By Richie Unterberger

When Arthur Conley's More Sweet Soul album was released in February 1969, it had only been a little less than a couple of years since his monster smash "Sweet Soul Music" had entered the charts. Though he'd been unable to maintain the commercial momentum of that classic soul single, the intervening period had hardly been devoid of chart success, with one of his singles ("Funky Street") making the Top Twenty, and another ("Shake, Rattle & Roll") cracking the Top Forty. He'd also participated in the 1968 single by Atlantic's short-lived soul supergroup the Soul Clan, also including Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Ben E. King, and Joe Tex. More Sweet Soul itself had a couple singles that barely missed the R&B Top Ten. Yet the LP would turn out to be Conley's last longplayer for Atlantic, though the company would issue a few subsequent singles.

    Conley had done sessions at Stax Studios in Memphis, American Studios (also in Memphis), and Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals before More Sweet Soul was assembled. It was little surprise, then, that the recording of the album was roughly evenly divided between Fame and American. Producing was Tom Dowd, the famed Atlantic engineer who'd also handled those duties for all but two of the tracks on Conley's previous album, Soul Directions (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music).

    Musicians on the Fame part of the proceedings included Muscle Shoals stalwarts David Hood (bass), Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), and Jimmy Johnson (guitar). Also present was a young guitarist named Duane Allman, then picking up work as a session musician prior to the launch of the recording career of the Allman Brothers. The blues-rock phrasing for which Allman would become known is most audible on "Stuff You Gotta Watch" and "That Can't Be My Baby," but can be clearly heard on several other cuts as well, including the most well known one on the LP, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

    Prior to the release of More Sweet Soul, a few of its tracks had already appeared in the 45 format. Released in October 1968, "Aunt Dora's Love Soul Shack" had climbed to #11 in the R&B charts, though it didn't do much to reverse Arthur's declining fortunes in the pop listings, where it only reached #85. Conley himself had a hand in the composition, sharing credits with Earl Simms (road manager of Conley and Otis Redding), Jackie Avery, and Ronald Cranston Grier. Avery also co-wrote (with John Farris) the B-side, "Is That You Love," which was also reused for the LP.

    The next single, however—issued in December 1968, and also included on the LP shortly afterward—would be something of a departure from the accessible Southern soul in which Conley had specialized. The Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" must have only just reached the shelves as part of the group's White Album in November 1968 when Arthur covered it at Fame, with Duane Allman on guitar. Perhaps Beatles covers were briefly in vogue at Fame, Allman also contributing guitar around the same time to Wilson Pickett's version of "Hey Jude," which became a substantial hit in its own right in early 1969. Duane can also be heard on "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which though not as popular as Pickett's remake of "Hey Jude" didn't do all that badly, reaching #11 in the R&B chart and peaking at #51 on the pop side.

    It's known for certain, incidentally, that at least two Beatles heard the single shortly after its release. On unreleased tapes from the recordings they made on January 13, 1969 while working on what became the Let It Be film and album, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Linda McCartney, and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg can be heard playing Conley's recording of this song. The assembled briefly react to it and its B-side, the Otis Redding tribute "Otis Sleep On," before returning to discussion of the Beatles' own very troubled state of affairs. Paul and Ringo do seem a bit troubled that neither Conley nor the Scottish band Marmalade (who'd just taken their version to #1 in the UK charts) have faithfully reproduced the lyrics of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" down to the last word.

    Whether it was conscious design, or simply because it was the direction in which Conley's music was moving, much of the material on More Sweet Soul has less of a straightforward Southern soul cast than Soul Directions, and somewhat more of a pop-oriented feel. This may be in part because Arthur's own contributions as composer were relatively light, limited to co-writing credits on three songs ("Aunt Dora's Love Soul Shack," "Shing-a-Ling," and "Run On"). As for the other songwriters involved, the only ones apt to be recognized by many soul and rock fans were Chris Kenner (the New Orleans soulster whose early-'60s classic "Something You Got" was covered to lead off side two), Tom Dowd (one of three writers sharing credits for "Stuff You Gotta Watch"), and Clint Ballard, Jr. (the sole author of the moody ballad "Speak Her Name," which would become the follow-up single to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," with "Run On" on the flip). Ballard, Jr.'s more celebrated as the composer behind Betty Everett/Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good," the Hollies' "I'm Alive," and Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders' "The Game of Love."

    Despite the inclusion of a couple of moderate hit singles, More Sweet Soul wasn't a commercial success, failing to reach the chart. Conley would never get an opportunity to release another album on Atlantic, although four non-LP singles subsequently appeared on the label in 1969 and 1970. The first of these was Allen Toussaint's "Star Review," which Conley seemed to have high hopes for when talking to Melody Maker for a November 15, 1969 article. "It is more piano-dominated than guitar," he told Royston Eldridge. "We recorded it in Muscle Shoals on Jackson Highway. I think you'd classify it as an oldie but goodie sound. It grows on you and if it gets the plays it should do well as a discotheque record like 'Funky Street' did."

    But with the exception of "God Bless," none of those singles made the charts, with "God Bless" itself peaking at a modest #33 in the R&B charts in 1970. Conley, in fact, never made the Billboard charts again after leaving Atlantic, though he was a labelmate for a while with Duane Allman on the Capricorn label in the early 1970s. Though relatively short, his stint with Atlantic remains his finest work, enshrining him as one of the finest Southern soul performers of his era, and certainly one of the most accessible to the pop audience. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              unless otherwise specified.