Interview with: JOHN RIDLEY
Photo of Tommy Tate.
Interview by: Marc Smirnoff
To properly research and investigate nominations for every music issue we do, THE OXFORD AMERICAN relies on the expert counsel of musicians, record store clerks, record label owners, writers, bloggers, hobby archivists, and obsessive collectors across the globe. One resource we've particularly come to cherish and rely on is the UK-based website, Sir Shambling's Deep Soul Heaven, which might possibly contain the most comprehensive archive of (primarily) obscure small-label Southern soul releases that exists anywhere on the planet today.
"Sir Shambling" is the sobriquet of British life-long record collector (and soul nut) named John Ridley. (Or Sir John for short.) This maven of American soul music has made "artist resurrection" his life's work—a crucial undertaking that allows music lovers to get a more accurate and nuanced portrait of great records—and American culture. (Have you all ever noticed how so many Brits seem much more knowledgeable about American pop music?)
After the invaluable influence of Sir Shambling's site on our past few Music Issues, we felt compelled to do two things:
1. Hire John Ridley (and associate Greg Burgess) to tell us why the fantastically music-rich state of Mississippi, while profoundly deep in almost every musical genre is counterintuitively not-so-deep in producing Soul musicians. Visit here for the stunning article on this matter....
2. To once and for all interview John Ridley on his life passion. See below for his engaging, surprising responses.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: What was your first encounter with soul music?
SIR SHAMBLING: From about the age of six or seven, I spent all my allowance on 45s, but they were songs from the pop charts I heard on the radio. That changed when I was about eleven or twelve: I was in a bowling alley in a London suburb when I heard a track on the jukebox. I was transfixed. It was "My Girl" by Otis Redding.
"My Girl" by Otis Redding
THE OA: How do you think the Internet (blogging, illegal and legal downloads, iTunes) has affected the music industry?
SS: Of course, the music industry has been heavily affected by recent technological changes, the Internet in particular, but the argument that this loss of profits has weakened musicians' ability to get product heard or hindered the development of new talent is patently absurd. The Internet offers far more opportunities than it has destroyed. The only thing that has declined is record companies' income.
The big players in the music industry have always been their own worst enemy. Raking in the profits when times were good without a thought for tomorrow—and then when times turn bad, largely through their own blinkered approach to technology, whining about the consequences. Not for nothing, for example, was the UK's biggest music company EMI widely known as "Every Mistake Imaginable." I don't shed any tears for an inefficient, ruthlessly exploitative, and rapaciously grasping industry feeling the drought.
THE OA: How do you feel about sites that allow for the illegal download of music?
SS: Running such a site myself, I'm hardly in a position to criticize this. But I would like to make a distinction between making current music available for download and—as in my case—making music that was recorded thirty-plus years in the past available. This is a practical not a legal distinction, of course. Although issues like royalties and contracts are still in force for the music I love, I think their relevance has declined a little. I don't think that anybody's royalties or career has been damaged by my website. Judging by the e-mails I get, the "taster" tracks I put on my website get visitors looking for more tracks by the artists, seeking out commercial CDs, and generally searching for more music. Hence the small discographies and CD details I put at the foot of every page I write.
One of the greatest unsought consequences of my website has been the wonderful response from the artists I feature, and/or, more usually, their relatives. About one hundred such artists or their families have contacted me, and every one of them has been pleased to see that their music is being remembered and appreciated. And if the artists and their families are happy, then so am I, whatever the legal niceties.
THE OA: What, in your opinion, makes a soul song great? Are there key elements a track has to have to be part of the soul genre?
SS: This is the most difficult of all the questions you've asked—by a country mile! All musical "boxes" like "soul" are to one degree or another open to great debate. But in my view, for a track to be described as a piece of soul music, it pretty much has to have a singer on it who uses gospel-based vocal styles to get the lyrical message across. These might include melisma, "bluesy" cadences, delay in timing, coarseness of tone on key phrases, the ability to ad lib words and even passages, and especially careful use of dynamics. One thing about soul music is that it is voice-led rather than guitar-led. No soul song has ever contained the "drone" of rhythm and/or lead guitars which is so prevalent in rock music. While I like a lot of instrumental music, describing it as "soul" is perhaps a step too far.
Additionally, the setting of a soul track must have some rhythmic complexity. For example, the first thing the great Southern soul producers did when recording a country song with an African-American singer was to change the rhythm pattern around, delay the drummer's backbeat, and make the bass lines more syncopated. I think the best soul songs are arranged in "layers." Starting off with the bass and drums, then adding one or two guitars, and keyboards. These often add new rhythmic patterns to the piece, and/or subtle repetitive riffs that act as a sort of almost subliminal "hook" to the song. Finally, add some more percussion maybe, horn charts, and possibly sweetening from strings, which reinforce the rhythm arrangement.
