Photo: Paul Harris
STILL STRAIGHTENING IT OUT
Not everyone has the ability to make a recording in 1974 which would stand the test of time but listen to Latimore’s ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ which sounds as though it could have been recorded today. The minimal accompaniment of bass, drums and Latimore’s electric piano combined with his intense baritone voice give the song eternal life unaffected by subsequent trends and fads. It sounds as modern today as the best of the current songs in the same genre. Nothing, not even modern recording techniques, could relate the song to an earlier era. A small number of jazz recordings fit into the same category. ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ is one of the real classics of soul blues, a song that has been covered by a number of artists, the latest being Bigg Robb who had a hit with his version this year.
Not everyone has the privilege of retaining an exalted position within the American South’s black population following such a breakthrough hit recording whilst continuing to produce the same kind of blues. Latimore’s forte is the slow blues ballad, ‘All The Way Lover’ being an example close to that milestone smash hit. But he can also tear up a high tempo number such as ‘Hellfire Lovin’’ with the best of them. Like so many sixties and seventies soul stars Latimore disappeared from the national charts in the early eighties but he never lapsed into periods of nostalgia or revival. He has released fresh music up to the present day where he has reunited with his old partner Henry Stone, one of the truly great personalities in black music and currently the only active record man who began his involvement in the early fifties.
One of my big dreams has been to meet and interview Latimore as his music has had such a special place for me ever since I hunted around for ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ in a seventies Helsinki. Unfortunately it looked as if it would never happen so when the English photographer Paul Harris contacted me about any requests for his trip to Porretta last summer, the task was allocated: “Don’t come back without an interview with Latimore for Jefferson in your luggage!” With this interview there are not many left of the great soul blues singers with whom Jefferson has not published exclusive interviews. Please enjoy. /Anders Lillsunde
Latimore's appearance at the 2013 Porretta Soul Festival in Italy provided the opportunity to interview him and listen to his story and some of his philosophies. He is an articulate man and most of this article consists of direct quotes. Latimore was in good shape physically, mentally and musically and his two appearances during the weekend were among the highlights of the festival.
Benjamin 'Benny' Latimore was born in Charleston, Tennessee on 9th September 1939. He said, “I’m the first-born in my family. My mother played guitar, my father played banjo. My mother was the first person I ever heard sing a song and play. She sang folksy music. We lived in the country and didn’t have any electricity. Later on we had a battery radio and I listened to WLAC Nashville – Muddy, Hooker, Gospel, Country. I really am a fan of Country music because the songs tell a story. Country music is akin to blues in that it fits real life situations. It’s just packaged a different way. It still has that same thing with a feeling of real people who are going through real experiences. That’s what I like to write about, that’s what I like to sing about, not the ‘I love you, you love me, oh how happy we will be’ sort of thing. It has to have some feeling and some guts to it. There are a lot of Country artists that I admire. In Nashville, way back in 1958, songwriters used to get me to record demos of country songs!
“I sort of grew up in the Baptist Church. My parents were religious. I was in the junior choir at ten, eleven. I sang my first solo at thirteen, fourteen, with just piano backing. The lady who was the choirmaster at that time encouraged me to sing a solo. It was like Children’s Day and it wasn’t hard to get a girl to sing a solo, it was harder to get a boy. I didn’t really want to do it. It was alright to be in the choir but not to solo. I managed to do it and once I did it I saw that people liked it, I was ‘Great, oh man!’ I was hearing a lot of gospel played on WLAC and I liked gospel groups called the Angelic Gospel Singers and The Caravans and one particular artist called Alex Bradford [watch his rendering of ‘Close To Thee’ on YouTube]. One of his songs was ‘Too Close To Heaven’ and I sang that. I can still remember most of the words. Most people who grew up with me in my little home town still remember the day that I did that.
“We had a piano in our house and I used to sit down [and play around] and my sister took me to some lessons. I would hear church piano on the radio and I’d keep trying by ear till I got it. I wanted to be an athlete (basketball, baseball) but I left my home town to go to Nashville and it was there that I got the jazz influence. I liked it but I thought there’s no way I could play it. Then when I went to Miami one of my best friends was an outstanding world class jazz piano player. At that time jazz players kinda looked down on others. We roomed together and he showed me the ‘cycle of fours’, and ‘the cycle of threes’ and I told him, ‘I’m inspired. I’m gonna try to learn to read music’. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, reading is overrated because you have a style’. I didn’t learn to finger right, I just did what sounded good to me. ‘Reading is just playing something that somebody else wrote. If you just want to play in a group and play a part, to make a living, that’s fine’.
