In recent weeks, Cherry Red’s SoulMusic Records imprint has launched a series of mini-box sets drawn from the Atlantic vaults including titles available now from Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips, Barbara Lewis, and Carla Thomas. Today we’re looking at the releases from Burke and Phillips, while we’ll next turn to Lewis and Thomas!
The late Solomon Burke (who died in 2010 at the age of 70 or 74; reports vary) lived up to his moniker as The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul. SoulMusic’s 3-CD set of that title is drawn from his Atlantic recordings of 1962-1968, and its 79 tracks show the depth and breath of his music for the label with songs running the gamut of deep soul and rhythm and blues. The set collects the contents of all of his Atlantic albums – Solomon Burke’s Greatest Hits (1962), If You Need Me (1963), Rock ‘n’ Soul (1964), The Best of Solomon Burke (1966), King Solomon (1968), and I Wish I Knew (1968) plus non-LP singles. The tracks aren’t arranged in album order, however, but rather by session. With a figure as imposing as his deep voice, Burke sat upon his throne for decades, spreading the gospel…not just the gospel of music, but the Gospel itself. As a singer and preacher, he tapped into his roots in church music, jazz, blues, and country, and all of those sounds are on display here.
At the collection’s heart are Burke’s groundbreaking recordings with producer-songwriter Bert Berns; his urbane, Latin-inspired New York style fit King Solomon like a glove. Berns’ songs were often filled with loneliness, hurt, and despair, and Burke was able to channel those universal emotions more convincingly than almost any other artist. His Atlantic recordings were arranged by the finest orchestrators of the era, among them Claus Ogerman, Garry Sherman, Artie Butler, and Gene Page, while the later recordings featured the lean, mean talents of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Memphis’ American Studio gang. In addition to his own songs and those by fellow Atlantic soul men such as Don Covay, Eddie Floyd, Clarence Carter, and Wilson Pickett, Burke brought his singular touch to familiar tunes by Bob Dylan (“Maggie’s Farm”), Jimmy Webb (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”), Mickey Newbury (“Time Is a Thief”), Mel Tillis (“Detroit City”), Allen Toussaint (“Get Out of My Life, Woman”), and Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (“Take Me (Just As I Am)”).
The King of Rock ‘n’ Soul additionally premieres a few rare 45s on CD, among them the original single mixes of “I’m Hanging Up My Heart for You,” “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” It’s housed within a thick, eight-panel digipak and includes a 20-page booklet with liner notes by co-producer Bob Fisher. Simon Murphy has remastered all tracks. Soul doesn’t come much deeper than this.
Esther Phillips (1935-1984) came to Atlantic as a veteran artist. She had her first taste of success in 1949 as 14-year old Little Esther, belting out the blues in a distinctive, nasal voice. By 1961, the Texan singer – who counted Dinah Washington among her key inspirations – had already lived her share of ups and downs, including a debilitating addiction to heroin that would plague her for all of her too-short life. Prospects looked bleak, but for a chance encounter with Kenny Rogers. The up-and-coming country singer was working in The Bobby Doyle Three on the same bill as Little Esther. Impressed by her raw talent, Kenny tipped his older brother Lelan, a local promoter, to her bravura abilities. Lelan recorded her on a cover of Ray Price’s 1954 hit “Release Me” for the small Lenox Records label. The song gave Esther her first chart entry in a decade, going all the way to No. 1 (a feat she last accomplished in 1950, twelve years earlier) and becoming her first Pop hit with a No. 8 berth on the Billboard Hot 100. Lenox sold her contract and her recordings for the label to Atlantic Records.
Brand New Day: The Lenox/Atlantic & Roulette Recordings (1962-1970) presents, in session order, all of Esther Phillips’ recordings for those three labels including the complete albums Reflections of Country and Western Greats (reissued as The Country Side of Esther Phillips) (1962/1966), And I Love Him! Esther Phillips Sings Great Love Songs (1965), Esther: Esther Phillips Sings (1966), the live Burnin’ (1970), and outtakes collection Confessin’ the Blues (1976) plus posthumously released tracks, non-LP sides, and even previously unreleased songs.
The 5-CD compilation takes Phillips (who adopted her surname from a gas station) from Nashville to New York where Atlantic supplied her with its finest uptown soul charts courtesy of Garry Sherman, Mort Garson, Ray Ellis, and Oliver Nelson, and then to Los Angeles and Memphis. Her early Atlantic recordings reflected her country and blues roots with songs from the young Willie Nelson (“Hello Walls”) and Johnny Otis, with whom she had worked in the 1950s (“Double Crossing Blues”) before transitioning her into the sophisticated realm of adult pop (“If You Love Me, Really Love Me,” “I Wish You Love”). When Esther tackled oft-covered Broadway showtunes (“People” from Funny Girl), movie themes (“The Shadow of Your Smile” from The Sandpiper) or bossa nova (Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema”), she didn’t sound like anyone else.
Esther had her biggest R&B hit at Atlantic with the Beatles’ gender-switched “And I Love Him” in 1965. Her recording, cited by Paul McCartney as a favorite of his, also crossed over to Pop and AC. The five discs in this collection reveal Phillips’ versatility even if she didn’t have the consistency of sound of, say, Solomon Burke (who also brought country songs into the soul idiom). Her gifts didn’t fit handily into one box – her pinched vocal sound, equally torrid and ferocious, made her an acquired taste if an undeniably talented and unique one. Brand New Day chronicles this key period before she moved to Creed Taylor’s CTI/Kudu enterprise where she experienced an artistic rebirth. It additionally has her three 1969 Roulette singles which paired her with arrangers Ernie Freeman and Bergen White and producer Willie Henderson. A few previously unreleased cuts make this set a must-have, too, including studio tracks (Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed,” Don Covay’s “Watch Dog”) and outtakes from Phillips’ Los Angeles show that yielded the album Burnin’.
Brand New Day is housed in a clamshell case with each disc in an individual sleeve. A 36-page booklet with liner notes by Charles Waring puts everything into perspective. Nick Robbins has remastered, with producer David Nathan noting that everything has been mastered from original sources other than eight early Lenox tracks which had to be dubbed from vinyl due to tapes no longer existing. With Phillips’ Kudu recordings having been anthologized numerous times (including by Cherry Red/SoulMusic), this set is one-stop shopping for her fascinating and varied Atlantic years.