Without doubt, one of music’s best kept secrets is Sam Dees. So much so, that I’d describe Sam Dees as one of the best singers you’ve never heard. Sam’s career began back in the late-sixties. Sadly, commercial success and critical acclaim never came Sam’s way. As a result, Sam Dees is better known as a songwriter and producer. 

That’s why nowadays, Sam Dees is described as: “a prolific songwriter and occasional performer.” That seems a fitting description of Sam Dees, who has written nearly four-hundred songs. However, during a career stretching six decades, Sam has only released a trio of albums. 

Clearly, Sam Dees believes in quality over quantity. Anyone whose heard Sam’s 1975 debut album The Show Must Go On will be forced to agree. The Show Must Go On is Sam Dees’ Magnus Opus.

Although Sam’s career started in the late-sixties, he didn’t released his debut album until 1975. By then, Sam was signed to Atlantic Records. His debut album was released to widespread critical acclaim. Despite this, The Show Must Go On  failed commercially. Since then, The Show Must Go On is regarded as a Southern Soul classic. You’ll realise that when I tell you about The Show Must Go On, which was recently rereleased by Rhino as part of its Japanese Soul and R&B series. Before that, I’ll tell you about Sam Dees career.

Sam Dees was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in December 1945. He was born into a large family. Sam stood out though. The reason for that was his voice. From an early age, it was obvious that Sam was a talented singer. When he was just nine, Sam was a veteran of talent contests. He’d won numerous talent shows, so decided to form his own group The Bossanovians. By the time Sam was ten, it became apparent Sam had a way with words.

Unlike most ten year olds, Sam was writing poetry and songs. Looking back, Sam Dees was something of a musical prodigy. So, it’s no surprise that he would make a career as a songwriter. Before that, he had dreams of becoming a singer.

Although Sam was a still teenager, he was already travelling from his Birmingham home to perform. This was the equivalent of Sam serving his musical apprenticeship. Then in 1968, Sam caught a break, He got the chance to record his debut single.

Given Sam was an aspiring soul singer, it sees strange that he made his recording debut in Nashville. I Need You Girl was released on SSS International. Sadly, it wasn’t a commercial success. Neither were Easier To Say Than Do nor It’s All Right (It’s All Right), which sam released on Lo Lo Records in 1969. Then as a new decade dawned, Sam’s luck changed.

Since 1968, Clarence Carter had been signed to Atlantic Records. He’d released a trio of albums, to varying degrees of success. His fourth album, Patches, was released in 1970. Produced by Rick Hall, and featuring some of Memphis’ top musicians and backing vocalists, including Chalmers, Rhodes, Chalmers, Patches featured songs from some top songwriters. This included Sam Dees. He wrote Changes, a heartbreakingly beautiful slice of Southern Soul. For Sam Dees, an up-and-coming singer and songwriter, writing a song for Clarence Carter was something of a coup. He was, after all, signed to Atlantic Records, one of the biggest soul labels. Little did Sam realise that in a few years, he’d be signed to Atlantic Records. Before that, Sam signed to another famous label, Chess Records.

1971 proved to be an important year for Sam Dees. He signed to Chess Records, releasing two singles, the Larry Weiss penned Maryanna and Can You Be A One Man Woman. Despite the quality of music, Sam wasn’t making that important commercial breakthrough. At least other artists were covering his songs.

Rozetta Johnson covered A Woman’s Way. It  was the B-Side to her single Mine Was Real. Sam wrote both songs with his wife Lillian Dees. He co-produced the songs with Clinton Moon. Released on Clintone Records, it reached number ninety-four in the US Billboard 100 and thirty-nine in the US R&B Charts. This was the first hit single Sam had written. Despite this, Sam saw himself as a singer first, and then a songwriter.

Having written and produced his first hit single, Sam hadn’t given up hope of forging a successful career as a songwriter. After leaving Chess, Sam released a single for Clintone Records. Claim Jumping didn’t replicate the commercial success of Rozetta Johnson’s Mine Was Real. Despite this, Sam’s career was on the up.

By the early seventies, Atlantic Records was a musical institution. Some of the biggest names in soul had been signed to Atlantic. Now, it was a broad musical church, with Led Zeppelin one of its most successful artists. The next addition to the label was Sam Dees. 1973 saw Sam release two singles for Atlantic, So Tied Up and I’m So Very Glad. Despite their undoubted quality, they weren’t the commercial success they deserved to be. At least a song Sam cowrote proved much more successful.

Stop This Merry-Go-Round was was a song Sam, Albert Gardner and Clinton Moon had written. Originally, Bill Brandon took the song to number thirty-three in the US R&B Charts. Now, John Edwards a future Detroit Spinner would record the track. His Johnny Taylor styled cover was released on Aware in 1973, reaching number forty-five in the US R&B Charts. Again, Sam was enjoying more success writing songs than singing them. He wasn’t for turning his back on his solo career,

Sam returned to his solo career in 1974. He released two singles, Worn Out Broken Heart and Come Back Strong. Neither were a commercial success, but Come Back Strong proved to be prophetic.

