If Motown was hit factory-produced street-smart pop and Stax was its rougher round the edges punkish southern soul sister, then Fame was the mongrel hybrid of both. A studio with a hit-making pop sensibility that retained its southern fried Muscle Shoals identity, Fame was responsible for recording some of the greatest under-the-radar soul music in recorded history.
At this point, musical trainspotters and soul aficionados will roll their eyes and reel off a list of 20 essential Fame tracks that everyone should know immediately, but as a label, Fame is relatively undervalued; the Hollies to the Beatles and the Stones, the Inspiral Carpets to the Roses and the Mondays. Great, yet overshadowed by more greatness.
Released on Bell Records in 1966, I’m Your Puppet was written by the gigantic combined talents of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (the pair of songwriters responsible, as you know, for such titans of popular song as The Dark End Of The Street and I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)). Penn’s version was released first, but it was the version by James & Bobby Purify that really connected with radio stations, and ultimately record buyers.
I’m Your Puppet – James & Bobby Purify
It’s a wonderful song, with a lyric of helpless puppy-dogged affection that will ring true with anyone who’s ever fallen hard for someone else. And that’s everyone, right?
Pull the string and I’ll wink at you…
Snap your fingers and I’ll turn you some flips…
I’ll be wonderful, just do what I’m told…
Treat me good and I’ll do anything…
I’m yours to have and to hold…darlin’, you’ve got full control of your puppet
In a handful of verses, it runs the whole gamut of what soul music is; a universal theme welded to four chords of gently lilting musical accompaniment, all tinkling pitched percusssion and clipped guitar, slightly out of tune piano runs and honeyed sax for added emphasis, always, always just a notch lower in volume than the vocal sung sincerely and with requisite tear-jerking pathos and emotion. Then there’s the major to minor key change in the bridge, the call and response section, the parts where James and Bobby trip over one another to get their own vocal adlibs in… the very definition of what soul music is.
Oft covered, it’s exactly the sort of track that Alex Chilton could’ve mastered with Teenage Fanclub back in the early ’90s when they briefly showed up as his backing band, Norman and Gerry providing the close-knit harmonies atop Chilton’s choppy guitar riffage and world-weary delivery. For a couple of reasons, this will forever remain an unfulfilled wish.
Another underheard Fame beauty is Two In The Morning by Spooner’s Crowd.
Two In The Morning – Spooner’s Crowd
Cut live in the studio, Two In The Morning is, as the label suggests, the Fame house band led by Spooner Oldham grinding their way through a mod/soul/r’n’b groover that owes a great deal to Green Onions and any number of those great swinging mid ’60s finger-clickers.
Cut to sound like the listener is entering some nudge-nudge, wink-wink members’ only club or other, it’s a proper full-on strut of a record, big loose ‘n funky bass notes on the piano playing just off the beat, primitive fuzz organ supplying the melody and a “say, honey…wild!” spoken word interlude straight outta the Cotton Club or Peppermint Lounge for added bona fide authenticity.
Ideal music for kick-starting a late night on lively tunes….and, just like the studio from where it was born, sufficiently unknown as to be underplayed and under appreciated.