The Queens of Soul, from Aretha to Dolly, will warm up any winter night, even during the coldest times of this pandemic. Christine Ohlman, herself a soul queen and a musical staple on Saturday Night Live, defines her terms and then takes us through the roster of royalty, introducing us to those women who’ve got “it.” Soul, that is.
by Christine Ohlman
Winter is comin’ on strong in this year of isolation, 2020, and with its chill, my thoughts turn soulfully warm, toward the Queens of Soul, one and all: those who topped the charts, as well as the badass, hyper-talented women who worked the margins of soul music so brilliantly.
THE QUEEN MOTHERS:
Aretha Franklin / Irma Thomas / Etta James / Dionne Warwick / Tina Turner / Dusty Springfield / Mavis Staples / Ann Peebles
When Aretha Franklin sprang, full-throated, out of obscurity at age 14, sitting down at the piano in her father’s Detroit church and banging out “Yield Not To Temptation,” caught for posterity on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, she was years away from Soul Queen status. She’d still have to run the gauntlet through a stint in New York City on Columbia Records, where she’d record off-the-mark songs like “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” for Mitch Miller. That deal eventually went south and so, wisely, did Franklin, landing in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1967 with producer Jerry Wexler and the cream of the FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studio band behind her. This unbeatable combination, although fleeting (she soon returned to New York, bringing with her what Wexler called “that wonderful rhythm section of Alabama white boys who took a left turn at the blues”), was a sign of things to come.
Once Aretha opened the door, a small army of sequine-clad, hip-shakin’ queens sashayed through it. Some of the most notorious— Mavis, Irma, Dionne, Ann, and Tina—are still on the scene; Etta, Dusty and Queen Aretha, sadly, are gone. And what of the unsung queens—those whose artistry never won them huge commercial success, but nevertheless burned their names into soul music history? They are a fascinating group of strong, savvy, sexy women, artistically diverse, yet joined at the heart. I’m privileged to sing a choice selection of their songs with The Saturday Night Live Band as part of that band’s deep-soul songbook.
Once Aretha opened the door, a small army of sequine-clad, hip-shakin’ queens sashayed through it.
What Makes a Queen a Queen?
THE SONGS: What sets the Queen apart is that she knows. She sings—in songs (often penned by a male lyricist) that are low-down and sublime, soul shaking and soul sanctifying—of pain and joy; of loss and deep love. She rejoices in her man, in the pleasure of his touch, dirty and sweet, but can turn on a dime and, taking deadly aim with her voice, mark him as a heartbreaker, a wrongdoer, a dog.
THE SOUND: It’s the raw cry of souls scrubbed bare-naked. The Queens wail; they moan. Some sport a veneer of refinement, and some are just plain down-home. Their voices cut deep, way down. It’s the sound of the South, and of church—redemptive and deeply human. Classically, in the ’60s and ’70s the sound emerged from backwater recording studios and tiny labels whose names then went down in history—FAME, Hi, Royal, Muscle Shoals Sound, Stax, Sound Stage 7,Volt, Goldwax, Norala—with backing bands largely composed of white musicians. These studio cats are the unsung heroes of this story. As Jimmy Johnson, ace session guitarist at FAME, said, “I didn’t even think of the music as being black or white. It was several years before I realized that the whole floor was full of white boys and one black singer. I remember turnin’ around and goin’…’wow!’ “
THE LOOK: Sequins covering a tight dress, a ton of rhinestones, a fine wig, and lots of eye makeup (Etta was the Kabuki-eyed queen—check her out on the cover of her live LP Etta James Rocks The House)
THE ATTITUDE: Sass and class mixed, in equal amounts, with a generous helping of unshakeable strength. The Queen’s touring schedule often added up to years on the grueling Southern loop known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. No shrinking violets allowed—ever.
THE BEEHIVE QUEEN’S UNSUNG PICKS:
Reveling in the beauty and brilliance of my top video picks on a Covid-cold, dreary wintry day, my soul was warmed and uplifted. So, come on a soulful journey with me—and pay special attention to my two wonderful “Comeback Queens”, the great Candi Staton and Bettye LaVette!
