Friday, October 27, 2006

Mr. Porter's Opus

David Porter:

When You Have To Sneak (You Have To Sneak)

David Porter's legacy in soul music is usually always presented in tandem with Isaac Hayes, with whom he wrote and produced hit after hit for Stax/Volt artists like Sam & Dave and the Soul Children. Porter's tenure with Stax, however, actually began before he and Hayes found their groove and would continue when Isaac became a superstar at the end of the '60s, effectively ending the partnership. After Hayes moved on, Porter released three albums on Enterprise and a handful of singles (one of them a disappointing duet with Isaac on "Ain't That Loving You (For More Reasons Than One)"), of which only a remake of "Can't See You When I Want To" (which he had recorded in the early days of Stax) had any particular chart action. Porter had found a new songwriting partner in Ronnie Williams, whose gospel piano playing had interested him (the first of today's selections is exemplary of such style).

Porter's 1971 LP Victim of the Joke? An Opera was a concept album built around the story of a love triangle. Porter, Stax engineer Henry Bush, and others recorded little interludes not unlike the skits that populate many albums today to thread together the songs. "When You Have To Sneak" sets up the illicit love affair between Porter and his paramour (Bush's girlfriend). Once the affair is discovered, and Porter receives a beating from Bush and his gang (one of the funnier moments on the album), a cover of The Beatles' "Help!" is only appropriate. Although the album is best known for Porter's funky reading of the Tin Pan Alley standard "The Masquerade Is Over," the former two songs are my favorites. "When You Have To Sneak" features a great gospel sound featuring Williams' piano, and Porter's vocals really convey the weight of the lyrics. "Help!" is given a stomping treatment that seems almost in line with one of Isaac Hayes' blaxploitation film scores, but in a very attractive mid-section, Porter and the background singers take it down and the soul of his rendition shines through. Victim of the Joke? was probably too strange for its time (the cover art, shown above, probably didn't help either) and the album and the two singles pulled from it ("When I Give It Up, I Want It Back" and "The Masquerade Is Over") were commercially unsuccessful. Porter, however, would stay with Stax until its demise (Rob Bowman notes in Soulsville, U.S.A. that in the final days of the label Porter would actually would ask other Stax personnel how much money they needed to survive and give them money), and when Fantasy Records made a stab at resurrecting the label in the late '70s they tapped Porter to run it (despite scoring a big hit with "Holy Ghost" in 1978 and some minor hits thereafter, the label was shuttered as an active concern by 1980 or 1981).

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