Saturday, October 28, 2006

Soul-Blues Saturday: Al Bell, Monk Higgins and Bobby Bland!

Bobby Bland - Love To See You Smile

Al Bell found himself at the bottom of the bottom when Stax Records collapsed in 1975. Not only was the label for which he had spent the last ten years working for (and the last three years owning) out of business, he was personally out of money, as he sank everything he could into fighting CBS (whose distribution agreement had basically put a choke hold on the label's finances) and Union Planters Bank (whose machinations, which were very racist-tinged, hastened the label's demise) and trying to keep the label afloat. Once all the smoke cleared, Bell moved to Washington, D.C. and attempted to get back in the record business through a venture called Independence Corporation of America (ICA). ICA was a pretty quixotic enterprise, considering that independent record companies were all but dead and buried by 1977, and the singles that came out on the ICA label on artists such as L.V. Johnson and Vernon Garrett (whose ICA record of "I'm at the Crossroad" will be featured on a future Soul-Blues Saturday post) didn't fare very well. In the '80s Bell would be involved with Motown and in the '90s would finally hit paydirt with his Bellmark concern, with hits by Prince ("The Most Beautiful Girl in the World") and the rap classic "Whoomp (There It Is)."

The lone success that ICA had came from its productions on blues legend Bobby Bland for MCA Records at the end of the '70s. Bland had gone into the decade continuing on ABC-Dunhill the hit streak he had started at Duke in the '60s. By the time MCA took over the ABC labels he had started the transition toward what is now called "soul blues." Bell and Monk Higgins, whose own career in Chicago and L.A. had created lots of great recordings, worked with Bland during this era (Higgins also produced some other ICA recordings; was he a partner in ICA?), leaving behind some very good recordings. Today's selection came from Bland's LP Come Fly With Me and has endured on soul-blues radio to the present day. Bland gives a warm reading to the uplifting song, and the toe-tapping groove and background singers really bring it home.

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