CARLA THOMAS-SWEET SWEETHEART-THE AMERICAN STUDIO SESSIONS AND MORE.
CARLA THOMAS-SWEET SWEETHEART-THE AMERICAN STUDIO SESSIONS AND MORE.
Musical history is littered with tales of great lost albums. Among them are Johnny Thunders’ Hurt Me, John Cale’s Music For A Lost Society and Neu’s Neu 4. Then there’s Kratwerk and The Undisputed Truth’s eponymous albums. Some of the best known lost albums include Prince’s Black Album and The Beach Boys’ Smile. Each of these albums are spoken about in hushed and reverential tones. They’re a fleeting glimpse of some of the most important, influential and innovative artists at work. Sadly, most of these lost albums will never see the light of day. That was the case with an album Carla Thomas, the Queen of Memphis Soul recorded. It features on Ace Records’ recently released Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More.
Carla’s “lost album” was recorded during the summer of 1970, at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis. During June 1970, eleven songs were recorded. Chips brought together a band that featured some of Memphis’ best session players. They accompanied Carla, who was now twenty-eight. The Queen of Memphis Soul had musically, come of age during the last few years. Quickly, it became apparent that Carla had brought her A-game to the sessions. A carefully chosen selection of cover versions brought out the best in Carla’s voice. Soon, the eleven tracks were recorded. They were then delivered to Stax.
Considering the quality of music, everyone thought that Stax would rush out a new Carla Thomas album. That wasn’t the case. The twelve songs sat in Stax’s vaults right through to 1975, when Stax was declared insolvent. Since then, what’s been referred to by soul connoisseurs as Carla Thomas’ “lost album” has lain unloved and unreleased. Until now. Recently, Ace Records have released Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More. As well as Carla’s lost album, twelve other tracks feature on the twenty-three track compilation. This includes demos and alternate takes. Truly, Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More is a compelling collection of songs from the Queen of Memphis Soul, which I’ll pick the highlights of. Before that, I’ll tell you about Carla’s career until 1970.
Memphis has been home for Carla Thomas since the day she was born. Born in the Foote Homes Housing Project, the Thomas household was a musical one. Each of the three children were musical, while her father Rufus, was a well known singer. Carla’s interest in music started in school, when aged ten, she joined the Teen Town Singers. Members were meant to be in high school. Somehow, Carla managed to juggle school work, rehearsals and concerts. Right through to her final year in high school, Carla was a member of the Teen Town Singers. After leaving school and Teen Town Singers, Carla headed to university in Tennessee and released her debut single.
At the same time, Carla cut her debut solo singe Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) , a song that’s become synonymous with her. This was a song that Carla wrote when she was just fifteen. On its release on Stax, it wasn’t a commercial success. A year later, Atlantic released Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes). It reached number ten in the US Billboard 100 and number five in the US R&B Charts. Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes) was a game-changer, launching Carla’s career.
Given the success of Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes), Atlantic recorded Carla’s debut album. Gee Whiz was released later in 1961, and was meant to build on the success of her sophomore single A Love Of My Own. It reached number fifty-six in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty in the US R&B Charts. Gee Whiz didn’t replicate the success of Carla’s first two single, failing to chart. This was a huge disappointment and it would be four years before she released the followup album to Gee Whiz.
By the time Carla released Comfort Me, her 1965 sophomore album, she’d released about ten solo singles plus three singles with her father Rufus. The most successful single was 1963s I’ll Bring It Home To You, which reached number forty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number nine in the US R&B Charts. Carla couldn’t seem to better Gee Whiz. Mind you, it was a career defining single. This could be said of Comfort Me, which was released on Stax, reaching number 134 in the US Billboard 200 and number eleven in the US R&B Charts. For Carla, this was the start of the most successful period of her career.
1966s Carla proved Carla’s most successful album. It reached number 130 in the US Billboard 200 and number seven in the US R&B Charts. Now aged twenty-four, Carla was establishing her reputation as Stax’s leading Lady. She was on her way to being crowned the Queen of Memphis Soul. Before being crowned, Carla had to work with the King of Memphis Soul..Otis Redding.
At Stax, Carla had already recorded singles with her father Rufus. Now she was about to work with Otis Redding. There could only be one title for the album, King and Queen. Released in March 1967, King and Queen reached number thirty-six in the US Billboard 200 and number five in the US R&B Charts. Ironically, King and Queen’s success was never bettered. Now Carla had officially been crowned the Queen of Memphis Soul.
Later in 1967, Carla released Queen Alone. Given Otis Redding died in December 1967, the title Queen Alone is either poignant or prophetic. Queen Alone reached number 151 in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-six in the US R&B Charts. It seemed that Carla’s solo career wasn’t progressing. It was stalling. However, music was changing, and changing fast. Ever since the British explosion in 1964, American music fans musical tastes had been changing. Music had then become psychedelic. Labels like Stax, Atlantic and Motown that had inspired a new generation of British musicians and British music lovers in the early sixties, weren’t as popular.This affected Carla. The commercial success she’d enjoyed seemed a long time ago.
