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Hardly Strictly Jazz

Back To... SOUL

By Published: September 11, 2013
The biggest hit to emerge from these sessions was "I've Got a Thing about You Baby," written by Tony Joe White (who gave us "Rainy Night In Georgia"). "Thing" was—prior to this session—a single former Sun rockabilly Billy Lee Riley had out on the Entrance label, a small imprint distributed by CBS Records. Riley's version was a little Memphian jewel, produced by Chips Moman (who had produced Presley's previous Memphis sessions, at American in 1969, which yielded "Suspicious Minds," among other classics). Frankly, all Presley had to do was faithfully cover Billy Lee, and it would have been a decent day's work. They accomplished as much in just a few takes, but kept working at it for fifteen finished takes, the last of which is a true masterpiece of country soul that takes the tune a few layers deeper than Billy Lee Riley may have ever sensed he could have. Throughout, the alternate Presley takes from Stax are formidable, but the finished takes are the stuff of legend, with "Thing About You" likely being the best of a thrilling bunch.

But not every artist got to be Presley, nor was every label Stax. The Omnivore label is run by obsessives who seem quite content to comb the states for obscure soul treasures, and their GPS is working quite fine. The South Side Of Soul Street (Omnivore, 2013) collects all the singles released from 1967-76 by the Minaret label of Valparaiso, AL, not far from Tuscaloosa. While nothing they did ever made any kind of national impact, they were something of a mini-Stax, with their own in-house musicians, songwriting, and a homegrown crop of vocal talent on par with anything of the decade. South Side is largely a sampler of hits that should have been. There's an album's worth of stuff on here by South Carolina-born Big John Hamilton, who started out as a guitarist (playing in the road bands of no less than Etta James
Etta James
Etta James
1938 - 2012
and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters) but whose vocal talents eclipsed his playing. His 1969 soul take on "Before The Next Teardrop Falls" (which would five years later become Freddy Fender's signature country hit) is a gem, wrought with pitch-perfect pathos. Hamilton's a perfect gutbucket soul singer, just not a famous one.

Other Minaret artists such as Johnny Dynamite, Genie Brooks, and the Double Soul each made fantastic singles for the label, all collected here. But none of these artists had the luck that came to so many other regional soul singers who enjoyed even temporary stardom during this golden era of soul. The label's standard of quality was uniformly high, and this two disc set never gets tired.

So, in a nutshell, that's how I spent my summer vacation. I promise to be incisive in the future, but this season, I wrote music for Sesame Street, ate pork chops and listened to rhythm 'n' blues.

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