With the last couple of years proving unsuccessful for Sam Dees, 1975 was a big year for him. Sam was about to release his debut album The Show Must Go On. It featured ten tracks. Four were penned by Sam, including The Show Must Go On, Come Back Strong, What’s It Gonna Be and Good Guys. Sam cowrote Claim Jumpin’ and So Tied Up with William Brandon. He also cowrote Just Out Of Reach with James Lewis and Worn Out Broken Heart with Sandra Drayton. Child Of The Streets was a collaboration between Sam and David Cammon. The pair also cowrote Troubled Child with Al Gardner. These ten tracks became The Show Must Go On,  and were recorded at two studios in Birmingham, Alabama.

To record his debut album The Show Must Go On, Sam headed to home to Birmingham, Alabama. He recorded The Show Must Go On at two studios, New London Studios and Sound Of Birmingham.  For the recording sessions, Sam drafted in a small, tight band. The rhythm section featured drummer Sherman “Fats” Carson. bassist David Camon and guitarist Glen Woods. Arrangers included Randy Richards, Ronnie Harris, Skip Lane and Sam. Aaron Varnell arranged the horns on Claim Jumpin.’ Sam played piano and produced The Show Must Go On, which was released in 1975.

Sadly, when The Show Must Go On was released, musical tastes had changed. Disco was now King. Soul albums weren’t selling well. The Show Must Go On wasn’t a commercial success. Neither were the singles The Show Must Go On, nor Fragile, Handle With Care. For Sam, this must have been a huge disappointment. Here he was signed to one of soul’s most prestigious labels, but at the wrong time. Belatedly, however, The Show Must Go On has come to be regarded as a Southern Soul classic. You’ll realise why, when I tell you about The Show Must Go On.

Child Of The Streets opens The Show Must Go On. A flute flutters above the arrangement while a probing bass, Fender Rhodes and piano sets the scene for Sam’s vocal. Straight away, he paints pictures. They’re not pretty pictures. Instead, he sings about poverty, crime and drug addiction. Concern fills his vocal at the plight of the “Child Of The Streets.” Her father is a “pusher man,” her mother “on the corner” and her brother a drug addict.”  Flourishes of keyboards add to the drama. Frustration fills Sam’s vocal as he asks: “will you end up like your family tree, tell me what you gonna do?” on this poignant, dramatic track full of social comment.

Loleatta Holloway recorded The Show Must Go On. Both versions have a slow, dramatic introduction. The rhythm section, reverberating guitar and violin provide the backdrop for Sam’s soliloquy. Here, he plays the role of a heartbroken star. Each night, he has to face the woman who broke his heart. Sam sings:“I laugh to make the hurt go once again.”. A thunderous drum signals the arrangement to unfold and Sam delivers a vocal that oozes emotion and hurt. He sometimes sings call and response with soaring harmonies. It’s as if they’re trying to sooth his pain. Guitars weep, strings sweep and stabs of keyboards join the rhythm section, who provide the heartbeat. Sam meanwhile, delivers a soul baring vocal that’s full of hurt and loneliness.

A crystalline guitar opens Come Back Strong while the pulsating rhythm section and swirling strings set the scene for Sam. He unleashes a defiant vocal powerhouse that showcases Sam’s prowess as a songwriter. The lyric “they say that love, love will never work for us, but while they fuss and fight all night, we always get along” proves this. It’s just a tantalising taste of a Sam Dees’ masterpiece. As for the arrangement, it just keeps getting better. It’s driven along by the bass, while soaring, rocky guitars, cooing, soulful harmonies, dancing string and growling provides the perfect accompaniment for Sam. He delivers a vocal masterclass of one of the finest songs he ever wrote.

Stabs of piano and quivering strings open Just Out of Reach. They’re joined by tender harmonies and a meandering rhythm section. By the time Sam’s vocal enters, the scene’s set. He’s heartbroken, having realised that the woman he loves is “Just Out of Reach.” His vocal oozes emotion. It quivers as he delivers the lyrics. It’s as if he’s realised the relationship is over. His vocal is augmented by harmonies and lush strings. They reinforce the sadness, whilst adding to what’s a beautiful, but heartbreaking song, where Sam sings the lyrics like he’s lived them.

Claim Jumpin’ sees a change of style. It has a tougher, funkier sound. Even Sam’s vocal is stronger, taking on a powerful, vampish style. The arrangement drive the arrangement along. They’re joined by searing guitars, stabs of scorching horns and bursts of urgent, then cooing harmonies. Sam and his tight talented band fuse Southern Soul and funk, as they show another side to Sam Dees’ music.

Sam drops the tempo on Troubled Child. Just a lone piano accompanies his slow, thoughtful vocal. Frustration and emotion fills his voice as he sings about a Troubled Child. The lyrics are poignant and full of searing social comment. Especially: “old before his time, peeping out window of an empty tenement slum, looking for his dad, he didn’t know his mum.” Again, Sam paints pictures. So much so, that can imagine the scenario. The way Sam sings the lyrics, it’s as if he’s witnessed it. His vocal is dramatic, emotive and powerful. Meanwhile, stabs of horns and Hammond organ join the probing bass in framing Sam’s vocal, as he becomes Southern Soul’s conscience.

