Soul music has been an active contributor in my cultural landscape for as long as I can remember. As a child I was obsessed with spinning the heavy radio dial on my parents receiver, sending the marker skipping across the bands and seeing where chance would let it land. The process consumed me. It’s not hard to recognize parallels to what has sent me skipping through thousands of records as an adult. I’ve always loved the hunt for new sound and the game of chance that brings it into my life. In these earliest days, I was thrilled when the dial would land on an Oldies station, particularly when it came to rest on a 1960’s Soul or R&B single. These songs were arresting and consuming. They possessed depth and emotion. The beating heart of their singers was laid bare before me, next to countless mysteries just out of reach. Despite their throbbing rhythms, beautiful arrangements and incredible singers, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why these songs overtook me. I just knew they stopped me dead in my tracks. For as long as they rang out, the dial stood still.
Soul is one of my deepest musical loves, but my decision to actively bring it into my life came relatively late. I don’t remember what spawned it. Probably too much time spent in second hand record stores. In my mid-twenties something clicked. I realized that nothing had changed inside of me. These songs.. this music, still stopped me dead. It made my heart skip a beat. It overtook me, as it always had. I took stock and realized that I didn’t have a single Soul record in my collection.. and frankly I didn’t know where to start. The decision was made. I turned on my heel and wandered down the lonely track of exploration. As I’ve said in the past, most of my close friends are record collectors, but almost none of them have more than a few Soul or Funk records. When I began to explore these genres, the usual referrals of musical exploration were closed. For better and for worse, I was on my own. For a decade I have been digging in the dark with no one to guide me. When I began, I literally knew one Soul singer that I loved, Otis Redding. I picked up every LP and 45 of his I could find, let them wash over me and set out to get “more shit like that!” I have a pretty obsessive personality. For a long time, I would literally drag every LP and 45 in the Soul bins to the listening decks, slowly putting together what I liked and what I didn’t. To this day I’ve still never had a conversation, referral, or appraisal from a serious Soul collector. For the thousands of records I now own in the genre, I have no perspective on what I know and what I don’t. I honestly don’t have any context. What I do know, regardless of where they may or may not sit within the cannon, is what I have come to love.
For the second installment on female singers of Soul music, I’ve decided to focus on just that.. the things I love. These records are my straight-up/ stone cold favorites. The albums I would rather die than let go of. The ones that almost never leave my listening stack and find their way onto the turntable time after time. Soul music binds itself to the full range of the human experience in a way that no other genre manages. It embraces a dichotomy with no parallel. An upbeat dancer can be the saddest song you’ve ever heard. A brooding ballad can be filled with hope and possibility. Each of these albums is a perfect illustration of this power and range. The totality of human experience and emotion rammed and pounded into every track. They are personal explorations on the part of their singers, yet somehow manage to speak for all of us, to speak for everything we feel as human beings.
Ann Sexton – Loving You, Loving Me (1973)
Ann Sexton came to me, when I discovered a couple of her early 45s on Seventy Seven in a bin. She was a brick to my forehead. I was completely blown away. Love at first listen, and it hasn’t waned since. Like most of the women on this list, I was confounded by the fact that she was not a household name. There ain’t no doubt, she should have been a Star! I immediately started searching frantically for this record (her first LP). I had no idea how scarce it is. Unless you are extremely lucky, if you want this one quick, you’re going to have to lay out a pretty hefty sum on Ebay to get your hands on it. I only turned up a copy about a year ago, after many years of patient hunting. It quickly became one of the cherries of my Soul collection, so whatever you pay for it, it’s probably worth it. Sexton was one of the greatest voices of the 1970’s. Every syllable she uttered was possessed with a potency that few have been able to harness. Funky, driving, heartbroken and filled with power. Sadly she produced only eleven releases between 1971 and 1976, nine 45’s and two LPs. Not nearly enough for a woman of her talent. In my opinion, Loving You, Loving Me is her crowning achievement. A truly focused masterwork in the genre that knocks down everything in its path.
Ann Peebles – Straight From The Heart (1971)
Ann Peebles, in my collection of Soul records, is the female counterpoint to Otis Redding. She’s #1. She started it all and set the bar. If you want to know what I’m looking for, it’s just a little more of whatever Straight From The Heart has got. As with much of my Soul collection, its discovery was the result of chance offered by the bins. Soul, Funk and R&B went through constant evolution in the 1960’s and 70’s. Unfortunately, few performers had long shelf lives. Those that did, more often than not, lost their way in the attempt to stay abreast of the times and changing tastes. Ann Peebles is an exception to this. She produced more consistently solid records through the 1970’s than anyone I can call to mind. I’ve got everything up to 1978’s The Handwriting On The Wall and I struggle to pick a favorite. They’re all incredible, though admittedly Handwriting begins to fall off a bit. Peebles deserves the bulk of the credit for the high bar of quality in her output, but you can’t ignore the presence of the master hand of Hi’s Willie Mitchell, who was at the helm for all of their productions (particularly considering the entire label’s output during this period has a similar bar of quality and consistency). If you’re into the Hi (Memphis) Sound. If you’re into a funky swagger. If you dig kicking back at heartache. If you ever wondered where Rza got those samples. If you want to know what makes my heart skip a beat. Peebles is your girl. Look no further, you’ve arrived at the end of the road.
