled-up harmony vocal by Percy's 'friend', an overdub made that much easier with the studio's new equipment. The other side of this 45, Book Of Memories, was included on the Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers collection in 2006.

Percy toured constantly in those days, working the circuit alongside guys like Jimmy Church and Freddie North, and appearing with everyone from Otis Redding to Johnnie Taylor all up and down the line. After one more single on Atco that didn't sell (by then the label seemed more concerned with acts like Cream and Buffalo Springfield), he was back at RCA for one more release, Love Is A Wonderful Thing. Crutchfield's next stop was Nashboro subsidiary A-Bet, where he and Percy would record yet another Northern Soul 'floor-shaker', That's Loving You, before Percy hung up his recording career in the early seventies.

Realizing that R&B just wasn't going to pay the bills, he had returned to Memphis in 1968 and joined his boyhood idol Nat D. Williams as a History teacher at his old alma mater, Booker T. Washington. In his long career there, Percy carried on Mister Williams' tradition of leading by quiet example, and his influence lives on in the students he inspired. Mr. Wiggins has remained active in the Church, and a 1989 collaboration with Ben Cauley, The Lord Delivered Me, was a hit down there on Gospel radio. His old partner, Larry Lee, meanwhile, had come home as well, and became the musical director of Al Green's band... a post he would hold for over thirty years, before he passed on just last October.

Speaking of Reverend Green, In 2005, Percy teamed up with the studio band that backed him on all those big records, becoming the vocalist for Hi Rhythm. They would tour Europe that year (along with Syl Johnson and Ann Peebles) to rave reviews. When I heard Percy sing with them for the first time at the Ponderosa Stomp in Memphis in 2006, I was blown away. This guy could sing, man, and brought his own soulful personality to the obligatory covers of Green's hits. At the time, I didn't know anything about him, other than that he was Spencer's brother.

This year, at the House Of Blues in New Orleans, Percy was simply fantastic, and with Charles Hodges back on the Hammond, the band had never sounded better. This was Memphis Soul at its finest, boys and girls. I spoke with him a couple of days ago, and he told me how thrilled he was to be a part of the upcoming O.V. Wright Night benefit, and that he and Hi Rhythm were getting together and rehearsing a couple of times a week to gear up for the show. With Otis Clay and Percy teaming up to sing some of O.V.'s timeless classics, this should really be something!

Tickets are still available...

Monday, October 20, 2008

O.V. Wright - I Don't Know Why (Hi 79531)


I Don't Know Why

Again and again on these pages, I've gone on about the genius of Willie Mitchell, and his importance to the development of this music. As I've said before, I consider him to be the Duke Ellington of Soul.

As a bandleader and arranger in the late fifties and early sixties, the influence he had on what would become known as Memphis Soul is just incalculable. In a 2003 interview, Willie was asked when he realized he could make it as a producer; "When I cut 'Eight Men, Four Women' with O.V. Wright then came right back with 'Two Steps from the Blues' with Bobby Bland. I knew I could make it then. That was 1965." Although the chronology appears a bit off, the fact remains that Don Robey saw the incredible talent Willie had, and hired him to produce some of the greatest records ever made.

As we've seen, he was the producer on all of O.V.'s subsequent Back Beat singles which, taken together, represent just a monumental body of work. His collaboration with O.V. matured over the years, and his 1973 LP Memphis Unlimited (now featured on the ol' podcast) brings it all together. With Hi Rhythm just crankin' it out, it is, in my opinion, a masterpiece that rivals the work Willie was doing with Al Green at the same time. Robey would sell his labels to ABC shortly after that, and although they released a couple of 45s on him, when O.V. landed in prison in 1975, they didn't renew his contract the following year.

Willie, meanwhile, had sold Hi to Al Bennett, the owner of Cream Records out on the coast. He retained ownership of his Royal Studio in the deal, however, and when O.V. was released in 1977, he convinced Bennett to sign him, so he could continue to record him there on South Lauderdale the way he always had. He brought O.V. back into the charts that summer with the soulful disco of Into Something (Can't Shake Loose), an album that also includes what may be "...the greatest 13 minutes in Deep/Southern Soul music history," Wright's classic medley of 'God Blessed Our Love, When A Man Loves A Woman, and That's How Strong Our Love Is'.

