❉ A relentless collection of dynamite floor-fillers, taken from the vaults of legendary labels like Stax, Chess, and Motown, writes Johnny Restall.
The number of different compilations of ‘60s and ‘70s soul music available is mind-boggling, from countless collections of the established gold-standard classics to albums full of barely-released rarities unknown to any but the most dedicated crate diggers. Much like reggae of a similar vintage, it seems an inexhaustible well – a genre that just keeps on giving. Ain’t Nothing but a House Party, a new 3-CD collection from Cherry Red’s Strawberry Records subsidiary, provides reassuringly solid proof of its continuing durability, mixing deep cuts and a few surprises with a light sprinkling of the expected evergreens.
Thematically, the project has a nostalgic eye fixed on the early 1980s mod and soul revival, with curator Jon Harrington’s introductory essay referring to covers by acts like The Jam and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. However, it really isn’t necessary to remember the era or be a fan of either band in order to enjoy the album. As its admirably direct title suggests, the compilation is ultimately nothing more or less than a relentless collection of dynamite floor-fillers, taken from the vaults of legendary labels like Stax, Chess, and Motown.
The first two discs focus on tracks cut in the USA. Aside from a few tried-and-tested staples (The Velvelettes’ Needle in a Haystack, Freda Payne’s Band of Gold etc.), the album generally avoids the most obvious choices, without a corresponding compromise in quality. While several marquee names appear, they are usually represented by one of their less frequently-compiled efforts. Martha & The Vandellas take to the floor, but with the glorious In My Lonely Room rather than one of their better-known numbers.
Likewise, The O’Jays are Working on Your Case rather than inviting listeners aboard the expected Love Train or warning against Back Stabbers. Although Curtis Mayfield once again delivers the immortal Move On Up (still exquisite despite its familiarity), he also appears with a neglected gem from his old group The Impressions, whose You’ve Been Cheatin’ is one of the many tracks to highlight the genre’s uncanny knack for turning abject heartbreak into flawless pop bliss.
Harrington unearths jewels from the lesser-known artists too, rescuing them from their undeserved relative obscurity. Bobby Bland and Darrell Banks turn in top-class danceable tearjerkers with their respective efforts Shoes and Open the Door to your Heart. Shirley Ellis’ Soul Time is a barnstormer with an irresistible counting refrain, while Little Anthony & The Imperials, best known for the somewhat limp ballad Tears on my Pillow, hit the floor in brilliant and surprisingly menacing style with Gonna Fix You Good (Every Time You’re Bad). Meanwhile, Canadian R. Dean Taylor brings an unexpected touch of country to the sublime stomper There’s a Ghost in My House, and Betty LaVette adds a gleeful splash of the supernatural with Witch Craft in the Air.
The third disc may perhaps be of the most interest to hardened collectors, changing tack to concentrate on soul recorded in the UK. Leaving his native Georgia for a 1966 trip to London’s Abbey Road, Little Richard sounds absolutely ferocious on Get Down With It, the change of scenery apparently inspiring him to even greater heights of demented energy, with his trademark falsetto exploding all over the place.
Stalwarts of the UK soul scene such as Jimmy James & The Vagabonds, Madeline Bell, and Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band put in similarly sterling performances, alongside various fine curios from talents who never quite found the stardom they deserved. Arguably the strongest offering in the latter category is Elmer Gantry’s The Painter, with the caped singer leaving behind the psychedelic sound of his Velvet Opera band days for a stampeding solo effort that inexplicably went unreleased until a 1996 Very Best Of compilation.
At a staggering 89 tracks, it is impossible to do justice to all of the music included on Ain’t Nothing but a House Party. It is a commendable collection that really never lets up, combining an admirable eye for the alternative with an unfailing ear for quality. Highly recommended listening for all vintage soul fans, from the casual to the committed.
❉ Various Artists – ‘Ain’t Nothing but a House Party: 60s & Early 70s Club Soul Classics’, 3CD Set (Strawberry Records CRJAMBOX013) released 18 November 2022, RRP £22.99.
❉ Johnny Restall writes about cult films, music, and books. You can find him on Twitter at @johnnyrestall.