Even the most diehard soul connoisseurs can be forgiven for not knowing the name of Carl Hall. After all, he left behind just a handful of singles on labels including Mercury, Loma, Atlantic and Columbia before focusing on a stage career. But thanks to Omnivore’s recent release of You Don’t Know Nothing About Love: The Loma/Atlantic Recordings 1967-1972, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll forget the name, and sound, of Carl Hall. Distinguished by both his intensity and his stratospheric vocal range, Hall left behind a small output on Loma and Atlantic: just two singles (four sides) for the former, and one single (two sides) for the latter. But Omnivore has dug into the vaults to produce a 19-track collection of explosive R&B.
Carl Hall’s work in the 1950s was in the gospel vein, but by 1964, he was ready to try his hand over on the secular side of the tracks. He did so first at Mercury Records with collaborators including Quincy Jones and Richard Tee, and then at Warner Bros.’ Loma imprint. At Loma, Hall found a patron in Jerry Ragovoy. Though Philadelphia-born, the producer-songwriter found his base in New York where he spearheaded some of the most torrid tracks ever to come out of that city’s “uptown soul” scene. Working with great, underrated arrangers like Garry Sherman and Artie Butler, Ragovoy hewed to the classy, orchestrated soul sound while encouraging deep vocal performances that brought a gospel level of intensity to rhythm and blues.
Ragovoy’s “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love” may have just been too intense to score Carl Hall a hit, but the track is in every respect an utter powerhouse. And only a powerhouse vocalist could have done it justice. Carl Hall, naturally, was that vocalist. (The Rosario Pellegrino-written B-side of the 1967 single, “Mean It, Baby,” is only slightly less impressive. It’s a rollicking, uptempo, piano-driven track sung impressively by Hall.) “You Don’t Know Nothing” was later recorded by another Ragovoy charge, the great Howard Tate, but Hall’s version still impresses mightily.
“The Dam Busted,” from a team of writers including Robert and Richard Poindexter, followed in 1968, backed with “I Don’t Wanna Be (Your Used to Be)” co-written by Hall with Ragovoy and Van McCoy. (Talk about a soul A-team!) Both sides showcase a funkier side of Hall, and exude urgency. Amazingly, however, they concluded Hall’s tenure at Loma Records.
One more single emerged for Carl Hall, in 1972 on the Atlantic label. “Somebody to Love” is a top-to-bottom reinvention of Great Society and Jefferson Airplane staple arranged in storming, funk/proto-disco style by Tony Camillo (Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dionne Warwick). The single’s flipside, Elliot Lurie’s “Change with the Seasons,” is an orchestrated pop ballad which invites comparisons to another great soul man, Ronnie Dyson. The divinely wailing Hall moves “Seasons” quickly into sanctified territory. (Like Hall, Dyson was an alumnus of the musical Hair – Dyson onstage, Hall in Milos Forman’s film adaptation.) One is reminded of Atlantic chief Jerry Wexler’s observation that Wilson Pickett was the only singer who could “scream on pitch.” One wonders if he was aware of Carl, also recording for his Atlantic label! Hall, of course, had a much less gritty voice that would hardly be called “earthy” in the style of Pickett, but the man certainly knew how to scream!
Good as these singles are, the real treasures here are found among the copious unreleased material. The sheer variety of material left on the shelf is exciting. From the Loma years, Hall is thrillingly persuasive on the sinuous, brass-fuelled groove of “He’ll Never Love You.” Ragovoy’s dramatic production of Carl’s own “It Was You (That I Needed)” showcases the vocalist’s gospel roots. Around this period Hall also recorded a couple of demos included by Omnivore. The spare, raw track of “Dance, Dance, Dance” (not the Beach Boys song, but a composition by an unknown writer) reveals a catchy melody that would have been happily enhanced by a horn chart and a background vocal arrangement. The piano-and-voice demo of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “What Kind of Fool Am I?” from their musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off is another stunning find and a testament to both Hall and the composition itself. Though the spare arrangement conjures up a late-night club setting, Hall makes the song his own in a throbbing manner far-removed from many of the smooth crooners who have tackled the famous ballad. Hall, too, is unafraid of tapping into the feminine quality inherent in his voice, again recalling the warm sound of Ronnie Dyson. Hall bends and shapes the melody to the contours of his voice without ever losing sight of it – it’s truly “soul” in the best sense of the word, applied to a timeless showtune.
“What Kind of Fool Am I?” foreshadows Hall’s work as an actor on the Broadway stage. He appeared on The Great White Way in musicals including 1971’s Inner City, a “street cantata” written by lyricist/author Eve Merriam and composer and Brill Building veteran Helen Miller, as well as Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner’s ambitious 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue which opened and closed during the bicentennial year of 1976 after just seven performances. A fine companion here to “What Kind…” is his piercingly-sung reworking of The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” which incorporates strings à la Phil Spector’s original production but adds gospel fervor.
“The Long and Winding Road” is just one of the treats here left to gather dust during his Atlantic period. Hall cuts loose on the searing rave-up “Sometimes I Do” with its funky percussion, taut guitar licks, tight bass and pulsating piano. Ragovoy teamed with Mort Shuman (Doc Pomus’ onetime partner and a translator of Jacques Brel’s lyrics par excellence) for “It’s Been Such a Long Way Home,” introduced by another of the producer’s key artists, Garnet Mimms. (You can hear Mimms’ version on Ace’s recently-released anthology of Mimms’ United Artists/Veep singles.) Ragovoy updated his production and upped the tempo for Hall’s strong rendition. Ragovoy also reworked his own “Time is On My Side” in a tailor-made version that renders the familiar Kai Winding/Irma Thomas/Rolling Stones staple nearly unrecognizable by its finish.
Four alternate versions round out Omnivore’s collection, including a 1971 remake of “The Dam Busted” which also languished on the shelf until now. The accompanying twelve-page booklet features a fine essay by Bill Dahl that will likely become the last word on Hall’s recording career; Greg Allen has designed a customarily attractive package, and Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen have beautifully remastered these vintage tracks.
The compilation may be entitled You Don’t Know Nothing About Love, but by its finish, you’ll know something – for sure! – about Carl Hall, great lost soul vocalist. Time, at last, is on his side.