Mention Doris Duke’s 1970 album I’m A Loser, and many lovers of soul music will nod approvingly. Since its release, I’m A Loser has become regarded as one of the greatest Deep Soul albums ever released. However, who was Doris Duke, and how did she go from voice for hire to Deep Soul diva in the space of five years, and what became of her afterwards?

Doris Curry was born in Sandersvile, Georgia in 1945. Having started as a gospel singer, aged eighteen she moved to New York, becoming a session singer and backing vocalist at the legendary Apollo Theatre. By 1966, Doris was married, and cut her debut single Running Away From Loneliness, released on the Hy-Monty label as Doris Willingham. Her follow-up single You Can’t Do That was released two years later on the Jay Boy label. Like her debut single, it garnered good reviews, but wasn’t a commercial success. After that, Doris returned to Philadelphia, hooking up with the legendary production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, contributing backing vocals to some of their early work.

1969 was an important year in Doris’ career. During 1969, Doris worked with one of the biggest names in music, Nina Simone. Doris was a backing vocalist on Nina’s live album A Very Rare Evening, which was recorded in Germany. Later in the year, she met Swap Dogg, producer Jerry Williams Jr. He had split with Atlantic Records, leaving his job as their A&R man. He was much more than an A&R man though, he was one of the most innovative people in soul music, working as a songwriter, musician and producer. Deciding that Doris needed a new identity, the now divorced Doris Willingham became Doris Duke, who confusingly, was also the heir to her family’s tobacco fortune. Using her “borrowed” name, Doris recorded her debut album, with Swamp Dogg producing it.

That album was the legendary I’m A Loser, which was released on Wally Roker’s Canyon Records. Little did they know it then, but Canyon was going to be a short lived enterprise, that ultimately, would cause problems when it folded. However, that was still to come. Things looked good when the first single from the album was released. When To the Other Woman was released, it reached number seven in the US R&B Charts and number fifty in the US Billboard 100. Then, when the follow-up single Feet Start Walking was released, it too made the charts, but only reached number thirty-nine in the US R&B Charts. However, just as Doris must have thought her career was going places, disaster struck. Canyon Records collapsed. The result of this was Doris didn’t receive any royalties.

Down but not out, Doris recorded another album with Swamp Dogg in 1971, A Legend In Her Own Time. It was released on the Mankind label. Sadly, it wasn’t a commercial success. Around this time, another problem occurred, when the “real” Doris Duke started singing with a choir of children in New Jersey. This caused confusion, with the two Doris Duke’s getting mixed up. By now, Doris had remarried, and was Doris Logan. She decided to retire temporarily, to bring up her young family. 

1974 saw Doris make a brief comeback, recording her album Woman, for the British Contempo label. The album was well received by critics, but failed commercially. After that, Doris retired from music, releasing one further single eight years later, That was I’ll Make A Sweet Man (Out of You), for the Boston based Beantown label. Since then, Doris has been content to keep a low profile, neither seeking publicity nor wanting to be rediscovered. Instead, she’s content to have recorded what Dave Godin called the greatest deep soul album of all time, I’m A Loser, which I’ll now tell you about.

I’m A Loser is one of soul music’s first concept albums, its subject matter relationships, love and sometimes, betrayal. Opening the album is he’s gone, about a woman whose partner has left them. Doris uses her incredible voice to get over the sense of loss, betrayal and heartache in the lyrics. She does this, against a slow, moody backdrop of piano, drums chiming guitars. Her voice is laden with power and emotion, totally distraught, as strings sweep in, a bass sitting at the front of the mix. Later a Hammond organ enters, its sound slow, moody and adding to the sense of sadness. Together, Doris and Swap Dogg’s arrangement unite perfectly to produce a track that’s a combination of raw emotion, sadness and drama.

I Can’t Do Without You has a more uptempo, jaunty arrangement that sometimes, almost takes a diversion into funk territory. Doris’ desperate, needy vocal is sung against a quicker arrangement that features just the rhythm section, guitars and piano combining. They combine to create a catchy backdrop for Doris, who desperately pleads for her lover to set her free from her loneliness and neediness. She can’t live without him, needing him to survive and go on. What I’ve always liked about the song is the combination of the catchy, hooky arrangement and Doris’ quicker, yet desperate vocal. Both are excellent, but it’s the sheer emotion and desperation of Doris vocal that sets the song apart. It turns a great song into an outstanding one.

When Feet Start Walking opens, there’s a sense of drama created by the combination of piano, guitars and rhythm section that accompany Doris. Straight away, her voice is full of power, anger and frustration, at the betrayal she’s experienced having caught her lover in the throes of passion with another woman. Having been humiliated, Doris vents her anger at her disloyal lover, and heads for the door, promising never to return. A combination of a dramatic piano lead arrangement, and Doris’ angry, frustrated and passionate vocal unite to produce one of the most emotionally charged tracks on I’m A Loser.

A Hammond organ combines with a bass and piano, as Ghost of Myself opens, before a slow and thoughtful vocal from Doris enters. Slow spacious drums and soaring electric guitars join the arrangement, keeping the tempo slow, yet adding a sense of drama. Doris one down on her luck, not the woman she once was, having lost her love of life, after a relationship has ended. Doris gets across the sadness and desperation of the situation. So does the arrangement, but the screaming soaring guitars slightly spoil the sound for me. They lack the subtlety of the rest of the arrangement. Having said that, it’s a emotive song with Doris’ performance stealing the show.