#1. Ruby Johnson: The Unsung Queen of them all, Johnson had a workingwoman’s face and an unforgettable voice full of hurt and longing. Her records for Stax, produced by the team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter (the monumental “I’ll Run Your Hurt Away” and “How Strong Is My Love”) featured some of Steve Cropper’s best unheralded guitar work. Pre-Stax, the monumental “Come Back To Me,” recorded in her native Washington DC on the Nebs label, is a collectors’ treasure.
Ruby Johnson- “I’ll Run Your Hurt Away”
#2. Erma Franklin: On the original version of “Piece Of My Heart,” written by Jerry Ragovoy & Bert Berns, and framed by Paul Griffin’s stark piano intro, Aretha’s older sister pours out her broken heart. Janis Joplin wisely covered it; Faith Hill and Melissa Etheridge have since been similarly smart. Other fine sides for the Shout label include “Just Not Ready For Love” and “Gotta Find Me A Lover (24 Hours A Day).” Erma sang with the third Franklin sister, Carolyn, in church choir and, famously, all three joined voices on Aretha’s version of “Spanish Harlem.”
Erma Franklin- “Piece Of My Heart”
#3. Mabel John: “Shouldn’t I Love Him,” “I’m A Big Girl Now,” and “Don’t Hit Me No More” are but the tip of the soulful iceberg waxed by Little Willie John’s sister at Stax, once again aided by the Hayes-Porter songwriting/production team (with Isaac Hayes playing some of his best piano). Hers are grown-up records in the best sense, fueled by a voice that’s sweet, worldly, and weighty with experience.
Mable John-“Shouldn’t I Love Him”:
#4. Judy Clay: Haunting, lovely tracks with stellar backup harmonies were her specialty, and no surprise: she was briefly part of the Drinkard Singers—later The Sweet Inspirations, soul music’s studio session queens. “The Greatest Love” is flawless, and “It Takes A Lotta Good Love” is a hip-shakin’ delight. She recorded swingin’ duets, too, with William Bell (“Love-Eye-Tis”) and Billy Vera (the radio hit “Country Girl-City Man”).
Judy Clay-“The Greatest Love”:
#5. Lorraine Ellison: Ellison’s “Stay With Me”, written and produced by the great Jerry Ragovoy, is one of the most thrilling records ever made. British rocker Terry Reid covered it, and Janis Joplin covered her “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder).” A true soprano, Ellison’s flights into the upper register presage the modern stylings of singers like Mariah Carey.
“Stay With Me”-Lorraine Ellison
#6. Jackie Moore: Her radio smash “Precious, Precious” joins “Make Me Feel Like A Woman,” “Darling Baby” and “Wonderful, Marvelous” in showcasing one of soul music’s warmest, most seductive voices. She often worked with the Dixie Flyers, Jim Dickinson’s band of southern redneck geniuses.
Jackie Moore: “Make Me Feel Like A Woman”
#7. Bettye Swann: “Be Strong Enough To Hold On” and “I’m Just Living A Lie” (Atlantic and Fame, respectively) feature a shimmering vibrato so deep you could drown in it. And seek out her rockin’ sides on the Money label, like “The Heartache Is Gone”—she wrote this track, as she did “Make Me Yours,” her biggest radio hit.
Bettye Swann- “Be Strong Enough To Hold On”
#8. Laura Lee: Al Green called her “the deepest singer I’ve ever heard.” A gospel star first, her soul career spanned two labels and artistic thrusts—the more country-soul sides on Chess (“Love More Than Pride”) and the joyful, empowered sounds of the Hot Wax sides (“Women’s Love Rights,” “Wanted, Lover, No Experience Necessary”).
Laura Lee-“Love More Than Pride”
#9. Betty Harris: “Trouble With My Lover” (just one of a group of great New Orleans productions by Allen Toussaint), “I’m A Fool For You” (an uncredited duet with soul king James Carr), and a transcendent (many would say definitive) version of “Cry To Me” that’s sexy and sad all at once are all standouts. Harris’s powerful 2007 comeback release, Intution, produced by Nashville’s Jon Tiven, highlights her gorgeously-well-worn low register as she moans and shouts with a soulful elegance all her own.
