In some ways it is difficult to call Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” an album at all. Running times of albums were shorter back in the 60s but even by that decade’s standards under 26 minutes is short. Then there is the fact that it hadn’t initially been conceived as an album. Pricked by the success of Arthur Conley’s single of the same name it was, I'm sure, swiftly put together and rushed out essentially as a cash in, and is a collection of mostly earlier recordings - a greatest hits that weren’t (but should have been) if you will.
So, not worthy of being called an album? I jest. In reality it is one of the great Soul albums, and, although not in pristine condition, I was feeling very pleased with myself when I picked up a copy for 20p at a car boot sale the other week.
Arthur Conley had been making singles for a few years when he eventually hit gold in 1967 with what was, arguably, his most pop friendly 45, “Sweet Soul Music”. Otis Redding had taken Conley under his wing and become his producer after hearing his original version of “I’m A Lonely Stranger”, which was re-recorded and issued Otis’ own label, Jotis, in 1965. That song is included on this album and it should be regarded as a deep soul masterpiece. That superlative could easily be applied to all 10 tracks on the album. In equal measures the soul is deep, sweet and uptempo. With the usual suspects making up the backing band, and some tracks recorded at Rick Hall’s Fame studio, there is guaranteed quality in the groove. But then there is also the not so little matter of Arthur Conley’s performance. Bear in mind he was only 21 when this album was released, and only 19 when some of the tracks were laid down (including “Stranger”). The depth of feeling – Soul with a capital S – he elicits in his delivery is astonishing for someone so young. And it wasn’t just his voice, his song-writing talent was also undeniable, three of the tracks on this album were credited to Conley and three more to Redding/Conley.
Otis Redding was certainly a fan. He had this to say in the closing sleeve notes on the back cover of this album: “Being an A&R man is still a new thing for me. Arthur makes the job exciting through his great artistry. I feel he’s in the early stages of a sensational career as a recording artist and in-person performer. Listen to him on this new album and see if you don’t agree with me”.
Only a few months after penning those words about his protégé Redding would, of course, perish in a plane crash. Tragically, Soul music had lost a great voice. In fact, in a way, it lost two great voices. Arthur Conley, having finally been recognised as a real talent was a star on the rise, and furthermore could have ably stepped into the void left by Otis Redding. But, deeply affected by Redding’s death, he sort of lost his way as a singer in the soul music world.
Arthur Conley – There’s A Place For Us (1967 - LP)
Arthur Conley – I Can’t Stop (No, No,No) (1967 - LP)