What do you get for the Beatles fan who has everything? Once they’ve got all the albums, the Anthology DVDs and all the movies... well, there’s still Beatles books, T-shirts, mugs, keyrings, fridge magnets and so on. But if you want to give them something they’re less likely to have, try digging around the website of Ace Records. This label specialises in reissues of music from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and they’ve been good enough to send me a bunch of stuff from their back catalogue. This material is largely overlooked by other labels, and there’s a good chance that even keen fans of this era in pop won’t own it.
Most obviously of interest to Beatles fans is Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney. It lives up to its title, so – sorry, George! Nothing for you here. But it’s an excellent selection of soul and R&B covers from the Beatles catalogue, spanning the years 1965-76, with lots of leftfield selections you’ll rarely hear anywhere else. Little Richard’s 1970 cover of I Saw Her Standing There, for example, falls well outside his ‘classic’ period and it’s nice to hear him return the Beatles’ compliment. The Moments’ cover of ‘Rocky Racoon’, which takes a rambling joke song and transplants it into the contemporary ghetto, is remarkable and Fats Domino’s ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey’ is a highlight.
It’s most interesting when the songs are less obviously derived from soul and R&B in the first place – the group’s most consciously R&B-influenced record, Rubber Soul, attracts no covers here (although both sides of the single which accompanied it do), but then neither does the group’s least R&B record, Sgt. Pepper. The ‘White’ album, with its stripped-back arrangements, proves especially fruitful, with versions that rival the originals.
From Beatles covers to an artist covered by The Beatles: Arthur Alexander, whose best material is collected on The Greatest. A versatile musician and songwriter with a rich, warm singing voice, Alexander’s output spanned soul, R&B, gospel and country. Largely remembered only by people who’ve studied the credits on Please Please Me, he deserves more recognition: at least The Beatles’ appreciation means subsequent generations are always likely to happen upon his name. Rushing through their version of ‘Anna (Go To Him)’, the group couldn’t really get close to Alexander’s superb original.
The Beatles’ big influences are usually considered to be the likes of Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry, but Alexander’s records were the kind of thing they were listening to in the run-up to making their first records. It forms a great insight into how they finished their sound, as well as being an excellent collection in its own right. Play something like ‘You Don’t Care’ and it feels like the world stops to listen. The highlights are loaded at the beginning, but once they put you in the mood you want to stay there.
Alexander also occupies a key spot on Ace’s lavish new collection The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973. I didn’t know anything about Fame before flipping through the excellent sleevenotes (calling them ‘notes’ sells them short: it’s a small full-colour book with the CDs packed at the back), but this was an establishment in the middle of Nowheresville, Alabama who started out recording local musicians like Alexander (whose first record was deemed ‘too black for white audiences and too white for black audiences’, but Fame’s faith in the song was rewarded with success). The quality of their productions eventually attracted the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and their own label later signed Candi Staton.
The collection contains the odd staple of soul collections such as Pickett’s ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ and Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’, but is mostly filled with material you’d be unlikely to see anywhere else. Most of this is new to me: I’m far from an expert on the genre and so I’d never heard Chess Records’ attempt to replicate the success of Sam & Dave, Maurice & Mac: their exuberant ‘Why Don’t You Try Me’ is a highlight. The mod staple ‘Fortune Teller’, covered by the Stones and the Who but perhaps best of all by Timebox, appears here in a taut early version by The Del-Rays. In 1997 the BBC used a track for its Glastonbury coverage which featured a naggingly catchy sample: I know finally know that this was from ‘Everybody’ by Tommy Roe, a terrific pop record.
Several tracks, like Mitty Collier’s showstopping take on ‘Take Me Just As I Am’, have never been released before. They’ve dug so deep in the archives that one track, a searing demo of ‘Another Man’s Woman, Another Woman’s Man’, is credited to ‘Unknown Female’ – the vocalist’s identity having been forgotten long ago. Whilst the accent is mostly on soul and R&B, the album also touches on other genres – David & The Giants’ amazing ‘Ten Miles High’ pulls the Fame sound in a psychedelic direction, for example.
I did briefly think ‘What’s this shit?’ when some drippy sub-Jackson 5 nonsense came on: gratifyingly, this turned out to be ‘One Bad Apple’ by The Osmonds. But I still haven’t fully taken this collection in: there are three discs and the breadth of it is remarkable.
By contrast, You've Gotta Believe It's Sharon Tandy – collecting the best of this South African vocalist of the 1960s – has been one of my most-played CDs of the year. I happened upon one of her tracks, ‘Hold On’, while trawling YouTube for a track by her backing band Les Fleur De Lys. It’s a perfect freakbeat record, a superbly breathy vocal paired with a blistering guitar solo. But there’s more to her than that – the opening track, ‘You’ve Gotta Believe It’, is a stunning Dusty Spingfield-style orchestral pop number, and likewise the original A-side of ‘Hold On’ was a great version of ‘Stay With Me’.
But Tandy’s real forte was soul: she’d been a member of contentious mixed-race groups in South Africa, and she later recorded at Stax Studios where she was backed by Isaac Hayes. Her version of ‘Our Day Will Come’ (just released as an Amy Winehouse single) and ‘Toe Hold’ are highlights of the collection. Her versatility may not have done her any favours back in the 1960s – she doesn’t seem to have quite found the right audience – but it lends welcome variety to this collection. Shame she never made a full album with Les Fleur De Lys though.
That’s enough for one post – I’ll round up some psych and garage stuff from Ace sometime soon.