Of all the CDs in all the record companies in all the world, this was the one I had to do.
I only fully discovered Lou Johnson relatively late in life, but have been a firm disciple ever since. He became my favourite singer, bar none, and although I like his later southern recordings, it is the disciplined and elegant sides he cut for New York City’s Big Top label that are the pinnacle of soul for me.
Hearing ‘Reach Out For Me’ was the catalyst for my conversion, smartly followed by ‘The Last One To Be Loved’, ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’ and ‘Please Stop The Wedding’. As a Northern Soul DJ I was already intimate with ‘Unsatisfied’ and got a buzz from playing it every time. It is one of those records that is always in the box, acting as a talisman to ward off the DJ’s recurring empty floor nightmare. If the previous record spun had turned out to be 10 years ahead of its time, ‘Unsatisfied’ was the remedy and earned time to re-group (while considering whether you’d have preferred to be a hod-carrier to a jock). Having relied so heavily on this piece of not uncommon styrene, it was a thrill to hear the alternate take, as discovered on an acetate, which we feature as the ender here.
That version was discovered in the mid-80s, around the same time that I snared a brace of Lou’s exquisitely sung ‘The Panic Is On’ acetates, also previously unknown to man. The hunt was on to get Lou’s recordings out there onto CD for us soul people, especially me. The near 20-year wait is indicative of the problems of licensing, although an extreme example. However, that wait lead to more unissued sides turning up in the ensuing years to add to the pair described. We now have a further three tracks that have never appeared on a CD of any description. Working at Ace is rather like getting locked in the sweet shop and probably no other company could have come up with this compilation, as many of the Big Top tapes are missing. Our esteemed director Trevor Churchill had squirreled away a copy of Lou’s Big Top LP, which only ever reached test pressing stage. Featured on it is the track ‘No Other Guy’, which never made it to 45. As we only know of this copy, it was indeed fortuitous that it was in-house.
Although primarily a ballad singer, several of Lou’s beatier songs have gained acceptance on the Northern Soul dance scene, notably the powerful ‘Wouldn’t That Be Something’ and his first single ‘If I Never Get To Love You’. Like me, soul fans were noticing what a great body of work this was and further investigation revealed that ‘Park Avenue’ was not a travelogue for a Manhattan ad agency but a wonderfully crafted and vivid description of life in the Big Apple for a fictitious black chauffeur driving his bigwig boss around and having the time of his life. It is exuberance in the extreme. I was thrilled when Lou recounted to me how much he’d enjoyed recording that particular song.
80% of the songs are provided by Brill building dwellers Billy Giant, Bernie Baum and Florence Kaye or the Bacharach and David team. These very successful songwriters (think Dionne and Elvis) loved working with Lou, despite no major hits. Having the backing of the wealthy Big Top label, funded by a very successful publishing firm, meant that the facilities and talent were available to do these works justice. Even when the company edged Lou away from R&B by replacing the raucous gospel-inspired ‘Love Build A Fence’ with French torch song ‘A Time To Love, A Time To Cry’, the result was superb.
Even on Lou’s foray to New Orleans with Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint, Big Top’s influence was apparent in the choice of material – ‘Walk On By’. It is however turned into a powerhouse ballad instead of the bittersweet number we already know. Toussaint wrote a suitable and excellent love song for the flip side in ‘Little Girl’ and it is compositions like that, Bacharach and David’s ‘Kentucky Bluebird’ and the beautiful Giant/Baum/Kaye number ‘What Am I Crying For’ that feature so well here.
We have assembled a marvellous array of photos and memorabilia for the lavish 24-page booklet to complement David Cole’s excellent interview with Lou from his In The Basement magazine. The recording history of these tracks is looked at in depth and the sound has been given that extra, extra tweak to complete a project from the heart: it is also in our prestigious “Artistry In Soul” series. Lou and his lovely wife Linda have waited patiently for this event and Linda is inordinately proud of her talented husband, wanting the whole world to know of his talent; something we are all very much agreed on.
By Ady Croasdell