But in the end it's all about the response that's generated in the listener. You "feel" a great soul song or performance and become involved in it. If you are just left thinking but not getting an emotional "hit," it can't be a great soul song.
THE OA: What role do you, as a music blogger, hope to play? What is Sir Shambling's Deep Soul Heaven trying to accomplish?
SS: I'm attempting to do four things with my website. First, to shine a spotlight on some dusty old soul corners. To say to people: "Listen to this wonderful music." Second, to try and re-balance the preponderance of dance music websites. There are 1,001 places on the Internet to hear funk, Northern soul, and the rest of the dance styles—but only a handful of places like mine where you can hear the best ballads. Third, to promote Southern and deep soul, to encourage people to listen to more of it, to buy more CDs that cover it, and to lobby reissue companies to put more of it out on the streets. Finally, to highlight the musical achievements of some lesser-known soul singers and musicians. Often these people had the talent to be big stars, but for whatever reasons—bad luck, bad management, poor record distribution, etc.—never quite made it.
And this last objective has led to the best of all the spin-offs from the site—and a quite unexpected one as well. I've referred to the fact that I've been contacted by about one hundred artists or families of artists I've written about. It has given me immense pleasure to be able to say "thank you" to these people by sending them CDs of their—or their relatives'—music. Often they don't have any of the records concerned and it would cost them a fortune to buy them—even if they could find them. On many occasions, the families of singers who have passed on have sent me photos that I've put on the cover of the CDs, which makes them into a kind of memento. Often also the families have sent me short biographies which I've been able to put up on my website—and these pages have then turned into memorials for the singers' lives and careers. This has proved very satisfying for both me and those who have written to me.
THE OA: Do you think that those of us who are not musically gifted can be a part of a song in the same way as its creator or fellow musicians? Or are we just outsiders looking in? In other words, can an appreciation for music make you a part of the piece?
SS: Sadly, I think we are just "looking in." I am in complete awe of the people who can make the music I love, who can give me the emotional "charge" I get from hearing a gospel-based vocalist in full flow. And I don't ever want to lose this level of respect. I would never want to be a part of the piece—even if I had the ability.
THE OA: In what direction do you think contemporary music is heading?
SS: Since I spend my musical life forty years in the past, I'm not really in a position to make a general comment on this. Music today is far too "electronic" for my tastes—soul singing is now pretty much a "lost art."
THE OA: Can you write about music without being a musician?
SS: I certainly hope so, otherwise I've been wasting my time for the last thirty years. I would like to think that you can use your critical faculties on any artistic endeavour, and music should not be an exception to this. The danger of being obsessed like I am is that you lose your ability to distinguish the good from the not so good—and being aware of that danger is the first step on the road to avoiding it.
THE OA: Do you believe that records trump CDs? Is music benefitting from new technology or losing its character?
SS: I've been listening to poorly pressed 45s on cheap record players for more years than I care to think about, so I'm used to hearing music with "character"—clicks, crackles, hissing, and various other extraneous noises. Try to find a Jamaican 45 without any "character," for example. So when CDs arrived, I was pretty much horrified at the sound quality that some tracks I was intimately familiar with took on. They became cold and clinical to my ears. But over time I've become accustomed to the new feel of digital music and even to enjoy it.
But no collection of zeroes and ones can come anywhere near to the total sensory enjoyment of a 45 rpm record. The feel of it, the look, the sound, and the info written on the label are all part of the vinyl experience that people under thirty will never comprehend. They simply don't know what they're missing.
THE OA: What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager and how have your tastes changed?
SS: In my teens I was obsessed with black music—soul, blues, reggae, and so on—and I'm still obsessed with it. I listen to exactly the same artists then as now. As my wife says, I'm a classic case of completely arrested development.
THE OA: Do you feel that you are a part of a community of soul bloggers or is this an independent endeavor?
SS: I think I ought to feel part of a community of soul writers but I don't. There is hardly any "meeting of minds" between me and other bloggers on what constitutes a great track. You'll find that artists I write about are mentioned on other soul pages on the net, but almost invariably I write about one side of a 45, and everybody else writes about the other side. The world is clearly out of step.
THE OA: What has been the most memorable, or strangest, response you've ever received from an artist?
SS: The strangest experience was with a singer, sadly passed on, about whom I was separately contacted by two different relatives. It turned out that this singer had two completely separate families, one in the North of the U.S. and one in the South, who were completely unaware of each other's existence until I wrote a page about him. Very difficult being "piggy in the middle."
The other thing that has been interesting is that two of the artists to whom I've sent CDs of their work have been selling copies of the CDs at their gigs. Long may it continue!
THE OA: You specialize in profiling soul artists who didn't quite hit the big time (but should have!). Of all the artists you've written about and streamed, who is your all-time favorite female vocalist and all-time favorite male vocalist?
SS: I'm only 40% of the way towards my initial goal of writing about 2,000 artists, so I have a long way to go, but I'll try to choose a couple of favorites.
