Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Out Like a Lioness: Heroines of Soul Music, Part 4

The focus of part 4 is on the unsung heroines outside continental North America (as well as two from inside) with more of an emphasis on the 70s.

Letta Mbulu

We start and end with a South African artist in this post. Letta Mbulu began performing at a young age and moved to the United States in 1965 to escape apartheid, joining her contemporaries Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. She recorded vocals for film soundtracks and with jazz musicians throughout the 60s and 70s. Her first album Letta Mbulu Sings was released in 1967 on Capitol. 1968's Free Soul was a fusion of South African styles, soul, jazz and funk. "Welele" is the best example of this mix. 1970's; "Macongo" from her third album Letta is an equally strong track.

Dawn Penn

Jamaican music has, and has had since before the early days of ska, it's own soul singers. This was especially true with the arrival of rock steady, the transitional style between ska (early-60s) and reggae (late-60s). Rock steady's smooth, lilting rhythm was complimented perfectly by soul-styled vocals by groups and solo singers alike. Dawn Penn was one of many solo vocalists. "I Let You Go Boy", from 1967, does not sound like much of a title, but the proof is in the listening. The song is a response to the Uniques' rock steady tune "Let Me Go, Girl" using the same instrumental backing track.

Phyllis Dillon

Narrowing down the late Phyllis Dillon's repertoire to one or two favourites is nearly impossible. The anointed Queen of Rock Steady released dozens of hits through her career. Her 1967 rock steady cover of the pop standard "Perfidia" and her 1969 classic "Love Was All I Had", from the very beginning of the reggae era, are my favourites.

Joya Landis

If not Queen then the Duchess of Rock Steady, Landis' string of hits (covers of "Kansas City" and "Angel of the Morning" among them) began as rock steady started morphing into the choppy, more polyrhythmic style that would be christened "reggae" by the end of 1968. "Moonlight Lover" is a perfect example of a late rock steady number recorded on the prolific Treasure Isle label (also Phyllis Dillon's label at the time) owned by entrepreneur Duke Reid.

The Gaylettes/Judy Mowatt

Rock steady and, later, reggae, had its girl groups just like American soul music did. The Gaylettes were a trio featuring the very young Judy Mowatt on lead. The spring of 1968 saw their release "Silent River (Runs Deep)" on the Gay Feet label (hence their group name) owned by the first female label owner in Jamaica, Sonia Pottinger. Innovative rhythm guitarist Lynn Taitt and his studio band The Jets provide the back up while the Gaylettes' harmonies send a chill up your spine as they seem to meld into a fourth voice.

The Gaylettes split up in 1970 and Mowatt began to record solo material. In 1971, she recorded a reggae cover of Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me" also for Sonia Pottinger. She also, famously, began singing back up for Bob Marley and the Wailers becoming one of the I-Threes group alongside Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths. Having been made an Officer of the Order of Distinction for "services to music" by the Jamaican government in 1999, Mowatt continues to record to this day as a gospel artist. Pottinger died in 2010 after a long, illustrious career as a record producer.

Marcia Griffiths

While Phyllis Dillon was the Queen of Rock Steady, Marcia Griffiths is still considered the Queen of Reggae, although her career stretches back to the halcyon days of ska around the time of Jamaica's political independence in 1962. Griffiths performed with the internationally famous Byron Lee and the Dragonaires before signing with Clement Dodd's legendary Studio One label in 1964. Much like Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell at Motown, Griffiths recorded soul ballad duets with male singers, among them Bob Andy and Bob Marley. Her only rock steady number, from 1968, "Feel Like Jumping" used the backing track from the Maytal's "54-46, That's My Number".

In 1969 she recorded an entire album with Bob Andy on the Harry J label which yielded a local and UK hit single: a cover of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black" on the top side. Motown picked it up for US distribution in mid-1970, but the single went nowhere stateside. Other great covers that she recorded in her pre-I Threes days included a scorcher of the Beatles classic "Don't Let Me Down" and, alongside Bob Andy, the Crispian St. Peters one hit wonder "Pied Piper".

