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The Boston Phoenix From the Heart

Relativity has the hits.

By Ted Drozdowski

NOVEMBER 24, 1997:  Imagine getting your first driver's license and the keys to a '76 Corvette on the same day. That's the kind of introduction to soul music that #1 Soul Hits of the '60s (and some that should have been) provides. These three volumes on Relativity Records open up the road to the richest territory of American music.

Soul comes from those cornerstones of African-American culture, the church and the blues, with a little of the pop world mixed in. It also comes straight from the heart. In soul, people say what they mean. When Jackie Wilson sings "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," he's not bullshitting. When Barbara Lynn warns her man, "You'll Lose a Good Thing," that's no idle threat.

Tired of listening to the irony-drenched sow's ears that modern rock is selling? Here's a chance to break the shackles of the present for a pre-MTV past where singers were judged on vocal prowess, not looks, and songs had to speak of more than mollusks and obsessions with Matchbox cars.

There are big, genre-defining hits here. In volume one, subtitled Tell It like It Is, resides Aaron Neville's ultra-romantic smash of that title, the Marvelettes' classic teen fodder "Please Mr. Postman," Eddie Floyd's high-energy "Knock on Wood," and Sly & the Family Stone's call for unity, "Everyday People." Any of these songs could lead initiates to burrow into the catalogues of these artists, where many rewards await. But there are also obscurities like Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," which Janis Joplin made famous. Did you know Aretha had a sister named Erma? Did you know someone cut this tune before Janis? I'm kind of a geek about R&B, yet this version of "Piece of My Heart" -- which never hit the pop charts -- hadn't made it onto my radar.

So it is with all three volumes: hits surround hidden gems. On the second CD, Tighten Up, Archie Bell's Memphis groove of that name cohabits with James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's World" and Joe Tex's "A Sweet Woman like You," ballads overripe with passion. There's Percy Sledge's similar "When a Man Loves a Woman," one of the most performed tunes of all time. Plus Texas R&B legend Bobby Bland's "I Pity the Fool" (hey, did you think Mr. T came up with that line himself?) and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions' beautiful racial-consciousness-raising "Choice of Colors." All these people sing like gods. So does little-known Walter Jackson, who could perhaps today be understood as the Vic Chesnutt of soul. As Dennis Hunt's swiftly informative liner notes tell us: "Walter Jackson's 'My Ship Is Coming In' just might be the most neglected, undiscovered gem of 1967. Some may remember the 1966 hit version by the Walker Brothers, a blue-eyed soul group from England. They had big, booming soul voices, but their version pales next to his. . . . Although he was crippled by polio, Jackson's natural talent helped him forge a respectable if under-appreciated career as a romantic R&B singer."

Volume three, A Brand New Bag, gives us more James Brown, Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," chitlin-circuit king Johnnie Taylor's smirking hit "Who's Making Love" ("to your old lady, while you were out making love"), Sam & Dave's wildly exuberant "Hold On! I'm a-Comin'," and "Duke of Earl," which put Gene Chandler in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Cool and heavy shit. But not as heavy as Esther Phillips's "Release Me"; each syllable's torn from her broken heart. Or as heavy as the forgotten falsetto powerhouse Garnet Mimms's "Cry Baby," which Janis Joplin also tapped.

Sure these songs are 30 years old, but they're not dated. They're too deep for time: they offer basic human truths as profound as those in the greatest of novels.

Trying to get you to buy these CDs by noting that a portion of the proceeds benefits the Rhythm & Blues Foundation -- an organization that promotes the careers and health care of founding R&B performers -- is a cheap ploy. So instead I ask that holdouts hear just one song: Mattie Moultrie's "That's How Strong My Love Is." Hardly anyone's heard of her since '66, yet this tune is the Corvette keys. Her superhuman voice rings with devotion and strength born of the church and the cotton fields, bearing the dignity and determination and love that carried generations of African-Americans up out of slavery and bias to a higher place. To connect with this song is to feel the power of the human spirit so profoundly that it's joyful and humbling. And if you can't relate . . . well, I dare you to try.

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