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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Various Artists, “The South Side of Soul Street”

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South Side of Soul StreetThe trusty musical archaeologists at the Omnivore label have the perfect stocking stuffer for those looking for a little bit of southern soul hung by the chimney with care.  The 2-CD anthology  The South Side of Soul Street (OVCD-68, 2013), collecting the A- and B-sides of 20 singles released by the Minaret label between 1967 and 1976, makes the argument that Valparaiso, Florida’s Playground Recording Studio deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Muscle Shoals, American Sound, Stax and Hi.

Founded in Nashville in the early 1960s, the Minaret label was purchased in 1966 by Finley Duncan.  Three years later, the producer-entrepreneur founded Playground, where he specialized in smokin’ R&B grooves.   Though none of Minaret’s artists broke through to the top echelon of soul music, The South Side of Soul Street still shows off some of the best southern soul you’ve never heard – with the genre’s trademark smoldering vocals, taut guitars, dirty brass, funky bass, tinkling piano or churchy organ.Why didn’t Minaret break through to the big time?  It’s hard to say, based on these forty mini-treasures.  Most likely, the vocalists’ styles weren’t distinctive enough, while most of the songs simply don’t stack up to the greatest works of Willie Mitchell, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, or Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (who is actually represented on this disc).  But there’s still the real joy of discovery in finding just how good these lesser-known artists with names like Big John Hamilton, Genie Brooks, Doris Allen and Leroy Lloyd actually were.

After the jump, we’ll trek to Soul Street with the Minaret gang!

Hamilton, or “Big Bad John” (“…and I don’t give a <<beat>> if they do!”) according to one song title, was the label’s signature artist.  Exactly one-half, or twenty, of the set’s forty tracks are solos or duets (four with Doris Allen) featuring the soul shouter supreme.  Hamilton was believable crying the blues (debut single “The Train”), riding a brassy R&B groove (“Big Bad John”) or doing his best Otis Redding (“I Have No One,” the kind of slow, horn-infused ballad with which Redding would have been comfortable).  One of the treats of South Street is hearing Hamilton evince his mastery of every soul style.

He delivers a loose, spirited vocal on Neil Ray’s “Big Fanny” (“Even dogs refuse to sniff/Big Fanny,” goes the not-so-kind lyric).  “She weighs 300 pounds!” he interjects at one point with palpable glee.  Its B-side, the torrid “How Much Can a Man Take,” was much more in Hamilton’s typical, impassioned vein as he confronts a difficult lover.  The opening riff of his ode to the “Pretty Girls” (the metaphorical though not literal flipside of “Big Fanny”) is too close for comfort to “Soul Man” but the track is nonetheless enjoyable.  Hamilton explored a country vein with the twangy “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” (not the Sedaka/Greenfield song but rather the swamp-pop staple by “Jivin’” Gene Bourgeois and Huey P. Meaux) and might have had a shot at the pop charts with the catchy “If You’re Looking for a Fool.”  Often the As and Bs were in contrasting styles; the B-side of “If You’re Looking…” is the lush and melodic ballad “Take This Hurt Off Me Fool.”  The bright cut “Just Seeing You Again” even has a bit of an Archie Bell and the Drells flavor crossed with melodic inspiration taken from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David hit for Chuck Jackson (and later Ronnie Milsap), “Any Day Now.”

It’s worth noting that Hamilton co-wrote many of these tracks, including some co-writes with producer Duncan and fellow Minaret artist Leroy Lloyd.  The guitarist headlines one single as Leroy Lloyd and The Dukes.  The dancefloor-tailored “Sewanee Strut” is an exciting instrumental, and the B-side “A Taste of the Blues” shows off Lloyd’s jazzier side.  He recurs backing Count Willie on the steamy ballad “I’ve Got to Tell You,” and as LRL and the Dukes for the energetic “Double Funk.”  Another Hamilton collaborator was Doris Allen, who possessed a bluesy, gutsy, no-nonsense growl that she deploys to fine effect on four duet sides with Hamilton and her own “The Shell of a Woman” b/w “Kiss Yourself for Me.”

