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Monday, January 23, 2017

Carla Thomas: Memphis Queen


1) I Like What You're Doing (To Me); 2) I Play For Keeps; 3) Don't Say No More; 4) More Man Than I Ever Had; 5) I've Fallen In Love With You; 6) He's Beating Your Time; 7) Unyielding; 8) Strung Out; 9) How Can You Throw My Love Away; 10) Guide Me Well; 11) Precious Memories; 12) Where Do I Go.

The difference between Queen Alone and Memphis Queen, other than the switch from «alone» (as in «I don't need Otis Redding by my side to prove that royal status... or do I?») to «Memphis» (as in «assertion of Southern identity couldn't hurt those sales... or could it?»), is that this 1969 record is a little less poppy and generally goes for denser and harsher arrangements, funkier grooves, and, overall, more of that swampy soulful black magic. Loud brass, thick syncopated bass, gospel backing vocals, the works. Classy Stax sound and all — problem is, by 1969 we were already living in the world of Aretha Franklin, and in this world, the need for Carla Thomas is almost non-existent.

Unless she or her collaborators could contribute some top-level songwriting, that is; but in this respect, Memphis Queen is no better or worse than a thousand other deep (or not so deep) soul records released the same year. Carla herself writes only two songs, the Motown-ish pop-rocker ʽDon't Say No Moreʼ and the lush ballad ʽI've Fallen In Love With Youʼ, and both are perfectly stereotypical. Even worse, the Hayes/Porter well of goodies has clearly run dry as well — with Hayes now busy full time with his own solo career, the only contribution is ʽGuide Me Wellʼ, a slow waltz whose first half is merely recited rather than sung by the lady, and everything about which, including the arrangement, could have been created in a matter of five minutes by any seasoned professional.

Arguably the finest court songwriter of the bunch here is Bettye Crutcher, who contributes ʽI Like What You're Doing (To Me)ʼ, the poppiest and catchiest song of the whole bunch (sounds not unlike early Christine McVie before she learned to properly sharpen those hooks), and the funk-pop anthem ʽMore Man Than I've Ever Hadʼ, where the gentle and romantic Carla Thomas is beginning to learn the basics of lusty, carnal music — still not quite up to the standards of Bessie Smith, but she does make the transition to a deeper, rougher range in order to explain how her man keeps her satisfied. It's fun, but, unfortunately, not very believable from a performer whose brightest moment still remains ʽGee Whizʼ, a starry-eyed and purely innocent account of teenage love — the teenager may have grown up, but not into a sex-crazed lady who'd be ready to eat you alive at a moment's notice. Nice try, though.

The record remains a good example of classic 1969-era Stax: everybody is tight, brass and string parts gel perfectly, and there is even some fine wah-wah funk playing on a few of the numbers (ʽUnyieldingʼ), so there are no special reasons to put it down. But it did not succeed in making Carla Thomas more relevant and star-powered in the new era of black music, and the idea of putting out the slow, barely noticeable ʽGuide Me Wellʼ as the lead single only meant that no­body really gave a damn any more.

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