He's written songs for Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin and appeared on the John Peel Show. Yet most Cross Rhythms readers won't have heard of him. Tony Cummings explores the career of soul man extraordinaire SAM DEES.
In the mid '60s a form of soul music emerged in the southern states of America that for some observers of popular music history has had no equal before or since. It's been called various things - 'Southern soul', 'country soul' or most popular of all 'deep soul'. The musical elements of this style were (a) singers whose fractured, acrobatic, emotional vocal style clearly stemmed back the golden age of '50s gospel; (b) accompaniments (often by renegade good ol' boys) where Hammond organs, wailing horn sections and dirge-like tempos all worked to bring out the melancholy of the songs; (c) lyrics where men cried, Mondays were blue and, in the words of one memorable deep soul song, there was "too much pain for the human heart.'
A one time Macon gospel singer turned soul star Otis Redding was the big popular exponent of this sub genre and 'Otis Blue' and 'Soul Ballads' are classics of their ilk. But there were hundreds more vocalists plucked by enterprising record producers from church choir to sing melodramatic opuses of lost love and cheating partners. All had their roots in the Church but many - like James Carr and Latimore - lapsed into drug abuse when the R&B hits started. By the '70s the mournful, cathartic, emotionally, uninhibited sound of deep soul was passing from mass popularity in the US under the unrelenting rise of disco. In Britain however those who stayed true to the genre were venerated and a Percy Sledge or an Oscar Tony Jr. could still enjoy album reissues and a clique following.
In 1974 Black Music magazine was heralding the "gritty, hard soul approach on deep soul ballads" of Sam Dees. Sam had an archetypal soul singing background. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up in Rochester, New York. In the '50s he sang for two years with gospel group the Southern Tripleaires. By the early '60s he had 'crossed over' and was working small R&B clubs like the Top Hat and the Ebony Club. When times were good he got gigs, when times were harder he worked as a truck driver, a steel worker and in a grocery. In 1965 he signed to Shelly Singleton's 'SSS International'. But Sam's "I Need You Girl" didn't sell. Sam began composing prolifically and when he moved to Roulette Records (where he had two singles) he was writing for deep soul hit makers Clarence Carter and ZZ Hill. Sam moved to a Birmingham-based production company, Showtime Productions, working as producer as well as songwriter. His single for Clintone "Claim Jumping" made enough noise for Atlantic to investigate the singer. It was sonorous soul ballads like "So Tied Up" (and its searing flip "Signed Miss Heroin") ('73), his biggest ever hit "Worn Out Broken Heart" ('74) and "The Show Must Go On" ('75) which earned the description "classic" among the deep cognoscente. After minor R&B hits for Big Tree and Capitol, Sam found more work and more money as a songwriter. Songs such as "Just The Lonely Talking" and "Lover For Life" (Whitney Houston), "What A Way To Put It" (Temptations), "Love All The Hurt Away" (George Benson/Aretha Franklin) brought the royalty cheques in. But the singer never completely lost the bug to sing. A single for Britain's Move label was followed in the late '80s by Sam starting his own label Pen Pad. He made the first of many personal appearances in the UK where amongst soul devotees he was still held with a reverence normally reserved for royalty. He played the Blackpool Weekender Showcase where after performing his searing "After All" he literally reduced members of the audience to tears. The recording of the song was picked up by RCA/BMG but interminable delays in release stopped the very real opportunity of a hit. Undeterred, Sam pressed on and two albums, 'Secret Admirer' and 'The Homecoming', followed both containing his trademark heartrending ballads.
In 1992 Sam was back in Britain again doing a TV slot on Halfway To Paradise for Channel 4 and a live session for John Peel's Radio One Show. In 1995 Ace/Kent issued an album containing un-issued demos from Sam's Clintone/Atlantic years. And currently he is studio bound recording material for an album which should be released later this year on Black On Black, the label owned by Kiss FM DJ, Bob Jones. But it's the UK release of 'Gospel Tribute Album' through Terry West's Whichway Records, which brings into focus a long ignored aspect of Sam's musical and spiritual life, his Christian faith. Over a crackling telephone line, Sam spoke to me about the album. "I have had my falls and stumbles. But I have always recognised the power of the Lord Jesus. I have wanted to make a gospel album for many years. I'm excited about this one. There's a lot of dead music around today, music that speaks with such a negative spirit. Gospel music lifts up the listener. There's so much we can learn from those old spiritual songs. Some of those old songs on the album 'Just As I Am' or 'Precious Lord'. They've been in our hymn books for many years yet they still lift people up."
What did his pastor think of the album, I asked. "He loves it," chuckled Sam. "I go to the Christ Community Church in Los Angeles and the pastor there, the Rev Stephen Johnson, is a close friend of mine." Did he approve of Sam playing the nightclubs? "Well, he understands that I am seeking to be a vehicle of God. Not everything that goes on in nightclubs I approve of. But one of the references in the Bible tells us not to judge anybody. When I'm singing, even when it's a love song, I can see the way God is opening people up. When people come up to me and say, 'I fell in love to one of your songs,' I see God in that." What were his favourite songs on the album? "Well, 'Walking In The Way Of The Lord' is one. We're doing a video which will feature bits of newsreels of the burning of the black churches here in the Southern States. Another of my favourites is 'Shining In My Life'. You know our Lord is a forgiving God. I've been around for 50 odd years, as I said, there's been some stumbling in my life, but God is a forgiving God. I can still feel his presence, I can still feel him shining through me."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.