Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Another obsessional follows.

There are many tracks on the late Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures Volume 3 that exercise the goosebumps but to my ears the real jewel is “Rozetta” Johnson’s “Who Are you Gonna Love (Your Woman Or Your Wife)”, written by the great Sam Dees. After a few plays I knew I had to get a vinyl copy. Although released early in the Seventies the original 45 is not too difficult to find and so now I have my own copy safely tucked into the collection at a price that didn’t do any real damage to the wallet.

So it is with much of my vinyl buying nowadays: sparked by hearing something in digital format - be it CD or Internet - that “does it for me”, I have to go out and get a copy of the original record. For me it’s a way of connecting more closely with the music and a step towards feeling an affinity to the artist. An artist that in this case was previously completely unknown to me. A record, after all, is an artefact, something you can hold as well as hear. Pulling an original copy of a record out of its sleeve immediately transports me back to its time of release. I can imagine the sense of excitement and expectancy for all concerned with its recording, pressing and release into the world. For those that heard it on the radio as a fresh new sound and instantly loved it I can imagine the tingle they got; their lunchtime trip to their local record shop to buy their very own copy; and the rush home that evening to put it on the record player move the needle across and play it for the first time, and then play it again, and again.

I knew this “Rozetta” Johnson 45 had been released in 1971 and to place it in time in my world I tried to think of another record that might have been around at the same sort of time and I might have bought. Difficult, as my record buying didn’t really begin in earnest until the end of 1971. For some reason George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” sprang to mind, close, but that was 1970. This proved to be something of a coincidence though, as I subsequently found this playlist chart from Birmingham, Alabama radio station WSGN 610 AM for week ending 30th Nov 1970 (yes that’s almost exactly 38 years ago). Nestled at #3 between The Miracles and The Supremes was “Rozetta” Johnson with “A Woman’s Way” (her first release on the Clintone label which was backed with the stronger – in my opinion – “Mine Was Real”). Cast your eye down to #24 and what do you see? Yes George Harrison! Most of the artists on this top 30 playlist are household names. “Rozetta” Johnson is very much the exception but was obviously benefiting from local support as she hailed from nearby Tuscaloosa and would have been known on the local club circuit. “A Woman’s Way” would actually break into the lower reaches of the US Top 100 Pop charts. Another WSGN playlist from March 1971 shows “Rozetta” at #22 with “I Can Feel My Love Coming Down” which is the other side of “Who Are You Gonna To Love…”.

The Deep Soul Treasure’s liner notes are excellent and extensive but as far as Ms Johnson is concerned reveal little about her. Nowadays, though, liner notes and holding and playing a record no longer have to suffice as a way of getting closer to an artist – there is the Internet. The WSGN playlists and “Rozetta”’s birthplace were just a few of the pieces of information I picked up trawling the Internet for more on Ms Johnson. Putting “Rozetta Johnson” into Google gets you lots of hits to the Deep Soul Treasures CD and the recently released CD “Personal Woman”, but information on “Rozetta” herself is scant. There is little information on her early career, except for some excerpts from the liner notes to the aforementioned CD. It would appear she followed the standard soul singer’s route, initially singing in church choirs she moved into secular music when she performed the only non gospel song she knew at the time in the 401 Club in Birmingham, Alabama (in this respect she has close similarities with Candi Staton, also discovered in a Birmingham club singing the only secular song she knew, and from what I can estimate “Rozetta” and Candi’s birth years cannot be far apart either). I can find only two documented single releases before her emergence on Clintone in 1970 – an early (1961) release on NRC co-billed with The Organettes, and a 1965 outing on a local label, Jessica, that also got national release on Atlantic. I’m sure if (when) I purchase “Personal Woman”, I will find out more, but finding out more about “Rozetta” by “Internet archaeology” is part of the fun.

So what is all this “Rozetta” business? Well one of the Google hits led me to this, 2002 correspondence from a friend of Ms Johnson to a local DJ which reveals that the correct spelling is, in fact, Roszetta.

Now put “Roszetta Johnson” into Google and a whole new world opens up. Roszetta’s world since 2002.

