There’s an old saying that goes “always a bridesmaid, never a groom” (or something like that), alluding to the concept of being close to the prize but never quite grabbing it yourself. That could be applied to Lou Johnson, a legend among hardcore Northern Soul record collectors, but always eclipsed by contemporaries for whose work he inadvertently laid the groundwork.
Johnson was one of the first singers associated with the now-iconic songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. He recorded the first versions of songs that would go on to be massive hits for others, including “Reach Out for Me” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” both immortalized by Dionne Warwick. His terrific vocal approach was an amalgam of rough-hewn, gospel-inspired Southern soul (Otis Redding, Solomon Burke) and the more urbane and polished variety coming out of the Northeast and Midwest (Jerry Butler, Edwin Starr). But alas, none of his singles went anywhere. It’s a shame — produced by the legendary Muscle Shoals, Alabama, crew who’d made fantastic records behind darn near everybody in the Southern soul genre, Sweet Southern Soul virtually defines the style: impassioned vocals, sharp arrangements, sighing strings, chocolate-rich horns, and nary a superfluous note in sight.
The song choices are none too shabby, either. Johnson reinvents Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman” as a feverish blues/gospel diorama, and rescues the warhorse “Rock Me Baby” from a lugubrious, macho-strut, get-some cliché into a chugging James Brown/Wilson Pickett-style barn burner. He even prefigures Al Green’s sweet-Memphis-soul style with a sumptuously bluesy take on the George Jones hit “She Thinks I Still Care.” (Green would himself cover songs by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson.) And true to his luck, Johnson does a majestic version of a song Aretha Franklin would later strike gold with: “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).” If you’ve ever even slightly enjoyed what used to be called “soul music” or “R&B,” you must glom onto this, the Great Lost Soul Album, without delay. — Mark Keresman