LIKE THEIR early recordings, several soul men who flourished in the '60s (and managed to survive them) have aged remarkably well. In fact, if the music they've recorded since then was half as strong as their voices, we'd probably hear a lot more from them. Here's what some of the better known soul vets have released recently:
BENNY E. KING -- "Save The Last Dance For Me." (Manhattan EMI 4-46904). The best thing that can be said for this rock star-laden production is that it's nowhere near as congested as it might have been. Despite appearances by Foreigner's Mick Jones and ex-Led Zep John Paul Jones (who also share production credits), Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler and Thompson Twins' keyboardist Tom Bailey, the focus remains on King, who sings with as much poise as power. He's at his best on the title tune and its companion piece "Lover's Question," but there's nothing forced about his forays into the less memorable contemporary material, either.
WILSON PICKETT -- "American Soul Man" (Motown 6244ML). Now that Motown's got him, you'd expect the emphasis to be on production, so there's no surprise to find the synthesizers and electronic drums. What is a surprise, however, is how easily Pickett adapts to the setting. Even the remake of "In The Midnight Hour" comes off without a hitch and with far more grit than anyone probably has a right to expect 20 years later. Overall, the songs are surprisingly strong and clearly outrank most of the material Pickett has recorded since his heyday on Atlantic.
CLARENCE CARTER -- "Hooked On Love" (Ichiban 1016). With "Grandpa Can't Fly His Kite" tiptoeing on the periphery of conventional radio standards and practices, and "I Feel It" throwing caution to the wind altogether, Carter gleefully pursues the raunchier side of R&B once again. The novelty tunes, though, don't wear nearly as well as the aching laments ("While You Were Loving Him" and "Slip Away" are stand-outs) or Carter's slow and earthy accompaniment. And how can you resist the odd finale -- a bongo and synthesizer rave-up of "What'd I Say?"
DOBIE GRAY -- "Love's Talkin'" (Capitol CLT 48051). Although Gray isn't in the same league as the aforementioned singers, he does come up with a likable performance every now and then. But not this time around. The pickings here are slim indeed, beginning with a stilted version of the Ketty Lester (and later Elvis Presley) hit "Love Letters." Just as bland are his attempts at country-pop ("Take It Easy," to name just one of several). And the Jerry Butler classic "He Don't Love You." Nor does it help that Gray's uninspired vocals are often sweetened by a cloying combination of strings and background singers.
DAVID RUFFIN & EDDIE KENDRICK -- "Ruffin and Kendrick" (RCA 6765-1). A studio album in the strictest sense, most of the music here is glossy and over-dubbed -- the labor of a handful of musicians. It's as clean as it is impersonal, but Kendrick's ethereal tenor and Ruffin's raspy counterpoint compensate on "One More For The Lonely Hearts Club" (produced by John Oates), plus a couple of other tracks that vaguely recall the days when Ruffin and Kendricks were with the Temptations. The subdued reggae beat that underpins "Don't Know Why You're Dreaming" is a welcome departure from the album's otherwise mechanical back-beat, but best of all is Kendrick's silky crooning on "Goodnight Pillow."