05 January 2010

The Dictionary of Soul: Arthur Conley

[Editor's Note: From time to time, The Dictionary of Soul looks at notable figures in the history of soul music, including those whose names have faded into the past.]

Arthur Conley grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and started out singing gospel at the tender age of 12, when his group was featured on local radio station WAOK. By the time he was 18 years old, he had followed the popular trend away from religious music that had been trail blazed by his hero, Sam Cooke. Conley cut three singles as lead singer in the group Arthur & The Corvets, but despite his strong vocal presence, the songs did not make much of a mark.

His next tried the solo route and a 45 that was released locally in 1964, "I'm A Lonely Stranger" (Ru-Jac Records), caught the ear of Otis Redding. The "Big O" signed Conley to his newly formed Jotis label and re-released the tune, this time recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis and produced by Jim Stewart. "It wasn't a big hit," said Redding, "but it started Arthur on his way." After another false start with the Conley-penned "Who's Foolin' Who," Conley was trucked down by Redding to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record his next two singles.

"Sweet Soul Music," co-written by Conley and Redding (and based on the melody of mutual hero Sam Cooke's "Yeah Man"), was released on Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco. As Redding later wrote in the liner notes to one of Conley's albums: "The first record I produced on my own was 'Sweet Soul Music.' That's the one that did it. Arthur's fabulous performance on that record turned it into a smash hit. It made Arthur Conley a big name on the soul scene." That's no understatement by a mentor championing his protege. "Sweet Soul Music" is electrifying, a full-throated soul tribute to Lou Rawls (ironically a protege of Cooke's), James Brown, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and (at Conley's insistence) Redding himself. The revue style of the song, replete with a horn chart that drives you out of your seat, would prove perfect on the road and on the radio. It hit #2 on the U.S. pop and R&B charts, as well as the top ten in many European countries.

Word in the music community was that Redding was using Conley as his stalking horse, testing the waters in order to move from his long-time Stax Records home - and a somewhat acrimonious relationship with Jim Stewart - to the mighty Atlantic. Jerry Wexler, the master producer behind so many successful acts (most notably at the time Aretha Franklin), did nothing to dispel such rumors.

Peter Guralnick, in his superb book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Little, Brown and Company 1986), opines from his research that "[i]ntrigue aside, Arthur Conley was ready to move in whatever direction Otis pointed. He was not, according to those who knew him, a fully developed personality, either on stage or off. He was 'confused,' says Otis' brother, Rodgers, 'naive,' says Alan Walden, uncertain of his true nature, others suggest. 'Arthur Conley was the invention of Otis Redding,' says Tom Dowd, who was slated to produce Arthur's next album at American with Otis but ended up producing it alone. 'Otis,' says Speedo Simms, Redding's road manager and subsequently Arthur's, 'really kept him in line. He had to pay attention to Otis. He respected Otis. Otis was the one who could make him. He just had the voice.' Otis, for his part, applied all the lessons that he had learned coming up, tried to pass on whatever knowledge he had acquired to his young protege, and perhaps in the process further unsuited him to independence. In the end, for better or for worse, Arthur Conley was a star."

Conley followed up "Sweet Soul Music" with a minor hit, a remake of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll." His substantial sales - along with the star pull of Redding - ended up landing him high on the bill of the Stax-Volt Revue tour in Europe in the spring of 1967, despite the fact that Conley wasn't even a Stax recording artist. This led to some grumbling by the others, but the tour was a smashing success. Looking back, how could it have failed? In addition to Redding and Conley, Sam & Dave, The Mar-Keys, Eddie Floyd, Al Bell and Booker T. & The M.G.'s shared the bill!

But the center of Conley's musical life was about to disappear. Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in December 1967. If you can find it (try LaLa), listen to Conley's stirring - and incredibly personal - tribute to his mentor, "Otis, Sleep On," released early in 1968 on his album Soul Directions. The effort also included the infectious single "Funky Street" but only enjoyed moderate sales.

Although it would prove to be a famous footnote in soul history, Conley fell into his next gig almost by default. Soul titans Solomon Burke ("Just Out of Reach" and "Got To Get You Off Of My Mind"), Joe Tex ("Skinny Legs and All") and Wilson Pickett ("Mustang Sally" and "In The Midnight Hour") hatched an idea with songwriter/performer Don Covay ("Mercy, Mercy" and "See-Saw") to create a type of black Rat Pack in 1966, which presumably was to include Otis Redding. Their goals were adventuresome: demand a million dollar advance from Atlantic to record and perform as a soul supergroup; set up a recording studio in Birmingham; and acquire business and real estate holdings throughout the country. To no one's surprise, egos got in the way, particularly Pickett's. Alas, it wasn't until after Redding's death that the remaining singers entered the studio, along with replacements Ben E. King ("Stand By Me") and Conley.

The collaboration was titled Soul Meeting. The five singers released one single, "Soul Meeting" b/w "That's How It Feels." Written by Covay, the review of the two sides by Guralnick is dead-on: "Covay tailored both sides of the single to the individual talents of each of the participants, and the whole enterprise had a loose, easygoing, improvisational feel which was scarcely affected by the fact that the singers never did get to actually meet in the studio (thus giving the lie to the title of the A side) but instead recorded their vocals separately to a backing track which Covay had put together with Bobby Womack at the Wildwood Studio in Hollywood." Soul Meeting fell flat in sales - Atlantic blamed the lack of original content; Burke blamed the label for tamping down the group's economic aspirations. The album, now again in print from Rhino Atlantic, includes a pair of individual tracks from each the five participants and is highly recommended.

Thereafter, Conley's career yielded a couple of minor soul hits and an ill-advised stint with Capricorn Records from 1971 to 1974. He left for England in 1975 and subsequently spent time in Belgium.

While Wilson Pickett finally joined The Soul Clan in an aborted reunion in 1981, Arthur Conley was in Europe for good. He eventually settled in The Netherlands and did some recording after he legally changed his name to Lee Roberts. He died of cancer on November 17, 2003.

Arthur Conley performs "Sweet Soul Music" live in 1967.

Bruce Springsteen gives his take of the song - saluting Sam Cooke - back in July 1988 in Basel, Switzerland; and again, finally finding the right key in November 2009 at Madison Square Garden during one of the "request" portions of last tour.

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