The latest wave of Backbeats compilations features two entries that devote themselves to the world of “southern soul” music, I Get My Groove and Love & Jealousy. As you might expect, each draws extensively from the familiar Hi Records label and includes a few familiar names like Ann Peebles and Al Green. However, neither is a mere hits collection – both include material from less-familiar labels like Ronn, Paula and Crazy Cajun and they dig deeply into these labels’ catalogs for the kind of overlooked gems that hardcore soul fans crave.
But first, a word or two about southern soul itself. This style of R&B music has a lot of similarities to its more cosmopolitan cousin from the big city: there are big emotions, a noticeable groove to drive the melody forward and often traces of orchestration to color the sound. However, southern soul records are unlike big-city soul in that they make no attempt to stand on ceremony or blunt their inherent funkiness. Indeed, these records aren’t afraid to show their rough edges: the mixes are often compressed, the vocals never hide their gospel-tinged grit and the lyrics’ take on familiar subjects of love and heartbreak are often disarmingly direct.
I Get My Groove offers an effective sampling of southern soul’s different moods. On the brighter end of the spectrum, Syl Johnson’s “We Did It” brings an anthemic uptempo groove to the love song with its stomping beat and surging orchestration while Oscar Perry’s “Let Me Grow Old With You” is a genuinely moving ballad that wins the listener over with its mix of heartfelt lyrics and a melody that builds to stirring heights.
On the more downbeat part of the spectrum, “What Have You Done With My Heart” by the Imported Moods sells its heartbroken narrative in a plaintive, gentle style over a seductively loping beat and Ann Peebles’ “I Didn’t Take Your Man” lays out the other woman’s side of the story in a cold-blooded (yet funky) style, complete with an ominous spoken intro.
As the title indicates, Love & Jealousy goes for the most intense rushes on either end of romantic scale. The joyful highs of love in bloom are given strong representation by Syl Johnson’s “Could I Be Falling In Love,” which offsets churchy organ with soaring strings to create a plush backdrop for his soulful croon (listen for the transcendent high he hits on the chorus). Another gem in this area is “Back In Love Again” by the Patterson Twins, which makes a new love affair sound like spiritual salvation.
However, even more time on Love & Jealousy is devoted to the sad stuff, covering everything from soul-crushing heartbreak to the inner torment felt by the cheaters who make heartbreak possible. One of the best heartbreak tunes is “Tumbling Down,” which captures the rueful tone of a player cut down by a failed romance with its descending-note chorus. Elsewhere, the dark side of southern soul is nailed by “Take Time To Know The Truth,” a chilly classic where the sweet soul backing offsets a paranoid narrative where jealous people are waiting to trick a lover into giving up his good thing.
However, the real hidden gem here is “I Love Her” by Willie Walker: the vocalist knows he is breaking up someone else’s love affair to get the woman he wants but he’s driven by an overpowering need even he doesn’t understand. Walker’s strident-then-pleading tone captures the song’s desperation perfectly – and it’s likely to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
If there’s a problem to be pointed out with these sets, it is that the producers have included a few tracks of from the 1980’s or later alongside the mostly 1960’s and 1970’s tunes. Though the songwriting and performances on these tracks are cut from the same cloth as the other tunes, the production style has a blockier, more electronic sound that is really distracting when mixed in with the vintage stuff. These tracks can be programmed out or skipped past by the listener but they probably should have been left off.
However, such complaints are minor when you consider how much rare, high-quality southern soul is captured on these discs. Both I Get My Groove and Love & Jealousy are winners for anyone interested in this down-home corner of the soul spectrum.