1969 saw Carla release two albums. Memphis Queen reached number 151 in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-six in the US R&B Charts. Carla decided that it was time to released a career retrospective. The Best Of Carla Thomas stalled at a disappointing 190 in the US Billboard 200 charts. It seemed Carla’s career was at a crossroads. So, she headed to Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis in June 1970, hoping he could work his magic.
Chips Moman had established a reputation as one of the hottest producers of that time. Previously, he’d worked with everyone from Bobby Womack, Solomon Burke, Esther Phillips, Dusty Springfield, B.J. Thomas, Dionne Warwick and Neil Diamond. He was an old school producer who could transform careers. What Jim Stewart and Al Bell at Stax hoped Chips could do, was broaden Carla’s appeal. This was something he’d done before, and would do again. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here.
Most of the twelve tracks were cover versions. This includes James Taylor’s Country Road, Ray Stevens’ Everything Is Beautiful, Barry and Robin Gibb’s To Love Somebody. The prolific Goffin and King contributed Sweet Sweetheart and Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll). Along with track from Chips Moman’s wife Toni Wine and Stax songwriters, it looked like Carla’s career might be rejuvenated.
Toni WIne, Chips’ wife cowrote three tracks. Larry Brown and Toni penned I’m Getting Closer To You, while Toni and Carole Bayer wrote Heaven Help The Non-Believer. Irwin Levine and Toni contributed I Think I Love You Again.
Stax personnel chipped in with a few songs. Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote Love Sure Is Hard Sometimes and B-A-B-Y. Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones contributed Crying All By Myself.
Recording started in June 1970. Chips brought his band into the studio and they started laying down tracks. Work continued through July and into August, with Carla recorded her vocals. When the band and Carla took a break, Stax decided to release a single. This was their way of testing the water. I Loved You Like I Love My Very Life sank without trace. Despite this, the sessions continued. Hopes were high that Chips could transform Carla into a superstar. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.
Once the yet untitled album was completed, it was quietly shelved. This eclectic collection of cover versions and new songs from familiar songwriters would never see the light of day. Stax decided to cut their losses, and started work on Carla’s Love Means album. That this untitled album was never released poses all sorts of questions. The biggest is, what would’ve happened? Chips Moman was on a roll. He was one of the hottest producers, blessed with the Midas touch. He’d brought onboard some of the best session players in Memphis to accompany Carla. Even The Emotions had been drafted in to sing backing vocals. Then just because one single flopped, the whole project seems to have been shelved. That seems the only explanation, considering the quality of music on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More, which I’ll pick the highlights of.
Opening Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More is James Taylor’s Country Roads. It’s given a Memphis makeover. A wailing Hammond organ, crashing cymbals and pounding drums accompany Carla’s feisty vocal. Growling horns and searing guitars join cooing harmonies as Carla delivers a strident, soulful vocal that sees the Queen of Memphis Soul coming of age musically.
A pensive piano open I Loved You Like I Love My Very Life, before Carla’s heartbroken vocal enters. Full of emotion and hurt, there’s a fragility to her tender vocal. Swathes of string accompany her. Their raison d’etre is to tug at your heartstrings. This they do successfully, before drums and piano add drama to this heartbreaking opus.
There are two versions of I’m Getting Closer To You on the compilation. Often, the first take is the best take. That’s the case here. Blazing horns, pounding drums, keyboards and sweeping strings reflect the urgency in Carla’s vocal. As her vocal grows in power, it becomes needy. Desperate to see her lover again, a needy, seductive Carla sings “I’m Getting Closer To You.”
To Love Somebody was written by Barry and Robin Gibb. It’s transformed by Carla. The tempo is slow and the arrangement understated at the start. Just an organ, whose roots are in the church accompany Carla’s soul baring-vocal. Gradually, piano, strings and rasping horns are added just at the right time. Guitars chime and harmonies coo as Carla lays bare her soul for all to see. A fusion of soul and gospel, this is one of the highlights of Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More.
Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll) is a track where musical genres meet head on. Listen carefully and you’ll hear everything from Southern Soul, gospel, blues and M.O.R. Carla delivers another mesmerically, soulful vocal. Accompanied by braying horns, keyboards and the rhythm section provide the backdrop for her vocal. Handclaps accompany Carla, while harmonies answer her call. Together, they inject new life and meaning into this Goffin and King song.