Like many other soul singers from the golden age Roszetta disappeared from the recorded music scene sometime in the mid Seventies. A career in education followed, with gospel singing very much a second string to her bow. Then it would seem that in 2002 the realisation that there were people all round the world who still fondly remembered her Clintone output prompted her to re-ignite her singing career. In the summer of 2002, in what must have been a déjà vu moment, it seems she entered an amateurs singing competition “Amateur Night At The Apollo” in Birmingham and was chosen as one of 13 finalists. The winner got the chance to appear in the legendary Amateur Night at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Roszetta was described as a “country gospel singer, age not given”. I don’t know if she won.

By 2005 Roszetta was performing (billed as Roszetta Johnson Scovil) with a jazz band fronted by Bill Doggett, and by then had also added “stand in for Candi Staton” to her CV. Around this time too it would appear she lent her name, or maybe owned, a night club in Birmingham as I have found listings for the “Roszetta Johnson Jazz Club” in various yellow pages style listings. However the latest Google Maps entry for that address has it described as “Glenn’s Bar”. In 2007 Roszetta won a BAMA (Birmingham Alabama Music Award) as best female vocalist, and now appears in an established residency “Jazz On The Porch” at Rucker Place which by the looks of it is an upmarket eaterie.

So from what I have found on my Internet trawl I think it’s fair to say Roszetta is once again active on the local music scene in Birmingham Alabama, and her rekindled musical career appears to be flourishing.

I hope with this piece I haven’t sounded as if I am some sort of stalker. I'm just someone who likes to know a bit more about the people who made all this great, and often criminally under appreciated, music from the past that gives me so much pleasure.

So it’s about time we heard Roszetta.

I am still not sure whether the intro to “Who Are You Gonna Love” is a mess or inspired. If, on first listen, you are of the former opinion don’t let it put you off, what follows is a work of genius. This is definitely not your average run of the mill “cheating” song. It’s really not like anything else I have ever heard. Roszetta is in fine voice, there are powerful lyrics – of course – from Sam Dees, and to top it all there is the intricate and haunting arrangement from Dale Warren (Dale was classically trained and it shows, at the time of this single he was also arranging for various Stax artists including Isaac Hayes). The writer and journalist Barney Hoskyns is also rather taken by this song and had this to say about it: “…it's so extraordinary - like three songs in one, with melodies sliding in and out of each other and rhythms shifting in mid-verse. The domestic heartbreak is par for the early '70s course, but the song underscores just how unorthodox a ballad writer Dees is”. Indeed. Jackie Wilson may have recorded the “Who Who Song” but for me Roszetta can stake a claim to singing the definitive “Who Song”, just listen to the way she sings that word in this song. The only pity is that the song fades too quickly, its final moments are deserving of at least some sort of subtlety.

“Mine Was Real” , as I have already mentioned, was one side of Roszetta’s first Clintone release. The song was written by Sam Dees’ wife Lillian. “A Woman’s Way” was the credited hit but I prefer this side. The advertising around Roszetta’s recently resurgent singing career likens her voice to Dinah Washington, and I think the similarity is most evident here. The song seems so simple and understated but the more I hear it the better it gets.

Roszetta Johnson – Who Are You Gonna Love (Your Woman Or Your Wife) 1971

Roszetta Johnson – Mine Was Real 1970

Buy "Personal Woman" which gathers together all her Clintone recordings, including some previously unreleased.

*The pictures of Roszetta were obtained here. I sincerely hope the Dewsbury native who took these doesn't mind me using them.


Ravel said...

Both songs are worth listening to! Love it when you make us discover another lady singer!

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. Great tracks. The only other songs of hers I have are Atlantic 2297, as Rosetta Johnson - It's Nice To Know / That Hurts from 1965, which is also great. I'll have to pick up the compilation - I hadn't heard about it before. Thanks. W.

Anonymous said...

Roszetta Johnson is now a member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame will be recognizing Roszetta's birthday with a concert of jazz on Sunday, June 28pm, 2009.
Ticket revenues will all go to help pay for Roszetta's chemo treatments. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Anonymous said...

Concert time for above post is 4pm.

Anonymous said...

thank u for this enlightening post!!!! i had been looking for info about ms johnson--you helped me so much.