Bettye Swann – Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me? (1969)
I had the misfortune of discovering Bettye Swann after I had left American for England in 2005. Her records aren’t easy to find in The States, but outside of it, since they never saw international release, they’re nearly impossible to track down. Luckily, I came across a X2 LP comp of her output, released by Honest Jons’ in 2004, to tide me over until I started taking trips back to the States. Swann produced three LPs between 1967 and 1969. Each is a masterwork. Like Ann Peebles’ output, I struggle to pick a favorite. The only thing that tips the balance in favor of Don’t You Ever Get Tired.. is the fact that this album’s title track is probably my favorite song in all of Swann’s catalog. If you see anything with Swann’s name on it, you’d be a fool to pass it by without a listen. What is special about Swann is her sensitivity and her fragility. She brings something to the form that I haven’t heard anywhere else. Most Soul singers of her era take a position of strength, they kick back at what ails them. Swann opens herself up more deeply. She feels out on a wire and totally exposed. I can think of few singers who give the impression of such depth and honesty. I can’t recommend this record enough. I advise it as only a beginning.. go get’em all!
Candi Staton – I’m Just A Prisoner (1970)
One of the revelations I worked out pretty early in my exploration of Soul was that the bulk of the popular and familiar sound was Northern, owing largely to the dominance of Motown. Though it’s hard to find fault with the Northern/ Motown sound, what I truly dig is southern. My heartstrings are tied to Stax and Hi out of Memphis, Allen Toussaint productions out of New Orleans, and the Muscle Shoals sound largely bound to the Fame studios and label and countless other small southern labels and their artists. Candi Staton is a southern girl through and through. Her three LPs and eleven 45s for Fame (in addition to her first LP and a few 45s for Warner) are about as good as it gets. Staton hits it on the head. Every time I put on one of her records I find myself buckled in heartache, propelled down a path of love and loss. Right at the point I think I can’t take the pain anymore, I notice my feet are spinning me around the room and a grin has crept across my face. The woman is incredible. A master of bitter sweat empathy. One of the stone cold funkiest women of soul. Her LPs for Fame are pretty hard to track down and are likely to cost a fair whack. For those who’d like to have a taste without dropping the cash, I’d recommend Honest Jon’s X2 LP comp. from 2003.
Ella Washington – Ella Washington (1969)
Ella Washington is another one of my favorite southern girls. She came out of Florida, recorded the bulk of her small output in Muscle Shoals which was then released on Sound Stage 7 out of Nashville. A perfect triangle of good. Washington didn’t hang around for long. With the exception of one earlier single, her output spans from 1969 to 1972, after which she left the music industry and returned to the church. For her short run, she left behind a seriously solid imprint. Washington is great. Her sound is defined by the kind of fragility of tone and temperament that I described in Bettye Swann, but delivered in an envelope of funky driving power that is characteristic of Muscle Shoals. It’s a wonderful dichotomy. Like getting whacked in the face over and over again with a warm breeze. She’s beautiful and bitter sweet in every way that only a master of the form can deliver.
Tommie Young – Do You Still Feel The Same Way (1973)
Tommie Young hailed for Texas and recorded one LP and six 45s for the remarkable Soul Power label, before (like Ella Washington) returning to the church in 1975. Her small output is a triumph. Like so many singers raised singing Gospel, the depth and power of her voice reaches places in the human heart that few can touch. What can I say? Like all these ladies, Young has it all. She’s tough, she’s tender, she’s funky and she’s sad. I wish I had more to tell you about this one.. I’m running out of adjectives. I guess you’ll have to listen to it yourself.
Betty Wright – I Love The Way You Love (1972)
I was aware of Betty Wright for a long time, as a queen of Disco, before I dropped the needle on this one. It was a revelation when I did. Once again a southern girl in our midst. Wright hailed from Florida and recorded for the outstanding Alston label. This album is incredible. One of the greatest. I know people dig her whole catalog, and it does have incredible moments throughout, but in my view every successive album, after the heights achieved here, become less compelling one by one. I’ve got Hard To Stop and Danger- High Voltage and they’re pretty great.. but she losses me after that (Disco!), and even those two don’t come close to what I Love The Way You Love achieves. This is a masterpiece of funky Soul. Driving rhythms, swagger and lyrically razor sharp. Wright takes us straight to the heart of a woman taking control over all of her circumstances. As a woman, as a lover, as a member of society, she’s in charge. This record is hard, funky and tough. It’s a straight up dancer through and through. For the years I have owned it, I just can’t seem to get enough of this one. It’s as good as it gets.