Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Wholly and Solely About Soul

Unless Sonny & Cher, not to mention Nelson Eddy & Jeanette MacDonald, suddenly qualify as soul siblings, there is nothing about the boy-and-girl duet that necessarily limits it to black popular music. But because the duet form encourages a sexual interplay that illuminates the basic soul theme, love, it has come to assume special importance there.

The participants are in counterpoint as often as in harmony, an din more ways than one--making sweet music together isn't everything. The two basic approaches run throughout soul music, epitomizing the tug-of-war between the blues and gospel from which it derives and the nightclub pop toward which it aspires. Both approaches are exemplified by the two most successful duos of recent years, neither of which has maintained its ascendancy. On one side are Otis Redding & Carla Thomas, whose career together was cut short by Redding's death in a plane crash in December, 1967: funny, funky and frank. On the other are Peaches & Herb, now apparently convalescing from a chronic tummyache: saccharine, romantic in the worst sense.

Soul music must sell in the ghetto, where buyers don't part with four dollars readily, and so the best of it has been found on singles, with albums put together haphazardly to capitalize on hits. Recently, two major soul labels, Atlantic and Stax, have combatted this trend. Stax released the only Redding-Thomas album, King & Queen, without a previous single in the summer of 1967. Since about that time there has been an over-all improvement in soul albums, demonstrated by four duo albums released in the past few months.

The only disappointment is Marvin Gaye and His Girls (Tamla TS293) from the third great soul factory, Motown. Motown receives excessive criticism: in this decade it has produced as much great talent, and as many great records, as Stax and Atlantic combined. But because it is the label's apparent aim to assure its artists a steady living in Las Vages after the rock 'n' roll fad dies out, its albums are not merely haphazard but consciously corny, track after trivial track bedecked with quasi-symphonic orchestrations.

Marvin Gaye may be the most talented soul singer alive. He is certainly the most versatile, flowing from June-moon-croon to sock-it-to-me in two syllables, and his phrasing, as on his superb interpretation of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," is sophisticated but never facile. But he has the misfortune of being tall, light and handsome, the perfect Motown-ee idol, and so his soft side, which ought to be checked, is instead accentuated. In the case of the duos he has formed with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell, this is true even on singles. The whole act could be called Peaches & Marvin.

Even though Mary and Kim have by now left Motown to seek their fortune and disappeared, all the Peaches are represented on this Marvin compilation, which--typically--adds previously uncollected minor hits, some five years old, to a few throwaway tracks. Listening, you understand why two of them left: they had already been buried in the Peaches & Marvin formula. If you are attentive, you can occasionally hear each woman break out for a bar or two before sinking beneath the strings. Tammi Terrell, the current entry, does this most frequently and effectively but, like her partner, she is careful never to go too far. A sad document.

Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson's Soulshake (SSS International SSS 1), on the other hand, appears to be the standard hit album by the standard anonymous funky twosome and is really much more. The big hits--"Lover's Holiday" and "Pickin' Wild Mountain Berries"--are the best cuts on the album, a common enough pattern. But the other tracks are uncommonly conscientious. Producer Shelby S. Singleton Jr. could hold off some on the electric sitar, but he has provided a heavy, infectious bass that supports perfectly the better-than-average tunes he has commissioned.

As they say themselves, Peggy and Jo Jo are basically "soul screamers," but excellent ones, and on obligatory ballads like "We Were Made for Each Other" they show considerable capacity for tenderness. One hopes they will avoid whatever limbo soul singers with two hits two years ago inhabit, and that they will headline at the Apollo many more times. They deserve it.

Among the 27 albums Stax has released to celebrate its 10th anniversary is a two-record set called Boy Meets Girl (Stax STS 2-2024). Stax, with Redding dead and Sam & Dave gone to Atlantic, is hurting for vocalists. None of the remaining men (Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd and William Bell) has developed the distinctive voice of a surefire hitmaker, and neither has Carla Thomas, whose efforts without Otis were never spectacular. To fill the gap,t he label has acquired the nation's most popular gospel group, the Staple Singers, one of whom, Mavis Staples, has recorded her own pop album. On Boy Meets Girl, Stax gives everyone a go--all of the aforementioned artists are with Mavis plus her brother Pervis and sister Cleotha Staples. Somewhere among the permutations there's just gotta be another Otis & Carla.

There isn't. As is often true with soul duos, the women dominate--listen to Mavis on the opening of "Strung Out," or Carla, who has never shown more versatility, on "Just Keep on Loving Me," my choice for a best-best single. The men aren't as good or as individual. But the set is an object lesson in Memphis soul. Stax has a reputation for the kind of guttural candor that first attracts many white fans to black music--Johnnie Taylor croaking "Who's making love to your old lady while you're out making love?" But so often it's more subtle.

Above all, the Stax sound is mellow, not sweet or cool or otherwise untrue to its roots, but mellow. Horn riffs and bass-lines accent but never dominate, and even at their sexy best the Stax singers never try to embody abject lust. "Ain't That Good" almost certainly occurs in bed, but Eddie and Mavis sure do take their time. And when their ambitions run to big arrangements, the Stax producers, instead of trying to imitate a Broadway pit band, do what Al Bell did on "All I Have to Do Is Dream" and give someone like guitarist Edward Hinton room for a little fancy.

Any white person who cares about black music, especially a reviewer, must ask himself whether he hears it as it is or exploits certain of its values for his own uses. Some such exploitation is inevitable with any music, of course, but the history of white Americans and black music is so shameful that special care is necessary. With that preamble, I think it is fair to estimate that The Original Delaney & Bonnie (Elektra EKS 74039) by two white Mississippians, is as good an album as Otis & Carla's King & Queen.

Delaney Bramlett and his wife Bonnie are not just any crackers. They take to soul music as easily as Charley Pride, a black Mississippian, has taken to Country and Western. As a teenager, Bonnie even donned a black wig and joined Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes for a weekend. Last year, she and her husband recorded an album for Stax, which had never before recorded white singers. But Stax decided not to release this album. And the arranger who dubbed the strings on The Original Delaney & Bonnie reportedly did not believe the singers were white.

Nevertheless, it is a white album, and for once that's good. No black singers would record anything so eccentric, so unabashedly baroque, in its celebration of black music. All the wondrous excesses are here--blue guitar breaks and gospel piano, all-girl choruses and funky female growls, unreasonable faith in God and man. Once, the horns even break into "Hey Jude," just to let you know how happy they are. But the album is not really excessive. Its sexuality is rich but implicit, concentrating as does most soul music on the everyday realities of love rather than its epiphanies. And most of all, Delaney and Bonnie sure can sing.

New York Times, June 22, 1969