This absolutely awesome record we have here today is taken from O.V.'s next Hi LP, The Bottom Line. It's no secret that Wright was not well in those days, and that years of heroin addiction were taking their toll. Although his vocal capacity may indeed have been diminished, he still manages to find the soul within. I love the atmosphere Willie weaves around him, and that whole funky Mr. Fantasy guitar thing just knocks me out! It was released as the flip of We're Still Together which was actually the title track of O.V.'s next, and final, album.

Here's what Willie told me in June:
"When we were recording that last album, O.V. was sick, and ended up in the hospital. The medicine couldn't get to where it needed to go because all of his veins had collapsed from shooting the drugs. He didn't weigh no more than 114 pounds. I made a deal with the doctors, and they let me bring him to the studio here for two hours a day, from eleven til one, and that's how we finished that record. I'd go into the hospital, put him over my shoulder, and just carry him on out of there..."

Thirty years later, Willie Mitchell is still there, in that place where they cut all of that soul. As part of our weekend long tribute to O.V. Wright and his music, we have organized a tour of Royal Studio at 3pm on Friday, November 14th. Mister Mitchell will be there, same as always.

Come shake his hand.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Otis Clay - If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody) (Hi 2252)


If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody)

IT'S OFFICIAL

Yes, the one and only Otis Clay will be joining us in Memphis to help pay tribute to his good friend, O.V. Wright.

How cool is that?

Long a favorite here at the ol' B Side (click here to read the post I wrote on him way back in April of 2006), Otis Clay is the real thing. Born in Mississippi, he came up through the ranks, singing Quartet Gospel in such venerable ensembles as The Pilgrim Harmonizers, The Gospel Songbirds, and The Sensational Nightingales. Otis has lived in Chicago since 1957, and became one of the founding fathers of Windy City Soul when he first 'crossed over' in the mid-sixties. He had begun working with the legendary Harold Burrage in 1964 (along with a young kid named Tyrone Fettson), and Harold got him signed to George Leaner's One-Derful! label the following year.

After a couple of minor local records, Otis hit big with That's How It Is (When You're In Love), which would break into the R&B top 40 in the summer of 1967. He had started working with producer Eddie Silvers after Burrage died suddenly in November of '66, and had become a respected member of the team at One-Derful! along with folks like Monk Higgins and Andre Williams. The company's biggest star at that point, Clay personified the kind of 'hard soul' that Leaner set out to create. He charted one more time for the label, before it folded in 1968.

Otis signed with Atlantic later that year, and they sent him down to record with Rick Hall at Fame. His cover of Sir Doug's She's About A Mover was the first 45 issued on their Cotillion imprint, and it hovered around the middle of the R&B Hot 100 for a few weeks that summer. In 1970, after a couple of other non-chart entries, Atlantic decided to let Willie Mitchell try his hand at producing him. When the great Is It Over failed to sell much outside of the South, however, they dropped him, which cleared the way for Willie to sign him to Hi.

Arriving in Memphis right on time, Otis would become a major part of the 'golden age' at the label, with his first single being released within weeks of Al Green's first #1 smash, Let's Stay Together in 1972. Clay's biggest hit was cut right there on South Lauderdale Street later that year, the amazing Trying To Live My Life Without You, which would spend over two months on the charts, climbing to #24 R&B. Just as with O.V. Wright, his hard edged soul delivery seemed to bring out the 'Memphis' in the groove that Hi Rhythm was laying down.

That groove, of course, was produced by Willie Mitchell, who had welcomed Otis as a part of the family. Southern Soul hero George Jackson had also been signed to Hi around the same time (his classic Aretha, Sing One For Me would reach the R&B top forty in 1972), and wrote this timeless anthem you're listening to now for Clay the following year. With his strong Gospel background, Otis spread the message into the R&B hot 100 that fall... these are words to live by, for sure, and Otis has continued to live that message to this day.

After a few more singles on Hi, Otis would record for a variety of other labels (head on over to The A Side for more on all of that), but it is his work with Hi Rhythm that stands out, in my opinion, as the highlight of his long career.


He would reunite with them for a concert that was released as a live album, Soul Man: Live In Japan on Bullseye in 1983 (check out the smokin' version of A Nickel and A Nail on there!), and they were right back in the groove. They would continue to work on various projects for the remainder of the decade but, as far as I can tell, they haven't performed together since 1992.

That's what makes this so exciting... if there's any way you can make it to Memphis on November 15th, we'd love to have you.

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Thank You.