Betty Harris-“Cry To Me”
#10. Carla Thomas: The “teen queen” of Stax Records first dueted with her father Rufus at age 17 on the rockin’ “Because I Love You,” graduating to hits like “B-A-B-Y” and “Tramp,” her sassy toe-to-toe outing with Otis Redding. She could go deep, too, on the wonderful “Let Me Be Good To You” and “How Do You Quit (Someone You Love).”
Carla Thomas-“How Do You Quit (Someone You Love)”
#11. Barbara Lynn: This Texas guitar-totin’ queen (star of one of the best clips you’ll ever see on YouTube from the classic TV show !!THE BEAT!!) hit big on Atlantic with “’Until Then I’ll Suffer” and “You’ll Lose A Good Thing,” produced by Louisiana record man Huey P. Meaux. She can still be seen on the blues festival circuit today.
Barbara Lynn-“Until Then I’ll Suffer”
#12. Denise LaSalle: LaSalle was a pioneer in the sense that she wrote many of her own songs for a variety of labels and then sang them with equal helpings of beauty and blue grit (later in her career, she rivaled Millie Jackson for her all-out blue stage show). “A Love Reputation” (Chess), “My Brand On You” and “Hung Up, Strung Out (Westbound), and “A Man-Sized Job” (Malaco) all feature her strutting, truth-telling style.
Denise LaSalle-“A Man-Sized Job”;
#13. Millie Jackson: No one could strut like Jackson, whose X-Rated stage persona was barely toned down on mostly self-penned sides like “Young Man, Older Woman” and the achingly fine “It Hurts So Good” (featured in the Cleopatra Jones soundtrack). On LPs with titles like Live and Outrageous, Jackson raised the truth-telling bar, paving the way for the most outspoken of today’s female rap artists.
Millie Jackson-“It Hurts So Good”
#14. Betty Wright: This Florida-based queen (Hialeah’s TK Studio was her home turf) popularized the often-sampled “Clean-Up Woman” along with “Tonight Is The Night,” “He’s Bad, Bad, Bad,” and perhaps the best version of Allen Toussaint’s “Shoorah Shoorah,” which has long been included in my SNL Band sets. Until her death earlier this year, Wright had been Gloria Estefan’s demo singer, and had tutored soul princess Joss Stone.
Betty Wright-“Shoorah Shoorah”
#15. Joshie Jo Armstead: This former Ikette (she sings on “I’m Blue”) is a true soul renaissance woman. She co-wrote with Ashford & Simpson (“Let’s Go Get Stoned” “I Don’t Need No Doctor”), founded and ran her own labels, and had solo hits like “I Feel An Urge Coming On,” “Stepping Stone,” “I Been Turned On,” and “A Stone Good Lover.” She continues to make the scene in NYC as a style icon and a personal friend.
Joshie Jo Armsted-“I Been Turned On”
#16-18. The Ladies Of Sound Stage 7: Deejay “John R” (John Richbourg) had a way-deep Nashville stable at his Sound Stage 7 label, including Ella Washington (“I Can’t Afford To Lose Him”); Ann Sexton (“Have A Little Mercy”); and Margie Hendrix (post-Raelettes—she led Ray Charles’ section for years, and was famously his paramour), with the fabulously righteous “Do Right Baby” and the sassed-up “Somebody Else Is Gonna Plow Your Field.” These Queens couldn’t have been more down-home, or more right.
Ella Washington-“I Can’t Afford To Lose Him”
Ann Sexton-“Have A Little Mercy”
Margie Hendrix-“Do Right Baby”
#19. Jean Knight: “Mr. Big Stuff,” produced by super-fine New Orleans arranger Wardell Quezerque, was huge, as was the follow-up, “You Think You’re Hot Stuff,” but the more obscure non-stop groove of “Carry On” (Stax) should have been a radio anthem; get up and dance!!!!.
Jean Knight-“Carry On”
#20. Inez Foxx: After recording with her brother Charlie (who HASN’T heard their original version of “Mockingbird”?), she church-shouted her way onto Stax’s Volt subsidiary for “Circuits Overloaded” and “You Hurt Me For The Last Time.” Her and Charlie’s matching tiger-skin outfits were the tops in raunchy cool.
