As you might have heard, the big news coming out of this year's Ponderosa Stomp is the return of Soul Legend Willie Hightower. Backed by our friends The Bo-Keys, Willie came roaring back with a smoking set that just blew everyone away...
In case you missed it, here are some of the things we learned about his career at the Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference on October 1st:
Born in 1940 in Gadsden, Alabama, Willie was singing in his Church choir at six years of age. By the time he was in his teens, he had formed his own 'quartet-style' Gospel group, 'The Silver Stars', patterned after his idols The Soul Stirrers. Shortly after Sam Cooke left the group and 'crossed-over' in 1957, Willie decided to do the same, and began singing in local clubs in and around Birmingham. He was soon noticed by legendary civil rights activist and WENN dee-jay Shelley Stewart, who was so impressed by his voice that he sent out a tape to his friend Bobby Robinson in New York. Like most record label owners at the time, Bobby had been on the lookout for 'the next Sam Cooke' since his tragic murder in late 1964, and offered to fly Hightower up to New York to record him.
What Am I Living For
Although Willie was unable to recall the name of the studio (probably Bell Sound), Robinson cut this rockin' arrangement of Chuck Willis' posthumous #1 R&B smash on him shortly after his arrival in the Big Town. With the background singers and the band just going for it behind him, Willie demonstrates just how powerful a performer he had already become.
I think it's an indication of how highly Robinson regarded his new signee that, not only did he consent to recording one of Hightower's own compositions for the flip, but he let him keep the songwriting credit on the label as well (although Bobby did keep the publishing for himself). A slow-burner of a Blues shouter, Willie's sad tale of a love gone wrong just builds and builds.
Not bad for a first record and, with Robinson behind him, Willie soon found himself playing The Apollo. He would make Shelley Stewart his manager for the next ten years.
In 1966, Mercury brought in Bobby Robinson to produce the newly signed Junior Parker. With Gene 'Bowlegs' Miller handling the arrangements, sessions were held at Royal Studio in Memphis that August and November, resulting in the classic LP Like It Is. In Juke Blues #62, ENJOY artist Jay Dee Bryant is quoted as saying that he met Junior Parker at those sessions after Robinson brought both him and Willie Hightower down there to record as well. Was Bobby (who had just re-activated his FURY label) cutting his own artists on Mercury's dime? Although we will probably never know, that hypotheseis might account for some of the inaccuracies in the Soul Discography. Hmmm...
If I Had A Hammer
Willie confirmed for us at the conference that all four of his FURY sides were indeed cut in Memphis with Bowlegs Miller acting as the arranger, although (small wonder after 49 years) he could not recall who the guitarist might have been. Be that as it may, this soulful rendition of Pete Seeger's folk classic (inspired, Willie told us, by the Sam Cooke at The Copa version) would become Hightower's breakthrough hit, climbing to #25 on the Cashbox R&B chart in October of 1966... swinging along Memphis style!
So Tired (Of Running Away From Love)
Once again, Willie convinced Robison to place one of his own compositions on the B side (although Bobby now listed himself as a co-writer), and it just rocks. If we take a look at the personnel listed for those Junior Parker sessions in the liner notes to I'm So Satisfied it reads like a who's who of Memphis horn players, along with what was left of Bill Black's Combo - most of whom would leave for American within a few months. We will take a closer look at whether or not those liner notes are accurate in the next installment of our Clarence Nelson investigation.
I Love You (Yes I Do)
This one just knocks me out. Released in early 1967, I'm amazed it wasn't a follow-up hit. With that stinging Memphis telecaster mixed way up front, and that big fat baritone leading the horn section, the Bowlegs arrangement is just da bomb! While Willie's vocals are indeed reminiscent of Sam Cooke's, by this point I think he had developed a style all his own.
(Take My Hand) Let's Walk Together
Both sides of this one were (purportedly) written by Robinson, who apparently liked this side so much that he cut it on Joe Haywood as the initial release on his RAMPAGE label a couple of years later. Hey, I know people who have used this as their Wedding Song! Check out the interplay of those two guitars... if that is indeed Tommy Cogbill and Reggie Young, how cool is that? Once again Willie's vocals are just top shelf...
