It’s your voodoo working

This week Office Naps surveys some R&B favorites from the early ‘60s.

There’s no tight conceptual theme, though these selections share some sensibilities.  They mine the arrangements and robust, minor-key melodies of compositions like “Fever,” “St. James Infirmary” or “Summertime.”   They’re pop-friendly but they’re highly stylized blues, too, infused with feeling without invoking all the usual 12-bar clichés.   They’re tinged with subtle, underlying Latin rhythms and an air of melancholy, even exoticism.

There’s also a poignancy here.  These selections capture the pivotal moment (years, actually) in the early ‘60s when R&B, as a commercial force, was being irrevocably superseded by an ascendant, and rapidly maturing, soul music.  Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Atlantic Records and Stax Records were already changing the game.  It wasn’t the end of R&B – which, either way, became a blanket term for pop-oriented commercially-produced black music.   But these transitional years were a sort of final, and irrevocable, shift for the R&B form.

Rhythm and blues had come a long way by the early ‘60s.  These three productions have a moody, churning power; stylistically distant from the R&B’s roots, they represent the best of the form’s final, most sophisticated commercial bloom.

Charles Sheffield, It’s Your Voodoo Working (Excello 45-2200)1. Charles Sheffield, It’s Your Voodoo Working (Excello 45-2200)
Born in Beaumont, Texas, Charles Sheffield cut the superb “It’s Your Voodoo Working” in 1961.  It would come amidst a sporadic eight-year-long run of 45s for this mysterious R&B vocalist.

Sheffield’s 45s, recorded for a handful of excellent Southern labels, together form an interesting primer on the Gulf Coast strain of R&B and blues.  As “Mad Dog Sheffield,” his first 45 (“Mad Dog” b/w “Clear My Night of Misery”) was a fairly straight-ahead blues shouter for the pioneering Louisiana label Goldband Records in 1957.  After this debut came Sheffield’s two 1958 singles (“Never No More” b/w “Is It Because I Love You” and “I’ve Gotta Love” b/w “Shoo Shoo Chicken”), much in the same vein, on Rocko Records, one of several labels run by the Crowley-based J.D. Miller, another key Louisiana studio and label operator.

Two more releases on Nashville’s Excello Records, including both this selection and its follow-up (“I Would Be a Sinner” b/w “The Kangaroo”), followed in 1961.

Charles Sheffield, circa 1962

The elusive Charles Sheffield. Newspaper photo, circa 1962

Sheffield’s three final 45s, all released in the mid-‘60s, were recorded as “Prince Charles.”  There was a swampy blues 45 for Huey Meaux’s Teardrop Records (“Come On Home” b/w “Only You”) and a second 45 for Meaux’s Jetstream label (the slightly more modern “Sick” b/w  “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray”).  And there’s the slinky “Baby Call Home” b/w “I Must Be #1,” released by NRC, an Atlanta record label.

Of Sheffield’s releases – which were commercially fruitless – “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” cut at J.D. Miller’s Crowley studios in 1961, is the highpoint.   This track is relatively sophisticated fare for Excello Records, one of the great post-War blues labels, though this track still maintains the Afro-Latin underpinnings and dark atmosphere that characterize Excello’s finest Louisiana sides.

Sheffield seems to have become finally disenchanted with recording music at some point in the ‘60s, a state of affairs that, in retrospect, was probably hastened by his dealings with some of the region’s most notorious music business hustlers.  Otherwise, Sheffield seems to have disappeared without a trace; I’d love to know more of what happened to him.

Thanks to Dan Phillip, who wrote of Charles Sheffield, and this 45 in particular, at Home of the Groove several years back.

2. Marv Johnson, With All That’s In Me (UA 423)Marv Johnson, With All That’s In Me (UA 423)
The great R&B vocalist and songwriter Marv Johnson was born in Detroit in 1938.  His early musical profile reads like that of many a young R&B singer from the time: a musically gifted youngster, he was raised on gospel music and secular R&B and pop material, sang with local vocal groups in his teens and debuted, at the age of twenty, with the obligatory obscure local single, 1958’s “My Baby-O” b/w “Once Upon A Time.”

Johnson was spotted in 1959 by fledgling producer, songwriter and future Motown mogul Berry Gordy, and “Come to Me,” Johnson’s ensuing 45, was, notably, the inaugural release on Gordy’s Tamla Records.

If “Come to Me” was the first Motown record, the seed from which the empire grew, at the time it was a more propitious beginning for Johnson, as the song’s commercial potential got the attention of the major label United Artists, who immediately stepped in and signed away Johnson, licensing and nationally releasing the 45 in turn, and with immediately successful returns.

The young Marv Johnson

The young Marv Johnson. Image courtesy of Yesterday's Gold.