Dorothy Ashby

Back to the US ... Dorothy Ashby, like Alice Coltrane, was a jazz harpist who recorded numerous albums throughout the 50s and 60s. In 1968, she signed with Chess records in Chicago. Chess had released jazz records before, but, increasingly, they were coming upon music that defied easy categorization. For those artists, they introduced a label called Cadet Concept; the first act signed to it was the Rotary Connection in 1967. Ashby released three albums on Cadet Concept, the last being the mystical Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, in January of 1970. The standout track is "The Moving Finger". Beginning and ending with an incantation (taken from a translation of the epic poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) drenched in apocalyptic reverb, the music begins like a rumbling, climaxing with a riff from string section. There was much spiritual seeking in 1969-70, but also much chaos, violence and destruction; this foreboding atmosphere some of the best music of those years.

Ashby continued recording into the 80s before passing away in 1986.

Spanky Wilson

Spanky Wilson's began singing backup for jazz artists and ... the above-mentioned Letta Mbulu. Her own early material, recorded on the bizarrely named label Mothers Records and the Snarf Company, is at the very confluence of funk and rock. Sadly, they never made the impact that they should have.
Wilson's first two albums, Spankin' Brand New and Doin' It, were both released in 1969. Her cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" is simply electric. In 1970, she released Let It Be, which included other covers besides the title track, another being "Love or Let Me Be Lonely". Wilson recorded an album for Westbound records in the mid-70s before disappearing from the scene. She released a comeback album in 2006 with the Quantic Soul Orchestra called I'm Thankful.

Daisy Dumakude

And now we leap ahead a few years into the disco era for an undisputed South African soul gem. Born in Durban, South Africa, Dumakude moved to New York in the 70s and recorded an album called Africa Disco in 1977 with producer and later, husband, Welcome Msomi. A sleek, shimmering album, there is a track on it called "Early in the Morning" which starts subtle then sneaks up on you and ensnares you in its hypnotic rhythms. Sounding something like the Miracles' 1974 hit "Do It Baby", but with a certain unearthiness, "Early in the Morning" deserves more recognition, and Africa Disco deserves a re-release.

After this album, with the help of her husband, Dumakude entered the world of dance and musical theatre. She has since performed in films such as Cry Freedom (1988) and in Broadway productions such as the musical version of The Lion King all the while supporting charities based in South Africa. She still lives in New York with her husband.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Out Like a Lioness: Heroines of Soul Music, Part 3

For Women's History Month 2016, I have decided to do two more posts on some of the unsung heroines of soul music, as I can see from the right hand column of this page the last two are still quite popular.

Colette Kelly

There is no much known about Ms. Kelly except that, as of the late-90s, she was the owner of a nightclub based in Baltimore. Hailing from Baltimore originally, she recorded the following A-side and B-side of a single that, in the summer of 1969, was licensed to Stax's Volt imprint in Memphis. Never was there a more un-Stax single release on the label; in fact, even the A-side and B-side sound like two different artists.

The top side is called "City of Fools" which went on to become one of the rarest and most coveted Northern Soul tracks ever. It does NOT have summer of '69 all over it: more like summer of '64 with its Martha and the Vandellas shuffle beat and haunting backing vocals (think of the Vandellas' "Quicksand"). Right from get-go, the eerie, minor key organ the starts the song off gives the whole number an off-kilter feel.

The B-side, "Long, Lonely World", DOES have summer of '69 written all over it. An equally haunting southern soul number with the kind of country feel of that would sounded at home at the Fame or Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. The sweltering organ, the heartbroken vocal, the melancholy saxophone all combine to make this a true gem. Each side has appeared on different compilations over the years.

Marie "Queenie" Lyons

Another obscure artist with a few obscure singles and a once obscure album, made less so through a reissue a few years back. The New Orleans-based Lyons has singles going back to 1967, a few with unknown dates, and the 1970 album Soul Fever to her name. Her debut single was "A Minute of His Good Time" while the strident "I Want My Freedom" from Soul Fever was reflective of the Black Power movement on the cusp of the 70s.

