Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Memphis Queen, Alone

Carla Thomas - Guide Me Well

Today's post came about due to a very thought-provoking post by Preston on his excellent Memphis Sound: Lost and Found blog in response to a recent Memphis Commercial-Appeal article about the alleged lack of respect in Memphis for the legacy of Rufus and Carla Thomas. (Preston's post includes a link to the newspaper article.) In reading his strong remarks, the article, and responses to both by commenters to the blog (to which I added my two cents' worth), I couldn't help but feel sad about Marvell Thomas' perception that the Thomases are being slighted (see also on Preston's blog a Rufus Thomas interview excerpt in which Thomas himself mirrors that view), but I was even more sad about how Carla has basically been a recluse, making very sporadic appearances here and there. I decided that since, as I have stated before, Carla Thomas is my favorite female soul singer (period), I needed to do a post about her today.

By 1970, when her Memphis Queen LP was released, Carla was indeed the Queen, at least of Memphis soul (Aretha had usurped the "Queen of Soul" crown by 1968, some time after Carla's classic The Queen Alone LP), with her fantastic recordings for Stax. Carla's soulfulness, coupled with her great diction and poise, shone through on everything from ballads (from the Stax-establishing "Gee Whiz" to tunes like today's selection) to midtempo stuff like "B-A-B-Y" to sassier fare ("A Dime a Dozen"), but as Stax itself was changing gears at the dawn of a new decade, Carla's spotlight began to dim. As noted in the newspaper article, Stax was moving toward the funky '70s and Carla's sweeter style just didn't fit in as well. She bounced from producer to producer (including her brother Marvell and Detroit's Don Davis) and scored a few minor hits, but by the time she appeared at Wattstax in 1972, she was all but through as a recording artist and her final Stax 45 was released in 1973. After Stax folded she made music a part-time priority, and her apperances became more and more sporadic in the following two decades. She appeared pretty extensively in the 2002 documentary Only the Strong Survive, but it was clear that time had not been too kind to her: she was in great vocal form, but I will diplomatically say that she lacked all of the style and glamour that she had possessed in her heyday, making her part in the film pretty bittersweet to me.

Today, though, I choose to focus on just how great of an artist Carla Thomas is, and reach for one of her last hits, "Guide Me Well" from her Memphis Queen album, to put things back on a positive note. Carla's monologue makes up the bulk of the 1970 recording, and she really puts it over. When she moves into the gospelly song it moves me mightily and reminds me again and again why she's my favorite.

(POST SCRIPT - Despite the pessimism surrounding the Thomas legacy, there is at least one bright spot. As noted in the article, Concord Music, the new owners of the Stax catalogue, are taking a very aggressive tack in reissuing material, and in addition to the "Stax Profiles" compilations they released on both Rufus and Carla, they are working on a comprehensive Rufus Thomas compilation and are issuing, for the first time, a live album Carla cut in Washington, D.C. in the mid-'60s. So at least for us soul fans, the Thomas legacy lives on.)


Preston said...

great stuff. I appreciate the spotlight on Carla here. Much needed! She has a powerful legacy all her own.

Rob Whatman said...

Looking forward to that live album.