"I joined a vocal group, The Neptunes. I was with them for a year or so, then one of The Neptunes whose brother-in-law played piano for Louis Brooks and his High Toppers  got me an audition as a vocalist with the band. They needed a replacement for Earl Gaines and I took his place. Louis took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff. After I got in the band I found that Louis did not get along with the piano player and when I used to sing my songs, sometimes the pianist did not want to rehearse. At that time a lot of the songs on the radio were simple - like doo wop [for example], but I'd practice over and over again. After I was with Louis for a little while I dropped out of college and was concentrating on music. I got a room at a lady's house and she took in students. She had a piano and I used it all the time, every waking hour, and she said, 'Son, don't you ever take a break?' I was driving her crazy. I would learn all my songs and I'd get to the gig and do my little set but the piano player didn't know the numbers. After I'd been with Louis for a little while he asked 'Would you like to sing and play?' I said, 'I don't know if I could do that, sing and play with the group. I can't play some of the chords, the things you guys play. I don't know the chords'. He said, 'I'll teach you the chords'. I said, 'But I can't read music'. He said, 'I'll teach you to read music, I'll show you and see if you can grasp it'. I used to go to his house every day and he'd show me different things about the songs that they did. Then I'd go home and practice till my fingers were sore.
I didn't have any problem with my stuff but the songs that they played, it was amazing that he taught me the chords that I didn't know. I did pretty good. Then one night he told me to solo. 'I can't'. 'Come on, solo!' He just threw me out there in the water. He said, 'I wasted my time. You don't teach people to solo. You have to learn on your own'. So I got up there. I got confidence. He never complimented me, never ever did he tell me, 'You're doing great' until I got ready to leave him and then he said that he was proud of me. I said, 'Why didn't you ever tell me that?' He said, 'Because I understood your personality. If I told you that, you would have thought you were good. In this business it's a constant learning process, every day you learn something. You have to keep your mind open. Never think that you know all there is to know 'cause you will never know all there is to know about music. Even the simplest little thing has more facets, more sides to it, more subtleties. Then you can progress and get better at it. You seem to be a person who responds to negative feedback'. If somebody said, 'You can't do this' I thought, 'I hate you for that'. When I left Louis I went on the road with Joe Henderson. I used to open up for him and I was his band leader.
"I think my own first recording was on the Hit label, one of Henry Stone's labels. I don’t remember the title. I was on his other labels Dade, Glades and TK. When I left Henry I went to Malaco but wrote fewer songs there. I am not a prolific songwriter though I have written quite a few things over the years. They would bring things to me. They never pushed me to do things I didn't want to. If I liked it I would record it. I liked 'Tonight's the Night' and we cut it at Muscle Shoals. If I can feel it I can do it. I got to the point where I wasn't, like, free. Although they didn't force me, I'd rather have somebody say 'Go on and do whatever you want to do and we'll take that and see if we can get consensus’, more like I did with Henry at TK. Henry never wanted to stifle me, he would either approve it or not approve it. 'Just do the best you can, go all out on it, then we can get together and tweak it’. After I left Malaco I was doing a project on my own and Henry was in the same studio. Henry asked me to help with a thing he was doing with a lady who was gonna do one of my songs that came out on TK. I said I'd do it and I played on it and sang on it. Henry said, 'What you gonna do with your project?'. I said I didn't know and he said, 'I can do a deal. Why don't we get together? I'll do all the promotion and putting the records together. You do all the creative part and I'll do the business part'. I thought, 'Well, if he's gonna spend a little money…’ - ’cos my money was running a little low. So I'm now back with Henry Stone and we set up a label called Latstone.
"I think music in general has taken different flavours but I basically have tried not to change my style of music whatever transpires. I do what sounds good to me and I don’t have a preconceived notion of what an audience is going to like. I want to be real and hope that they do like it. I don't like to follow trends, I hate that. Sometimes it has been good for me, sometimes bad for me. Some of my music might have different sides to it but I don't want to be accused of saying 'I want to do this because somebody else said 'Do this'. I recognise that soul and blues music has changed over the years but I don't necessarily go with it. I recognise that something might subliminally have gotten into it. I was somewhat taken aback when Disco came out. It was not so much the music but it became like a craze based on not being creative. It was 'Let's get the right number of beats in here' and the whole concept was that 'Everybody was a star and if everybody was a star there would be no stars'.