Willie told us at the conference that at this point Bobby Robinson helped facilitate getting him signed by Capitol Records, as Fury was 'going out of business'. Now on the same label as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Nancy Wilson and Lou Rawls, he felt like he had finally hit the big time.
For Sentimental Reasons / You Send Me
Capitol must have thought so too, as they pulled out all the stops and brought Willie into their New York studio to record with Brill building denizens Richard Gottehrer and Seymour Stein (whose Sire Productions would later become the birthplace of 'New Wave'). With respected Soul and Gospel arranger Robert Banks on board, they cut this lush medley of Sam Cooke tunes that Willie had been performing at his live shows.
Because I Love You
The fact that the big label was willing to put one of Hightower's compositions on the flip speaks volumes about the inherent quality of his songwriting, I think. This one gets the full 'New York Soul' treatment, with those big fat Robert Banks horn charts, that incisive guitar (Wild Jimmy Spruill?), and those throaty background vocals (Sweet Inspirations?), they just don't come much better than this. Despite sending Willie out to promote the record, neither side dented the charts.
It's A Miracle
Disappointed by the sales figures, the bigwigs at Capitol decided to re-unite Hightower with Bobby Robinson for a New York session in April of 1968, resulting in the song that Willie still condsiders the highlight of his long career. Released that July, this Gospel-tinged masterpiece didn't begin to pick up steam until the following Spring when Capitol promoted the record with full-page ads in both Cahbox and Billboard, eventually hitting #18 and #33 on their respective R&B charts. Although Robinson would now claim half the songwriting, Willie was smart enough at this point to create his own publishing company, Too Late Music.
Nobody But You
Just as he had done on Enjoy, Robinson selected a proven winner for the flip, and his big fat production here on Dee Clark's 1958 #3 R&B blockbuster just slays me. A record so good that I assumed it was an A Side when I first heard it, I think it blows the original out of the water, and remains the definitive version (although Little Bob's swamp pop rendition will always hold a special place in my heart).
Billboard took notice of Capitol's 'new soul commitment' while 'It's a Miracle' was climbing the charts that April, which was further evidenced, they said, by the big label's new distribution deal with Fame.
Ooh Baby How I Love You
Empowered by their bona-fide hit record, the Hightower/Robinson team was able to place their own compositions on both sides of the follow-up. This side is, in my opinion, one of Willie's best records ever. Check him out there just going for it towards the end... "Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby..." Awesome stuff! With those conga drums and 'hot' bass line mixed way up front, Robinson's production here seems to have a new edge.
It's Wonderful To Be In Love With You
We asked Willie about that at The Stomp, and he told us they recorded these sides back in Memphis, although he wasn't sure of the name of the studio. Released in July of 1969, it doesn't sound like they were cut at American, or Royal for that matter. If Bobby was still using Bowlegs as his arranger, it seems possible that this was one of the first sessions held at Universal... think that's Clarence Nelson on guitar?
With no visible promotion, neither side of the record charted and that September Billboard was reporting that Robinson would continue to record Willie 'based at his own record shop' in Harlem. That didn't happen.
For whatever reason, the next Capitol single released on Willie that October (2651) was made up of previously released Enjoy and Fury sides. The Capitol LP that was issued around the same time was actually titled If I Had A Hammer, as it included the earlier Fury hit. The rest of the album was fleshed out by material that was already 'in the can' as well. I'm not sure if it was some kind of contractual thing with Robinson (neither was Willie), but at this point Capitol certainly appeared to have lost interest.
Perhaps it was because they had other plans...
As mentioned earlier, Capitol had recently become the national distributor for Fame, and it made sense to hand Willie off to Rick Hall, who knew a thing or two about Southern Soul. The edit of a 1970 Swedish documentary above shows Willie, Rick Hall and The Fame Gang working on his first release for the smaller label. Although Hightower remembers the film crew being there at the studio, he had never seen any of the footage until we screened it at the Stomp.