Your Best Friend sees a combination of Hammond organ, rhythm section and chiming guitars accompany Doris. She’s discovered that her partner, is using her, she doesn’t mean anything to her, so his best friend tells her. It’s a one-way love affair, with Doris doing the loving. Doris gives a heartfelt rendition of Larry Harrison and Jerry Williams Jr.’s lyrics against a slow, moody arrangement that’s laden in emotion and sadness. It has the Hammond organ, rhythm section and guitars at its heart. They provide the perfect backdrop for a heartbroken Doris, resulting in a hugely moving, track full of frustration and betrayal.

The final song on side one of the album is The Feeling Is Right. It’s much quicker track, with piano, rhythm section and guitars combining with Doris’ powerful yet joyous vocal. As if the arrangement isn’t good enough, a Hammond organ and sweeping strings cut in. Swamp Dogg chooses just the right moment to deploy what are almost his secret weapon. The strings shimmer, behind the rest of the arrangement adding to its sweeping beauty. When combined with Doris’ power laden, joyful combination this is a winning combination, ending side one on a high.

Side two of the album sees a much slower tempo and understated sound open I Don’t Care Anymore. It’s just an acoustic guitar that opens the track, with a tambourine, rhythm section and sad strings combining  before Doris’ desperate vocal. The song is about a woman coming from the Deep South to find work, and her descent from having a job, getting married to prostitute and nearly destitute. It’s a hugely moving gritty tale of a life gone wrong, with Doris bringing the lyrics to life. Behind her, the arrangement has an understated, yet melodramatic sound, perfect for the sadness and despair of the track. 

Congratulations Baby sees the tempo increase, a combination of the driving rhythm section, guitars, piano and Hammond organ are responsible for this. When Doris’ vocal enters, there’s a sense of anger, frustration and betrayal in her voice, as she sings about her lover marrying another woman. This anger and frustration in her voice combines perfectly with Swap Dogg’s quicker, driving arrangement. This “marriage” of the arrangement and vocal results in track where the sense of anger, bitterness and frustration is palpable.

A slow moody bass opens We’re More Than Strangers, giving way to chiming guitars and piano, before a hugely emotional vocal from Doris enters. The track is a combination of Southern Soul with a blues influence present. Here, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section give one of their best performances on the album, combining with slow, sad strings and a wailing Hammond organ. They provide the perfect backdrop for Doris’ vocal about a relationship gone wrong, and she wants to end. It’s hugely emotive, full of pain and sadness. Together with the slow emotive, arrangement, it’s one of the albums best tracks.

Divorce Decree sees a newly divorced woman, free but not happy. She’s still got hopes and feelings for her ex-husband, missing him, wanting him back. An emotion drenched vocal from Doris, is sung against a drama laden arrangement. Drums and guitars add drama, the drums loud and punchy throughout the track, while the lushes of strings represent the loss and sadness in Doris vocal. Although just two and a half minutes long, the song is an emotionally charged and dramatic mini-drama thanks to Jerry Williams Jr. and Maurice Gimblel lyrics, brought to life magnificently by Doris.

A swirling, stirring and punchy, dramatic introduction opensHow Was I To know You Cared. A combination of swirling, sweeping strings, punchy rhythm section, piano and guitars combine before a much more restrained vocal from Doris. She discovers that her former partner cares and loves for her, but can’t bring herself to leave her new partner. Backing vocalists subtly accompany her, as she sings with a mixture of frustration, regret and temptation, at what she’s just discovered. Although it’s a good enough song, it doesn’t quite live up to the expectation created by the drama laden introduction.

 I’m A Loser closes with To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman). The track has a slow, spacious arrangement, with the rhythm section, chiming guitars and piano combining as Doris’ vocal enters. She’s discovered her partner is cheating on her, but seems to have accepted this, with it not coming as a surprise to her. Her voice is strong and emotive, but with a sadness and sense of betrayal coming across. Backing vocalists accompany her, their tender voices a contrast to her power. Strings cut in, they’re slow full of sadness, matching the rest of the tender, understated arrangement. A Hammond organ, adds the final touch to a brilliant arrangement. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Doris’ vocal, on this excellent track, which is one of the album’s highlights.

Over the years I’ve heard probably thousands of soul albums, but one I always return to is Doris Duke’s I’m A Loser. Of all the albums I’ve heard this is one of the best. It’s a hugely emotive concept album that brings to life the complicated subjects of relationships. During the album, there’s twelve dramatic stories of love, betrayal and broken promises. On each of these tracks, Doris is transformed into a master storyteller, as she throws herself headlong into each story. Her portrayal of each story makes you forget that this is only “make believe.” She delivers the lyrics so realistically that you think that Doris has lived each track. Not many singers have the ability and talent to do that. Doris Duke did, she brought lyrics to life, whereas other singers just sung them, but gave nothing of themselves. That the album wasn’t a huge success was a mixture of bad luck and possibly not being on a major label. If Swamp Dogg had signed Doris to Atlantic Records, his old label, maybe she would’ve been a huge star. Instead, he signed her to the ill-fated Canyon label, not knowing its perilous state. Sadly, although the album was well received by critics, commercially it wasn’t a success. However, as regular readers of my blog will know, this has happened to many other artists, time after time. Thankfully, in 2005, Ace Records rereleased I’m A Loser. On the album is also Doris’ second album A Legend In Her Own Time. This allows you to hear not only the brilliant I’m A Loser, but another great album from one of soul music’s best voices. Standout Tracks: I Can’t Do Without You, I Don’t Care Anymore, We’re More Than Strangers and To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman).


1 Comment

  1. John

    Just came across this review of what I believe is one of the greatest deep soul Albums of all time. Many years ago I read about I’m a Loser by Doris Duke in Blues and Soul magazine, and Dave Goddin the editor called it the greatest album of all time. But I struggled to find it. Luckily enough I stumbled across it in a Liverpool market. The impact this album had on me has not diminished. Derek’s words have shone a light on a truly amazing album.

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