Lorraine Ellison: Heart And Soul
By David Nathan
David Nathan talks to the "Stay With Me" lady, who's set to unleash her talents and become much more than just a singers' singer
REVERED; worshipped; adored; incomparable; unique: these are some of the adjectives bandied about when the name Lorraine Ellison creeps into soul music conversations, They call her "the singers' singer" because numerous rock luminaries — Laura Nyro, Van Morrison and others — have hailed this Philadelphia-born lady as an inspiration, a dynamite talent and a stone singer.
Even up till right now, the public at large has yet to discover Lorraine Ellison. You could even say, truthfully, that she has yet to reach the ears of many soul folk too — because her recording output for various reasons, has been far from profuse. Fortunately, she does not remain a totally unknown entity but after coming up to ten years as a recording artiste. Lorraine has still got a long way to go in terms of public acceptance.
Is she worried? Well, she'll admit, she hopes the people out there will finally get her message and hear her but it hasn't been an easy road. It's not that the talent isn't there: the voice is one of a kind, the kind that you listen to and don't easily forget. Over the years, Lorraine's earlier recordings (starting with the phenomenal "Stay With Me," the record which most people associate with the lady) have become prized gems amongst discerning fans and anyone who is remotely into "deep soul" will dig where Lorraine is coming from: she is at essence, a gospel singer with strong roots, conviction and stature.
Part of the biggest problem in getting Lorraine Ellison across has been material: finding the right kind of songs with enough commercial appeal to make it, without underplaying any of the power of the woman when she emotes with feeling and passion. In fact, she'll tell you, that has played the biggest part of all in preventing a total breakthrough for her career.
Times, hopefully, are changing but back to the beginning. Lorraine's musical background is steeped in the church: in the searing, sharing sound of testifyin' and truth. And Lorraine has never left it. One look at some of the titles on her latest album will tell you that "Walk Around Heaven" and "I'll Fly Away", for instance, and take one listen and you'll know that gospel music is an integral part of this woman's being.
As part of The Ellison Singers (whose line-up included her sister, brother and cousins), Lorraine was the featured singer. The recognition accorded the group resulted in a trip to Italy back in 1964 and instant acceptance and success at the Festival of Two Worlds. On her return to the States. Lorraine was pacted with Mercury Records. The teaming was far from successful but it did establish Lorraine's name with r&b people on a small basis. Two singles came out from the deal: Lorraine's original version of the Jerry Butler hit, "I Dig You Baby" and "Call Me Anytime You Need Some Lovin'" which features an early Van McCoy ballad on the flip, "Please Don't Teach Me To Love You". What went wrong at Mercury?
"Well, we had hassles because they really didn't know what direction to take me in. They really had no idea what kind of material to have me record. I'd written some things myself, like "Lover's Chant" which Dee Dee Warwick recorded — she was with Mercury then. But I never got to do it myself. You see, you run into all kinds of problems if you don't adopt a really strong arm' policy with producers. Plus a lot of times, an artist isn't really in a position to dictate what they want to do and you need someone in there to be fighting on your behalf."
Lorraine's Mercury material was produced by Sam Bell, who was also Lorraine's manager for a period of time — she's now managed by her husband. Sam's name may be familiar as the man behind The Enchanters, Garnet Mimms and co., but Lorraine says she was never actually in the group although, of course, she knows them all. She reports, incidentally, that Sam is now a preacher, having forsaken his career in show business. "It was through Sam that we got in touch with Jerry Ragovoy, who was producing Garnet and did work with The Enchanters who were on Loma — the r&b subsidiary for Warner Brothers. This was in 1966: we did an audition for Warners, they seemed to like it and signed me up.
"I remember that first session on "Stay With Me" particularly vividly. Jerry called up and told us we had the studio for three numbers — because Frank Sinatra had cancelled one of his sessions. Well, Gary Sherman was the arranger for the session and we had a huge orchestra assembled — or I should say a huge orchestra was assembled for Frank Sinatra. No one told them that he'd cancelled and that I was going to be recording instead and it was real funny watching them go over the scores for the songs we were doing. When the time came' for me to come out to record, the guys just fell apart — Frank sure had changed! I have to confess that I was very nervous about the session but I think it was successful.
"Stay With Me" was a song that Jerry Ragovoy had written with George David Weiss and I thought it was going to be a monster smash. It certainly looked that way: the record had twenty-six national breakouts in the States and it did make it onto the soul charts and made some headway onto the nationals. But at that time, Warners was just not into black music period. They really had no idea how to promote the record and they had no real way of getting into the r&b market."
All of which was, of course, a great pity. The record was quietly released by Pye Records in Britain in 1966 and although it did manage to captivate the hearts (and souls) of a small minority of folk who found it totally stunning in its unashamedly raw approach, it remained an unacknowledged classic. To many people, it still typifies the basic idea of what real soul music is all about and there aren't too many soulful people around who don't get that spine-chilling tingle when they hear it even to this day.
