Soul Men

Soul singing is essentially a young man’s game. You gotta have limber vocal chords to endure the screams, cries and soaring that is required. Although they have the pathos that young men don’t, veteran soul singers can be a challenge to record. Much as they want it, and think they can still hit the high notes, can still push their voice in passionate directions, the results are often more sad than thrilling.

Having said all that, This Time For Real, a new project by Otis Clay and Billy Price, two soul veterans,(shown above with producer Duke Robillard, far left), one from Pittsburgh and one from Chicago, have cut an easy going, really enjoyable session of less well known soul chestnuts, as well as some genuine surprises like their beautifully arranged and inspirationally sung take of Los Lobos, “Tears of God.”

The better known member of this pairing, Clay, 73, is a Mississippian who had his first hit in 1968, on Atlantic Record’s Cotillion imprint with a version of Doug Sahm’s “She’s About A Mover” before cutting his most famous single, “Trying To Live My Life Without You” in 1972 for Willie Mitchell’s Hi label (the home of Al Green) in Memphis.

Born William Pollak in New Jersey, Price (a name he borrowed from Lloyd Price), the junior partner here in terms of age (65) and vocal talents, has been a resident of The Burgh since the early Seventies leading the Keystone Rhythm Band and cutting a series of solid, under-the-radar independently released records and DVDs. Price recorded a duet with Clay on “That’s How It Is,” for his 1997 release, The Soul Collection.

Perhaps the best attribute that older soul cats bring to a project like this is their knowledge of repertoire. After the voices involved, which take turns singing lead or trading verses here, projects like this often turn on the collection of tunes to be sung, and on that score This Time For Real socks it out of the park. From the drum roll that precedes a cover of Johnny Sayles, “Somebody’s Changing My Sweet Baby’s Mind,” this set rolls through satisfying renditions of Syl Johnson’s “Going To The Shack,” Bobby Womack’s “Broadway Walk,” and an especially heartfelt take of The Spinners “Love Don’t Love Nobody.” Clearly there was some magic in the studio and some very audible chemistry between these two. Only on the slow-paced “I’m Afraid of Losing You, a tune first recorded in 1972 by the female group Quiet Elegance on Hi Records under the tutelage of Willie Mitchell, do both singers show the age in their voices.

While the band is fine, especially Roomful of Blues tenor saxophone player Mark Earley, and Otis Clay’s background singers, Theresa Davis, Dianne Madison, and Diana Simon, the secret weapon here is the presence of guitarist Duke Robillard as producer. A co-founder of the Rhode Island-based Roomful of Blues, Robillard has toured with both Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and also spent several fruitful years during the 1990s in The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Given the complicated logistics of this project (Pittsburgh, Rhode Island, Chicago) and the fact that all the vocals, according to Price in a piece by Scott Mervis in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were cut in Chicago in two, “insane crazy days,” the sound here is reasonably clear and immediate, with the vocal blend sounding almost perfect throughout. Going “Old School” is glorious when it works this well.