AA lthough discussions of '60s soul music usually center on Detroit's Motown label A and Memphis' Stax label, Chicago produced an equally distinctive soul style and an equally impressive roster of soul artists. It is the music of Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions that best distills the Chicago soul alternative -- lighter and more lilting than Motown's pounding pop, sweeter and more urbane than Stax's down-home grit.
The landmark recording in the history of Chicago soul is the Impressions' 1958 hit "For Your Precious Love," a somber love ballad that achieved an almost religious intensity through Jerry Butler's restrained delivery. The song not only launched the careers of Butler, Mayfield and the Impressions, but marked the transformation of the vocal group style into the more gospel-based pop of the '60s, called soul.
Appropriately, "For Your Precious Love" turns up on both "Up on Love" (Charly CRB 1005), a collection of Butler's best recordings for Vee-Jay Records, and "Your Precious Love" (Charly CRM 2023), a collection of the Impressions' earliest Vee-Jay recordings. After making "For Your Precious Love" as a member of the Impressions, Butler embarked on a solo career that floundered until 1960 when he recorded "He Will Break Your Heart." This rumba-based song by Curtis Mayfield marked Mayfield's emergence as a songwriter, guitarist and arranger and began a long string of hits for Butler.
"Up On Love" contains Butler's three great Mayfield collaborations: "He Will Break Your Heart," "Find Another Girl" and "I'm A-Telling You." Butler's smooth, rich baritone was one of pop's most romantic vehicles and with Mayfield's fragile harmonizing, sparse guitar work and evocative storytelling, the combination was unbeatable. The rest of the album is no less distinguished, as Butler's resonant vocals glorify Randy Newman's "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore," Bacharach and David's "Make It Easy on Yourself" and Butler's own "I Stand Accused."
After Butler left the Impressions in 1958, they too floundered, searching for the right lead voice and sound. "Your Precious Love" finds the Impressions of 1958-59 still mostly emulating the subdued, dreamy doo-wop of the Spaniels and Dells. While most of the material is pleasant if derivative, two cuts, "Lovers Lane" and "At the Country Fair," reveal Mayfield toying with the sweet falsetto and Latin rhythms that would characterize his later work.
It was after Mayfield had successfully assisted Butler as a solo act that he began to create the cool, elegant style that would render the Impressions one of the '60s biggest black acts. Although "Right on Time" (Charly CRB 1063) is not wholly an Impressions "greatest hits" package, it does collect some of their hits, as well as some lustrous B-sides. In addition to Mayfield's flamenco-based fantasy, "Gypsy Woman," "Right on Time" offers a representative selection of Mayfield's romantic and more socially oriented compositions.
Mayfield's almost-whispered tenor voice and gently echoic guitar chordings added a transcendent aura to his love songs like "Talking About My Baby" and "You've Come Home." But it was in 1964, with "People Get Ready," that Mayfield distinguished himself as one of soul music's great songwriters. "People Get Ready" reveals Mayfield as perhaps the best adapter of gospel music to '60s pop and social protest. And this song is truly a secular hymn and a classic.
After turning Butler and his own Impressions into bestselling acts, Mayfield lent his songwriting and arranging talents to a number of other Chicago soul artists, including Major Lance, Billy Butler and Walter Jackson. Perhaps Mayfield's most artistically and commercially successful collaboration was with Gene Chandler. "Just Be True" (Charly CRB 1007) collects a number of Chandler's early performances as a member of the vocal group the Dukays as well as his soul stylings on eight Mayfield compositions.
Although "Duke of Earl" was Chandler's biggest hit, most of his performances with the Dukays were undistinguished. It was not until Mayfield gave him "Rainbow" in 1963 that Chandler emerged as a major soul act. On the Mayfield numbers, especially the gorgeous "Just Be True," Chandler and his needle-point falsetto achieve the essence of Chicago soul -- a cool, gliding feeling every bit as sensuous as a new sharkskin suit.
These Chicago soul albums have all been released by the British label Charly, which now has more than 100 classy R&B and soul compilations in its catalogue. With widespread American distribution, competitive retail prices and 16 tracks per album, these beautifully illustrated releases are not only a good buy, but should be an embarrassment to the American labels that own the music.