Friday, November 21, 2008

The Chicago Soul Antidote

Syl Johnson - Sorry 'Bout Dat!

Last night I fired up the DVR and watched two episodes of the new VH1 Soul series Soul Cities, hosted by Nelson George. The premise of the series is that George visits cities that figure(d) heavily into the soul music scene and explores the music, musicians and culture of said cities. I saw the Philadelphia and Chicago episodes, and ended up disappointed. First of all, the shows are only thirty minutes long, and both cities could have easily yielded an hour's worth of material; as a result, the music history part of the shows is pretty superficial. Second, although I understand that the culture of the cities was to be featured, the segments about Philly cheesesteaks and Chicago deep-dish pizza (in which George went into restaurant kitchens and was shown how these delicacies are prepared) looked more like they belonged on Food Network instead of VH1 Soul, and the time spent on them could've allowed for more music to be featured. Third, I feel like Nelson George was highly under-utilized in the program. George's The Death of Rhythm & Blues was a cornerstone of my education about soul music history, and his writing about newer R&B and hip-hop is equally enlightening, but the overall superficiality of the shows made him appear to me more as a generic travelogue host rather than the insightful music scholar he is.

Now, don't get me wrong - it's highly unlikely that the show was intended for hardcore soul fans, and the need to cover music history, culture, and present music in the cities within a thirty-minute frame means that corners had to be cut. And there were some highlights, such as George's discussion with Gamble and Huff on the Philadelphia show, which included the two doing an impromptu performance of "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," a chat with the newly-reunited Labelle (featuring a quick line or two of "For the Love of Money" which proved that Patti, Sarah and Nona are still on-point vocally), a visit to Val Shively's amazingly overwhelming record store (I'm talking floor to ceiling records here), and, if I saw correctly, a visit to Mr. Peabody's in Chicago, which is one of my favorite record shops.

I'm featuring Chicago soul today as an antidote to all that disappointment, which is needed also because Chicago soul and its musicians were given an even shorter shrift in its episode than Philly soul and its artists were on the other episode. Syl Johnson's funky groovers for Twilight/Twinight are not that uncommon to rare soul fans, but they are always a treat to hear. Johnson's wailing is complimented by hard-hitting bands (the Deacons and Pieces of Peace for the Chicago-recorded stuff and the Hi Rhythm Section on Memphis-recorded sides like "Dresses Too Short"), and the tunes crackle with an energy that was somewhat lost when Johnson moved formally to Hi Records and slipped into the velvet grooves that Willie Mitchell was concocting for labelmates Al Green and Ann Peebles. "Sorry 'Bout Dat!" was the B-side of Johnson's second Twinight single, and while the groove surges along, Johnson's tongue-in-cheek apology for making folks dance so hard is worthy of a chuckle.

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