Gotta Get a Good Thing Goin’: Black Music in Britain in the Sixties
Strawberry (4-CD Set)
This is not the first ever compilation to delve into these waters, but if you’ve been waiting for a successor to the Honest Jon’s label long running examination of British black music through the 1950s (or even if you haven’t - calypso and jazz aren’t to everyone’s taste), this is certainly the most comprehensive so far.
Four well-stuffed CDs and a glorious booklet tell the story…the latter acknowledging, first, the trailblazing work of Leslie Hutchinson, Leslie Thompson and Joe Harriott, and the mighty influx of talent that migrated from the Caribbean in the post-World War Two era; and now, the flowering of a host of new musical styles, from the expected ska and, still, calypso; into soul and R&B; and into the hearts of both the Mod movement and the beat boomers.
So much of the music that is now treasured as “Northern Soul” (a wholly artificial construct, but that’s a whole other story) emerged from these waters; and, of course, several giants of British reggae and soul in the 1970s, too - just one track into disc one, we meet Tony Wilson, four years before he emerged as one half of the Hot Chocolate songwriting duo; two songs later, we encounter Carl Douglas,“Serving a Sentence of Life” six years before he took us Kung Fu Fighting.
We are introduced to visiting Americans who decided to stay - Herbie Goins, Jimmy James & the Vagabonds and Geno Washington. Kenny Lynch, the first artist ever to cover a Beatles song, is here; and Owen Gray, a name best associated with the first years of ska, but also an adept soul singer too. And that is just disc one, a 29 song spree that not only unearths some fascinating rarities, it leaves you wondering why they’re not among the best-loved records in the world.
Disc two finds the music developing fast — Marsha Hunt’s cover of Dr John’s “Walk On Gilded Splinters” leans towards psychedelia; The Chants’ “A Man Without A Face” prefigures another top seventies act, the Real Thing, with an early appearance of singer Eddie Amoo. The Sugarlumps, one of the first black British girl groups, are a vibrant surprise; Jamaican bluesman Errol Dixon an evocative delight.
Ska raises its head on the third disc, but there is little here that has seen excessive service on the billion other compilations out there - and that despite the presence of Rico, Millie, Laurel Aitken and Pat Rhoden (the wonderful “Jezebel”). Rather, it’s the likes of Rupert & The Red Devils - a mixed race act whose numbers included future Spencer Davis sideman Ray Fenwick; the Brixton Market, Bobby Johnson and the Atoms, Beresford Ricketts & The Blue Beats who stand out the furthest, largely forgotten (if they were ever even remembered) names who nevertheless pepper the disc with some startling gems, and a world of sixties bluebeat, rocksteady and early reggae that will leave even hardened collectors breathless.
And so to disc four, where more future giants await — in fact, Emile Ford, Shirley Bassey and pianist Winifred Atwell were all proven hitmakers in the years before they recorded the (less successful) single included here. Actor and singer Peter Straker was a star in the original cast of Hair; Maxine Nightingale covered Blood, Sweat & Tears six years before “Right Back Where We Started from” gave her a glorious worldwide smash.
Bluesmen Champion Jack Dupree and Otis Spann reawakened their careers in the UK, usually at the hands of producer Mike Vernon. A super rare Andrew Loog Oldham production, Cleo’s “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” is an absolute delight; Shake Keane’s dramatic “Green Onions” spins off a stereo demonstration album; Flash Domincii & The Supersonics drop some Nigerian Highlife into view; and to prove that “pop” fans can’t have it all their own way, we close with Geoff Love who not only led his eponymous orchestra through a string of hit albums, but also wrote a number of UK TV themes. “Coronation Street,” which features here, was not one of Love’s own compositions. But it is quintessentially English.
With 115 tracks across the four discs, there’s a lot to digest here; and a lot to marvel at, too. Drawing from a wealth of different label archives, and the art of so many classic producers (the aforementioned Oldham and Vernon are joined by Shel Talmy, Joe Meek, Tony Visconti and Simon Napier Bell), Gotta Get a Good Thing Goin’ is as much an alternative snapshot of Britain at its swiinging-est, as it is a terrific history lesson.