Fighting off keen competition from the likes of the prodigiously gifted C.L. Blast and the ferocious lung power of Jimmy Robbins, I'd have to go for Bobby Harris as my pick of the male singers. Although he is definitely from the Sam Cooke style of vocalists, he never had the purity of tone Sam was blessed with, but he did impart his singing with an aching quality, which combined with the roughness of his timber, tugs at the heartstrings like no other I know. Listen to "Mr. Success" (Shout 203) from 1966 and try not to be deeply affected. It's impossible.
"Mr. Success" by Bobby Harris
Many soul fans will tell you that female vocalists attain the highest peaks of the art form, and Cleveland's Kim Tolliver may just be the best of that breed you've never heard of. Any of her recordings will testify that her brand of emotional passion and power made her a premier league singer. Her voice could project a sense of world-weariness and resignation like no other, making her ballads deep soul of the highest quality. Check out one of her last releases "Where Were You" (Tay-Ster 5600) from 1980 and you will see what I mean. She generates an almost unbearable sense of anger, scorn, loneliness, and desolation. Far too harrowing for radio play. I'm very proud to have written the booklets to accompany the two recent commercial CDs of Kim's work that Reel Music have put out—buy them and be astonished.
"Where Were You" by Kim Tolliver
THE OA: I know you have a preference/fetish for ballads. Is there something about fast-tempo soul songs that for you doesn't capture the heart of the art form?
SS: For me, 80% of the enjoyment I get from music relates to the singer. And while the ability to "ride" a fast rhythm is a vocal accomplishment in its own right, I think that it is only on slower material that a singer gets to really show off his or her chops. There's more "room" for one thing, fewer places to hide behind a dance beat. The focus on downbeat material is much more on the voice, and the performance of the singer in transmitting an emotional message is the key to the song's success.
I must also say that while I love a lot of uptempo music, I think ballads have more staying power. Dance music is almost always "of its time" in order to catch current trends, while a slow love song—or blues—has a timeless universal message. Dance music aims at your feet, ballads are aimed at your heart—a much smaller target and more difficult to hit. And much more rewarding emotionally when success is achieved.
Plus I'm far too old and fat to dance.
THE OA: I know the copyright laws are different in London from what they are here. How often do you get cease-and-desist orders from artists or record labels and what have you learned from those experiences?
SS: I've never had a cease-and-desist order or any other kind of request to take pages, images, or tracks down from my website. The only feedback from the people who count—the artists and their families—has been highly positive without exception.
THE OA: Is there a soul record that you have not yet been able to track down?
SS: I have a Wants List with over two hundred 45s on it at the moment. Plus, of course, the ones I've yet to discover. Think how awful it would be if there weren't new pieces of music to find and enjoy!
THE OA: What is the rarest soul 45 in existence and why?
SS: I'm not sure I could point to one single rarest 45. There are a good few records with the "only copy in existence" tag. The reasons for this are not difficult to pin down. In the '60s and '70s, a great many soul records were only ever pressed in quantities of less than 250 copies. And some never got past the acetate stage if the money ran out. So a warehouse fire, 45s lost in moving house, records destroyed by "creditors," and other disasters reduce the number of remaining copies drastically. There is one well-documented case of a UK DJ finding a box of twenty-five copies of a very rare 45 and destroying twenty-four of them to make sure his copy became all the more valuable.
If you want to look at the rare soul records from now on, I'd think that many of them will be from New Orleans. In addition to causing so much human misery, Katrina destroyed so many of the few copies of rare NOLA 45s in existence.
THE OA: I like to argue that soul music is the one universal music. Put on a great soul song and it will get almost everybody, no matter how old, what race, what gender, etc., to move and love. What gives soul music the power to touch people so easily?
SS: I'd certainly agree that soul music has universal appeal. It's a very broad church for a start. A genre that can run from The Moments to James Brown and from O.V. Wright to Curtis Mayfield must have something for everybody in it. Also I wouldn't overlook the sheer musical talent of artists involved in making classic soul music. Not just the vocalists but also the writers, musicians, and producers at work in the dozen or so Hit Factory studios that made maybe 90% of the better-known tracks from the Golden Age. These guys knew just how to make memorable grooves; they were the best in the world.
And perhaps most of all, soul music is emotional music. The songs are all about universal experiences to which every listener can relate. And, of course, the style of singing reaches emotional depths that no other can.
Whether to dance to, or to romance to, soul music hits all the essential bases.
THE OA: Please name five Mississippi Soul artists who you think every self-respecting music listener should know and care about.
1. Tommy Tate
"When Hearts Grow Cold" by Tommy Tate
"Too Blind to See" by Dorothy Moore
"The End of the Rainbow" by McKinley Mitchell
"Is It Over" by Mosley & Johnson, recorded as David Duke
5. George Soulé
"I'll Be Your Everything" by George Soulé