Walk A Mile In My Shoes
One of the truly great Fame 45s, Hall's 'R&B record' of Joe South's ageless message song is still just as relevant today as it was when it was first released in the Spring of 1970. Scoring higher on the R&B chart in Billboard (#26) than in Cashbox (#45) this time, it will endure forever. We asked Willie what it was like working with Rick, and he said he appreciated the fact that he kept everyone working until they 'got it right'.
You Used Me Baby
As deep as deep soul gets, the flip here has remained a favorite of aficianados the world over. According to the label, it was composed by Hightower (who no longer had to include Robinson as his co-writer), but when we asked him about that at the conference, he told us he hadn't actually written it, his Grandmother did! Based on a real life situation, she gave it to Willie to record, and he just nails it! Clayton Ivey's piano on both sides of this record is just amazing, and demonstrates once again just how under-appreciated Hall's 'third rhythm section' is... you go Fame Gang!
Time Has Brought About A Change
The grandest of Hightower's compositions, it was written as an 'answer song' to Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem A Change Is Gonna Come. The fact that Rick Hall chose to use it as the follow-up to Willie's big hit shows, I think, how much he believed in Willie and his music. Despite being featured in Fame's full-page ads in the trade magazines, it would miss the charts entirely, which certainly seems a shame. What a great record this is.
I Can't Love Without You
"Time keeps moving on, I don't know where it all went wrong..." Staff songwriter George Jackson teamed up with Mickey Buckins to write this one. With that great Harrison Calloway horn arrangement and patented Rick Hall production, it's right up there with the other great Soul records that Fame was cranking out on folks like Candi Staton and Clarence Carter during that period.
In November of 1970, a Billboard article reporting on the goings-on at Fame claimed that the studio had completed an LP on Willie Hightower. That LP, as we now know, was never released. Although preliminary inquiries have failed to turn up anything, it may be possible that the tapes are out there somewhere! Imagine?
Back Road Into Town
Cut from the same cloth (if you will) as Patches (the Clarence Carter mega-hit that Rick Hall had produced for Atlantic a few months earlier), this phenomenal 'message song' peaked at only #58 on the Cashbox R&B chart in May of 1971 (notwithstanding the full page ad treatment), and proved to be Willie's final chart appearance. Written by O.B. McClinton, the 1974 Staple Singers version (produced for Stax by Al Bell across town at Muscle Shoals Sound) has kind of overshadowed this one... but Willie's is better.
The flip mines the same vein, featuring more of that great Clayton Ivey piano and Junior Lowe guitar that defined this era at Fame... but times were changing. Penned by George Jackson (who had just supplied Hall with a song that spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100), Fame was, as Rick told all of us in the Muscle Shoals movie "...shitting in high cotton." By 1972 the studio's focus was shifting away from R&B, however, and Capitol chose not to renew Willie's contract.
That June, Hightower was signed by Mercury, who was looking to expand their R&B operation. The contract called for four sides to be delivered per year and, to prove they meant business, the label paired Willie with another legendary Southern producer, one Lincoln Wayne Moman.
Chips had cashed in his chips in Memphis by then, and re-opened American in an industrial park in Atlanta. Willie confirmed for us at the conference that he had indeed recorded there, making him one of the very few people who did. With that prominent Reggie Young guitar and cookin' bass line (Cogbill or Leech?), Moman and his American Group still had it goin' on!
I Love You So
This Chips Moman production of yet another superb Willie Hightower composition has remained a hidden gem. With Bobby Emmons' big fat Hammond organ laid over the top of a rhythm section expanded to include a vibraphone and some conga drums, great punchy horn lines, and some understated strings there towards the end, I think it's even better than the A Side.
After about six months there in Atlanta, Chips Moman 'quit the business cold' and walked away, a decision that Mercury (I'm sure) was none too happy with. In April of 1973, they amended Willie's contract, calling on him to 'supervise and A&R' his own sessions.
Hungry For Your Love
I've chosen to put the B side first on this one as, according to the label, it was cut at the by then defunct American Studio in Atlanta, no doubt at the same sessions as the previous single. If you notice, however, Willie is now listed as the producer, which would seem to indicate that this 45 was released under the new contract provisions. Co-written with someone named Shirley Pruitt, you can hear some seventies Joe Simon like inflections creeping in to Willie's delivery.