Inez Foxx-“I Stand Accused”
#21. Dee Dee Warwick: Sister of Dionne, niece of Cissy Houston and therefore cousin of Whitney, she belongs on this list for one huge reason: Her 1963 tour-de-force version of “You’re No Good,” produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, causes the Linda Ronstadt cover to pale, as Dee Dee struts, growls, and spits out the lyrics like so many daggers aimed straight at her lover’s heart. Her joyous cries of “Hey! Hey!” must be heard!
Dee Dee Warwick-“You’re No Good”
(And, as a bonus, check out the sisters, Dionne and Dee Dee—both of whom came out of the family gospel business, The Drinkard Singers—shouting to the Lord framed by go-go dancers!)
#22. COMEBACK QUEEN: Candi Staton: The former Mrs. Clarence Carter is the elegant, much-loved “Soul Queen of Muscle Shoals”. She had sweet, woman-wise Sixties hits like “Stand By Your Man,” “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart,” “How Can I Put Out The Flame” (in my SNL songbook!) and the completely wonderful “To Hear You Say You’re Mine,” then skirted the disco era with “Young Hearts Run Free.” Her 2006 comeback disc His Hands is a country-soul tour-de-force produced by Mark Nevers of Lambchop and recorded in Nashville with soul veteran Barry Beckett on keys. The Will Oldham-penned title cut will make your blood run cold. She followed that up with an appearance in the Muscle Shoals film documentary and on Letterman with Jason Isbell, and continues to record at FAME. I’m so proud to call her a friend, and a duet partner.
Candi Staton-“How Can I Put Out The Flame”
#23. COMEBACK QUEEN: Bettye LaVette: Just 15 when she came on the scene in 1962, she bounced around from label to label for years, making fabulous but little-heard records like “Let Me Down Easy,” “He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (SNL Band staple!!) and “Right In The Middle Of Falling In Love.” More recently, appearances on Late Night With David Letterman and SXSW have brought her back to the spotlight. A collectors’ holy-grail LP shelved by Atlantic in 1972 finally saw release in 2006, and since then, she’s carved out a huge presence on festival stages and Grammy nomination lists. (her latest, 2020’s Blackbird finds her delving back to the music of Billie Holiday and others)
Bettye LaVette-“Let Me Down Easy”
SIDEBAR: THE QUEENS OF COUNTRY SOUL
(a shortened list–more in my next blog!):
The genre of Country Soul reigned supreme in the 1970s, when country artists collided joyfully with “Southern Soul” music’s hits, along with its front-tier studios and session cats. But in the case of the four wonderful women below, “soul” was always in their blood—and in their art. I love this quote on how the women of Country approach their songs: “You can hang your head and cry piteously, or tilt your chin up and let the tears inside you turn into a salty form of power.”
Patsy Cline: Patsy, who died in a plane crash in 1963, the year before Dolly Parton first took a bus to Nashville, had a voice that could tug at your heart—or tear it right out. A magnificently-talented iconoclast, she’d worn slacks on the stage of the grand old Opry, and for that sin had been berated by a male host before the crowd. The swell in her voice at the beginning of the posthumously-released “Sweet Dreams” is enough to make a strong man (or a Beehive Queen) weep.
Patsy Cline-“Sweet Dreams”
Loretta Lynn: Grit and sass powered Lynn’s truth-telling songwriting as she picked up the mantle of Patsy Cline following Cline’s untimely death (they’d become close friends). The film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” framed her life in Butcher Holler, Kentucky as the backdrop to her later artistry, and her lovely, sexy duets with Conway Twitty set an ultra-soulful high-water mark.
Loretta Lynn-“After The Fire Is Gone (LIVE)”
(watch her place her hand on her heart as she and Twitty come apart for the pedal steel break)
Tammy Wynette: Wynette, a hairdresser-turned-unforgettable-Country queen, possessed a brilliant voice with a distinctively breathtaking “catch” that lent every line she sang special poignancy. Her life, including the rocky road of her longtime relationship with George Jones, mirrored that heartbreak.
Tammy Wynette-“Til I Get It Right”
Dolly Parton: Parton is perhaps Country’s truest soul queen for her staying power, grit, and resonance. A force of nature, she’s been on the vanguard for 50 years, and recently brought Stephen Colbert to tears in a Zoom Late Show broadcast after she spontaneously burst into an acapella version of “Bury Me ‘Neath The Willow Tree.”
Dolly Parton-“Touch Your Woman”