Gene McDaniels: Soulful singer of ‘Tower of Strength’ who wrote ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ for Roberta Flack

 

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The Independent Online

A supreme vocalist and tunesmith, Gene McDaniels originated several of the best-loved and best-known songs of the 1960s and '70s. He started out as a stylish, clean-cut singer, with a smooth baritone, and scored half a dozen US hits between the spring of 1961 and the end of 1962. He didn't fare as well in Britain, where his repertoire was appropriated by domestic artists who made a specialty of adapting US chart material for the UK market.

McDaniels' recording of "A Hundred Pounds Of Clay", a Luther Dixon/Bob Elgin/Eddie Snyder composition with a strong gospel flavour, fell foul of the BBC censors, who objected to a line about God – "He created a woman and-a lots of lovin' for a man" – and banned the track. "I don't know how anyone could read anything wrong in those words," McDaniels remarked. "My minister father thinks it's just wonderful." He lost out to cover-version habitué Craig Douglas, who simply tweaked the lyric to "He created old Adam then he made a woman for the man" and made the UK Top 10 in May 1961. The following year, McDaniels reached the Top 50 with the melodramatic "Tower Of Strength", but his thunder was stolen by the big-voiced Frankie Vaughan, who took the Burt Bacharah and Bob Hilliard song to No 1.

He reverted to his birth name of Eugene McDaniels on the brace of self-penned, socially conscious, highly atmospheric and very collectable albums, Outlaw and Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse, on Atlantic in the early 1970s. However, he achieved greater recognition as a composer and producer, most notably with the much-recorded, much-sampled jazz-soul protest song "Compared To What", a crossover hit for the pianist and vocalist Les McCann and tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris in 1969, and the luscious ballad "Feel Like Makin' Love", which Roberta Flack took to the top of the R&B, pop and easy listening charts in the US in 1974.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, he was the son of the Reverend BT McDaniels, who remarried and brought him up with his stepmother. His childhood was soundtracked by gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones and he joined the church choir at an early age. In the 1940s, the family moved to Lincoln, and then to Omaha, Nebraska, and he formed a gospel quartet, The Echoes Of Joy. He played saxophone and showcased his four-octave range – top tenor to bass – as their repertoire broadened and they moved from churches into secular venues.

An inquisitive teenager who grew into an articulate, determined man, McDaniels juggled touring commitments while studying music theory, voice and trumpet and graduated from Omaha University. He joined an a cappella ensemble, the Mississippi Piney Wood Singers, and travelled to the West Coast, where he met and played with McCann. In Los Angeles he was spotted by Simon Waronker, the boss of Liberty Records. "When I sang for him, he cried and signed me on the spot."

After his first two Liberty singles struck out in 1960 he began working with Tommy "Snuff" Garrett, a producer with an ear for a commercial song and the mastermind behind the rise of teen idol Bobby Vee. The result, "A Hundred Pounds Of Clay", spent over three months on the US charts and went gold in 1961. He followed it up with "A Tear", another Dixon co-write, and returned to the Top 5 with "Tower Of Strength". "It blew my mind," McDaniels said, "because of the humour and the trombone solo in front. You never hear a trombone intro to a song, and there it was, and it was a hit!"

In 1962 he toured Britain with Johnny Burnette and Gary US Bonds, and made a memorable appearance singing "Another Tear Falls", a beautiful ballad by Bacharah and Hal David, in It's Trad, Dad! A "juke-box musical" known in the US as Ring-A-Ding Rhythm, starring Douglas and Helen Shapiro and directed by Richard Lester, it is best remembered for the performances by Acker Bilk, Chubby Checker, Del Shannon and Gene Vincent.

Despite charting throughout 1962 with Brill Building material like "Chip Chip", a Jeff Barry co-write, "Point Of No Return", penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and "Spanish Lace", by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, he felt constrained yet remained loyal to the Liberty team. "They had put money into trying to do good albums and needed hits," said McDaniels.

After "It's A Lonely Town (Lonely Without You)", his last US Top 100 entry, in 1963, and The Facts Of Life album made with a Big Band in 1966, McDaniels felt he had gone as far as possible with Liberty's attempts to position him as the natural successor to Nat "King" Cole and Sam Cooke, and left the label. He issued one single on Columbia in 1967 and stopped performing the following year. "I dived out of the night-clubs because of the smoke, the loud talking, the booze, the irreverence to the music. It drove me nuts."

He spent some time in Scandinavia and went back to the US intent on becoming a songwriter and starting a publishing company, Sky Forest Music. "It was a massive gamble," he said. "My actual survival was on the line." 'Compared To What' was inspired by the right-wing push toward globalisation and privatisation. I didn't even know if anybody was going to be interested."

McDaniels had McCann in mind for his tune but the two were not speaking after their earlier collaboration had been thwarted by his record company. McDaniels reached out to his old friend, who accepted his apology and recorded "Compared To What". Its success took everyone by surprise. "The phone rings and this guy says: 'Congratulations! You've got the No 1 jazz tune in the world,'" McDaniels remembered. "It allowed me to continue writing. From then on, my life was fantastic."

McCann also introduced McDaniels to Flack, who cut "Compared To What" on her First Take debut in 1969 and included several of his compositions, including "Reverend Lee", "Sunday And Sister Jones" and "River", on her subsequent albums. "Feel Like Makin' Love" was inspired by a remark by his assistant, Morgan Ames. She had arrived to spend the weekend with the McDaniels family at their cabin at Lake Arrowhead, California, but departed on Saturday morning to rejoin her boyfriend: "She said, 'Gotta get back to town. I feel like makin' love.' I said: 'See ya!' and wrote the song. It took me 25 minutes." Flack was sold on the song, but didn't like McDaniels' production nor the remix by producer Joel Dorn, and ended up producing the version that earned three Grammy nominations and has been played more than 6 million times on US radio.

Once tagged "the best kept secret in music" by Billboard, he became adept at cajoling great performances out of female artists such as Vikki Carr, Merry Clayton, Gladys Knight, Melba Moore and Nancy Wilson throughout the '70s and into the '80s.

McDaniels had become a hermit over the last two decades but released an album, Screams And Whispers, in 2005. He was proud that rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Gravediggaz and Pete Rock & CL Smooth were sampling his Atlantic recordings as well as the avant-jazz album he made for MGM/Verve as the vocalist of Universal Jones in 1972. "I'm glad to be a part of the hip hop movement, however remotely," he said last year. "I sold records and became well known but I was never really part of the mainstream scene. I preferred hanging out with guys like Quincy Jones and Miles Davis. I've always been a jazzer."

Eugene Booker McDaniels, singer, songwriter and producer: born Kansas City, Missouri 12 February 1935; married three times (five sons, one daughter); died Kittery Point, Maine 29 July 2011.

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