Arthur Conley’s rise to fame was astonishingly rapid. It took just one record to make the 21-year-old a star. Sweet Soul Music wasn’t his first single, but previous releases had done nothing to bring Conley to the public eye. Well, almost nothing: one led him to his mentor, soul legend Otis Redding, and, in turn, led to the making of Sweet Soul Music, such a classic of 60s soul its title became a cliché. But Sweet Soul Music also marked the high point of Conley’s career; due to a tragedy that shook the entire music industry, this dazzling young singer never fulfilled his massive potential of becoming one of the best soul singers of his era. But the Sweet Soul Music album, the first of two records he released in 1967, makes it clear Conley had much more going for him than his hit suggested: here was a kid with the sensitivity to handle every nuance soul music demanded. But if soul was sweet, the pain it brought to Conley left a bitter taste.
The “King Of Soul”’s protégé
Arthur Conley sang gospel songs in Georgia as a youth. In the early 60s, he joined an R&B group, The Corvets, soon billed as Arthur And The Corvets because of Conley’s ability as a frontman. They cut four singles in 1964, for the optimistically named National Recording Corporation, and Conley cut a solo record for Ru-Jac, I’m A Lonely Stranger. The ambitious singer used the latter as a demo, sending it to industry figures. Someone played it to Otis Redding and the soul icon was impressed. Conley’s record was subtle, had atmosphere, and his voice, somewhat akin to Sam Cooke’s, sold a rather ordinary lyric quite brilliantly. Redding signed him to his fledgling Jotis label.
Conley could scarcely believe his luck. Out of nowhere, he’d become a protégé of the “King Of Soul”, a singer with experience who was only too willing to pass on his knowledge. The awestruck Conley was so keen to absorb every mote of wisdom and stardust his new guide might emit, he sometimes slept on Redding’s floor, according to business associate Alan Walden, quoted in Peter Guralnick’s history of Southern soul, Sweet Soul Music, named after Conley’s signature song. But it was not all one-way traffic: Redding was as keen to make Conley a star as the kid was to become one. He pressed a new version of I’m A Lonely Stranger on Jotis, plus another single, Who’s Foolin’ Who, and sent Conley to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in Alabama, for two further singles issued on the Fame label. All were fine records which sold modestly. But the fifth single Redding made with Conley changed everything.
This kid’s gonna be huge…
Redding and Conley wrote Sweet Soul Music together, as a tribute to the stars of the style of music they themselves made. Conley delivered it as Redding, its producer, might have performed it, and, knowing what a monster it was, the big man ensured it was released on Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Atco, which had the muscle to promote it. Now regarded as one of the best soul songs of all time, Conley’s catchy, punchy single made No.2 in the Billboard chart, a higher position than Redding ever achieved during his lifetime. But he did not get too big for his boots: Conley idolised Redding, and Redding continued to work for Conley. At Redding’s insistence, Conley joined Stax Records’ European tour, appearing further up the bill than some established stars. It looked like the kid was gonna be huge.
However, Sweet Soul Music was not quite the original composition it appeared to be. The late Sam Cooke’s manager pointed out that it was a rewrite of his charge’s Yeah Man, and received a large portion of the publishing. Undeterred, Redding and Conley put together the Sweet Soul Music album, a glorious collection despite being created in double-quick time. It contained seven of the eight songs released on Jotis and Fame, plus the title hit and two Redding originals, Wholesale Love and Let Nothing Separate Us.
The album’s title did not lie
Those expecting a one-note, wham-bam affair like the hit single would be in for a surprise. Conley had impressive facility when it came to ballads. I’m A Lonely Stranger, with highly affecting organ and airy horn parts, was deeply touching. Just as moving was There’s A Place For Us and Let Nothing Separate Us, a song that would soon gain unexpected poignancy. On the other hand, I Can’t Stop (No, No, No) is in the upbeat Sam And Dave mould, and Who’s Foolin’ Who kicks butt. Conley sings like an old hand, not a callow first-timer, and the record hangs together well; it still holds its own among the best soul albums Atlantic Records released. Redding was justifiably proud of the record, and it grazed Billboard’s pop Top 100 while soaring to No.10 in the soul listing.
It seemed nothing could stop Conley. He hit with a routine version of Shake, Rattle & Roll, which lent its name to the second album Conley and Redding assembled before 1967 was out. Then disaster struck: in December, Redding was killed in a plane crash. Conley was cast adrift. He hit again with Funky Street in 1968 and was part of The Soul Clan project, but how keenly he felt his mentor’s loss was expressed by Otis Sleep On, from his third album, Soul Directions. Somewhat embittered, Conley eventually quit the business and went to live in Europe. If he ever performed live, he used the name Lee Roberts, denying any knowledge of the man who had made such sweet soul music under Otis Redding’s tutelage. But his debut album’s title did not lie.
Buy ‘Sweet Soul Music’ on clear vinyl at the Dig! store.
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