Thursday, 9 September 2021

The Shoebox Files #3: Kenny Carter


Remarkably, Showdown, the Kent CD of Kenny Carter’s complete recordings for RCA in 1966, is the label’s finest moment, which is an incredible achievement after almost 40 years in business. During that time Ady Croasdell and his colleagues have made so much wonderful music available, and have consistently released records in such an aesthetically pleasing way, but it seems like they were simply preparing us for this Kenny Carter collection.

One pleasant by-product of putting together mixes as part of the Shoebox Selections project was sorting through dozens of old Kent CDs and getting reacquainted with so many wonderful tracks. The label is strongly represented in the series of mixes, and among the singers featured are Dori Grayson and Jimmy Holiday, both of whom are featured on Vol. 1 of Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures which is almost certainly where many of us first came across the name of Kenny Carter.

I guess it’s no exaggeration to say that I have read Dave’s liner notes for that CD hundreds of times, and it is part of the appeal of the format that labels like Kent have been able to share so much information in bulky booklets which (just about) fit inside a jewel case. He didn’t give much away about Kenny, though there was a received impression of the singer being temperamental and very much part of a mid-’60s burst of creative energy focused around Larry Banks. Also on that collection were other inspiring recordings from Larry’s extended family: Jaibi’s ‘You Got Me’, Larry’s own version of ‘I’m Not the One’, and ‘Lights Out’ by Zerben R Hicks & the Dynamics.

Considerably more would be revealed about Kenny Carter in the booklet that came with the CD Larry Banks’ Soul Family Album in 2007, and there are a few of the singer’s lost recordings included on this superb set, but it would be more than a dozen years before Kent were finally able to present Kenny’s complete RCA work. So, presumably, off and on during all that time Ady Croasdell had been diligently and quietly working on putting together what is one of the most wonderful collections of music ever released. Ady’s own notes for the set come over as a cross between investigative research and a gripping thriller, while at the end of it all we are not really much closer to understanding Kenny Carter, which appeals enormously.

During that nasty, soul-destroying, unforgiving lockdown-winter at the start of 2021 this CD of Kenny Carter seemed an ever-present part of my life, along with Bobby Cole’s A Point of View and José Mauro’s A Viagem das Horas, at various times in that dark age, so much so that when things finally unravelled it became impossible for a while to even contemplate listening to these recordings again. Hopefully, the slow process of healing has now begun, but it does raise interesting questions about what we are able to listen to when we’ve reached rock bottom and are trying to find a way out of the darkness. Here, it was The Byrds and a lot of choral work and a load of old dub, but not anything where the pain was really exposed.

For Showdown is a remarkably intense recording, and is not really recommended for when you are feeling raw. Kenny could imbue any lyrics he sang with incredible amounts of emotion and drama, going way beyond what’s generally considered as polite and pleasant, which may be a strength for many of us listening now but, quite possibly, it was Kenny’s downfall commercially, giving the record company a real struggle about where to place him in the market.

Back in the 1960s, in theory, he would have been perfect for the hip, mature easy-listening crowd, except that his music is too intrusive for leaving on in the background. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there were the cool kids who just might not be ready to hear a batch of old standards and songs from musicals, no matter how transformed they were. Thus, RCA had a bit of a dilemma, one which was best solved by quietly burying the incredible tapes which bear witness to the tormented soul of Kenny Carter.

I am intrigued: was the singing of standards and show tunes Kenny’s metier, his milieu? Did he perform live, in supper clubs or bistros where that sort of material would be expected? Or was it something he was encouraged to take on by the production team or record label? Who knows! Interestingly Kenny could take something which on paper seems unprepossessing or unremarkable, and reinvent it as something exceptional. The Frank Loesser number ‘I Believe in You’ in other hands seems lightweight, even when performed by the heavyweights, but Kenny revolutionises it, turning it into a meditative, deep soul prayer of thanks, and his delivery of the opening lines (“You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth”!) makes it seem incredibly profound. I think it’s my favourite track on the record. I’m not sure why. And there’re times listening to Kenny singing this number that I am reminded of Tim Rose and that incredible debut LP of his. I don’t know if that would bear too close scrutiny but that’s the impression I’m left with.

Kenny’s cover of the standard ‘Time After Time’ is great, too, partly because he plays it straight, without any showing off. Maybe there’s the shadow of Sinatra looming large, as he often would do, as he was certainly haunting that trio of records I was playing over and over during the dark times: Kenny, Bobby Cole, José Mauro. I have had a fondness for ‘Time After Time’ ever since, as a kid, hearing The Peddlers perform it, having found it on an old compilation in mum’s LP case. The importance of such things can’t be under-estimated. More recently I have been obsessed with the version on the 1963 set The Intimate Miss Christy on which the very great June is left very naked, accompanied only by Al Viola on guitar, Bud Shank on flute, and bassist Don Bagley hardly there at all. It’s just such a beautiful record.

At the centre of Ady Croasdell’s liner notes is the presence of Garry Sherman, the arranger for these Showdown sessions. In a way that is only right, as the Larry Banks story has been told elsewhere and Garry is at least still with us to let us in on his memories. I have to confess that while Garry’s name was familiar, I hadn’t hitherto really collected all the clues together so didn’t fully appreciate what a magic touch he had.

