When my Ace colleagues Roger Armstrong and Peter Gibbon began combing the Stax vaults for unreleased recordings in the 1990s, they were both pleased and surprised by how much material was available and how good it was. In the case of Carla Thomas, they found themselves surrounded by a stockpile of more than 75 unissued masters, plus a considerable number of fine alternate takes of familiar classics. As soon as they returned to the UK and began compiling CDs from these vault goodies, they wasted little time in assembling two dozen tracks for a CD titled “Hidden Gems”, while further titles appeared on the various artists CD “You Thrill My Soul” and across the “Volts Of Stax” series.
“Sweet Sweetheart” is a somewhat belated, but very welcome, sequel to “Hidden Gems”. Like its predecessor, it contains more than 20 previously unissued tracks from the 1960s, including a complete lost album Carla cut under the supervision of Chips Moman at Memphis’ American Studios. Only two of the tracks from the album, both included here, were issued as a single in September 1970. It flopped, and the tapes for the rest of the album were consigned to the shelf.
Listening to the complete album now, it’s hard to see why this should have been so. Chips’ production is first rate, as are Carla’s singing and the sympathetic accompaniment of American’s crack line-up of musicians. The songs are chosen with care, and to reflect Carla’s desire to stretch her musical boundaries a little as she moved into her second decade as a recording artist. Many of them were written by Chips’ wife Toni Wine and other noted New York tunesmiths such as Irwin Levine, L Russell Brown, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Still more came from the catalogues of such diverse talents as the Bee Gees, Ray Stevens, James Taylor andUKrockers Free’s Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser. It should have been the album to take Carla’s career to the next level, but the Stax A&R department had other ideas and binned it.
The American sessions are bolstered by 12 additional cuts, all recorded at Stax between late 1964 and early 1968. All the songs are new to Carla’s catalogue, with the exception of ‘B-A-B-Y’ (heard here in its initial take) and a slow and sultry version of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s ‘Good Good Loving’ (first heard in a more up-tempo style on “Hidden Gems”). These tracks are as good as anything Stax released on Carla in the mid 60s, and in several cases they are better. Lovers of deeper southern soul will particularly delight to ‘Stop By Here’, ‘Problems’ and Carla’s take on ‘Crying All By Myself’, most familiar to Stax fans via William Bell’s fantastic version.
By Tony Rounce