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. Yesterday we explored the releases from Burke and Phillips, and today’s spotlight is on Lewis and Thomas!
If she had only recorded “Hello, Stranger” and “Baby I’m Yours,” Barbara Lewis‘ place in the pop pantheon would have been assured. But there’s much more to her short discography than just those two big hits. Cherry Red and SoulMusic’s Don’t Forget About Me: The Atlantic & Reprise Recordings chronicles the story of this pioneering singer-songwriter, sequencing her seminal 1962-1973 work for those labels in session order (for a total of 68 tracks).
Michigan-born Lewis was writing and recording by her teenaged years. After one 45 on the small Karen label, the budding singer-songwriter attracted the attention of Atlantic Records. The New York powerhouse quickly reissued that single, “My Heart Went Do Dat Da” b/w “The Longest Night of the Year,” and it now opens this 3-CD compendium. It was her third Atlantic single, however, that proved seismic. 1962’s “Hello, Stranger” was smooth and sensual, effortlessly bridging the gap between R&B and pop. All told, she released five albums and seventeen singles at Atlantic, scoring two more top ten R&B hits with Van McCoy’s “Baby I’m Yours” and Brill Building tunesmiths Helen Miller and Roger Atkins’ “Make Me Your Baby” (both of which crossed over to Pop, reaching No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100). The title of the compilation comes from the pen of Carole King and Gerry Goffin; the urgent soul plea sadly stalled at No. 91 on the Hot 100, No. 48 on the Cash Box R&B survey, and No. 103 on Record World‘s Pop chart.
Barbara wrote every track on her 1963 debut album Hello, Stranger, supported by arranger Riley Hampton and producer Ollie McLaughlin. Much of the album was recorded in Chicago; a couple of tracks were even laid down at Motown’s famed Detroit studio. (Indeed, Motown fans will notice some significant names in the credits here, including Mike Valvano, Richard “Popcorn” Wylie, and The Satintones’ Sonny Sanders and Robert Bateman.) But Atlantic soon aimed to capitalize on Lewis’ distinctive, malleable voice, and rather than championing her original songs, the label encouraged her to record Snap Your Fingers: Barbara Lewis Sings the Great Soul Tunes. She covered Jackie Wilson, Ben E. King, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Chuck Jackson in youthful, vivacious treatments. It yielded a couple of moderate hits, and paved the way for Lewis to record in New York with Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler and his friend and protégé, Bert Berns. They brought her Van McCoy’s “Baby I’m Yours” which became her second signature song after “Hello, Stranger.” Wexler and Berns guided Lewis into the realm of uptown soul; in Charles Waring’s new liner notes, she fascinatingly recalls clashing with Helen Miller, the older writer of “Make Me Your Baby.” Under Wexler and Berns’ aegis, she also cut a strong rendition of Jackie DeShannon and Jimmy Page’s “Stop That Girl” and the powerful “Don’t Forget About Me.” But Ollie McLaughlin was back for It’s Magic, a fine collection of standards intended to break Barbara into the adult pop market. Lewis tells Waring it’s her favorite album from her Atlantic tenure, and indeed, she expressed herself on these venerable songs with a maturity far beyond her years.
Ollie McLaughlin, Bob Bateman, and Lou Courtney helmed Barbara’s final Atlantic LP, largely culled from single releases. Workin’ on a Groovy Thing was named for the beguiling Neil Sedaka/Roger Atkins tune also recorded by Patti Drew and The 5th Dimension, among others. Barbara soon moved to Stax Records where she cut one LP; she then headed to Reprise Records for one single which has happily been included here: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Rock and Roll Lullaby” b/w “I’m So Thankful.” It didn’t make the charts, and Barbara quietly exited the music business. After a two-decade break, she returned to performing in 1992, and continued revisiting her classics onstage until retiring in 2017. She’s still recording, however, and plans on making more music soon. Don’t Forget About Me presents the majority of her discography on its 3 CDs, including new-to-CD tracks from her soul and pop covers albums. The discs are housed in an eight-panel digipak, and the 20-page booklet has Waring’s essay as well as session-by-session, track-by-track credits. David Nathan has produced and Nick Robbins has remastered this tribute to a singer we won’t soon forget.
Carla Thomas was born into Memphis musical royalty. The daughter of Rufus Thomas (“Walkin’ the Dog”), she followed in her father’s footsteps to forge a successful career in her own right. Now, The Queen of Memphis soul has been celebrated on the 4-CD box Let Me Be Good to You: The Atlantic and Stax Recordings (1960-1968) featuring 94 tracks from that period.
Carla couldn’t wait to break into showbiz; at just ten years old, the precocious pre-teen joined WDIA Radio’s Teen Town Singers. She remained in the group through her four years in high school, and at 18, recorded her first single for Stax (then Satellite Records, and just entering a distribution deal with the Atlantic label) as “Carla and Rufus” with her famous father. Their duets on “‘Cause I Love You” and “Deep Down Inside” open this collection. Carla’s very next release and solo debut, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” went to No. 5 on the R&B chart and No. 10 Pop, rocketing her to stardom. Moreover, she wrote the swooning ballad herself, delivering it with a sense of youthful, wide-eyed drama and real passion.
“Gee Whiz” launched a run of R&B and Pop hits and even inspired a yuletide re-write, “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas.” Carla would record further duets with Rufus, and also cut an entire album with another duet partner: the legendary Otis Redding. Their playful back-and-forth on the bluesy “Tramp” was an international success; it was culled from their duet album King and Queen which is (like all of Carla’s LPs from this period) included in full on the collection. That encompasses Gee Whiz (1961), Comfort Me (1966), Carla (1966), and her artistic triumph, The Queen Alone (1967). She remained true to herself even as her vocal prowess grew and matured over this period, as on Comfort Me where she reinterpreted pop-soul favorites by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (“What the World Needs Now Is Love”), Barbara Mason (“Yes, I’m Ready”), and Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”).
A Queen Alone arrived in the year following her coquettish “B-A-B-Y,” an irresistible Isaac Hayes/David Porter tune which she had taken to No. 3 R&B and No. 14 Pop. The album was her most sophisticated and seductive yet, primarily offering Hayes/Porter compositions but also finding room for her interpretations of songs by Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard (“Any Day Now”), Clive Westlake and Ben Weisman (“All I See Is You”), and Eddie Floyd and Al Isbell (“I’ll Always Have Faith in You”). Her versatility was powerfully on display, and A Queen Alone remains the high watermark of her career as well as of this box set.
28 non-album tracks are among the selections here, plus Carla’s recordings for The Stax/Volt Revue in Europe. Carla continued recording for Stax past the period covered in this set; she cut two more albums for the label after it severed ties with Atlantic Records. In recent years, outtakes and live recordings have also surfaced from Stax proper (though they fall out of the purview of this set). Everything on Let Me Be Good to You is arranged chronologically in session order. The set produced by David Nathan has been remastered once again by Nick Robbins; the liner notes indicate that two tracks (“The Life I Live” and “Winter Snow”) could not be sourced from tape so they have been dubbed from vinyl. The discs are housed in individual sleeves within a clamshell case, and a 28-page booklet features credits as well as Charles Waring’s new essay.
Though Carla – like Barbara Lewis – had a relatively small discography, those recordings remain cornerstones of American soul and pop. Let Me Be Good to You is one-stop shopping from the Queen of Memphis Soul.