Based in England and labeled the “hippest world music label going” by Entertainment Weekly magazine, the Honest Jons record label is a “creative” partnership between the proprietors of London’s legendary Honest Jons record shop and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, dedicated to releasing an exceptional range of music to the wide audience it deserves. Of particular note, since its inception, is the series of soul music collections the label has unleashed in the last six months. Mining the depths of the Southern soul sound, the label has recently reintroduced the works of three somewhat overlooked talents from the late 1960s from Bettye Swann, Candi Staton, and most recently, Willie Hightower. (Regular readers of the weekly feature might recognize the Swann album as the Compact Capsules top reissue of 2004.) Thanks to New York City-based Astralwerks Records through a licensing deal they have worked out with Honest Jons, these recordings are happily available on these shores. We take a look at the Swann and Staton releases in this week’s installment of Compact Capsules.
Ask me and I’ll tell you that the late R&B king Otis Redding was one darn good country singer. Listen to him singing songs like “Remember Me” and “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” and it is hard not to be knocked out by the feeling and emotion the guy packed into every performance, much like the best of the country singer brigade. In other words, a country ballad singer every bit the match of a George Jones, but with a whole bunch more heart and of course, soul, to his delivery. Like Redding, Bettye Swann was also a singer in the classic Southern Soul mold. Where Swann differed was the ability to truly break down the barriers between black and white by bringing a country heart to many of her most soulful sides. The self-titled collection Bettye Swann sets the record straight on just what a monster of a singer, not to mention barrier breaker, this lady was. It presents 22 tracks of classic Southern Soul recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama between 1968 and 1970, and all appearing on CD for the first time ever. One listen to this most welcomed reintroduction to her work and here’s betting you’ll be wondering where Bettye Swann was hiding. What separates Swann from her contemporary Redding was that she actually did cover a number of songs that made it big on the country charts prior to her working her interpretive magic on them. We’re talking classics like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”, Hank Cochran’s “Don’t Touch Me”, Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams”, and “Today I Started Loving You Again” which both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard struck gold. Listen to Swann’s version of each of these and it’ll probably take 30 seconds or so before the memory bulb lights up. “Stand By Your Man”, for example, in the voice of Wynette was an out and out declaration of allegiance to her man. In the voice of Swann, it takes on an entirely different color with the singer trying to strike some middle ground with her lover. Credit it all in part to Swann’s producer, Wayne Shuler, son of legendary Louisiana producer/record man Eddie Shuler who was the first to record a very young Dolly Parton and was the mastermind behind countless Bayou dips into Cajun, swamp pop, country, and rockabilly via his Goldband record label. By virtue of the work the young Shuler did producing Swann, he obviously inherited his dad’s talented ways. A native of Shreveport, Swann signed her first recording contract with the small Los Angeles-based Money record label shortly after relocating to California. That was 1967 and her single “Make Me Yours”, recorded that same year, remains her biggest selling record. When her deal with Money expired, Swann moved to Capitol Records who hooked her up with Shuler. Swann would be the first artist Shuler produced by his lonesome, mainly because R&B was relatively new to the Capitol fleet and Shuler had some experience working with that style. It was Shuler who sold Swann on covering the Cochran tune whereas for “Today I Started Loving You Again” it was the exact opposite. It even went as far as recording a slower, alternate version of the song featuring Owens himself dueting with Swann. Owens even wanted Swann to appear on his Hee Haw TV program, however, the powers that be at Capitol Records, which was also Owens’ label, nixed it fearing repercussions if the white Owens and the black Swann appeared together on the program. Sadly, such were the times. In addition to introducing Swann to some classic country songs, Shuler also applied her talents to a number of pop hits from the white side of the tracks, numbers such as “Angel Of the Morning”, “Ain’t That Peculiar”, “Little Things Mean A Lot” and the Classics IV’s “Traces”. Of course there was soul hits of the day like “Cover Me” and “Tell It Like It Is” and even edgier stuff like Tony Joe White’s “Willie & Laura Mae Jones”. The beauty of it all is that none of it ever comes across as retreads. In a nutshell, that the ability to take a song and make it her own losing nothing in the process was Swann’s gift. This collection offers one magic moment after another. (Astralwerks Records, 104 W. 29th Street, New York, NY 10001, or www.astralwerks.com)
Honest Jons/Astralwerks HJRCD11
How’s this for stats: A dozen consecutive Billboard R&B charting hits, two Grammy-nominated songs, and one Gold record with the cut “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool)”, all in the early 1970s. After all this, it was onto a disco, which also brought chart success, and a career which continues to this day. In fact, for you trivia buffs out there, it was a recent recording by Staton called “You Got the Love” that ran over the credits of the final episode of Sex & the City. Here’s thinking that the R&B sides of singer Candi Staton is at best a distant memory for many out there. Well, that distant memory is no more with the release of the self-titled collection Candi Staton (pronounced “Stay-ton”). It gathers for the first time on CD almost all of Staton’s prized, early 1970s recording for Muscle Shoals-based FAME Records. Let’s begin by saying that had this collection arrived in the mailbox before the end of December, it likely would have eclipsed the previously profiled Bettye Swan recording for Compact Capsules top dog honors as far as 2004 reissues are concerned. It is that good. Staton’s story is a fascinating one. Born in a small, rural Alabama town to a poor family, she picked cotton and sang in the church choir as a child. By age eight, she was already part of a formal gospel singing group. At 10, the family moved to Cleveland, but Candi was jettisoned to a boarding school in Nashville where she hooked up with another gospel group, a touring outfit called the Jewel Gospel Trio who recorded for renowned gospel label Nashboro Records. The group toured the country opening for the likes of The Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson, and The Staple Singers. At 17, Staton took off for L.A. with a young Lou Rawls, then a singer with noted gospel group The Pilgrim Travelers, with visions of marriage in her mind. Rawls’ mother thought better of the plans for betrothal and convinced Staton to return to Nashville. Burnt out by the road, she landed back in Alabama, got pregnant and married, and began a rather sedentary lifestyle singing only as part of the church choir. That was until at the coaxing of her brother, she got up on stage at a local night club one evening and sang Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and was hired right on the spot to sing at the club every week. As luck would have it, Staton would join R&B singer Clarence Carter, then recording for FAME Records and an impact player on the Southern soul scene, on stage one night. This would lead to Carter hiring Staton to sing in his band. The Carter connection would eventually pay dividends by hooking Staton up with FAME Records owner Rick Hall who was in search of a female blues singer to fill Etta James’ shoes. At her audition, Staton sang a number she wrote called “To Hear You Say You’re Mine”. That by its lonesome was enough to convince Hall that Staton was his gal. Staton cut four songs that same day including the aforementioned Gold record and the rest, so they say, is history. The ensuing recordings made at FAME would score Staton a contract with Capitol Records. A number of the best of those Capitol sides encompass this highly recommended, 26-track collection which prior to this CD release commanded mucho bucks on the vinyl collectors market. Like Bettye Swann, country music also played into Staton’s repertoire, one which saw her also cover Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and the Harlan Howard-penned “He Called Me Baby” to go with covers of the R&B classic “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto”. In all, these are songs filled with touches from cool, tremolo guitar to punchy horns to bluesy organ swirls to that voice, oh that voice, an unmistakably soulful and gritty instrument brimming with late night pungency.