Ady Croasdell - Kenny Carter
It’s a bitterly cold February ‘94 and I’m in New York City attempting to persuade Tony Middleton to come to Cleethorpes, one of north east Lincolnshire’s premier hot spots, to sing to his UK fans at our inaugural Northern Soul weekender. While I’m there I decide to pop in on Paul Williams, an old friend who used to buy Jackie Moore imports off me in 1974 when I was a West End barrow boy. He had worked his way up in the music business and was then a Vice President at the mighty RCA Records situated on 1540 Broadway, NYC.
Paul knows my passion for all things Northern from those early 70s days and I had already faxed him with a list of what I consider to be the classiest 60s soul acts on his label. When we meet up on the 30 somethingth floor of this legendary building, I’m invited into a rather (definitely, by Kent standards!) opulent office, and after catching up on each other’s news and record company gossip, I am presented with a complete list of the recordings made at RCA by the acts I have queried Paul about.
Then my eyes fall on titles like ‘(Putting My Heart Under) Lock And Key’ by Sharon Scott, ‘You Only Live Twice’, Lorraine Chandler, ‘(Watch Yourself) She’s Fooling You’, Willie Kendrick and ‘What’s That On Your Finger’, not by Willie but by Kenny Carter; to say my heart races is putting it mildly, it nearly comes through my chest!
However, as any of you record hunters know, 99 times out of 100, these ‘nearly’ dream finds never materialise, and something somewhere down the line will screw it up - they’ll probably just be backing tracks or demos.
I mark off the tracks I’m interested in hearing (luckily Paul knows me and I don’t have to play it cool with him; usually any enthusiasm in this game puts the price or availability out of the window) and I am told to come back in a couple of days.
I wander the Manhattan streets in something of a daze over the next 48 hours and am a good half hour ahead of schedule for the next meeting. The studio I am ushered into has a large mixing desk, two banks of very expensive speakers, a highly polished wooden floor and a panoramic view of New York City on a crisp sunny winter’s day. Even better, several boxes of original 60s recording tapes are neatly stacked and ooze with information.
Carefully selecting a box with ‘exciting’ unissued titles on it, the engineer puts it onto the old 1/4 inch reel-to-reel tape machine. It is Lorraine Chandler’s ‘I Can’t Hold On’ 45 session with the flip and two extra tracks I’ve never heard, but have a good idea that ‘Mend The Torn Pieces’ will be the sublime Yvonne Baker song on Junior Records. ‘I Can’t Hold On’ is the first up, and just to hear it in that quality, in that setting, from the original master tape nearly 30 years on, is an honour, but when I hear ‘Mend The Torn Pieces’, probably for the first time since it had been recorded at United Sound studios in Detroit some time between 10 am and 1.30 pm on 2 June 1966, in all its fully orchestrated glory, I know these are no demos.
The backing is even lusher than Yvonne Baker’s Junior recording and from the session information I can now imagine Ray Monette, of Michael and Raymond fame, on guitar, Joe Hunter on piano, Herbie Williams arranging and helping out with trumpet duties and Jack Ashford, co-writer and copyist, chipping in with some mean tambourine.
Equally good (understatement) and even more surprising as it is a new song as well, is ‘You Only Live Twice’, a thundering Jack Ashford, Mike Terry, Jimmy Scott song in the ‘You Didn’t Say A Word’ mould but more of that on Vol 2; suffice it to say this is going to be one of the big days in my life.
Next up, I have to go for that ‘Lock And Key’ number, I’m a sucker for anything in brackets and it is from the excellent ‘Could It Be You’/ ‘I’d Like To Know’ 45 session and like the Lorraine Chandler, also a Pied Piper Production. The track starts off nicely at about mid-tempo rhythm with plenty of jangling percussion to give it atmosphere,Sharon’s voice seems ideally suited to the number, it has a hint of sadness but also some real determination that she will overcome her latest emotional set back. Then the pace picks up and a wicked girl chorus along with a sympathetic arrangement starts to hit you from all sides. Now I begin to picture the looks of amazement and enjoyment on the dancers faces at the 100 Club or the Ritz when this gets played for the first time. It’s almost like cheating because when you are trying to break a new record, it is often some degrees off the norm that people are used to, but here are gems from the same recording sessions as some of the most revered tracks in Northern Soul history. So although the songs are brand new, the singers, producers, musicians etc are already known and loved and even the most inept DJ (don’t say it!) couldn’t screw up making these tracks big.