Kenny’s RCA sessions are a wonderful tribute to Garry’s artistry, but they didn’t happen in isolation. And you may know more about all this, but if Garry’s name is familiar, it may have something to do with Lorraine Ellison’s ‘Stay with Me’, with Garnet Mimms’ ‘Cry Baby’, Bessie Banks’ ‘Go Now’, Solomon Burke’s ‘If You Need Me’, Erma Frankin’s ‘Piece of my Heart’. And when you think of those spellbinding songs, quite simply remarkable recordings, is it any surprise that as an arranger he managed to get Kenny to be so emotive? For Garry certainly specialised in, shall we say, extreme ballads. That seems to have been his forte.

Fans of the Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures series will be familiar with the name of Garry Sherman if they have scrutinised the small print. Another Kent CD he features on as an arranger is the 1997 title, New York Soul Serenade, which is a particular favourite, and the beautiful blessed-by-Teddy Randazzo ‘If It’s for Real’ by Porgy & the Monarchs features in The Shoebox Selections. This CD is related to an earlier Kent LP, Big City Soul Sounds, which came out in 1986 and was played to death by the ghost of a young man. I know it’s not an either/or situation, but I am very much a Big City Soul man rather than a Southern Soul guy when it comes to ballads. I blame it on early exposure to Jimmy Radcliffe’s ‘Long After Tonight is All Over’ and Ray Pollard’s ‘The Drifter’.

What I like about that New York balladry is the unique situation that existed and helped form the sound. There was a melting pot, with all these classically trained musicians earning their daily bread with endless session work, with the jazz being performed in smoky cellars, with performers uptown singing in supper clubs and bistros, with the rapid turnover of Broadway musicals, the music in churches of whatever denomination, the hectic world of the Brill Building. And you imagine people like Garry Sherman, not necessarily rooted in the rhythm & blues or soul tradition, getting away with using elements of symphonic swells, dramatic operatic arias, celestial choral works in and among these new sounds. Listen to those cellos he uses to such great effect in the Kenny Carter sessions. There surely was a man who had spent meditative time alone with cello sonatas or cello suites and relished the opportunity to use elements of what he’d heard.

Anyway, Garry arranged the two wonderful Judy Clay tracks that are on the New York Soul Serenade CD, and the should-have-been enormous single ‘My Arms Aren’t Strong Enough’ is one of the greatest things ever. Garry also was behind Judy’s incredible performance on ‘Lonely People Do Foolish Things’ which appears on Kent’s Sweet Sound of Success CD. Is it wishful thinking to suggest Garry was also responsible for the arrangement on Judy’s monumental ‘Turn Back the Time’ which was on that Big City Soul Sounds? Maybe, I pray, one day Ady will be able to put together a beautiful and comprehensive collection of Judy’s Scepter recordings. That would be quite something, and would mean so much to me.

Garry also worked extensively with Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy in their heyday. He has several credits on the Ace CD Mr Success, volume 2 of the Bert Berns Story, including the perennial radio favourite ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and the incredible Freddie Scott recording of ‘No One Could Ever Love You’ which has all the trademark Sherman favourite features: the reflective opening, the gradual swell of impassioned vocals, the gospel choir, the sense of drama, the surging orchestra doing battle: wonderful, life-affirming stuff.

I am wary of reading too much into all this. I accept that many of the people taking part in the Kenny Carter sessions would have been just doing their job. But, come on, it’s not quite as cold as all that. One way or another there were some pretty special people involved. People like Paul Griffin, the piano player, who had played with Bacharach and Dylan. I mean, for a relatively unknown singer, somehow Kenny’s sessions attracted some top personnel over several dates. That, surely, was meant to be?

And, actually, connections are fun, which is why I mentioned Paul Griffin. It’s like the chorus was led by Anne Phillips who I assume is the same lady who made a fantastic one-off 1959 LP Born to Be Blue which has one of the best covers ever, with the young singer adrift in the Big City, dressed in a trench coat, like a heartbroken heroine from a lost film noir, which is also what the record sounds like.

I first heard Anne on Bob Stanley’s excellent Croydon Municipal compilation Mid Century Minx, a terrific collection of female jazz singers from the dogdays of the artform’s popularity. Anne disappeared from the scene to work incognito in studios, and she certainly sang with Carole King. Garry Sherman, during his time working for Leiber & Stoller, did the arrangements on the immortal Carole King composition ‘Up on The Roof’ for The Drifters. So, there you go. Another wonderful connection is that the backing vocalists for Kenny Carter included Barbara Massey who would some years later join forces with Ernie Calabria to make the Prelude To record, the highlight of which, the gorgeous, the spiritual ‘Listen to Your Heart’, is included in the second Shoebox Selections mix.

Anyway, that batch of Larry Banks songs which made the first Deep Soul Treasures so wonderful - ‘Showdown’, ‘Lights Out’, and ‘I’m Not the One’, plus Jaibi’s oh so special ‘You Got Me’ – brilliantly illustrates how the elusive creative energy can be concentrated in one place momentarily in a seemingly miraculous way that cannot be easily explained and cannot be repeated. At the time these songs hardly made a splash, but now, over half-a-century on, well they are revered. And that would not have happened without Ady Croasdell and Kent.

I have never met Ady as far as I know. I would be too tongue-tied to speak to him anyway. I could easily pass Ady on the street without knowing him. But, my god, so many of us owe him so much. I don’t know if he realises. And I’ll tell you what I loved in his booklet that came with the Kenny Carter CD: I loved the fact that people said what a nice guy Kenny was. Maybe that was his downfall: the world’s not kind to nice guys and they can often get overlooked and occasionally they get very much hurt along the way without anyone really noticing until it’s too late.






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