Don't Blame Me
Left to his own devices, Willie returned to his deep soul roots on this one, which he wrote, arranged and produced. The arrangement puts you in mind of Al Green's God Blessed Our Love (which wouldn't be released until the following year)... yes, it's that good. It was recorded at a place called the New London Recording Center, which was located in Homewood, Alabama, not far from Willie's home town. New London had imported Memphis session stalwarts like Michael Toles, Ben Cauley and Don Hines, and was angling for a piece of the Muscle Shoals pie.
Mercury 73486, presumably cut at New London as well, was in the can and slated for release in July of 1974. The single was never issued, however, and that October Mercury terminated their agreement with Mr. Hightower. I'm still working out the reasons why.
After Rick Hall basically washed his hands of R&B in 1972, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford formed their own company called Wishbone Productions, luring fellow Fame Gang members Jesse Boyce, Freeman Brown and Harrison Calloway away from East Avalon Avenue as well. They began producing 'Modern Soul' (aka early Disco) records for a variety of labels. With the addition of John Helms, Fred Birdwell and Sanchez Harley they formed a studio group named Bottom & Co. that placed a couple of tunes in the lower echelons of the R&B charts for Motown in 1974 and 1975. In 1976 Jesse Boyce and Sanchez Harley moved on to Nashville and formed the first African-American owned production company on Music Row.
Chicago Send Her Home
Monument's R&B outlet Sound Stage 7 had been reeling ever since Joe Simon jumped ship for Spring Records in late 1970. Joe was back at the top of the R&B charts for Spring in 1975 and early '76 with new material clearly aimed at the 'Disco Crowd'. I think Monument saw their chance to get back on top when they signed Willie Hightower and handed him off to Jesse Boyce and Sanchez Harley. No matter what you might think of 'Disco' per se, this tune positively CRANKS, and the production is far superior to that on Simon's records at the time. I've included the 'long version' here off the Promo 45, as the last minute and a half are among the finest moments of Willie's career. I mean it. If there were any justice in this world, this record would have been a major hit...
Ain't Nothing Wrong (With Loving One Woman)
...only it wasn't. Now that John R was off the air, Fred Foster's notorious lack of promotion took its toll, and this great record went virtually unoticed. The funky flip here, driven by Jesse Boyce's incredible bass line, may seem a trifle too Disco-fied for many of you, but taken in context with the times (Car Wash was then at #1 R&B and Pop), I think it's pretty damn good.
So What happened next? To be honest, I don't know. We kind of ran out of time at the conference to go into much detail, but it seems inconceivable to me that this man, possessed of one of the truly great voices of Soul Music, who had notched four chart hits, been produced by some of the brightest lights in the business for some of the major players in the game was unable to find a deal, but the fact remains that there was no offer forthcoming. Had Hightower decided to walk away at that point? ...'quit the business cold' as Chips had done a few years earlier? ...or had the face of American Music changed so much that it no longer held a place for an authentic Soul Man... a harsh reality faced by so many others during the same period.
As far as I can tell, Willie would not darken the door of a studio for the next six years.
Walk On Water
When he did, it was to return to the place he cut his first hit in 1966, Royal Studio in Memphis. Armed with an album's worth of new material he had written, he would record there in 1982 with Willie Mitchell and Hi Rhythm, which is what you would expect. What you wouldn't expect was that the producers on the project were none other than Quinton Claunch and his original partner Bill Cantrell, who had founded the studio 25 years before! With his singing and songwriting as strong as ever, and Willie Mitchell's updated 'Waylo' sound giving it that eighties feel, I can't believe there was no market for it at the time. The more-or-less finished album remained 'in the can' for the next 25 years, until it was included on a 2007 P-Vine Japanese CD. I asked Quinton Claunch why; "couldn't find a label willing to pick it up," he said, and that was that. Incredible.