Alice Clark

Alice Clark has had a cult following ever since the 2002 reissue of her 1972 eponymous album along with bonus tracks. Steeped in gospel, her singing style reaches inside you like the best deep soul. Her debut release was 1968's "You Hit Me (Right Where It Hurt Me)" on Warner Brothers. "Maybe This Time" was a track on her album released on Mainstream Records.

Dianne Brooks

A Canadian artist hailing from Toronto, Brooks sang back up for many artists, including fellow Canadians Anne Murray and Keith Hampshire as well as others such as Funkadelic and Emmylou Harris. Beginning in 1966, she also released material under her own name. "Walking On My Mind" was released in 1969 on Ray Charles' Tangerine label. Brooks also recorded for Reprise and Mort Ross' Canada-based Revolver label. Brooks died in April of 2005.

Shawn Robinson

60s soul icons Fontella Bass and Doris Troy spent some of their careers in the early 70s recording vocals for European movie soundtracks (in Bass' case, with the Art Ensemble of Chicago for the 1970 French film Les Stances a Sophie while Troy sang on the 1971 Italian film Kill! starring Jean Seberg). Shawn Robinson was much less known, but had been recording gems since the mid-60s, each of which has gone on to become a Northern Soul favourite. In 1971, she recorded "Right or Wrong" for the Italian film Dopo di che, uccide il maschio e lo divora, scored by the great film score composer Piero Piccioni. Not much information on Robinson besides that.

Stay tuned for Part 4.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

About Me: 1 Year Post-Op Afterword, 2016

The older you get, the faster the days, weeks and months go by. Years ago seems like just yesterday. You start on a path with much to travel ahead of you: then, one fine morning, that journey (or that part of it) is behind you.

The last five years, from my first hormone to today, have been like that. Many of my posts have covered that. The last year since my SRS has also been that way; the last year of posts have shown that. As a recent post on Vox (by Lily Carollo) explained, transition and surgery, have their own ups and downs. When the novelty of the early days of transition wears off, when the reality of daily life, the paperwork, the transactions, and, frankly, the blood and guts of post-op arrives, you find out what transition and post-transition (if there's such a thing) involves. And a year after my surgery, I can say with utmost confidence that I have no regrets about having it, or transitioning as a whole.

The world, of course, continues to be the world: with its convulsions and horrors and, sometimes, even still ... its moments of beauty. There have been many times in my life where I've felt as if I've had no filter when taking in information and energy (for lack of a better word) from the world around me, but this last little while, I feel I've begun to develop one. Simply put, when you know yourself, you take less. A time out (staycation, retreat, rest, etc.) is a time out ... period. I've learned, painfully at times, self-care and boundaries; interesting the things you can do when you're solidly in your body.

Internally, all of the usual suspects (depression, OCD, anxiety) are, naturally, still there to be contended with. And contending with them I am. I've uncovered deep emotional issues with food that I'm seeking help with. For years, I've used food as a substitute for company ... for affection, and it's led to some unhealthy habits which I'm confronting and hoping to overcome and change. I'm also a hoarder for much the same reasons. I hope to be able to make more space for others in my life. I aim to live healthier and happier, treating myself better, than I use to.

Just over a year ago, I posted an anti-Valentine's Day piece. I'd like to amend it. I'm not anti-Valentines; I'm also in no hurry. Life is short and often I think, there's nothing in the world I would like more then to be with someone: but, at forty-five years of age, I'm willing to take my time; the dating/relationship rat race ended a long time ago.

I didn't do much gardening last year, until October anyway, as I was either at home recuperating or gradually settling back into work. But, I still dream of the country and living sustainably off the land. I'm beginning to think that that's my next "career": farming and writing. Someday soon, going with him, someday soon ...

Writing these posts used to seem so easy, but over the past year or so, they have seemed more like long, painful births. They include equal parts melancholy and joy; nostalgia and an accelerating forward. I have tried post pieces that will give readers a taste of my own mind, before, during and after transition (which never ends, I keep forgetting). I hope I have done that.

And now I ride off into the sunset of the rest of my life ...