Singer of 'Sweet Soul Music'
Tuesday 18 November 2003
Arthur Conley, singer: born Atlanta, Georgia 4 January 1946; died Ruurlo, The Netherlands 17 November 2003.
When the soul music legend Otis Redding discovered Arthur Conley in 1965, he told his manager, Phil Walden, "I've discovered the most dynamic talent I've ever heard." Redding produced Conley's international best-seller, "Sweet Soul Music" in 1967, but his death later that year stymied Conley's career. Although he made several more records, Conley never regained his momentum or, for that matter, the quality of his first LP.
Conley was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1946 and grew up singing in church. He joined a gospel group, the Evening Smiles, and then formed a secular band, Arthur and the Corvets, which opened for soul acts at the Royal Peacock Club in Atlanta. They made some records for local labels, ("I'm Going to Cry" for Moon and "Poor Girl" for Na-R-Co), which did not sell at the time but are highly prized by collectors today.
By 1965 Otis Redding was having hit records and his manager, Phil Walden, suggested that he should do something with his money. As Otis knew about music, they developed a label, Jotis, featuring new artists who would be produced by Redding at the Stax recording studios in Memphis. He heard one of Conley's records on a visit to Atlanta and decided to record him. The first singles, "I'm a Lonely Stranger" and "Who's Fooling Who?", did not convince the public; Redding's other protégés, Billy Young and Loretta Williams, also failed to sell.
In 1967, when the Stax studios were not available, Redding recorded Conley at Fame in Muscle Shoals. Sam Cooke had been killed in 1964 and Conley was intrigued by a track, "Yeah Man", on a posthumous album. The song, a celebration of dance music, was incomplete but Conley suggested that they turn it into a tribute to soul music. With Otis Redding's backing musicians and Redding himself on guitar, Conley celebrated the talents of Lou Rawls, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown, and called the song "Sweet Soul Music".
His performance was so exuberant that the record soared up the charts, making No 2 in the United States and No 7 in the UK; in both countries Conley's record had been more successful than anything by Redding himself. Sam Cooke's publisher was not amused and threatened to sue for plagiarism. The matter was settled out of court, with Redding agreeing to record some of Cooke's songs, which was no hardship.
Sweet Soul Music was a fine début album, and Redding wrote in the liner notes,
Being an A&R man is still a new thing for me. Arthur makes the job exciting through his great artistry. I feel he's in
the early stages of a sensational career as a recording and in-person performer. Listen to him on this new album and see if you don't agree.
Conley came to Europe, supporting Redding and Sam and Dave on the Stax-Volt Revue. Although he could not compete with their dynamics, the audiences warmed to his stage performances. When Redding was killed in a plane crash in December 1967, Conley was devastated. Redding had been planning to record with Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Ben E. King and Joe Tex, as the Soul Clan. Conley took Redding's place but the resulting single, "Soul Meeting" and "That's How I Feel", was a mess and sold few copies.
Conley had further success with "Funky Street" and "People Sure Act Funny", both from his album Soul Directions (1969), and he also recorded a soul version of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", which was backed by his tribute to Redding, "Otis Sleep On". But on the whole, Conley's career suffered from the loss of his mentor. He moved to Capricorn Records in 1970 and became a parody of himself with "More Sweet Soul Music" and a soul version of "They Call the Wind Maria".
Even after he stopped having hit records, he was still a popular club act. Billy Butler, the DJ at the Mardi Gras in Liverpool recalls,
We put him on in the Seventies and he was really good. He did three or four encores and mixed with the crowd, signing autographs and quite happy to talk about Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin rather than himself. "Baby Help Me" and his version of "Dark End of the Street" were big Northern Soul records. Even his version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" was popular in the clubs.
Conley preferred Europe to America and in 1980 settled in the Netherlands.
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