Carla Thomas’s 1967 album, The Queen Alone, finds her in Diana Ross mode: sophisticated and vaguely seductive, an appropriate artistic bearing for the renowned Queen of Memphis Soul and Stax Records’ premiere female vocalist. It’s a more genteel and pop-oriented outing than King & Queen, her album of duets with Otis Redding that had been released earlier in the same year, and is considerably less funky than the average Stax album. Much of the Memphis grit is buffed away by exquisite strings, empathetic backup singers, and exceptionally reserved performances by Booker T. & the MGs; if not for the trademark deep-South horn charts, The Queen Alone could easily be construed as an experiment in Motown polish minus the kitchen-sink clutter.
Thomas carries the album’s abundance of ballads with a grace and maturity well beyond her still-young age at the time. She opens with Burt Bacharach’s “Any Day Now”, a tune of impending loneliness with rushing strings and a heartbeat groove; marries her voice to Steve Cropper’s tender guitar licks in “Unchanging Love”; and opts for understated vocal poise instead of diva bombast in songs like the Supremes-esque “When Tomorrow Comes”, one of six songs on The Queen Alone written by Stax’s premiere songwriting team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Ballads weren’t new territory for Thomas by any stretch, but on The Queen Alone, she offers a definitive portrait of an artist in complete control of a musical aesthetic.
In a few places, The Queen Alone turns up the heat to showcase more than Thomas’s tenderness. She reclaims gritty groovemaking on the head-bobbing “Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You)”, an uptempo single that allows for some sassy inflections in Thomas’s vocal. On “Stop Thief”, another Hayes-Porter song, the MGs’ thick-bodied pulse gives Thomas some rhythmic muscle to sink her teeth into. “I Take It to My Baby” is noticeable for its unique Latin shuffle and excessively sparse arrangement (besides the horns and backup singers, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson are the primary sounds in the song’s mix); the song’s peppy trot provides an optimistic contrast to the album’s otherwise lovesick inclination.
Better still are a few of the five bonus tracks added to Stax’s new reissue. “Me and My Clock” and “Same Thing” are a couple of essential uptempo rarities; although they would not have fit well with the more pensive flow of The Queen Alone, it’s surprising that neither song was released as a single. “Me and My Clock”, in which Thomas waits on her man while watching the hours pass by (“Oh what misery, having the clock for company”), is anchored by Jackson’s clock-tick pulse on the snare drum’s rim. “Same Thing” is even stronger and more infectious, built upon the counterpoint between Cropper’s rigid riff and Booker T. Jones’s whiplash organ quotes; Thomas’s vocal walks over the whole thing with both gravitas and nonchalance, as if one needn’t be cancelled out by the other. If “Same Thing” had been released as a single, it easily could have become just as defining a song for Thomas as “B-A-B-Y” or “Tramp”. More defining, perhaps, is just how sincere and bewitching Thomas’s on-record persona is in any given scenario: on a pop-soul crossover like The Queen Alone, her place on a throne is not up for debate.
// Notes from the Road
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