❉ Gee Whiz! Soul’s queen of the south compiled.
“From renderings of familiar songs like a strident Will You Love Me Tomorrow to gospel-tinged originals like A Woman’s Love, there’s a lightness of touch to these recordings that never falters.”
As Stax’s most prominent female performer, Carla Thomas earned the title “the Queen of Memphis Soul”. Her sweet vocals graced some of Stax’s very earliest successes, and hit singles like Gee Whiz, Look At His Eyes and B-A-B-Y remain classics. In 1966, she received a plaque from the USO having been voted favourite vocalist by the American soldiers in Vietnam. Despite this success, she remains a less-feted name than some of her labelmates and her catalogue has not received the greatest care and attention in the CD age. A new four-disc collection from Soul Music Records, Carla Thomas: Let Me Be Good To You – The Atlantic & Stax Recordings (1960-1968), address this imbalance. This set contains all of the tracks from Thomas’s first five studio albums, Gee Whiz (1961), Comfort Me (1966), Carla (1966), the duets album with Otis Redding King & Queen (1967) and The Queen Alone (1967), presented in order of recording. Additionally, 28 non-album A-sides and B-sides feature including Thomas’s duets with her father, the renowned rhythm-and-blues DJ and singer-songwriter Rufus Thomas. 5 live cuts from Thomas’s 1967 performances with the famed Stax-Volt Revue complete the collection.
The set’s first disc covers Thomas’s early recordings from August 1960 to September 1963. It begins with some 1960-61 singles pairing a 17-year-old Carla with her father Rufus. The main effect is one of bizarreness as they invariably play a couple. The first A-side ‘Cause I Love You sees Rufus denying cheating on his daughter, while follow-up I Didn’t Believe has the two declaring “we’ve been together so long” with all the Carpenters-style incongruity you can imagine. These are decent R&B workouts most interesting for historical reasons – the regional success of ‘Cause I Love You initiated a distribution deal with Atlantic for the fledgling Satellite Records, soon to be renamed Stax.
Carla Thomas struck gold with her first solo recording, Gee Whiz, Look At His Eyes, which she wrote aged just 15. It’s an elegant pop soul ballad with strings attached which captures that longing melancholy most associated with “girl group” records. Gee Whiz was a breakthrough success for Thomas and reached #10 on Billboard Hot 100 in March 1961. Gee Whiz was followed by an album of the same name, with most of the material following a similar template to the hit. The highlights deviate from the house style, like the Latin-flavoured Promises and an excellent update on the 1938 standard The Masquerade Is Over. A clutch of A-sides and B-sides through to 1963 rounds off the first disc, and these recordings see Thomas further develop an individual and commercial style abetted by dramatic string arrangements (especially on the gloomy B-side The Puppet). 1961 A-side I Can’t Take It is the best on this disc. It’s an excellent Thomas original with a particularly distinctive arrangement in the style labelled “popcorn” by some music lovers.
The second disc covers Thomas’s recordings from April 1964 to July 1966 and begins with two 1964 recordings by Rufus & Carla, both competent but fairly unmemorable. There are some excellent solo cuts from Thomas from this period, including the self-penned A Boy Named Tom and the shimmering single Stop! Look You’re Doing, but years on from the success of Gee Whiz there is still little respite from lovelorn ballads. Not that it matters much on the twelve tracks that make up Thomas’s second album Comfort Me. From renderings of familiar songs like a strident Will You Love Me Tomorrow to gospel-tinged originals like A Woman’s Love, there’s a lightness of touch to these recordings that never falters. The arrangements sound meticulously crafted and tracks like Forever and I’m For You are just beautiful. Rufus and Carla’s final single together, Birds & Bees, is their most enjoyable. It’s a playful (and incest-free) song boasting the solidified Stax sound that fits their voices and personalities perfectly. The disc comes to a close with Carla’s classic hit single B-A-B-Y, written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and its B-side What Have You Got to Offer Me. Both are excellent examples of Thomas at her very best, and B-A-B-Y‘s use in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a testament to its enduring appeal.
The third disc covers August 1966 to February 1967, a particularly fruitful time for Thomas as she recorded two new studio albums. The first, her third album Carla, is another strong album with fantastic performances all round, but it’s best when new avenues are explored; Thomas takes on two country classics – Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces – with stunning results.
The second album Thomas recorded in this period is a duets album with Otis Redding, the aptly named King & Queen. According to the liner notes here, all 11 tracks were recorded in one mammoth session on 6 February 1967. Maybe it’s a gimmick, but this pair-up of two of Stax’s greatest stars pays off. Otis’s own style informs these recordings most and he brings out an edge in Carla absent on her solo recordings. There’s an excellent, propulsive version of Knock on Wood and the duet adaptation of Aaron Neville’s recent hit Tell It Like It Is is inspired. Best is the hit single Tramp, where Carla and Otis trade insults and comebacks over a muscled rhythm section. There are, however, some weak spots betraying this album’s brisk recording. Neither Thomas nor Redding are served well by an awkward version of Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston’s It Takes Two.
In 1967, Otis and Carla went on the road with Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, Eddie Floyd and the Mar-Key horns for what Carla would describe as “the most significant R&B or Soul package that the world has ever seen” – the Stax-Volt European tour. Five live recordings from Paris and London are included on this set’s fourth and final disc, covering March 1967 to September 1968. Thomas is announced as “a soul sister with the initials CT! C for Colossal, T for Tremendous!” and effortless versions of Let Me Be Good To You and Gee Whiz live up to that introduction. There’s an unlikely deep soul rendering of the Beatles’ Yesterday which Carla saunters though, but it’s B-A-B-Y that sounds most electric here. Thomas’s final album for Stax, 1967’s The Queen Alone, is her most varied. Perhaps a little bit of Otis’s style rubbed off, because with cuts like the rhythmic, Cuban-tinged I Take It To My Baby and the grooving Stop Thief, this is a grittier album than any before.
Standout Something Good (Is Going to Happen to You) has rightly become a minor classic for soul DJs. It’s got an irresistible hook and a stomping beat embellished by congas. The set finishes with some A-sides and B-sides from late 1967 and 1968 which combine the Stax sound with more commercial sensibilities of Motown. These tracks like Pick Up the Pieces, I Want You Back and A Dime A Dozen are great pop soul nuggets that didn’t get the attention they deserve upon release.
Let Me Be Good To You – The Atlantic & Stax Recordings (1960-1968) is a lovingly put-together set. Most previous CD issues of Carla’s recordings have applied noise reduction to remove hiss, blunting her most delicate songs. There is none audible on this set and the sound, mastered by Nick Robbins, is so much more natural. The set’s booklet includes an extensive commentary on Thomas’s career with quotes from key players as well as recording dates (and, often, full personnel) for each of the 94 tracks on these four discs. It all adds up to a high watermark for any archival collection of this kind, and a must-have for any dedicated follower of Stax and Southern Soul.
❉ ‘Carla Thomas: Let Me Be Good To You – The Atlantic & Stax Recordings (1960-
❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.