“Les Alyscamps: Falling Autumn Leaves,” Vincent van Gogh, November 1888.
The Fall officially began a few days ago and so I have a two-for for you today; both tracks concerned with the theme of women letting their love come down.
Up first is an artist who inexplicably is not a household name. Working extensively with the top-notch writing and production team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter—who at the time served as the prolific house composers for Stax Records—and backed by such legendary musicians as guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. (all members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s), how an artist as talented as Ruby Johnson failed to hit it big is beyond me.
Isaac Hayes & David Porter in the studio.
Booker T and the MGs in 1970; from left to right: Al Jackson, Jr.; Booker T. Jones; Donald “Duck” Dunn; and Steve Cropper.
When it came time to lend her distinctive contralto vocal style to these compositions, Ruby was willing to explore the full emotional range of each song. At the prefect moment Ruby could thrust her immense and torn voice forward through the melody and let it hang there raw and ragged as a display of her sincere investment in the material, which too few singers have the ability to convey. She actually attributed her trademark sound to her enthusiasm and work ethic: “I think a lot of that came from actually being on the hoarse side at that particular time. I didn’t get to go to Stax often, and when I did get down there to record, we worked hard. We were in the studio all day and half the night” (Perrone, 1999).
Born April 19, 1936 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Ruby Johnson was raised in the Jewish faith and began singing alongside her eight brothers and sisters in the Temple Beth-El choir. Upon finishing high school, Ruby began performing with local rhythm and blues bands in Virginia Beach and Washington DC while supporting herself as a waitress. Her career came to be managed by local entrepreneur Never Duncan Junior who subsequently hired the talented Dicky Williams to serve as arranger/producer for her recordings. In 1960 they began to release a series of 45s, first on the Philadelphia-based V-Tone label, and eventually for her manager’s own NEBS Records (Sir Shambling, 2012).
Al Bell (Photo by Josh Anderson for The New York Times)
While working for Washington DC station WLOK, disc-jockey Al Bell had been an early proponent of Ruby Johnson’s music. When Stax hired him as its first in-house promotional manager in 1965, Bell helped Ruby secure a contract with the preeminent label for Southern Soul. Al Bell himself would go on to own Stax during the label’s ’70s heyday; unfortunately, it was under his leadership that the company was forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975 (Sontag, 2009). Her 45s now being issued on the Stax subsidiary label, Volt, Ruby later recalled that she was “[…] very excited, very nervous, because that was my first attempt to record on that level. […] They would give me those songs on a piece of paper and say: ‘here’s the lyric.’ We would sort of run over them to let me get familiar with the words, and then we’d say: ‘let’s do a take.’ We were in there for hours sometimes” (Perrone, 1999).
Although several of her records sold fairly well, her recording career never seemed to reflect her great talent and a good deal of Johnson’s Stax sessions remained in the vaults until 1993, when the compilation I’ll Run Your Hurt Away was released. Ruby Johnson eventually quit the music business in 1974 and went on to be the director of Foster Grandparents, a federal program helping handicapped children relate to older generations. Although she continued to sing twice a week at Temple Beth-El near her home in Lanham, Maryland, Ruby admitted to missing the old days: “Every time I see some of those big shows, I long for it sometimes, I really do. I enjoyed what I was doing. […] I always aspired to be a professional singer, even as a child” (Perrone, 1999). Sadly, Ruby Johnson passed away at the age of 63 on July 4, 1999.
“When My Love Comes Down” is as fine an example of Ruby Johnson’s talent as you can get, and certainly one of the best 45s ever issued by Stax. Released as the flip-side to the tender ballad “Come To Me My Darling” on October 19, 1966, “When My Love Comes Down” features a gentle melody played on the organ (either by Booker T. or Isaac Hayes) exquisitely contrasted with the punch and pierce of Steve Cropper’s chopped guitar and the The Memphis Horns‘ emotive blare; all-the-while Ruby’s intense vocals alternately smolder, swagger, or just plain tear at the seams.
———————————(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Like it? Buy it.
Evelyn “Champagne” King
Up next: Although this track could perhaps be considered lighter fare than the above, Evelyn “Champagne” King’s #1 R&B hit “Love Come Down,” off her certified double platinum album of 1982, Get Loose, is another fine example of superb arrangement and production value, albeit from a completely different approach.
There’s a certain simmer and bounce to the streamlined synth-funk of this song that makes it stand-out against the assembly-line beats that began to dominate the digitally recorded music of the 1980s. Unlike the majority of music in this category, here is a dance song that is still permitted to have character.
Written by the multi-talented Kashif—a pioneer of hypnotic synth grooves and guitar sheen—he shared production duties with Morrie Brown. When Get Loose was released Evelyn King was in the midst of a somewhat career comeback, as she was crossing over from Disco to R&B. Born in the Bronx on July 1, 1960 but raised in Philadelphia, her career has a bit of a storybook beginning. A 16-year-old Evelyn was working as an office cleaner at Philadelphia International Records when producer Theodore T. Life who had overheard her singing in a washroom discovered her (Hogan, 2012). She was eventually signed to RCA Records and had a string of hits with the label. With its slippery, yet coiled bass-line, up-beat vocals, and quirky chimes and blips it is not difficult to imagine this song as a precursor to Prince’s brilliant B-side of 1984, “Erotic City.” Enjoy a bit of bouncing around with this number, and hopefully this autumn will treat you all right.
————————(CLICK TO LISTEN)
Like it? Buy it.
Hayes, I. & Porter, D. (1966). When My Love Comes Down [recorded by Ruby Johnson] On I’ll Run Your Hurt Away [CD] Volt (1966), Stax (1993).
Hogen, E. (2012). Evelyn “Champagne” King: Biography. Billboard. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.billboard.com/#/artist/evelyn-champagne-king/bio/76577
Kashif. (1982). Love Come Down [recorded by Evelyn King] On Get Loose [CD] RCA (1982), BBR (2010).
Perrone, P. (1999, September 10). Obituary: Ruby Johnson. The Independent. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-ruby-johnson-1117495.html.
Ridley, J. (2012). Ruby Johnson. Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.sirshambling.com/artists_2012/J/ruby_johnson/index.php
Sontag, D. (2009, August 14). Out of Exile, Back in Soulsville. The New York Times. Retrieved September 26, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/arts/music/16sont.html.