Laura Lee “The Chess Collection” (CHESS 983 229-4 )
By Greg Mudry
Mama's Got A Good Thing; Another Man's Woman; It Ain't What You (But How You Do It); It's All Wrong But It's All Right; Need To Belong; Dirty Man; But You Know I Love You; That's How It Is; It's How You Make It Good; Love More Than Pride; Are You Doing Me Wrong; As Long As I Got You; She Will Break Your Heart; A Man With Some Backbone; Wanted: Lover No Experience Necessary; Hang It Up; It's Mighty Hard; Uptight Good Woman; You Need Me; Stop Giving Your Man Away.
Laura Lee is without question one of soul music’s greatest artists. I think that most lovers of classic soul would agree that Laura’s recordings for Chess Records represent her very finest work. Her brilliance is there to behold on the CD, “Laura Lee:The Chess Collection”, which came out in 2006.
Laura Lee possessed all the vocal attributes necessary for greatness – a powerful gritty voice, superb phrasing and the magical ability to bring music and lyrics to life. Above all she infused her singing with a formidable intensity of emotion that was never over the top, but instead beautifully modulated and controlled.
Laura Lee was born in Chicago in 1945 but grew up in Detroit. Her adoptive parents formed the gospel group, The Meditation Singers. Laura became one of the ensemble’s featured performers.
After an excellent first secular outing on Ric-Tic Records (“To Win Your Heart”/”So Will I”), and, unbelievably, being turned down by Motown Records, Laura travelled to Chicago where Chess Records, upon hearing her sing, immediately signed her to a contract. From 1967 until 1969 Laura had seven singles on Chess. An album was released in 1972 after her departure from the label.
Before getting on with my thoughts about the recordings included on “Laura Lee:The Chess Collection”, I have to mention one unfortunate item about the CD. Twenty-one tracks are listed on the back cover, but, number 4, “She Don’t Love You”, is missing from the album. I have no explanation for this glaring omission; it remains a mystery to me. Fortunately all of Laura’s other Chess releases are there.
It’s worth noting that Laura’s superb Muscle Shoals recording of “Sure As Sin”was inexplicably never released by Chess. However, the song is available on Ace Records CDKEND 436 CD, “Reaching Out:Chess Records At Fame Studios”.
“Laura Lee:The Chess Collection” begins with the selections from the 1972 album, “Love More Than Pride”, minus the aforementioned “She Don’t Love You”. The remaining ten songs are in precisely the same order as on the album.This seems rather odd since most of Laura’s very best tracks are kept waiting until later.
The opening song, “Mama’s Got A Good Thing”, is a rousing uptempo number recorded in Chicago and originally released as Laura’s final single for Chess in 1969. Laura takes charge from the outset and turns a rather nondescript song into something special.
The second, third and fourth tracks are all a step up in quality from the opener. That is no surprise since the songs were all produced by Rick Hall at his Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.The Fame studio musicians do their usual sensational job giving Laura the chance to really strut her stuff. Although none of “Another Man’s Woman”, “It Ain’t What You Do”, and “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right” was released as a single, they are all worthy candidates. Laura’s vocal performances on the songs are strongly emotive yet beautifully restrained. She and the musicians connect so well that it’s hard to imagine that Laura did not grow up and learn to sing in the south.
“Need To Belong”, another Fame Studios outing, made it to number 44 on the R&B chart in 1968. Laura does a lovely job interpreting this Curtis Mayfield gem.
The following song was Laura Lee’s biggest chart success during her tenure at Chess. “Dirty Man”, released in 1967, made it to number 13 R&B and number 68 Pop. Showing her tough, no nonsense side Laura takes charge of the song right from the start.
The next two tracks were recorded in Chicago and made their debuts on the “Love More Than Pride” album. “But You Know I Love You” is a pleasant pop-oriented song that Laura manages to rescue and turn into something better. However, “That’s How It Is” is in a different world altogether. Of all of Laura Lee’s many great songs this for me is her crowning achievement. Laura’s immense vocal talents all come to the fore in this deep soul classic. Every word is infused with pain; every phrase is a noble effort at impossible restraint. Finally the dam bursts and Laura lets all the hurt pour out. This is a gripping emotional tour de force.
Next up is “It’s How You Make It Good”. It was recorded at Fame Studios and released as a “B” side in 1969. The song has a compelling mid-tempo groove that could only have come from the fabulous Fame rhythm section usually comprised of Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass and Spooner Oldham on keyboards. Laura effortlessly settles right into that groove.
The Chess album concludes with the title song, “Love More Than Pride”, which was recorded in Chicago and paired with “Mama’s Got A Good Thing Going” on Laura’s final single for the label. The southern styled ballad gives Laura plenty of room and she delivers with finesse and conviction.
The next selection on the set, “Are You Doing Me Wrong”, was recorded in Chicago in 1967 but never released by Chess. It gives some hints as to what was to come when Laura made the trip to Muscle Shoals shortly thereafter.
One of those fine Fame recordings was “As Long As I Got You” which came out in 1968 and made it to number 31 on the R&B chart. The song has a beautifully conceived rhythm track and Laura, who was the co-writer, settles right in with the musicians. “He Will Break Your Heart” was released as the “B” side of “Need To Belong”. The bouncy, country styled Fame arrangement gives Laura the chance to show what she could do with a call and response chorus, and she delivers the goods. The flip side of “As Long As I Got You” demonstrates yet again Laura’s abilities with a southern ballad. She sings “A Man With Some Backbone” with wonderfully laid back phrasing and masterfully controlled dynamics.
The next track raises the level. “Wanted:Lover, No Experience Necessary” was part of a fabulous double sider along with “Uptight, Good Man”. The song is a classic example of the pulsing, unstoppable Muscle Shoals sound. Laura’s ability to strut right along with the band while taking charge of business is remarkable.
“Hang It Up” came out in 1969 and was the last of Laura Lee’s Chess singles to make the charts ending up at number 48 R&B. The song captures the essence of the southern soul ballad. Laura’s reserved delivery barely contains her simmering emotions. The next selection was recorded in Chicago. “It’s Mighty Hard” was the “B” side to “Dirty Man”. Laura leads the way with a gripping performance.
“Uptight, Good Man” is the last Fame Studios recording on the CD. The song made it to number 16 on the R&B chart. It is rightly revered by lovers of deep soul. As always, the Fame musicians and Laura were reading off the very same soulful page. Laura’s admirable restraint, impeccable phrasing and contained emotional intensity are all on display. This is soul music at its best.
The last two tracks on the cd comprise Laura’s first single for Chess. The “B” side, “Stop giving Your Man Away”, is an unmistakable Chicago blues stomper. Laura shows that she could easily handle this kind of song even though it does not make sufficient use of all her talents. On the other hand, the “A” side, “You Need Me”, is an entirely different proposition. Laura elevates the lovely big city ballad into something sublime, a haunting revelation of her vocal artistry.
After leaving Chess Records Laura recorded two singles for Atlantic’s Cotillion label including the superb “Separation Line”. In 1970 she began to record for Holland, Dozier, Holland’s new Hot Wax label in Detroit where she achieved her greatest commercial success. However, it was at Chess Records that Laura Lee scaled the heights artistically, especially with her recordings at Fame Studios which rank among the best soul creations of all time.
“Laura Lee:The Chess Collection” is a must for every soul music enthusiast’s collection.