Another John, or Johnny, to make a big impression on Minaret was Johnny Dynamite.  The former John Henry Adams, Jr. lives up to his stage name with the high-octane “The Night the Angels Cried,” one of the best and most driving tracks here.  Accented by vibrant horns, it would have made the Ike and Tina Turner Revue proud.  Its B-side, “Everybody’s Clown,” is another strong tale of pathos (“Go ahead and laugh…he’s everybody’s clown!”).  Dynamite cuts loose with a bit of a yelp as the song comes to a close.

Genie Brooks arrived at Minaret through the acquaintance of Leroy Lloyd.  He’s represented here with four tracks, or two singles.  Spooner Oldham and Oscar Frank’s fine ‘n’ funky A-side “Fine Time” is a standout, as is its follow-up, “Helping Hand.”  Told from the POV of a prisoner from his jail cell, the latter talks welfare and poverty (“I had to come up the hard way/Because I never had a helping hand…”) as strings add to the drama.  Its B-side gives this collection its title.  “The South Side of Soul Street” (“You can take your shoes off if you wanna”) is another true rouser with some scorching guitar.

The Double Soul (a.k.a. Elmore Morris and Charles Cooper) delivered just one 1968 single.  The A-side, “Blue Diamonds,” is a somewhat square throwback (“She wears blue diamonds” – instead of “blue velvet,” I suppose?) but its flip, the John Hamilton-penned “I Can’t Use You,” shows off the duo’s close harmonies.  Singer-songwriter Willie Cobbs came to Minaret following appearance on a variety of imprints including Vee-Jay.  His gravelly, expressive voice brings to life the funky blues of “I’ll Love You Only” and its flipside, “Don’t Worry About Me” with color added by prominent harmonica and horns.  (By Omnivore’s admission, Cobbs’ two tracks have been sourced from vinyl as the original masters could not be located.  All other tracks save Genie Brooks’ “Juanita” are derived from the masters.)

Another Willie, Gable, recorded what’s likely the most soulful variation on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” you’ve ever heard, as “Row Row Row.”  Its flip, “Eternally,” features strings and the electric sitar à la B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling” or “The Eyes of a New York Woman.”  “Eternally” was produced by the great Shelby Singleton, who distributed Minaret via his SSS International label.  Singleton also took a “directed by” credit, to Duncan’s “produced by,” for the tough, rip-roarin’ Hamilton/Allen single “Bright Star.”

The South Side of Soul Street, expertly produced by Jim Lancaster (who has also superbly remastered at Playground Studios) and Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski, bests previous CD-era releases of the Minaret material thanks to its full-color 20-page booklet designed by Greg Allen with new liner notes from Bill Dahl.  Dahl goes into very welcome detail about the artists involved, and that’s no small feat, considering their obscurity.  Anyone who appreciates diamonds in the rough of R&B will doubtless want to take a visit to the South Side of Soul Street.

You can order The South Side of Soul Street at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

December 23, 2013 at 14:11

One Response

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  1. This is pretty great stuff, though not all of it hits the sweet spot. However, of its 40 tracks, 28 are collectively available on Sundazed’s Big John Hamilton anthology, “How Much Can A Man Take” and its sister compilation, “A Fine Time! The South Side Of Soul Street.” Those two Sundazed CDs each have 18 tracks and don’t share any between them.

    To get everything, you’d need all three CDs. If you have the two Sundazed CDs, you probably don’t need this – the “unique” tracks here aren’t among the best – a couple are really weak. If you don’t have the Sundazed sets, this probably a better bet – it too has all the crucial stuff from the Sundazed CDs (and 40 tracks instead of 38) and none of the Sundazed-exclusive material is absolutely crucial.


    December 23, 2013 at 16:59

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