Brooklyn-born vocalist Lou Johnson was one of the most distinctive voices in 1960s soul. Hailing from a musically-inclined family, Johnson honed his vocal instrument in gospel choirs, in college, and with the group The Canjoes before signing to the Big Apple’s Big Top label in 1962. At Big Top, his voice made Burt Bacharach and Hal David take notice, and the on-the-rise songwriting and production team was soon presenting him with top-drawer material like “If I Never Get to Love You,” “Reach Out for Me,” “Kentucky Bluebird (Send a Message to Martha),” “The Last One to Be Loved,” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.” Though Bacharach and David moved on, Johnson remained on Big Top and its related Big Hill label through 1967, ironically bringing his tenure to a close with the 45 RPM release of another Bacharach song – “Walk On By,” masterfully produced and arranged by Allen Toussaint. In 1968, Johnson signed to Atlantic Records’ Cotillion imprint for an album of material far away from his “uptown” sound.
Sweet Southern Soul, released in 1969, was produced at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios by the team of Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd (Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield). This delicious record has recently been reissued for the first time on vinyl by Run Out Groove in a limited edition of 898 copies. It finds Johnson at the very top of his game, surrounded by some of the south’s most righteous musicians. The Muscle Shoals Swampers – including Barry Beckett, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Spooner Oldham – laid down the thick and funky grooves on which Johnson would place his deep, resonant vocals.
Though Johnson was certainly capable of living up to the title’s promise of sweetness, he was far more often in a gritty, powerfully wailing mode. He cut loose on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and Dickey Lee’s country classic “She Still Thinks I Care.” The song best known in George Jones’ rendition inspired a brassy take from Johnson. Gospel intensity marked “It’s in the Wind” and “I Can’t Change” from Johnson’s Atlantic labelmate Don Covay, the latter with a potent horn solo. Johnson invested Fred Parris’ “Tears, Tears, Tears” with the kind of raw emotional honesty for which he was known. On the earthier, lustier end of the spectrum is James Shorter and Donald Erquhart’s plea to “Move and Groove Together.”
Johnson revisited his New York roots with a pair of tracks originally recorded by The Drifters. The Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman pop standard “This Magic Moment” was reset in uptempo swamp style, with Arif Mardin lending class via his string chart. Johnson also paid tribute to his early champion Burt Bacharach with the inclusion of “Please Stay.” Though the song is credited on the original LP (and this reissue) to Thomas L. Dorsey, it’s in fact Bacharach and Bob Hilliard’s “(Don’t Go) Please Stay,” as sung passionately by the big-voiced singer.
Eddie Hinton and Grady Smith’s “People in Love,” blending grit and sophistication, was subsequently recorded by Lulu during her Atlantic-sponsored foray to Muscle Shoals, while Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson’s “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” would become Aretha Franklin’s as of her storming 1970 recording also helmed by Dowd, Wexler, and Mardin. Johnson’s interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” might be the most torrid item on an altogether smoking disc filled with deep soul performances.
Run Out Groove has done a customarily fine job bringing this lost classic back to vinyl. The 180-gram black vinyl LP has pristine and punchy mono sound, remastered from the original analog tapes. It’s housed in a protective, lined black sleeve within a sturdy, Stoughton-printed tip-on jacket exactingly replicating the original artwork. The Cotillion labels are painstakingly recreated, as well. Lou Johnson’s Sweet Southern Soul is one of the genre’s finest and most underrated records, and one which belongs near the top of the pantheon of Atlantic’s unparalleled R&B roster. It’s hard to imagine a more rewarding reissue than this one from Run Out Groove.
Run Out Groove releases are available at finer independent brick-and-mortar shops everywhere as well as via online retailers such as these: Music Direct / Sound Stage Direct / Acoustic Sounds / Elusive Disc / Bullmoose Music!