But back to Lorraine: "After the single was fairly successful for us, Warners felt we should go in and do an album. It was, frankly, a tragedy. The album was called 'Heart & Soul' and I just call it a big flop! It was taking me in the wrong direction — I don't know what they called it — jazz-gospel or something, but it just didn't capture what I was all about. That, in itself, has been one of my biggest problems: finding material that captures what Lorraine Ellison is all about!" The album died because it in no way reflected the talents of the woman which had so obviously been touched upon with "Stay With Me".
Sticking with producer Jerry Ragovoy, Lorraine cut a series of sides which kept her name alive in terms of r&b fans but which never really did much to establish the lady's career generally. She was switched from Warners onto the Loma label for the singles, which included "Only Your Love", a song much in the "Stay With Me" mould; "Heart. Be Still", an adaptation of the old hymn "Peace Be Still"; "I Want To Be Loved" and "Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)" which put Lorraine in a semi-funk bag. "But somehow, we still had a problem trying to find what the best way for me to go was. You know, sometimes a producer's idea of what he wants is different from what you want. I know I had the vocal range and some of the material we cut was better than other things I'd done but really, to me, material is the name of the game. If you haven't got the right song, to fit the singer, then you're wasting your time."
Following a three-year period in which the single of "Stay With Me" was bootlegged at nearly $5 a copy, Warners suddenly realized that in Lorraine Ellison they had a potential giant. That realization only came about when some of those famed rock stars we mentioned earlier had begun to heap their accolades on the lady and it is reported that the company found themselves explaining to several other record companies that they certainly weren't considering dropping Lorraine from their roster.
The result of all the interest was a second album, produced by Jerry Ragovoy throughout, and tabbed "Stay With Me" after the then-deleted single. Says Lorraine, "Everyone said the album was gonna be a giant. It just had a beautiful overall feel to it — I must say I was sure it was going to be the one to establish me. Warners promised a big promotional push on the album and we all thought it was gonna happen. But again, the problem was that the company were still not involved enough in the r&b scene. They just pushed out product and hoped for the best a lot of times and they just weren't geared to promote black music. I was personally very upset when the album didn't sell and I think Warners realized that they had made a mistake in not giving the record the right kind of promotion."
The album is, in fact, one of the treasures of soul music. It gives Lorraine the chance to reveal all the majesty and intensity of her vocal range and the production by Jerry Ragovoy is superb. The material, although occasionally a little weak, is generally first class and the album stands head and shoulders above many, many others. It's the epitome of gospel-soul and if you should happen to see it around (it is now deleted), do not pass it by.
The final attempt by the Ragovoy-Ellison team to come up with a hit single was Lorraine's version of the old Miracles' hit, "You Really Got A Hold On Me" but Lorraine confesses that she doesn't particularly care for it: "It really wasn't my bag at all — I didn't like doing the song, I've never really been given a free hand to select songs for myself and I'm sure that hasn't helped me to get over. But despite all the disappointments, I've never given up hope. I remember my mother told me never to give in to whatever is going wrong, to just keep on trying. In fact, all the problems I've had have just kept me hanging on in there — they almost give me the initiative and drive to keep on keeping on."
In 1970, Warners decided that a change of producer might be the answer to putting Lorraine Ellison firmly on the musical map and so they designated Stephen Paley, a professional photographer (the man behind numerous album cover photos and one of the entourage that accompanied Sly Stone on his last visit to the U.K.) to fill the job. Along with Lorraine, Stephen went down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to record a whole album — but ended up with three sides that have never been released to this day. [2021 note: those tracks were released as a part of a 3CD Rhino set, “Sister Love” in 2006].
"When we got down there, we found that there just wasn't any material to record. I'd been promised that there'd be some from Laura Nyro that she'd written for me and all kinds of other things, but in fact we ended up just sitting around for a week literally looking for material. I found working with the musicians an incredible experience — it was so loose because they use head arrangements. One of the songs we cut was "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" but, like I say, the company has never released any of the things we did down there — apparently, they just weren't happy with the results of the sessions, although I think they were ok.”
There followed a hiatus of about two years during which time Lorraine's mother was taken critically ill and "I just went home to take care of her and nurse her back to health which is one of the main reasons you didn't hear from me for that time — I stopped working in about 1971."
