Marlena Shaw (top) Marvin & Tammi (bottom)
“Listen – Marlena Shaw – California Soul – MP3″
“Listen – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – California Soul – MP3″
How’s it going y’all?
All is well on this end, despite the likelihood of snow this evening.
We had a great time at my son Miles’ 4th birthday party yesterday, and I even got in some excellent (unexpected) LP digs this afternoon (a nice pile of vinyl accumulated in under 20 minutes), which will yield a number of future Funky16Corners features.
Today’s selections have been sitting in the hopper for about a month now, just waiting form me to get my shit together and put a post together.
The song ‘California Soul’ has been on my radar since my Mom brought the 5th Dimension’s ‘Stone Soul Picnic’ LP into the house in 1969, when I was but a wee lad of seven summers. I don’t think I heard another version of the tune until I was well into my twenties, and then I think it might have been the cover by the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.
I didn’t get familiar with the Marlena Shaw version until DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist used the break in the Brainfreeze mix sometime around 2000. Though I have a grip of Marlena Shaw stuff in my crates, I only managed to score a copy of the ‘California Soul’ 45 (one of the many funky sides that had its price driven into the stratosphere by the Brainfreeze phenom) late in 2007. Oddly enough, there are two versions of the 45 on Cadet, which released it once as an a-side, and then again later in 1969 as a b-side (the one I have).
The tune, written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson was (I believe) originally recorded by the 5th Dimension, who had a Top 40 hit with the song toward the end of 1968.
It was my main intention to post the Marlena Shaw version – which is in my opinion the finest of all – because the full song, not just the amazing breakbeat with which it opens – needs to be heard.
It pays to note that none of these many versions (there’s also a nice take by the Undisputed Truth) would be possible without the always outstanding songcraft of Ashford and Simpson. They wrote many remarkable songs, but ‘California Soul’ holds a special place in my heart (and ears) because I feel that it’s really a unique intersection between soul and pop music in that it works the whole late-60’s California mythos into an elegantly soulful bag.
Shaw’s version (with some of that Richard Evans magic) is remarkable because it has a propulsive force that is largely absent in the other versions, thanks in large part to the drumming. Though I’m not positive, I believe that the drumming on ‘California Soul’ is provided by Morris Jennings Jr., a favorite of Evans and a major player in the Cadet sound, on records by the Soulful Strings (I think it’s Jennings working the break on ‘Jingle Bells’), Ramsey Lewis and many others. This in addition to Shaw’s undeniably powerful vocal. If you aren’t on the Marlena Shaw tip, this record ought to be enough to send you there.
The drums and handclaps provide the bottom, surrounded with a lush blanket of strings (oh so soulful…), piano and of course Shaw.
In contrast is the much mellower take on the tune by Marvin Gaye and (maybe) Tammi Terrell. Their version was recorded during Terrell’s physical decline (she was suffering from a brain tumor) and released after her death, on their last duet LP ‘Easy’.
The rumor has always been (thanks to claims by Gaye himself) that the vocals on this tune (and many tunes recorded during this period) were not in fact Terrell, but actually Valerie Simpson (something that Simpson herself has denied).
There is – at least to my ears – a different feel in the vocals on ‘California Soul’, especially on the line (my favorite part of the lyric)
‘so the people started to sing, and that’s how the surf gave birth I’m told…’,
where the feel is much more Simpson than Terrell. Whether this is in fact an ailing Terrell, or Simpson (no less than eight of the 12 tracks on the ‘Easy’ LP are Ashford/Simpson compositions) I can’t say for sure. This should in no way diminish the legacy of Terrell as an outstanding vocalist. Though her discography is tragically short, it’s very long on quality. Either way I dig this version, and I hope you do to.
Sometime in the future, if I’m in the right mood I may have to put together an all-‘California Soul’ podcast.
See you later in the week.
PS Don’t forget the Asbury Park 45 Sessions return this Friday 1/18 to the World Famous Asbury Lanes!!
PSS Thanks to the folks at NRC Next in the Netherlands for the nice writeup of Funky16Corners!