What’s It Gonna Be has a shuffling, introduction. The rhythm section, sweeping, swirling strings and piano join forces before harmonies signal the arrival of Sam’s emotive vocal. It grows in power and emotion. Soon, Sam’s unleashed a defiant, vocal powerhouse. He sings: “I know you’ve had a raw deal, but you’re the only one that can fix it, love your fellow man and start caring.” Sam seems to America’s problems personally. He seems determined to help solve. His way of doing this is through music. A talented singer and songwriter, Sam felt he  would be able to reach people and bring about change with his music.

Worn Out Broken Heart is another Sam Dees song Loleatta Holloway recorded. The two arrangements on The Show Must Go On are similar. Sam’s soliloquy is accompanied by the rhythm section, braying horns and pizzicato strings. They create an arrangement that’s not unlike a musical merry-go-round. That’s before Sam’s vocal enters. It’s a combination of tenderness, despair, hope and heartbreak. Keyboards underpin the bass. It helps drive the dramatic arrangement along. Meanwhile, strings sweep, and tender harmonies sweep in. At the heart of the arrangement is Sam’s hopeful, needy vocal. It’s one of his best on The Show Must Go On.

The tempo increases on Good Guys. Swirling strings join the rhythm section, percussion and rasping horns. Straight away, Sam grabs the song and delivers another of his trademark vocals. It’s veers between rueful to hopeful. He’s one of the “Good Guys,” but “Good Guys don’t always win.” Despite this, Sam makes his case. I was your strength, your leaning post when you were falling down, and whenever you felt alone, girl I never left alone.” Later, as strings sweep Sam sings: “we were better than lovers, we were friends, and friends are hard to kind,” this is the finishing touch to another Sam Dees classic.

So Tied Up closes The Show Must Go On. Sam scats as string sweep and a piano plays. They’re accompanied by the rhythm section before Sam delivers a needy, heartfelt vocal. He’s in love, “tangled up in this thing called love…so tied up in this thing called love.” The arrangement sweeps along, reinforcing the drama and emotion in Sam’s vocal. It’s akin to a confessional. He sings “this love of yours is the making of me.” After that, Sam’s vocal veers between defiant and tender. Similarly, the arrangement veers between dramatic to understated and ethereal on this beautiful, soul-baring paean.

When Sam Dees released The Show Must Go On in 1975, it was hailed a Southern Soul classic. Sadly, The Show Must Go On wasn’t commercial success. Disco was now the most popular musical genre. Soul albums weren’t selling well. Even classic albums like The Show Must Go On, which oozes quality.

That’s apparent from the opening bars of Child Of The Streets, right through to the closing notes of So Tied Up, The Show Must Go On oozes quality. Love songs sit comfortably side-by-side with songs full of social comment on The Show Must Go On. Child Of The Streets, Troubled Child and What’s It Gonna Be were full of searing social comment. Southern Soul had found its conscience. However,  Sam Dees was just as comfortable being Southern Soul’s conscience as he was writing love songs.Good as he was at both, Sam shines on the love songs.  

He breathes life, meaning and emotion into songs like The Show Must Go On, Come Back Strong, Just Out of Reach, Worn Out Broken Heart, Good Guys and Tied Up. They’re songs about love lots and love found. During these tracks, the betrayal, hurt, loneliness come to life. So do the hope and joy. Sam sings the lyrics as if he’s lived, loved and survived the lyrics. Other times, he sounds as if he’s experienced the hope and joy that love brings. This makes the music on  The Show Must Go On sound very personal. That’s why, Sam’s versions are the definitive versions. Good as Loleatta Holoway’s version of The Show Must Go On and Worn Out Broken Heart were, Sam’s responsible for the definitive versions. That’s the case with several songs on The Show Must Go On. Despite this, other singers are better known for their cover versions than Sam’s original.

That’s because after the commercial failure of The Show Must Go On, Sam Dees decided to concentrate more on his career as a songwriter. He penned tracks for everyone from John Edwards, Loleatta Holloway, Clarence Carter, Rozetta Johnson, Jackie Wilson and Frederick Knight, right through to The Chi-Lites, The Temptations, L.T.D, Johnnie Taylor and Gladys Knight and The Pips. That saw Sam establish a reputation as one of the most talented songwriters of his generation. That’s no exaggeration. Far from it. However, there’s more to Sam Dees than his songwriting skills.

Proof of that is Sam’s debut album The Show Must Go On. It’s a Southern Soul classic from one of the most underrated singers in the history of soul music. That’s why sometimes, Sam is one of the best singers you’ve never heard of. That to me is an injustice. Given his undoubted talent, Sam Dees should’ve enjoyed a successful career as a singer. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Instead, Sam Dees is “a prolific songwriter and occasional performer” whose debut album The Show Must Go On is  a stonewall Southern Soul classic that belongs in every record collection.






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