We all agree it’s been a pleasure: hours and hours spent in the vaults at FAME Studios spooling up tapes and discovering the gems contained on them. We’d all been looking forward to hearing the Dan Penn cuts; they’d been well previewed by Peter Guralnick and had not disappointed the handful of people who had heard them. George Jackson’s recordings, made to demonstrate his latest songs, as well as his attempts to kick-start his own career, were as special as expected. However, there were a few surprises, of which the most pleasing was a selection of tracks by James Govan.
The Mississippi-born, Memphis-raised singer has long been something of a mystery. Sometimes known as Little Otis due to his vocal similarity to the great Mr Redding, he has for over 20 years played at the Rumboogie Café in Memphis, but before that his career was low key and extremely sporadic. In the mid-80s he released an album and single recorded at David Johnson’s Broadway Sound. Before that he had been one of a many of artists signed to Fame at the time of their 1969 deal with Capitol. Despite two rather wonderful 45s, he didn’t have any success, and afterwards nothing.
His 1969 sessions for the company produced 11 songs, among them the George Jackson compositions ‘I Bit Off More Than I Can Chew’ and ‘Your Love Lifted Me’ and wonderful versions of Fame standards ‘You Left The Water Running’ and ‘Take Me Just As I Am’. This is fine southern soul from the label’s greatest period. If James’ career had taken off, the tracks would have made a classic album. Instead they got left in the can.
Although his singles failed to sell, Fame didn’t abandon him. In 1972 – over a year since his previous 45 – they took him back into the studio for another session. The recordings were never released. In fact, we never even found a mix-down of the tracks, and the multi-tracks had sat on the shelf for nearly 40 years. The music is exceptional: a mix of standards and Bob Dylan songs, which James and the musicians adapted to their own style. ‘Just Like A Woman’ is rendered as a southern soul masterpiece, and James wrings the emotion out of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ as effortlessly as his hero Otis had transformed ‘Try A Little Tenderness’. Then that was that for 15 years.
Fortunately, the time has arrived to reveal how good the recordings of James Govan were, all those years ago.
By Dean Rudland