By Richie Unterberger

Because Arthur Conley's only big pop single was the classic "Sweet Soul Music," and because he had just a couple other Top Forty entries on the pop charts, he's sometimes thought of as something of a one-hit wonder. In fact, however, Conley was a regular visitor to the R&B and pop charts in the late 1960s, albeit sometimes in their lower reaches. He also did quite a bit more recording for the Atlantic label during this period than is generally recognized, with no less than four albums and a few non-LP singles appearing during the period. That's a rate that would be unimaginable today, but wasn't all that uncommon at the time, particularly for an artist with a hit so big that it could easily be ridden for a few years.

    Soul Directions is the third of these four albums, released in May 1968 not long after Conley's second-biggest single ("Funky Street") had made #14 on the pop charts and #5 on the R&B listings. The result might surprise listeners only familiar with Conley's most famous recordings. First, its quality is quite consistent, at a time when many soul long-players were rather hastily tossed off. Additionally, though Conley was not especially well known as a songwriter, he wrote or co-wrote half of the LP's ten tracks. Also on the album were compositions by top-tier Southern soul songwriters Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, as well as one that the then-recently killed Otis Redding had helped pen. Redding's presence is also felt on a couple of tracks he produced, though he'd been dead for a few months by the time the record came out.

    Preparing the album must have difficult in some respects for Conley, as Redding's death from a plane crash on December 10, 1967 had a profound effect upon him. Otis had been something of a mentor to Arthur, boosting his protege's career by helping out with some of his recordings and supplying him with some material. It was Redding with whom Conley collaborated as a songwriter when the pair revamped Sam Cooke's "Yeah Man" into "Sweet Soul Music." It was also Otis who invited Arthur on the famed Stax/Volt Revue tour of Europe in March and April of 1967.

    Conley's spirit hardly seemed dampened on Soul Directions, however. Arthur had done some recording at Stax Studios in the mid-1960s, and also cut tracks (including "Sweet Soul Music") at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. But most of Soul Directions was done in February 1968 Memphis in American Studios, which most soul fans would agree was (along with Stax and Fame) one of the three best facilities generating Southern soul sounds at the time. As two of the tracks, "Hear Say" and "Love Comes and Goes," were produced by Redding, those must have been done prior to Otis's death; Redding co-wrote the latter tune as well. The rest of the tracks were produced by Tom Dowd, the Atlantic in-house engineer roundly regarded as one of the best in the business, who had recently moved into production while maintaining his position as a premier engineer.

    Certainly the LP's flagship track (though positioned, rather oddly, not as the leadoff track but as cut two on side one) was "Funky Street." By far Conley's biggest hit other than "Sweet Soul Music," it also proved he could score a smash with something that didn't sound much like the one for which he was most famous. It was a great time for funky soul odes to the main drag, with both Wilson Pickett's "Funky Broadway" and Fantastic Johnny C's "Boogaloo Down Broadway" having scaled the charts in late 1967. But while "Funky Street" was recorded in Memphis, it was actually an homage to Atlanta's Auburn Avenue, one of the most historic streets in the entirety of the United States' African-American community. Co-writing the song with Arthur was Earl Simms, road manager for both Conley and Otis Redding.

    Conley himself was sole writer for three of the tracks, "Hear Say," "Put Our Love Together," and "Otis Sleep On." The last of these is obviously a tribute to the recently departed Redding, though stylistically it's more reminiscent of an artist who was a big influence on Arthur, Otis, and many other soul singers, Sam Cooke. (As an odd footnote, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Linda McCartney, and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg can be heard playing Conley's recording of this song (used as the B-side of Conley's cover of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" on a single in late 1968), and briefly reacting to it, in outtakes from the Beatles' January 1969 sessions while they were recording and filming what came to be Let It Be.) Conley also gets a co-writing credit on the ballad "Burning Fire," the other composer noted being none other than Tom Dowd.

    As for the non-Conley compositions on Soul Directions, "You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy" and "This Love of Mine" were both collaborations between two of the top soul songwriters of the era, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby" being perhaps their most celebrated effort as a team). Penn and Oldham's contributions as songwriters were perhaps to be expected given that both were also involved in productions at American Studios, where most of the album was cut. "Get Yourself Another Fool" was likely learned from Sam Cooke's version on the 1963 LP Night Beat, though the song had been popularized quite a bit earlier with R&B audiences by Charles Brown. "People Sure Act Funny," by Titus Turner and James McDougal, was also recorded by Lee Dorsey, Shorty Long, Baby Washington, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and B.J. Thomas. "Love Comes and Goes," meanwhile, was a collaboration between Redding, Earl Simms, Jimmy Moss, and Alan Walden, the last of whom co-managed Redding with his brother Phil Walden, and would later go on to manage Lynyrd Skynyrd.

    Despite the inclusion of a Top Twenty pop hit, Soul Directions could only struggle up to #185 in Billboard's album chart. Atlantic Records' final Arthur Conley LP, More Sweet Soul, would be issued in February 1969, and has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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