Thursday, 24 April 2008

Caught By The Reaper

Al Wilson, June 19, 1939 - April 21, 2008

thank you Al, for one of the greatest 45's of all time;

but that's not the whole story. Kent recently reissued his "Searching For The Dolphins" album. It's a real class record and has been a secret far too long.

Produced by Johhny Rivers arranged by Gene Page, songs by Fred Neil and Jimmy Webb, James Burton on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, Larry Knetchel on keys, $16.99 at Dusty Grooves

In The Basement magazine carries a Vinyl Spotlight feature, which look at twenty tracks from LPs not available on CD, and also picks one ‘special’ album to cover in its entirety. Way back in November 1998, in issue #8, the in-depth scrutiny was on all-time top-tenner, SEARCHING FOR THE DOLPHINS by Al Wilson. I summed up by saying “This set deserves like-for-like CD reissue, not least because my vinyl is worn out!” Well, it has taken a little over nine years for my wish to be granted but the wait has been worthwhile. I can wallow in Gene Page’s splendid arrangement of Fred Neil’s The Dolphins, interpreted by the magnificently rich vocals of Al Wilson and lovingly produced by Johnny Rivers for his own Soul City Records in pristine sound quality.

Born in Meridian, MS, in June 1939, Al Wilson settled in California after serving with Uncle Sam, singing in local clubs as a solo performer and working in a line-up of the Jewels, which subsequently became Liberty recording artists, the Rollers. Passing through Johnny “Legs” Harris & the Statesmen and its metamorphosis, the Soul Brothers (as the drummer) Al met up with ex-Motown staffer, Marc Gordon, manager of the Versatiles (who became 5th Dimension). He took that group, along with our man, off to the fledgling Soul City company. Al had to be patient with the label to get his first record released but, after a handful of 45s and chart success with Do What You Gotta Do and The Snake, the stunning “Searching For The Dolphins” album hit the streets.

Do What You Gotta Do, penned by staff-writer, Jim Webb, suited Wilson perfectly, fully demonstrating his qualities as a singer and Webb’s qualities as a songwriter. Many takes on the song have been made, most notably by the Four Tops and Nina Simone, but this version has never been bettered. It closed the first side of the original album, while The Snake opened side two. A remake of an Oscar Brown Jr, number from 1963, it showcases Al’s abilities as a jazzy swinger. The Snake has since achieved surprisingly broad acceptance on the soul scene, been a northern favourite, managed five weeks on the UK pop charts in 1975 where it peaked at #41, and has more recently been used to advertise Lambrini on TV. Elsewhere Al makes By The Time I Get To Phoenix - another Jim Webb composition - his own and delivers a classy Willie Hutch beat-ballad with a strong hook in Who Could Be Lovin’ You (Other Than Me), his first Soul City 45 which has background support from the Blossoms.

The original LP’s eleven titles is augmented by the same number of bonus tracks, which begin with three B-sides, each by Willie Hutch but, with the exception of the stirring ballad, Gettin’ Ready For Tomorrow, probably ill-suited to the overall feel of the LP. We then follow Al’s career from the album’s issue with a further single made for Soul City (topped by a swampy revival of John Fogerty/Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Lodi), before the label closed its doors.

Marc Gordon started the Bell-distributed Carousel imprint, initially as a split-logo but later with ‘stand-alone’ identification. Al’s seven tracks for Carousel from his four singles all feature here, (Billy Page’s Bachelor Man, something of a cabaret-style number, was used for two B-sides.) Despite the appeal of a song like Scott Barnes and Leon Ware’s ballad, You Do The Right Things, Wilson’s Carousel releases marked a fallow period for him (rectified late in 1973 when he hit #10 on the R&B and #1 Pop charts with Jerry Fuller’s song Show And Tell for Rocky Road).

This cd marks the first time the Carousel recordings have been committed to CD and, together with the Soul City bonuses and that long-yearned-for “Searching For The Dolphins” album, Kent have made this old man’s dreams come true.

David Cole