[12 April 2012]
Soul is a genre dominated by powerful and charismatic singers, but a vital though often overlooked part of the foundation of ‘60s/‘70s soul was the songwriters, the guys who penned a seemingly never-ending series of great tunes. Some of these figures, like Isaac Hayes (who wrote for Stax), managed to have successful careers in the spotlight as well. George Jackson was one of the many who didn’t. Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Wilson Pickett and others recorded his songs in the late ‘60s and 70s, but he also recorded numerous songs that were not compiled and released until recently. In 2009, the Ace label – which specializes in reissuing old rock, soul, funk, and blues—put out George Jackson: In Memphis 1972 – 1977, which showed that Jackson excelled at writing R&B of the Southern variety (listen to the perfectly mournful “Dear Abby”). The Kent label, a subsidiary of Ace, has now released Don’t Count Me Out: The Fame Recordings, Vol. 1. , with 24 more tracks from Jackson. Like the previous compilation of Jackson’s work, Don’t Count Me Out shows a versatile composer with an excellent grasp of different types of R&B, a talented singer who enjoyed wordplay as well as sentiment.
Some soul writers probably lacked the vocals to step out from behind the curtains. But Jackson was at ease singing bluesy numbers and soul ballads. Although he trafficked in southern R&B, he did not have a gritty, forceful voice like some of the other men who sang his songs. Jackson’s singing is smooth, and the polished template allows for a breadth of expression—little vocal cracks, quavers, and vibrattoes reach the ear with clarity and gently get across the emotions Jackson is trying to communicate. It’s a laid back and graceful approach to the deep soul template.
The blues songs on Don’t Count Me Out display a sense of humor that adds an appealing levity to the standard tales of manipulative, cheating women. In “Greasy Two By Four”, Jackson finds his girlfriend with another man at a bar. So Jackson heads home to get the greasy two by four which gives the song its name, and his tale then takes a detour into the merits of his favored companion, which he describes as if it’s a perfect lover. He’s going to whack some guy at a bar, but the description of his regular oiling and greasing of his two by four is highly amusing, and in fact he never tells us that he went back to the bar. As the song winds down, he is singing about going home to his faithful plank. “3-F Blues” is a song of revenge: Jackson ignored his father’s advice regarding women, and now one has hurt him badly. From now on, he vows to follow the 3 Fs: “Find em, Fool ‘em, and Forget ‘em.” Jackson’s loping vocals, alliteration, and repetition are awfully likeable.
His way with words carried into his soul tunes as well. In “You’re At The Right Table”, he uses a simple lyrical inversion to increase the slow ache – “You’re at the right table, but with the wrong man. . . I’m at the right table, but you know I’m with the wrong girl.” There’s a tinge of hope in “right”, but it’s crushed in the next clause. The hint of hope makes the sadness more palpable. “I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” sounds similar Clarence Carter’s timeless “Slip Away”, upbeat and groovy behind a visceral, three-note guitar riff. “I Want You So Bad” and “The Feeling Is Right” are shiny, easy odes to love and great rhythm sections.
The structures of soul songs are not especially complicated, and this simplicity is a great strength. It’s what makes soul such a potent, connective, affecting genre. Simplicity also allows for a high level of populism – as the Kent label (Numero as well) constantly proves, there were virtually unknown R&B groups pumping out excellence all over the US when soul was popular. Any efforts to give these acts a wider audience is much appreciated. George Jackson’s solo output deserves every bit as much scrutiny as that of the more famous men and women he wrote for.