As the songwriter behind masterworks like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” Dan Penn is particularly sensitive to the struggles of R & B stars. Many of the singers he wrote for during the 60s and 70s have faded into obscurity, and classic soul hasn’t enjoyed a revival of interest the way other genres have. “Everybody says ‘What goes around comes around’ and all that ol’ good stuff,” he says. “Well, we’re still waiting.”
R & B singers from that era–including Chicagoans like Syl Johnson, Ruby Andrews, and Cicero Blake–haven’t disappeared. But with fewer opportunities to perform and get heard on the radio, many of them are relegated to careers playing small venues and recording patchy albums on the cheap. For instance, Detroit belter Bettye LaVette, who began her career at 16 with the 1962 hit “My Man–He’s a Lovin’ Man,” has recorded only sparingly since the early 80s. That’s especially galling because on the new I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-), a brilliant album of slow-burning soul, she’s a better singer than she was in her youth. “It took me 30 years to learn to interpret songs,” says LaVette, 59. “I mean, I’ve always been able to attack rhythm and blues songs. But it took me 30 years to learn to interpret and learn to really sing.”
LaVette has an unlikely booster in 44-year-old producer Joe Henry, a white roots-pop singer-songwriter from LA who’s been leading a growing movement to revitalize the careers of veteran soul acts. Henry bristles at the notion that artists like LaVette are past their prime. “I’m sorry, but nobody’s telling Elton John that, or Aerosmith, or the Rolling goddamn Stones that,” he says. “They keep putting out records. I mean, the Stones are great, but I would trade every record they ever made for ‘Let’s Stay Together.'”
Henry’s R & B revival efforts began in 2002, when he produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me (Fat Possum), an album of stripped-down soul that captured the essence of Burke’s 60s Atlantic sides. While promoting the record, Henry began to realize that the album filled a niche. “I was very aware talking to journalists all over the world that the record was resonating because people were so starved, as it were, for a contemporary version of an authentic soul record,” he says.
The album jump-started Burke’s career, and he’s not alone–contemporaries like Al Green and Howard Tate have made comeback albums of their own in recent years. But soul singers from the 60s, especially those who never enjoyed crossover success, remain a tough sell to major labels. “The mainstream music industry is so committed to the idea of selling ten million records that selling 200,000 records doesn’t even get their heart started,” Henry says. “Solomon Burke’s record, even if we hadn’t won a Grammy for it, was approaching selling a quarter of a million records worldwide. And we only spent $40,000 making it. You can do the math–it wasn’t a foolish enterprise on any level.”
Still, a lack of radio outlets has made larger labels hesitant. “With the exception of blues stations that will play some soul and R & B, the urban format has gone completely toward hip-hop,” says Lisa Best, head of Proper American Recordings, a new spin-off of British roots-rock label Proper Records that’s released albums by Penn and Bobby Purify, aka Ben Moore, who began his career in the 60s Atlantic duo Ben & Spence. “What you’ve found is not just less opportunities on the label end, but fewer opportunities for the labels to get the music out there.”
Faced with such problems, Henry tried to come up with an arrangement that would allow him to do more projects like the Burke record. His solution was to create his own label, Work Song, and begin a series that he hoped would attract more artists and major-label backing. “I decided it was smarter to create some permanent scenario that gave me license to call an artist that I wanted to work with and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something.'”
Henry launched the series in June by inviting five veteran acts–Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Billy Preston, Allen Toussaint, and Irma Thomas–to come to an LA studio to record I Believe to My Soul, which was coreleased last month by Work Song, Rhino Records, and Starbucks Hear Music. The last label was immediately interested in the project, thanks to its success with last year’s Genius Loves Company, an album of Ray Charles duets that sold more than a half million copies in Starbucks stores alone. I Believe to My Soul did precisely what Henry hoped it would: he’s about to begin recording an album of collaborations between Toussaint and Elvis Costello, and he’s also planning to produce solo albums by Peebles and Preston.
Part of the reason Henry’s productions work is that he pushes singers outside their comfort zones: he asked each of the performers on I Believe to My Soul to bring two songs they’d never recorded, and he encouraged Burke to try songs by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits. For LaVette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, she and Henry drew from contemporary female songwriters outside R & B, including Fiona Apple, Sinead O’Connor, and Lucinda Williams. “She took this opportunity that was given to her and just ate it alive,” Henry says. “She didn’t have one moment of looking back.”
Dan Penn, who produced Bobby Purify’s new album on Proper American, Better to Have It, argues that most older acts suffer from a lack of both solid material and quality control; because they don’t usually write their own music, they’re often at the mercy of their collaborators. “A lot of the trouble is that they either don’t get sufficient songs or they don’t get a good producer,” he says. “Or they cut a record but it doesn’t have any significance. It’s like nobody cares anymore. And at least with Bobby Purify, I cared. I felt like this guy needs some good songs, so we wrote for him just like we would’ve written for Elvis or Otis.”
Better to Have It is one of the year’s best albums, thanks to a strong batch of fresh tunes almost all cowritten by Penn, Purify’s well-aged pipes, and backing from a who’s who of Memphis and Muscle Shoals session players. The success in England of similar albums featuring soul luminaries–including last year’s Testifying, produced by Penn and billed to the Country Soul Revue–is what spurred Proper Records to launch its stateside imprint in June. Besides the Purify album it’s also released Moments From This Theatre, a reissue of a 1999 live album featuring Penn and longtime collaborator Spooner Oldham, and plans to announce more signings soon.
Both Penn and Henry argue that the time is right for a renaissance of classic soul, given the revival of interest in Ray Charles and the rediscovery of Sam Cooke prompted by Peter Guralnick’s recently published biography. And, they note, many of the artists who enjoyed their greatest success in the 60s and 70s are now moving into their twilight years. “I do think it’d be great if people really started to recognize that this music is incredibly vital and it’s a living thing,” Henry says. “All you need is a moment of daylight to really break through.”
“We’re all getting older,” Penn adds. “But we all still need a chance.”
Bettye LaVette, Kelly Hogan
When: Fri 11/18, 9:30 PM
Where: FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn
Price: $12 in advance, $15 at the door
Info: 708-788-2118 or 312-559-1212
More: See the Treatment, page 6
Dan Penn, Greg Trooper
When: Sun 11/20, 7 PM
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
Price: $20, $16 seniors and kids
Info: 773-728-6000 or 866-468-3401
More: See the Treatment, page 24
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Richard Mitchell, Charlie Taylor.