On Saturday night you can be a big star at a great concert but Monday morning you gotta go to work. What I do on Saturday I do on Monday. Another thing about it was the music in the clubs where the guy played the records, everything was precise. It's gonna be the same all the time and you didn't have bands playing. Well, people can go home and listen to records. Then on stage there's subtle differences in your feelings. Your heart rate beats in rhythm all the time but it’s a fluctuating rhythm. It might average 72 beats but from one minute to the next it might be 74 or 71 or 68 or 80. In Disco if you count the beats on the record it's gonna hit exactly that every time, the next time it comes around it's gonna be exactly that, it actually goes against nature. Now everything is computerised. The older guys, we know how a drum is supposed to sound, we don't just turn the machine on. We do our own editing, we know how a bass should sound. We try to make it sound as alike as possible. No egos in the studio.
"Betty Wright called me and said 'There’s this young white girl (she was only sixteen then), she's British, called Joss Stone, and she's a killer singer. I was wondering if you could come and play keyboard'. We wanted to do her first album, 'The Soul Sessions', like we used to do in the studio when everybody played and sang together on everybody's record. I had not seen the guys playing for years, I wasn't playing on other people's records any more, so I said, 'I just want to get with my friends'. I had never heard of Joss Stone. So we all played together. We rehearsed before we went in the studio. It was great fun but it was even more fun after I met her. She had so much talent, a great talent. I told her she was probably a reincarnation of an old black man! She sang with such feeling and such emotion - it was natural, she wasn't just copying somebody. Betty guided her and helped her out, she was her vocal coach. I played piano on six tracks.”
LET'S STRAIGHTEN IT OUT
Asked about the story behind the song Latimore explains, "It was from personal experience and vicarious experience. Being in this business, people talk to you over the years about things they go through. I like to sing and write about real things people go through and at the time I wrote this there seemed to be a gap there and women were starting to feel their liberation. They were making a statement. We started to realise that we had more than just biological differences and sometimes we think we understand them, they think they understand us. I think they understand us more than we understand them, so consequently there's going to be these little misunderstandings and any kind of relationship that you have with another human being, there's times when you gotta sit down and you gotta straighten it out. I always say on the stage, no matter how old or how young you are, no matter if you're married, single, engaged, you gotta straighten it out, sometimes with your brother or your sister, mostly the person that you're with all the time. These little things can't fix themselves, the only way to straighten it out is to sit down and talk about it. Even with countries and wars, all the fighting means nothing except people lose their lives and limbs. It means nothing until they sit down and talk about it. We needed one more song for an album and it was the only song I wrote on that album. It had been going round in my head and I had the music part already. I keep everything in my head, never write anything down. I figure if it leaves [my head] it wasn’t that good!”
THERE’S A REDNECK IN THE SOUL BAND
Here’s the story behind another of Latimore’s popular tracks: “This is a white guy, a good guitar player. People used to ask me, ‘What are you doing with a white guy in the band?’ and I’d say, ‘Because he can play’. I loved the way he played. He was a real redneck – he was an Italian guy, he was Italian and Spanish. His name was Joey Murcia and he played with me a long time. I was just thinking one night, ‘A redneck in a soul band’. So I started with the song and it just went on and on and on. I had to trim down some of the stories and he liked it too. We got a good groove on it. From that record he got a lot of people who got him to play and he played on a couple of the Bee Gees things and he went on the road, he travelled all over the world. He told me, ‘I gotta leave you. I don’t want to but I’ve been offered so much money’. I said, ‘Go man’. He plays on the record and that’s him playin’ on ‘Discoed To Death’ too, that intro he does.”
PLAYING GUITAR ON A KEYBOARD
Latimore also spoke about the ‘Pitch Bend Wheel’ on his Yamaha Motif ES8 keyboard that he ‘plays’ with his left hand whilst creating the sound of a guitar whereby he can ‘bend strings’ and create a vibrato effect. This he demonstrated in great style during his festival performances to such effect that a guitar-playing colleague confirmed that the sound was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Latimore certainly is the real thing and long may he continue in that vein.
With thanks to Richard Tapp and Dave Williams