Here You Come Again: Where’s Your Love Been
One of my favorite reissues so far this year is Where’s Your Love Been, an album by Sandra Rhodes that the Fantasy label put out in 1972, that had basically been out of print ever since, and that Omnivore Recordings rereleased in March. I suspect most people, even serious music fans, have never heard of Rhodes. On the other hand, it would be almost impossible to find anyone, particularly any adult, who hasn’t heard her sing many times.
Back in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s, you might well have heard Sandra Rhodes singing back up on records by everyone from Ivory Joe Hunter and Tony Joe White to the Osmonds and Firefall, from Melissa Manchester to Clarence Carter and Millie Jackson to Englebert Humperdink and Frank Sinatra to BJ Thomas and Neil Diamond. For sure you heard her harmonies on Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby,” Mac Davis’ “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord.”
All that and I still haven’t mentioned the work that’s her best, and best known. Sandra was one-third of Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes, who throughout the seventies were the resident backing vocalists for legendary soul producer Willie Mitchell at Hi Records in Memphis. One more reminder of how integrated the Memphis studio system was back in the day, Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes, or RCR, as they were sometimes credited, were a white trio who supported Hi’s roster of black stars—O.V Wright, Syl Johnson, Ann Peeebles…and Al Green, too, on very nearly every track he cut for the label.
Let us pause and praise RCR, always there just beyond the edge of the spotlight, perpetually Twenty Feet from Stardom as last year’s relevant documentary had it, but always making key, often indispensable, contributions to some of the greatest late-soul records ever made. RCR helped to fashion not only the distinctive sound of so many Al Green hits; they reinforced meaning in those hits and strengthened their emotional punch. Typically, the trio provided long wordless oohs and mmms, adding texture and atmosphere, chording like an extra organ or small soulful string section, all together silent for long stretches, then picking the spots for maximum impact. But they also sometimes played call and response with Green: At the close of “Tired of Being Alone,” they chant the title phrase like a mantra while Green testifies to loneliness. Other times, the trio would sing along with Green—in “Can’t Get Next to You,” it’s RCR’s strong harmonies that convince you that Green just might be powerful enough to perform all the miracles he’s bragging about: “I! Ohhhh, I!” What’s more, RCR regularly complicated Green’s preaching by seeming to contradict the thematic thrust of his sermon. In “Love and Happiness,” Green mostly sounds worried and miserable about what love can do to a man, but Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes sound absolutely giddy: “Love’n’happy-NESS!”
The Chalmers of Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes was Charlie Chalmers, one of soul music’s great unsung session men. He screamed the sax solo on Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a 1,000 Dances,” and he arranged the horns on Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” just for starters. He released a Rick Hall-produced instrumental solo album, Sax and the Single Girl, for Chess in 1967, a nifty little record that, sad to say, has long been out of print. Fortunately, though, we can hear Chalmers playing similarly, and from that same year, all over one of Willie Mitchell’s instrumental albums, Ooh Baby, You Turn Me On, a funky soul effort I highly recommended (If you dig Mitchell’s Memphis contemporaries the Bar-Kays, or latter-day exemplars the Bo-Keys, you’ll love this record, reissued by Fat Possum Records a few years back.) A perfectly bluesy sax solo, courtesy of Charlie Chalmers, was a big part of why that album’s single, “Soul Serenade,” became a Top Ten R&B hit in 1968.
Chalmers’ partners in Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes were, of course, Sandra Rhodes and her sister Donna, of famed country music clan The Rhodes Family: The girls’ parents were Dusty and Dot Rhodes, their uncles were Speck (best remembered as Porter Wagoner’s comic bass player) and Slim Rhodes, and the whole family starred on their own country music TV show in Memphis for nearly three decades. That’s how, in 1963, the still teenage Rhodes Sisters met Skeeter Davis, who very quickly landed a small crossover hit with one of Sandra’s songs, “How Much Can a Lonely Man Stand” (#92 pop, the flip to #47 hit “He Says the Same Things to Me”). Eventually, with Davis as their champion, the Rhodes cut an album for RCA, coproduced by Felton Jarvis and Chet Atkins.