Then, last year, Lorraine was tempted back into the studios to work with producer Ted Templeman, a gentleman previously involved almost totally with folk like The Doobie Brothers. "Apparently, the company told me that Ted had wanted to record with me so we started work early in '73 — and we cut the new album in two parts, with an interval of about four months in between. I don't really know what it was that took so long — I guess it was the fact that Ted had other production commitments and so on. Anyway, I must say I've been happier, more relaxed, working with Ted on this album than ever before. In many ways, he's given me the kind of freedom I've needed by sitting discussing the songs with me and so on. In our first session, we cut [Jimmy Cliff’s] "Many Rivers To Cross" which they released as a single last year."
Lorraine obviously sounds very proud of the album and takes great delight in talking about it and the songs contained therein. "Yes, I think that the album contains more of what I'm all about in it. Take "Walk Around Heaven" — which is one of my favourites. That was a song I'd performed in a church in Delaware — I still sing in church when I get the opportunity. Well, we were looking for material and my husband suggested to Ted that we might do it, because of the kind of reaction it had gotten when I did it in the church. And then "Country Woman's Prayer": that was one we did in the second sessions. I was more or less forced into writing that when we didn't have enough material around that was suitable — the same old problem! I just went back to the hotel with the cassette and the lyrics just came to me. If you listen, you'll see that I've tried to make the pronunciation the kind you'd hear from a country woman — and, well, I guess it's just a 'prayerful' kinda song!"
I tell Lorraine that one of my own personal favourites on the album is undoubtedly "No Relief" and Lorraine revealed that the song took a total of 29 takes to complete! “[Keyboardist] Mark Jordan wrote that one and he had his own idea about how he wanted me to do it. Somehow, though, no matter how I tried we just couldn't do it the way he'd envisaged. Well, after twelve vocals I just got disgusted! I told Ted that it just wasn't happening and we'd better forget it. We'd done something like a total of 19 band tracks and everyone was literally falling asleep — including Mark, who was almost slumped over the piano! In the end, I said let me do it my way — because surely we had nothing to lose after having tried and tried again and not getting it right. So I went in and did the vocal the way I wanted and everyone just sat right up! And I'm really happy with that track — they may well do it as a single."
Aside from giving Lorraine her first real opportunity to show her talents as a writer (she was responsible for four of the album's tracks although she had written songs in the past for other sessions — like "I Got My Baby Back" and "You're Easy On My Mind," co-written with Jerry Ragovoy), the album gave her the chance to play the piano for the first time on a session. "Oh that came about almost as a joke. I was just sitting around at a coffee break, messing around with the song "Stormy Weather". Well, Ted heard what I was doing and told me it sounded real good. I thought he was jiving — because I don't read music or anything and when he suggested we just record it. I told him he had to be crazy! But you know, Ted has built up so much confidence for me by giving me freedom to do things like that.
"I must say things haven't been easy as far as my recording career has gone in the past. I've been extremely uptight about it because I've felt that I've done my very best and there just ain't no more I can do. I realize I haven't gotten to where I should with my career and I put a lot of that down to the lack of promotion and interest I've experienced. But there does seem to be a determined effort being made to get my career across and Warners have promised really strong promotion on the album. I gather that although it is taking time, the album is gradually picking up momentum and we will probably pull a single off depending on the kind of airplay we get."
The album has certainly brought Lorraine's name back into the limelight and if it really does take off, Lorraine says she's ready to go out on the road. "I've never been a big established artist but I seem to have gotten myself something of a following with the underground markets. The funny thing is that a lot of the people who've heard my records right back to "Stay With Me" have never even seen my face! And those who've got my albums have only ever seen my head and shoulders — I guess there are people walking around who wonder if I'm all there — you know, whether I've got six legs or whatever! I'm not nervous at all about going out there and I just hope that things happen to make it worthwhile to tour. How do I manage to keep in shape vocally? Well, I go to church concerts and I always drink two hot cups of coffee in the morning! I've never found singing a strain as such. But I have to confess that I do have problems hitting the low notes some times — like the opening lines of "Stay With Me'' were a bit troublesome for me. I also find it pretty hard working on up-tempo things — my voice seems far more suited to ballads."
The response to Lorraine's latest album will have a decisive effect on making one of her greatest ambitions come to fruition: a long-waited much-overdue trip to Europe. "That's one of the things I've wanted to do for so long. We're negotiating right now for me to come over to Europe and I just can't wait. I know that people over there have heard of some of my work — that makes me feel good, naturally. I just hope that this new album is an indication of what the future holds because I really do feel that the time is overdue for my career to start taking that upward climb. After all, I've been waiting about eight years for it all to happen!"
If the world is ready, Lorraine Ellison is ready, ready to unleash her talent and soul. And believe it, this woman has got soul. It's the kind of soul that oozes out even in conversation and made this particular interview one of the warmest and most friendly this journalist has ever undertaken. Yes, if here is any justice around, Lorraine Ellison will no longer remain "the singers' singer" alone. She'll finally make it to where she rightfully belongs: in the very top echelons of her field.