LOU JOHNSON: Incomparable Soul Vocalist (Label: Kent)

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LOU JOHNSON: Incomparable Soul Vocalist

Thousands of discerning soul collectors have been waiting a very long time for this album; any kind of Lou Johnson collection was always seen as some kind of Holy Grail by soul fans – who, like Burt Bacharach (no less) and the compilers at Ace/Kent, know that the Brooklyn-born vocalist is/was “an incomparable soul vocalist”. His magical 60s Big Top recordings have long been regarded as a template for classic uptown soul and those who own any Johnson singles know they own real treasure. Till now there hasn’t been a properly licensed and mastered album of Lou’s 60s Big Top work simply because the rights owners always played way too cagey. Sure, there have been any number of poorly copied bootlegs (many emanating from Holland) but nothing compares to the real thing. So the advice here is grab this wonderful 25 tracker while you can… it’s a vital and essential piece of soul history. Why? Well, there are any number of reasons… the most obvious being Lou’s remarkable voice. Raised as a gospel singer, Lou’s greatest vocal quality was honesty. Within a few bars he could go from raw power to vulnerable tenderness and always sound convincing. He was also an accomplished piano player and that sure helped the musicality of his vocals. Big Top Records also ensured that their man was only given the very best songs to record. The company’s HQ was in New York’s famed Brill Building – home to the city’s song writing community – and people like Bacharach and David were regularly offering them their new songs. Lou Johnson recorded seven Bacharach songs – six of them being the song’s first recording – all produced and arranged by Mr. B – who also played on the takes along with the cream of New York’s session men (and women – like Cissy Houston and Judy Clay). Here you can thrill to Johnson’s definitive readings of ‘Message To Martha’, ‘Reach Out For Me’, ‘The Last One To Be Loved’ ,’Always Something There To Remind Me’, ‘Magic Potion; and ‘If I Never Get To Love You’ – along with a quirky Allen Toussaint-produced take on ‘Walk On By’. Non-Bacharach-sourced songs include the mighty ‘Please Stop The Wedding’, a lilting version of ‘The Panic Is On’, the Ray Charles-influenced ‘Thank You Anyway’ and the mini urban soap opera that is ‘Park Avenue’. Naturally you also get what has possibly become Johnson’s best known UK outing – the Northern fave, ‘Unsatisfied’ (two takes, by the way). But to conclude with a clich√© – there are no duds here – as an illustration of mid 60s Uptown soul this album could never be bettered. The big question, of course, is why such outstanding music didn’t make Johnson a star. There are all kinds of reasons – amongst them the spectre of the dreaded cover version and the lack of promotion from Big Top, but it is truly remarkable that Lou never made the real big time. When the label folded he recorded briefly for Cotillion and Volt and still plays in and around California (in tribute groups to the Ink Spots and Drifters!). This album’s accompanying interview reveals that despite everything, Lou’s happy with his lot and ecstatic that this album has now come out… make him even happier and grab a copy – you won’t regret it!
(BB) 5/5