Just a piano opens Heavy Load, which was penned by Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers of Free. Soon, it’s all change. Searing rocky guitar licks add a sense of drama. This is perfect for Carla’s vocal. It’s dramatic and full of frustration and anger. Her anger and frustration is the state of the world. Riffing guitars, pounding drums and flourishes of keyboards provide the backdrop for Carla. Disappointed and frustrated, she angry that the next generation are going to carry the “Heavy Load” that this generation created. Forty years later, these words ring true.
Sweet Sweetheart is another Goffin King song. From the opening bars, you realize something special is unfolding. Soon, the track is starting to swing. Southern Soul meets country, albeit with the lushest of strings added. Carla delivers a vocal that’s needy, soulful and sometimes, vampish. With the blazing horns and country tinged harmonies for company, hook-laden track swings.
One way to transform a song, is slow it down and leave spaces. This is what happens with this gospel-tinged version of Everything Is Beautiful. The song is stripped back. Carla accompanied by an understated piano and backing vocal delivers an impassioned and spiritual reading of the lyrics. Then when the harmonies drop out, Carla ensures the song swings. Chips’ band go into overdrive. Horns rasp and growl. Keyboards are omnipresent. Sweeping strings drift in and out. As for the rhythm section, they provide the heartbeat. Meanwhile, Carla and her backing vocalists drive each other to greater heights, as they deliver the definitive version of this track.
Of the other tracks on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More, they’re a compelling and eclectic collection of songs from the Queen of Memphis Soul. B-A-B-Y features a sassy Carla, aided and abetted by backing vocalists. Crying All By Myself features an outpouring of hurt and betrayal from Carla. He’s “ not coming home” and Carla is breaking her heart, wondering what she’s done wrong? On Just Kiss Your Pillow Carla is needy. She long to share his pillow, That she knows is wishful thinking. He’s taken, and belongs to another. Songs about love and love lost are plentiful on the compilation. However, Carla delivers them so well.
Proof of this is Try My, which references Phil Spector and Shadow Morton. Carla and her backing vocalists become The Shangri-Las. Cooing harmonies accompany her pleading vocal, as “she promises to always be true.” Then as she pleadingly sings “I need you, got to have you,” longing, desperation and insecurity fills what is one of her best vocals on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More.
He Picked Me is one of two tracks that I must mention. Although it’s something of a stomper, Carla’s vocal oozing sadness and emotion. She knows that although he picked her, they’ll never be together. As the reality, strikes home, she’s heartbroken. Problems features a much more mature Carla. Her vocal is worldweary, she sounds as if she’s experienced the lyrics and hurt she sings about. Fusing Southern Soul and gospel, she’s resigned to the cards she’s been dealt. Delivering a vocal that’s worldweary and tinged with resignation and regret.
Forty-three years after Carla Thomas entered the studio with Chips Mohan, at long last, her lost album has been released. We should thank Ace Records for including it on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More. Of the tracks recorded in Memphis with Chips Mohan, I’ve told you about what I consider the highlights. Having said that, there’s no filler. The songs were chosen carefully. They were an eclectic selection of cover versions and new material. This was perfect for Chips and his crack team of musicians.
Their job tried to rejuvenate Carla’s ailing career. Like so many soul singers, it had been a while since she’d enjoyed commercial success. Sending her to work with Chips must have seemed the way to revive her career. It was and it could’ve worked. Sadly, Stax decided to shelve the album. Instead, they decided to start again. Love Means reached a disappointing 213 in the US Billboard 200 and forty-two in the US R&B Charts. I’m sure that Carla’s lost album would’ve fared better.
This lost album could’ve transformed Carla Thomas’ career. Whether it would, we’ll never know. Jim Stewart and Al Bell never gave the album a chance. They never even gave this lost album a title. Instead, it lay unloved and unwanted for forty-three long years. Thankfully, it’s at last seen the light of day. What I can say is, that it would’ve had every chance of rejuvenating Carla Thomas’ career. It’s an album that straddles the sixties and seventies. Not only does it reference Stax’s trademark Southern Soul sound, but takes detours via country, R&B, gospel, blues and rock. That’s the case for the other tracks on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More.
In total, there are another eleven tracks on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More. While many of these are alternate takes, plus the odd demo, that doesn’t mean the quality is lacking. No. Far from it. Carla’s vocal bristles with emotion, veering between sass to sadness, needy and insecure to feisty and confident. Regret sits side-by-side with worldweary and joyous. On each track, Carla brings something new to the song.
Throughout Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More, Carla transforms well known songs. Country Road, To Love Somebody, Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll) and Everything Is Beautiful are proof of that. They’re also four of many reasons on Carla Thomas-Sweet Sweetheart-The American Studio Sessions and More that Carla Thomas is still known as the Queen of Memphis Soul. Standout Tracks: Country Road, To Love Somebody, Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll) and Everything Is Beautiful.
CARLA THOMAS-SWEET SWEETHEART-THE AMERICAN STUDIO SESSIONS AND MORE.