Predictably, that 1967 album, The Lonesome Rhodes—Sandy & Donna, is out of print but it’s worth tracking down. The LP is bookended by up-tempo, folk-revival-ish versions of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” (this was the year before the sisters’ label mates Porter and Dolly scored their hit version of the song) and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Nine of the album’s tracks, however, were written by Sandra, and thanks to close harmonies and gently pop-rocking arrangements, numbers like “Make Like the Wind (and Blow),” “Not This Time” and “Nothin’ but Heartaches Here” have Sandy & Donna coming off like a female Phil & Don.
That was it for the Rhodes’ duet recording career. However, I See Love, a strong Donna Rhodes-solo album, was released in 1970, though unfortunately it is (all together now!) out of print. Produced by Charlie Chalmers, I See Love featured Donna’s high, powerful voice doing country-soul versions of several Rhodes Sisters originals, alongside covers of R&B hits from Atlantic, Motown and Stax.
Three years and a handful of Al Green hits later, Sandra got her solo shot, produced by Chalmers (who had just become Sandra’s husband) and recorded at Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis. She and her sister had come from a country music background, and would provide their most significant musical contributions in the soul field. But, make no mistake, Sandra Rhodes’ Where’s Your Love Been is a pop record—specifically, it’s a pop record of that early 1970s moment when the music seemed to be splintering into a hundred, a thousand, new directions at once, when Top 40 radio was full of exciting stylistic syntheses that all borrowed from, and were therefore able to talk to, one another.
In other words, there is nothing on Where’s Your Love Been that anyone would confuse for country music, or soul music, but it draws from those genres and more, quite explicitly. As on contemporaneous Glen Campbell or Rod Stewart hits, the default arrangement choice is acoustic guitar, picked or strummed, backed with electric bass, busy but soulful drums, a variety of electric guitars and by piano. Moments within moments here are unmistakably Beatlesque, in a Badfinger or a Hollies ballad fashion, but elsewhere feature the pedal steel of Leo LeBlanc and, as a result, feel as if they’d fit fine in a Top Forty mix next to Elton John or the Carpenters, two successful pop acts that also featured lots of piano and steel guitar.
Sandra Rhodes wrote fine, catchy songs—sometimes by herself, sometimes in collaboration her sister or husband—and she was a very fine singer, too. She sings here in a much lower voice than Donna Rhodes does, more quietly, more intimately. More than once, she reminded me of a more obviously animated Sammi Smith, particularly on “’Sho is Rainin’.” From this particular listener, that is high praise indeed.
Still, it’s not so much Sandra Rhodes’ voice as it is the sound and sense of the album’s arrangements that appeal to me most. “The Best Thing You Ever Had,” for instance, speeds up the basic groove from “Mustang Sally” (And no wonder: Chalmers blew the sax on that one, too), except like so much pop music in the wake of Sly Stone’s first hits, it’s much funkier and, also a sign of the times, it lets Sandra tell off those guys (such as the one Wilson Pickett earlier portrayed) who complain that this particular Sally or that particular Sandra need to it slow it down. The album’s title track single, meanwhile, borrows its rhythm from the beginning of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” and its whole suspicious, brooding mood sounds as if a depressed Seals & Croft were crossed with very early Little River Band, back when they were still a kind of jam band.
“Where’s Your Love Been” wasn’t a hit, but it sure could have been, and you could say the same for almost every track on the album, including the seven bonus tracks included here from the same sessions. I wish they had been. I’m betting that if you love all, most or even some of the pop, country and soul acts I’ve name dropped throughout this column, you will like Sandra Rhodes’ Where’s Your Love Been.
Oh, and those prominent, catchy, mood-enriching backing vocal parts throughout? Those were provided by a little group billed here as Joint Venture.
AKA: Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes.
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