DAVID NATHAN'S DIARY - August 13, 2021: DEEP SOUL LEGENDS: JUDY CLAY AND LORRAINE ELLISON

Judy Clay & Lorraine Ellison

DEEP SOUL....

To their credit, the US network TV One has been successful in chronicling the stories of some of the legends and icons of mainstream R&B and soul music through the series "Unsung."  When I think of 'unsung' artists, I go to others who never gained  anything like the same kind of mainstream popularity associated with those profiled in that series: I think of the cadre of men and women who often found themselves standing in the shadows of fame, whose recorded performances were just a little 'too much' for mass consumption, 'too much' by virtue of the unbridled passion that helped define their place as 'deep soul' brothers and sisters...

I first became aware of 'deep soul' by virtue of meeting Dave Godin, the founder of the UK Tamla Motown Appreciation Society who was instrumental in bringing Motown's then-burgeoning artists to the consciousness of British music listeners and record buyers.  Referred to as 'The Godfather Of American R&B' in Britain, Dave was a voice for the unheralded singers who he felt were as much a part of the Hitsville hit factory as The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations and others.  Dave and I met in 1965 just months after I began the UK Nina Simone Appreciation Society and I vividly recall that during the course of our very first conversation, he played me some records that he felt would give me a better understanding of the breadth and depth of what he called 'the music of Black America.'  He choose three discs in particular to demonstrate what would he would soon give public recognition to as 'deep soul': first up, Betty (before she added the 'e') LaVette's immortal "Let Me Down Easy," which may well be my favourite deep soul record of all time; "Giving Up" by Gladys Knight & The Pips (before they joined Motown); and the most successful of the trio from a US chart perspective, "Every Little Bit Hurts" by Brenda Holloway.  

The sheer emotion that Betty, Gladys and Brenda imbued into those three records left me literally speechless.  The 'real-ness' in those performances was undeniable and, as I would soon discover, there were other such powerful recordings by artists whose names were unfamiliar at the time to all but the most devoted fans of American R&B - Mitty Collier, Big Maybelle, The Knight Brothers and Mable John included.  

Towards the end of 1966, I was staying at Dave's home in Bexleyheath just outside London as we prepared to open Soul City, a record store dedicated to selling only American R&B and the burgeoning genre known as 'soul music.'  I awoke in my room at Dave's house to a sound that I simply never forgot. Pye Records - then distributors in Britain for US Warner Brothers repertoire - had sent Dave a review copy of a single by a then-emergent female singer, Lorraine Ellison.  The absolutely unparalleled one-take-only recording of "Stay With Me" simply defied description.  Both Dave and I were in agreement: this was easily one of the most 'chills-on-the-back-of-the-neck' performances ever laid down on wax. (Years later, Godin would decry Lorraine's performance as 'contrived' forgetting, apparently, his initial reaction to it!).  I had purchased a couple of Lorraine's singles for Mercury Records in 1965 with my hard-earned pocket money but nothing had prepared me - or the listening public - for "Stay With Me."  It epitomized what I would come to know as 'deep soul,' delivered with unabashed abandon, sung from a place within that few vocalists would ever even try to access...

LORRAINE ELLISON: "STAY WITH ME"....

Not surprisingly, it was virtually impossible for Lorraine (signed to Warner Brothers but with singles released on the Loma imprint) to surpass her performance on "Stay With Me" (as pop mythology reminds us was cut with a full orchestra in New York at a planned Frank Sinatra recording session - with Lorraine replacing a no-show unwell Frank!). Live performances were far and few between since re-creating the sheer dramatic impact of the song onstage was seemingly daunting, even for a singer such as Lorraine, whose background in gospel music with the Philadelphia-based family group, The Ellison Singers had stood her in good stead for live shows.  A creative mis-step by Warners in 1966 resulted in Lorraine's first LP ("Heart & Soul") but rather than establish her in the R&B market, the album contained a number of jazz and pop standards that didn't match "Stay With Me" in content or approach.  

As I discovered in my first interview with Lorraine in 1974 for "Blues & Soul" magazine, it was a number of pop and rock luminaries such as Van Morrison, Laura Nyro and others who had 'championed' the original 45 of "Stay With Me" and such was the renewed interest in Lorraine that the fruits of her sessions with producer Jerry Ragovoy were collated into the 1969 LP bearing the name of the much-heralded soul classic.  Once again, commercial success eluded Lorraine although the album was hailed as a soulful tour-de-force with tracks such as "You Don't Know Nothing About Love," "Heart Be Still" and "I'm Gonna Cry Til My Tears Run Dry."  Four years later - after a less-than-successful recording session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1970 - Warners released one more album by Lorraine, a self-titled set produced by Ted Templeman that included some 'nods' to her gospel roots (such as "I'll Fly Away" and "Walk Around Heaven All Day") and tracks like Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross" and the quirky "No Relief."  Third time did not prove to be charm, sales-wise for Lorraine, and she basically left the music business after the album's lack of success to look after her mother and return to singing in church which she continued to do until her passing in 1983.  

I had the joy of meeting Lorraine in person in 1975 shortly after I began living in New York as the US correspondent for "Blues & Soul."  She invited me to Philadelphia and I recall not only her warmth and kindness (as an overnight guest in the Ellison home) but her cooking (!) and the opportunity to hear her sing at the piano right there her living room.  We talked for hours and I was struck by the kind of 'real-ness' that was evident in her music and I left with a tinge of melancholy for what I felt mainstream audiences never got to experience, the 'deep soul' of Lorraine's musical majesty.  The opportunity to put together a 3-CD set of Lorraine's work for Warner Brothers (including several until-then-unreleased tracks and demos) in 2006 was truly an honour and thanks to today's technology, all of those recordings can be found on digital platforms such as Spotify under the collection's name, "Sister Love".