Somewhere in the middle of this early rush of euphoria, another RCA engineer has wandered into the studio to see what is going on and after some polite introductions I begin to hear phrases like “Oh that was one of Larry’s tunes” and my ears begin to prick up. Further polite enquiries then reveal that this tall, thin, black, studious looking gentleman was a brother-in-law of the late Larry Banks, a major figure in the New York soul scene of the late 60s and early 70s. Larry had been responsible for legendary songs such as ‘Blowing Up My Mind’ by the Exciters, ‘I’ve Got To Find Her’ by Kenny Carter and the Cavaliers and ‘Go Now’ by Bessie Banks and the Moody Blues.
Obvious questions to Tall Tony, (as he has been introduced to me) follow like “Were you ever in a group?”; a pathetic attempt at coaxing an answer like “Yes, I was one of the Magnetics and I’ve got boxes of all our records at home”. The real answer is “No I’ve always been an engineer........but I did write a few songs with Larry under my pseudonym, Anthony Cotto”. It turns out that Tony’s main contributions have been to the Geminis a great RCA girly soul group, who had cut, among others, ‘Can’t Let You Go’ and ‘You Put A Hurtin’ On Me’, songs I had collected, played and admired for 20 years. As more information seeps out, I find his real name is Tony May and he has also written and produced for Larry’s wife, Bessie Banks, ‘I Can’t Make It Without You’ on Verve, ‘Do It Now’ on Spokane and ‘It Sounds Like My Baby’ the flip of ‘Go Now’ on Red Bird. At this point my enthusiasm gets the better of me and I shower a bit too much praise on his unsuspecting head; “No these records weren’t that great, they were just throwaway songs written to make money”, he counters. I get the distinct impression that Tony isn’t a soul man anymore, probably a jazzer with intellectual pretensions I decide defensively and let it lie with a mental note to approach him at a more appropriate time.
Some more perusing of the recording information sheets shows that there was an A Cotto responsible for writing Willie Kendrick’s ‘What’s That On Your Finger’. Was this Tony? “Yes, but I don’t remember any Willie Kendrick, we wrote the song for Larry’s friend, Kenny Carter.” More frantic paper perusal and yes, there’s the same song which Kenny cut on the 12 March 1966 nearly a year before Willie’s version, and inevitably, recorded in the Big Apple with New York musicians, whereas Willie’s was cut in Chicago using a mix of Chicago and Detroit musicians.
Well let’s get the tape on and hear it. It starts off very gently with strings and girly chorus singing “Doo Doo Doo Doo Dooo” in a way I can only describe as heavenly. It then picks up a very solid beat while Kenny comes in with “Heaven only knows how much I’ve been missing you,” then the girls - “Bay-Bee!......” More of the fabulously written first verse, then the title is repeated at the start of the chorus with the girls chiming in with an impassioned “Third finger, left hand”. Hang on, who are these singers? Toni Wine and Lesley Miller, two great singer/songwriters from the 60s, Eileen Baker (I don’t know her) and Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford’s legendary songwriting partner on all those classic soul dancers and ballads from the 60s, and half of the Ashford & Simpson chart breaking act in the 70s. We are in the presence of greatness here!
Well as you may know, or are about to find out, the song just gets better and better, there are some climactic, dramatic breaks, crashes of symbols, vocals that go to the depths of depression and a pounding rhythm that simply takes the breath away. At least 28 musicians are playing live and creating 2 minutes 25 seconds of pure art. This was New York City’s soul music at its very best and I’m sitting in the studio with the bloke who wrote it, hearing it for my, and probably his, first time since it was recorded and stored away.
It may have been the froth at the side of my mouth, or the look in my eyes which suggests I’m going to get up and kiss him, but shortly after this Tony says his goodbyes; he has to get on with some work and he’ll catch me later. Well he did, but that’s another story.
Footnote; Sadly Tony May passed away earlier this month
Our Kenny Carter compilation "Showdown - The Complete 1966 RCA Recordings" is due later this year.