Friday, December 26, 2008

Digital cameras are hard...and Columbia soul is underrated

I'm a complete and utter clod when it comes to taking digital photographs, so please forgive this 'reverse image' shot of Ronnie Dyson's 1970 single, I Don't Wanna Cry. It's intended to illustrate a point that needs making: far from being the Mitch Miller wasteland of myth, Columbia actually released some good stuff, and I'm not talking about His Bobster and The Byrds.

It's long been gospel amongst fans of soul music that the sides Aretha cut for Columbia were sub-standard show tunes, and that the Queen didn't ascend to her throne until she was rescued by Tom Dowd and his friends at Atlantic Records. That myth has come undone over the last few years as folks have started to actually listen to these sides and discovered some of them (e.g., Soulville) are just as powerful and gritty as Chain of Fools or The House That Jack Built.

But I still thought of Columbia as being a boring, fuddy-duddy label when it came to African-American music--until I gave this Dyson 45 a spin. From my perspective, Columbia's conservatism was beneficial for the black artists they signed, because this 1970 release wouldn't have sounded out of place if it had been released five years earlier. The chicken scratch guitar, the strings, the femme backing could all have been the product of Detroit 1966 or Chicago 1967.

The flip, She's Gone, is a tasteful big ballad which isn't quite as good as the 'A' side, but it's not bad at all. It sounds a bit more contemporaneous than its partner, too.

Dyson was a stage actor who was the lead in the original production of Hair, and as I write this it occurs to me that perhaps Columbia had some of his old recordings in the can that they decided to fob off to the Aquarians of the early '70s. Possibly...but I Don't Wanna Cry became a Top 10 R&B hit, suggesting that African-Americans still had a taste for good, old-fashioned, upbeat soul music . Only 20 years of age in 1970, Dyson sadly shuffled off this mortal coil in 1990 thanks to a heart attack.

All this also got me thinking about one of my favourite obscure soul LPs, an eponymous offering by The Swordsmen, which was released on the similarly stodgy RCA Victor label in 1969. The Swordsmen were Clevelanders Eddie Anderson and Raymond Thompson, who did a pretty good James and Bobby Purify impersonation and must have enjoyed the photo shoot for their one and only album. Apparently they were spotted by Nina Simone, who helped them get a record deal. If you ever see this album, snap it up. You won't be disappointed.

The bottom line is: don't shy away from soul records on painfully unhip record labels.

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