Chasing Teen Coin

“The generally accepted definition of soul music is rhythm & blues that contains strong elements of church singing.”

So writes R&B scholar and music purveyor Billy Vera in the liner notes to Atlantic Soul (1959-1975), a 4-CD box set from Rhino Handmade, the Internet-only arm of the reissues giant. A limited pressing of 3,000, the new compilation jukeboxes the second installment of three collections marking the 60th anniversary of Atlantic Records. Atlantic Blues (1949-1970) began the rollout this spring, and Atlantic Vocal Groups (1951-1963) concludes the series next year.

“By 1959 the original rock & roll momentum was slowing down, and many of Atlantic’s attempts at keeping up with the kids were starting to sound alike and somewhat contrived,” furthers Vera. “Everybody at the company was tired of, in the words of Cashbox, ‘chasing teen coin,’ and the records reflected this fatigue.”

Atlantic Soul (1959-1975) is what the late Ahmet Ertegun and his partner Jerry Wexler came up with instead.

Ray Charles’ opening invocation, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” comes up like the sun, in immediate contrast to Jimmy Ricks’ impossible froggy baritone grounding LaVern Baker on “You’re the Boss.” The Ikettes' tart “I’m Blue (the Gong-Gong Song)” then bangs a gong. The ceremony has begun.

The former Betty LaVett (now Bettye LaVette; born Betty Haskin) squeezes lemons for “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man,” more Motown insouciance than Atlantic/Stax come-on. Because box set curator Vera knows that hits and covers act as nuts to nougat in the unknown (“some tracks here will be familiar, while others are making their debut on CD”), Doris Troy’s bumping “Just One Look” reclaims the song from Linda Ronstadt and decades worth of commercial television. Similarly, the Vibrations’ limbo stick “My Girl Sloopy” exposes the McCoys as white-face copycats. Little Ester Phillips’ teen spunky “Mojo Hannah” needs no antecedent. Wilson Pickett (“I’m Gonna Cry”) and Carla Thomas (“I’ve Got No Time to Lose”) still sound like kids as late as 1964.

Artists aren’t limited to single selections, not even per disc. Cottage industry Don “Chain of Fools’ Covay lands three selections on disc two, including growly Steppenwolf hit to be “Sookie Sookie,” while Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles diva a pair (“Groovy Kind of Love,” “Over the Rainbow”), and archivist Billy Vera chalks one up himself. Willie Tee’s naked Marvin Gaye croon on his own “Thank You John” constitutes a discovery, as does the Isley Brothers’ “Have You Ever Been Disappointed,” serving up none other than their most famous apprentice Jimi Hendrix. Mary Wells is always welcome, Barbara Lewis’ bewitching Chip Taylor/Billy Vera should-be standard “Make Me Belong to You” makes itself at home, and Aretha Franklin puts everyone to shame with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Disc three breaks out deuces from Franklin (including Burt Bacharach/Hal David ascension “I Say A Little Prayer”), blind guitarist Clarence Carter, and Wilson Pickett, who technically gets three tracks given the Soul Brothers Six yowling slow dance “What Can You Do When You Ain’t Got Nobody.” (Pickett’s early “garage soul” Detroiters the Falcons sharpen a talons or two on the first disc.) Solomon Burke flies up to the sun and then down to the deep blue sea on the sanctified “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free”), while Otis Redding pleads “Hard to Handle.” Sam & Dave and Percy Sledge round out the A-list, but lesser-knowns like the Motor City’s Dynamics (“Ice Cream Song”) Cooke up their own soda fountain goodness. Baby Washington’s Muscle Shoals massage lays out. Reissue this Baby. Ditto for Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston and Sylvia Shemwell – the Sweet Inspirations - who call down their own lady soul on “Crying in the Rain.”

Judy Clay, Shemwell’s sister, plus the Sweet Inspirations again and Baby Washington, kick-off the final disc with your seat already warmed up, the Interdenominational Youth Choir of Washington D.C. & Maryland rocking “God Gave Us a Song” like the Grand Canyon. “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” tiptoes grandly on it own terms. According to Vera, the “last truly great signing” of Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler – whom I had the honor to chat with two weeks ago – came in the person of Donny Hathaway. His appropriation of Leon Rusell’s “A Song for You” demonstrates why. Think Marvin Gaye’s younger brother. Hathaway (1945-1979) is what the Youth Choir of D.C. is singing about. Recently rediscovered soul stirrers Howard Tate and Bettye Swann lead in to “How Could I Let You Get Away” by forever standbys the Spinners. A final tap of the wand? Hall & Oates just prior to closing with “She’s Gone.” They’re as Atlantic soul as Steve Cropper.

At 20/21 songs per disc, and each CD approximately an hour, the cavalcade of hits and non-hits alike spins akin to the table top quarter guzzler at corner (retro) burger joints across the country. Drop George Washington into the slot and punch up “Some Kind of Wonderful” by Soul Brothers Six, who evoke the 6-CD house party that is Rhino’s Beg, Scream & Shout! The Big Ol’ Box of ‘60s Soul (1997) and even TVT Records’ 3-CD Rhythm Revue rollick from the previous year. Last Christmastime’s 4-CD What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves primed the pump to a bottomless well of lesser-known, commercially undiscovered sweet soul music. Atlantic Soul (1959-1975) gushes with it.

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