JUDY CLAY: "YOU CAN'T RUN AWAY FROM YOUR HEART"...

If Lorraine Ellison's "Stay With Me" first floored me in 1966, it was another 'deep soul' singer whose name I had been more familiar with who came a close second in 1967 with a Stax recording, "You Can't Run Away From Your Heart."  I knew of Judy Clay by virtue of her association with Dionne Warwick, whose music had provided me with my 'entry' into the music of Black America in 1964.  As a faithful member of the Dionne Warwick & The Shirelles' UK fan club, I was aware that Judy - the featured vocalist on recordings by The Drinkard Singers (the family group managed by Dionne's mother Lee and whose line-up included one Emily 'Cissy' Drinkard, later Houston) - had been adopted by the Warwick family in New Jersey.  She had made her first secular recordings in 1961 and 1962 before signing with Scepter Records in 1964, the very same label to which Dionne was signed.  While the label released a few singles, none of them made any headway commercially although years later, tracks like "You Busted My Mind" and "I'm Comin' Home" would become big favourites among Britain's 'Northern Soul' brigade.

Much like Lorraine, Judy's vocal style was unflinchingly full of feeling and emotion.  The degree to which Judy could deliver performances with such passion and power had much to do with her gospel roots and while Judy's deep contralto tones were in notable contrast to Lorraine's soprano-plus stratospheric style, both singers experienced a similar fate when it came to mainstream popularity and success.  It took two duets - 1967's "Storybook Children" with blue-eyed soul man Billy Vera (an at-the-time controversial pairing of an interracial musical duo) and 1968's "Private Number" with Stax stalwart William Bell - to bring Judy's name to the fore.  Since neither of the recordings were intended as launch pads for ongoing touring stints with her respective male duet partners, Judy's solo career benefited little from the success that each achieved. 

A man known for his 'ear' for 'deep soul' singing, Atlantic's Jerry Wexler signed Judy in 1967 and 'loaned' her to Stax Records in Memphis with whom Atlantic had a distribution deal.  When I first heard the Isaac Hayes-David Porter penned-and-produced "You Can't Run Away From Your Heart" in the late autumn of '67 at my Soul City record store, I recall just literally being stopped in my tracks.  Judy's commandingly powerful vocals cut to the core.  Sad to say, even US R&B radio stations paid it little heed but thankfully, when Stax Records switched distribution from Atlantic, Judy remained with the Memphis-based company.  "Private Number" gave a boost to Judy's chart fortunes even though it was recorded as a duet almost as an afterthought when William Bell happened to be on hand for what was essentially Judy's next Stax session.  A few more amazing recordings - such as "Remove These Clouds" and "Give Love To Save Love" with Hayes & Porter - demonstrated Judy's uncompromising vocal intensity and her appearance on the soundtrack of Booker T.'s "Uptight" singing the gospel ode, "Children Don't Get Weary" continued my own musical love affair with Judy's sound.  

In 1970, shortly after a recording session in Muscle Shoals with Billy Vera (which yielded the underground favourite, "Reaching For The Moon"), Jerry Wexler brought Judy 'back' to Atlantic to record what was intended as a full solo album. The results were a series of singles, only one of which, "Greatest Love"  made any US chart 'noise.'  A number of tracks remained unreleased and Judy parted ways with Atlantic.  In the years that followed, Judy did some session work, performed on shows with Ray Charles but other than a planned LP with producer Dave Crawford in 1978 (which resulted in one single, a remake of The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive") returned to singing in church after dealing with health challenges in 1979. 

I had the joy of finally speaking with Judy in 1993 (sadly, eight years before her passing in 2001) for her first and only full length interview for Britain's "Blues & Soul," thanks to Dee Dee Warwick's arranging the call.  It was so wonderful to be finally talking to a woman whose music had been part of my life since 1967 and while it was clear that Judy felt that she hadn't gotten her fair share of 'breaks' in the music industry, she was thrilled to know that there were soul music lovers - in particular in the UK - who cherished and appreciated her recordings.  In 1995, I was able to do some Atlantic Records' vault research and discovered some of the tracks left over from Judy's 1970 Muscle Shoals' sessions including a to-the-bone cover of Johnnie Taylor's "I Got To Love Somebody's Baby." Still 'in the can' is a cover of Bobby Bland's "I Pity The Fool" which Jerry Wexler once mentioned to me as one of his favourite recordings from his years at Atlantic. 

Much could be said about Lorraine Ellison and Judy Clay in terms of commercial acceptance or viability.  That their respective prodigious talents never gained widespread recognition outside of the lovers of 'deep soul' (in particular in Europe) takes away nothing from how much they deserve to be heralded and saluted for their contribution to the world of music and thanks to modern technology, we can still relish and appreciate two of these true 'unsung' legends by listening to the honest emotion and feeling that pervades their timeless recordings.  Personally, the music of Judy and Lorraine continues to touch my heart and soothe my soul and for that I am eternally grateful...

DAVID NATHAN'S SPOTIFY PLAYLIST OF SELECTED RECORINGS BY JUDY CLAY & LORRAINE ELLISON

                                                                              JUDY CLAY - "IT'S ME"

                                           LORRAINE ELLISON - "YOU DON'T KNOW NOTHING ABOUT LOVE"

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