Cher’s album 3614 Jackson Highway arrived midway through 1969 as the singer and her partner Sonny Bono worked furiously to re-establish themselves in a changing musical landscape and escape from mounting debt. Their first child had been born in March, a Sonny and Cher single arrived in May and was quickly followed by a Cher solo 45, and her film Chastity hit theatres in June. Sonny and Cher hadn’t had a major hit single since 1967’s “The Beat Goes On” and the solo Cher hadn’t had a chart entry since the same year’s “You Better Sit Down, Kids.” 3614 Jackson Highway should have been the hit LP that she needed. While it didn’t get any higher than No. 160 on the Billboard Top LPs and Tapes survey, time has been more than good to the album recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio located at the titular address in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Little in Cher’s prior discography would have made it clear just how well she would take to recording with the cream of the southern soul crop; indeed, she took to the sessions like a fish takes to (swamp) water. Earlier this year, Run Out Groove returned 3614 Jackson Highway to vinyl in a deluxe 2-LP edition that’s an essential addition to any Cher library.
With Sonny serving only as “Spiritual Advisor” for her sixth studio LP, Cher was supported by the great musicians of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (or The Swampers) including Eddie Hinton, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, and Barry Beckett, as well as producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd. (Whether Duane Allman played on the album, alas, remains a mystery though within the realm of possibility.) The production triumvirate had, earlier in the year, released Dusty Springfield’s seminal Dusty in Memphis. Much as that album had placed the British soul chanteuse into unfamiliar environs (American Sound Studios in Memphis) with remarkable results, 3614 Jackson Highway was intended to showcase a side of Cher previously unknown.
Jerry Wexler selected the album’s eleven songs, all of which would be rendered by the Swampers in down-home soul style with tight guitar licks and locked-in percussion and enhanced by Mardin’s subtle but significant orchestration juxtaposing sweetness and grit: lush strings and insinuating horns. (The horns were likely played by Andrew Love, Charles Chalmers, or Joe Arnold on tenor saxophone; Floyd Newman or James Mitchell on baritone sax; Wayne Jackson, Gene Miller, or Ben Cauley on trumpet; and Joseph DeAngelis or Earl Chapin on French horn.) Background vocals were handled by Jeannie Greene, Donna Thatcher, Mary Holiday, and Sue Pilkington.
Cher rose to the level of the closely-attuned musicians and the superlative arrangements, turning in refreshing, mature, and earthy vocals on songs like Grady Smith and Carroll Quillen’s “Please Don’t Tell Me,” Buddy Mize and Ira Allen’s “(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hangin’ On)” and three songs plucked from Bob Dylan’s then-new Nashville Skyline LP: “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” “I Threw It All Away,” and “Lay, Baby, Lay” (introduced as “Lay, Lady, Lay”). The latter songs marked a welcome return for Cher – whose debut solo single was Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do,” a top 20 success – to his songbook for which her spoken-sung vocals were ideal.
She was cool and restrained on Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” gutsy on Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s Box Tops hit “Cry Like a Baby,” and tough on Dr. John’s “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” Cher tapped into a deep reservoir of emotion, her husky, burnished tones bringing depth and yes, soul to these well-chosen compositions. If some of the covers are overly familiar, the less well-known material like “Please Don’t Tell Me” and “(Just Enough to Keep Me) Hangin’ On” should rank among Cher’s finest work from this period, or any other. The family drama of lead guitarist Eddie Hinton’s “Save the Children” could have come off as a bit mawkish, but Cher expressed the song’s regrets with wisdom beyond her years.
When the album failed to restore her commercial fortunes, Cher returned to the studio without a primary focus. A handful of singles were released from the sessions, while still other tracks languished in the vault. In 2001, Rhino Handmade reissued 3614 Jackson Highway on CD with all of these eclectic songs, primarily produced by Sonny Bono, as bonus tracks. These sessions comprise the second disc of Run Out Groove’s new reissue.
It’s not difficult to hear why some of these songs got shelved. Cher tackled the Hair ballad “Easy to Be Hard” (the hit version of which went to Three Dog Night) with feeling and passion, but the overly busy arrangement all but overtook the singer. Ervin Drake’s pop spiritual “I Believe” might have inspired a soulful performance in the vein of Jackson Highway but once again, the unconventional approach to its arrangement threatened to derail it into quasi-vaudeville. Cher pulled out all of the stops for the traditional ballad “Danny Boy,” but the subsequent version on Sonny and Cher Live is not only stronger but more consistent with singer and band in sync rather than at odds. Cher’s beautiful take on 1776‘s dramatic “Momma Look Sharp” was significantly stronger; its anti-war sentiment was relevant then during the Vietnam War and remains relevant today. “It Gets Me Where I Wanna Go” is a bit of theatrical folk-rock.
The second side of the second LP has the songs originally released on Atco 45s including a fine Bono production and Don Peake arrangement of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Yours Until Tomorrow.” It was originally backed with a solid pop number from songwriter David White, “The Thought of Loving You.” Cher introduced Sonny’s “The First Time,” and the sensitivity of his composition was matched by her vocal, though she would improve on it a couple of years later with producer Snuff Garrett. An appropriately driving version of the oft-covered “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” was its B-side. Both tracks were arranged by Greg Poreé. “The First Time” was later reissued on Atco with a Stan Vincent production of Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell’s “Superstar” on the flip. (Cher would later revisit “Superstar,” too, on Sonny and Cher’s Live in Las Vegas Vol. 2.) Singer-songwriter Elyse Weinberg’s “Band of Thieves” became “Chastity’s Theme” in connection with the movie Chastity, and it was paired as the B-side of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.”
This deluxe vinyl edition from Run Out Groove features all of the Rhino Handmade bonus tracks except for the alternate stereo version from the Chastity soundtrack of “Chastity’s Song,” making for a near-complete account of Cher’s solo Atco recordings. 3614 Jackson Highway has been pressed on 180-gram clear and purple mixed vinyl at Record Industry, and is housed in a gorgeous, gatefold tip-on jacket. The vinyl is happily quiet and detailed. (The original album is in stereo while all of the bonus tracks are in mono.) A beautifully-designed insert features copious liner notes and memorabilia images.
Today, in 2019, Cher is riding high with sold-out concerts, her hit Dancing Queen album, a recent Broadway run of The Cher Show, and a Kennedy Center Honor. ROG’s 3614 Jackson Highway reissue is a welcome trip back to 50 years ago when she was still gaining her solo wings and her star was still on the ascendant.
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