TERRY GROSS, host:
Memphis has always had great record labels, especially for black music. But Goldwax, a company that issued some of the greatest soul records ever made in that city, is almost unknown.
Rock historian Ed Ward says that given the quality of what they released, they had very few hits, but the legend has lived on.
(Soundbite of song "The Power Of A Woman")
Mr. SPENCER WIGGINS: (Singing) The statue of a man is like a tree standing tall. But a sweet little woman, yeah, can make a big man fall. He can be strong like Samson and big like Hercules. But two sweet lips can put a man down on his knees. That's the power of a woman. Oh, that's the power of a woman. Oh, yes it is. Oh, yeah. Dig this.
ED WARD: Quinton Claunch had quite a music business career behind him when he and Rudolph "Doc" Russell started Goldwax Records in 1963. He'd been a country songwriter and guitarist, played rhythm guitar on some of Carl Perkins' first hits, been a talent scout for Sun and Hi Records, and had written "White Silver Sands," a national Top 10 hit for Bill Black's Combo in 1960. He ran into Doc Russell at a recording session for rockabilly singer Charlie Feathers, and Doc mentioned he'd like to invest in a record label. Claunch took his $600 and got to work.
(Soundbite of song "Darling")
THE LYRICS (Soul Band): (Singing) People say I didn't leave you no good. But I just want to let them know that I was doing the best that I could. You said you loved me, right from the start. Now you're telling me you gonna break my heart. You said you loved me...
WARD: "Darling," by The Lyrics, was unlike anything anyone in Memphis was doing: an odd combination of doo-wop and James Brown. And, predictably enough, it wasn't a hit. It made just enough noise locally, however, to bring a young hematologist, Roosevelt Jamison, to his door one night after midnight. Jamison had a small tape recorder, a tape and two members of a local gospel group who'd been moonlighting some secular material Jamison had written, and which he'd recorded. One of them was named Overton Vertis Wright.
(Soundbite of song "That's How Strong My Love Is")
Mr. OVERTON VERTIS WRIGHT (Singer): (Singing) If I were the sun up there, I would glow with love everywhere. Even be the moon when the sun go down. So you could see, so you can see that I'm still around. Ooh, that's how strong, that's how strong my love is. That's how strong my love is. One more thing I want to say.
If I were a beach...
WARD: Unfortunately, this wasn't the break Claunch or Jamison was looking for. Don Robey, of Duke/Peacock Records in Houston, unearthed a contract O.V. Wright had signed as a member of another gospel group, and took him away. Wright went on to make many great records, but not for Goldwax.
No, it was the other singer who would put Goldwax on the map.
(Soundbite of song "You've Got My Mind Messed Up")
Mr. JAMES CARR (Singer): (Singing) I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody else. But I just can't keep it, Lord, to myself now. For as long as I've been running around I finally met a little girl that really got me down now. Baby, you've got my mind messed up now, little girl, little girl. You sure got my mind messed up now.
I go to bed alone and I can't sleep. Sit down at the table, ooh, Lord, I can't eat now. Somebody, please, please, help me now, oh, oh, oh. Sugar plum dancing on in my mind...
WARD: It took a couple of tries, but "You've Got My Mind Messed Up" confirmed everyone's faith in James Carr, who, in the next couple of years, would produce a string of soul masterpieces, including "Love Attack," "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man," "Dark End of the Street" and "Life Turned Her That Way."
Claunch had an ear for great voices, that's for sure. Louis Williams and the Ovations were one of those groups that could barely sell a record, although they did very well on the road and had small regional hits. It's hard to say for sure, but it could be that Williams' greatest asset was also his biggest problem.
(Soundbite of song "I Believe I'll Go Back Home")
LOUIS WILLIAMS AND THE OVATIONS: (Singing) I believe I'll go back home. I believe I'll go back home. I believe I'll go back home and admit to my baby that I was wrong. All right. I believe I'll telephone. I believe I'll telephone. I believe I'll telephone. I got to tell my baby that I'm coming home. All right.
WARD: Granted, "I Believe I'll Go Back Home" is an extreme example: The writers Goldwax got to come up with the Ovations' second single apparently figured that cloning a Sam Cooke song would get them the hit they needed, when in fact the real problem was finding a way for Louis Williams to use his Sam Cooke sound in a way Cooke wouldn't have. The group continued for years, and left behind dozens of wonderful recordings for Goldwax and other labels.
The other great voice Goldwax had was Spencer Wiggins, who was performing at the Flamingo Lounge with a combo that included Isaac Hayes on organ.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WIGGINS: (Singing) Now tell me what do you think about my baby? She's all right. Now tell me what you think about my baby? She's all right. My baby, she ain't like those other girls to me. She don't play for other guys. She just do it to me.
Claunch heard the possibility and got him some materials from good writers and string of soul classics resulted.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WIGGINS: (Singing) Now if I were the wind that blows then I would follow you every, every, everywhere you go. Ill even be the sugar baby that's in your cake so I could be near every bite you take. But I want you to know...
WARD: Problems began for the label around 1968. Claunch and Doc Russell to fall out, and a few records were leased to other labels because of what Claunch called cash-flow problems. And there was another problem. They also had a label called Timmy(ph), for Memphis country music, although a couple of minor country stars began their careers on Timmy or Goldwax, most of these records were doomed. The soul records by selling as much as they should have, the country records weren't selling it all and Goldwax's last record was, believe it or not, James Carr singing "Row Row Row Your Boat." Goldwax closed its doors in 1970, and Memphis barely noticed.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The music he played is from "The Complete Goldwax Singles" on the British label Ace Records.
(Soundbite of music)