On the Japanese CD it says that two of the songs that Willie and Jackie Ragland wrote for those Royal sessions had been released on a label named Adventure One in 1985. That is not entirely accurate, however. Although they are the same songs, they are completely different recordings.
ADVENTURE ONE 8502A
Too Many Irons In The Fire
West Coast Motown producer James Anthony Carmichael (think Michael Jackson, The Commodores, Lionel Richie) was also from Gadsden, and was impressed with the quality of Willie's material. Carmichael offered to re-cut the tracks out on the coast in 1985 (the same year he sent Say You, Say Me on its way to #1 R&B and Pop) and add his magic touch. Once again, taken in that context, I think these sides stand right up there with Carmichael's other mid-eighties output.
ADVENTURE ONE 8502B
Tell Me What You Want
I'm not sure how they came to be released on this obscure label, whose other output appears to be limited to a handful of 12" Disco singles... but ultimately it doesn't matter. All I know is that this B side just lays me out every time I hear it. With Willie's soulful delivery of his own heartfelt lyrics over Carmichael's lavish fat-bottomed sound, this one is a keeper, and as good as anything he'd ever done.
This 45 would turn out to be Willie Hightower's last release. It is now thirty years old. That in itself is not that remarkable (especially here on Soul D), except for one thing...
...WILLIE HIGHTOWER IS JUST AS GREAT AS EVER!!
Nobody really knew what to expect at The Stomp until (as you can see in this video of the centerpiece of his set supplied by The Vinyl Word's Nick Cobban) he seemed to turn back the hands of time, and deliver a performance that defined the true meaning of Soul. At 75 years of age, Willie's extraordinary voice appears to have lost none of its power and emotion. He was, quite simply, amazing.
As Soul fans, I think we have been afforded a rare opportunity here to welcome this legend of a man back into the public eye, and let him know how much he and his work have been loved and appreciated all these years... Willie Hightower is back!
- red kelly, November 2015Special thanks to Willie Hightower, Doctor Ike, Seamus McGarvey, Nick Guarino, Quinton Claunch, Howard Grimes, Sanchez Harley, Rune Blomquist, John Broven, Richard Tapp, John Ridley, Nick Cobban, Dave Thomas, David Cole, Bob McGrath, Billboard Magazine and good ol'45cat.
Please use the new comment field in the sidebar at right to join us in the discussion...
As always, please feel free to email us any scans, photos or mp3s you might have that pertain to the case. You are now a Soul Detective... Welcome Aboard!
That's right, folks, it's that time of year again, time for our annual Red Kelly Christmas Roundup!
As you may recall, back in part three of our Clarence Nelson saga, I had promised to spare you the audio of this Quinton Claunch produced Christmas Song until December... well, it's time to face the music!
Actually a very cool rockin' rendition of a hackneyed Christmas classic, Quinton offers no apologies (then or now) for the fact that the record ended up sounding a lot like Bill Black's Combo. As we've stated in the past, "why should he?"
Recent correspondence with one of the songwriters of this way funky slab of holiday vinyl goodness, has allowed us to solve a mystery we've been puzzling over since 2009! Head on over to the soul detective blog to check it out!
Speaking of Funkiness, back in 2008 we said we had never even seen an actual vinyl copy of this one, but now all that's changed! Check out our man J. Hines and his partner Roy C. gettin' on down on The B Side!
MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY (once again)
Just as we've done the past three years, we present yet another recording of this Charles Brown chestnut... the one that overtook all the others to become the go-to version - at least until the dawn of digital streaming audio! Have a drink this morning and join us on The A Side, where we're all lit up like a Christmas Tree!
Last, but definitely not least, be sure to visit the brand spanking new Red Kelly Christmas Index, where I've pulled together all the Christmas 45s I've posted over the last ten years onto one playable page. Will wonders never cease?
Merry Christmas to you and yours!
- red kelly, December 2015_______________________________________
133-1486 - BERVEL 001 - 1965
109-1001-BOURBON STREET 222-1964
174-1455 - BONATEMP 804 - 1965
1-161 - TULANE 103 - 1961
251-2578 - Soulin' 148 - 1968