Johnson enjoyed further success at United Artists, early on scoring with pop and R&B hits like 1959’s “You Got What It Takes,” 1960’s “I Love the Way You Love,” “(You’ve Got to) Move Two Mountains” and “Happy Days” and 1961’s “Merry-Go-Round.”    Television and tour appearances ensued for Johnson, and United Artists kept him on a prolific schedule of releases – including two full-length albums – over the next five years.

Johnson released the electrifying “With All That’s In Me” in February, 1962.  Penned by Detroit songwriters and musicians (and Motown associates) Clarence Paul, Andre Williams and Joe Hunter, it was neither a hit, nor typical of Johnson’s sterling-but-pop-oriented catalog, its piano vamps, titanic drum fill and Johnson’s commanding vocal giving the song a fearsome potency.

Indeed, like many of his cohort, Johnson’s smoother style, developed in the late ‘50s, would put him increasingly at odds with prevailing trends.   As the Motown sound and contemporary soul sounds exploded, Johnson’s sales figures for the somewhat stodgy United Artists would dwindle.

In 1965, Johnson returned to the Motown stable (even during his tenure at United Artists, Johnson co-wrote songs with Berry Gordy), recording three promising 45s with an updated sound that, however, did not seem to receive the complete support of the Motown promotional machine.  1968’s “I’ll Pick a Rose For My Rose,” on Motown’s Gordy imprint, would be Johnson’s last commercial release for the label.

Nonetheless, Johnson remained in the industry into the ‘70s, penning songs and working behind-the-scenes in Motown sales and promotion.  Though Johnson continued to perform live nearly until his 1993 death (following a stroke), his last Motown recordings would, with the exception of some recordings produced by UK Motown fanatic Ian Levine in the late ‘80s, represent his last releases, period.

Please refer to Pete Lewis’s 1992 interview for more on the fantastic Marv Johnson.

3.  Bobby King, Thanks Mr. Postman (Federal 45-12473)Bobby King, Thanks Mr. Postman (Federal 45-12473)
Not to be confused with several other R&B artists of the same name, Chicagoan Bobby King was a blues guitarist and vocalist who had a good local following and the greater respect of fellow guitarists, if not the added misfortune of living in a city full of such.

Born near Little Rock, Arkansas in the early ‘40s, King made his way to Chicago in 1959.  King, by all accounts a gifted guitarist, early on seems to have sought and found work as a supporting musician.  He played live behind R&B heavyweights like Hank Ballard and Bobby Bland, and contributed his spiky guitar licks to sessions for Lee Shot Williams, Jesse Anderson, Lonnie Johnson, Freddy King, Sonny Thompson and others in Syd Nathan’s King-Deluxe-Federal Records group at their peak in the first half of the ‘60s.

Bobby King, mid-'70s

Bobby King, playing live in Chicago in the mid-'70s. Image courtesy of the Recorded Live at Queen Bee cover.

King himself would also record a handful of 45s for the Federal Records in the early ‘60s.  They’re decent, capturing a capable singer who doesn’t move much beyond the trappings of Chicago blues.

1962’s “Thanks Mr. Postman” is the great exception to that.  A very loose answer to the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” the selection stands out as a marvelously moody, atmospheric anomaly, hinting only obliquely at the blues, not excepting King’s stinging guitar solo.

A good, if funkier, blues outing – “Froggy Bottom” for Weis Records , a Stax affiliate – would appear in the late ‘60s, and would be the terminus of King’s commercially-produced singles.   In the mid-‘70s, the French record label MCM released a live album by King – Recorded Live at Queen Bee – that captured him plowing through blues standards like “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a local lounge in 1975.

After recovering from a stroke, King returned to playing for several years with the 21st Century Rhythm & Blues Band (who also recorded a live date, the obscure Elsewhere on the North Side).  Tragically, a second stroke incapacitated King, and he passed on in Chicago in 1983, barely in his early forties.

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5 Responses to It’s your voodoo working

  1. ana_b says:

    Three marvelous choices. I’m particularly jealous of the Charles Sheffield 45.

    In my opinion, I doubt the cut was recorded in Crowley. It’s just too sophisticated not to have the touch of a serious arranger. Houston or New Orleans are more like it.

  2. Teddy Callahan says:

    Just wanted to drop a line to you and thank you for all your work in finding musical obscurities to the nth degree. And further, making it available to poor shlubs like me…

    It’s what I have always thrived on in my musical journeys since I was 16 [now turning 60!!].

    Just heard Mr. King above and it blue my little obscure driven mind.

    Thanks again, and keep the faith


  3. Jason C. says:

    Great posts Danny… Just my favorite kind of R&B.
    Ive coincidentally been obsessed with that Charles Sheffield track lately. The Bobby King was a pleasant surprise…

  4. Luc Fransen says:

    three nice songs that are well known in the Belgium popcorn-scene.
    Here is a link, where you can see how it started;
    Congratulations with your blog !


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