Every once in a while the forces of the Universe seem to align just right, and pull things together in unforeseen and miraculous ways… this is one of those times.
Willie Hightower, one of the truly great Soul Singers of our time, has just released his first album in FIFTY YEARS! As good as anything he’s ever done, it was recorded in Muscle Shoals, and produced by none other than Quinton Claunch, the legendary Goldwax impresario who gave us The Dark End Of The Street. That in itself is remarkable enough, but the fact that Willie is now 77 years old and Quinton turns NINETY SEVEN in December makes this event truly extraordinary.
I had first met Quinton back in 2008, as we put together the O.V. Wright Memorial weekend, and I made it a point after that to go see him whenever I was in Memphis. Sharp as a tack, he’s still got one of the best ‘ears’ in the business. After the passing of his wife of sixty nine years in June of 2013, this dyed in the wool ‘record man’ decided to return to the studio. When my partner John Broven and I visited him on our Soul D Road Trip the following August, he played us the tracks he had just cut in Muscle Shoals on a Kentucky guitarist named Alonzo Pennington. Although they sounded great, Quinton had trouble finding a distributor for the album when he released it on his own SoulTrax label in early 2015. Hold that thought…
Years back, Dr. Ike of The Ponderosa Stomp asked author Peter Guralnick (who knows a little bit about Soul Music) which Soul Singer he would most like to see perform at The Stomp. “Willie Hightower!” was his immediate reply. After a few false starts, Ike contacted us here at Soul Detective to see if we could locate him for Stomp #12 in 2015. As fate would have it, John Broven’s intrepid friend Seamus McGarvey had spoken with Willie several times at his home in Gadsen, Alabama, and was happy to supply Ike with his number. Once The Stomp booked Willie, Ike naturally wanted Peter to interview him at that year’s Music Conference… only he had a prior committment and was unavailable. “What about Red Kelly?” John Broven suggested (bless his heart!), and so I was invited to do an interview and presentation with Willie Hightower in New Orleans in October of 2015. I was just over the moon…
Like most people, I didn’t know much about Willie beyond his amazing Fame singles, but as I began to do research for the interview, I discovered that he had recorded at Royal Studio in Memphis (the very studio that Quinton Claunch and his partners founded in 1957) in 1982, with Quinton handling the production. Although not released at the time, the album finally saw the light of day on a Japanese CD in 2007. I called Claunch to ask him about the sessions, and told him about Willie’s upcoming Stomp performance. “Let me know how he sounds,” he said.
Well, as anyone who was there that night can tell you, Willie Hightower gave one of the most solid and soulful performances I have ever witnessed, and proved to the world he had lost absolutely nothing off his incredible voice. He was back! I reported all this to Quinton, as requested, and went on to send him a video of the show to prove my point. I didn’t know it at the time, but Billy Lawson, the Muscle Shoals studio owner and engineer who had worked with Quinton on the Alonzo Pennington CD had asked him “Don’t you know of any old school Soul singers we could cut – that’s what you do best!” There’s those forces of The Universe now, folks… Quinton had his man!
Lawson had just recently taken over Wishbone, the studio built by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford after they left Fame in 1973. When Larry Rogers’ Studio 19 in Nashville (formerly Scotty Moore’s Music City) faced the wrecking ball, Billy bought the console and just about went insane re-wiring and installing it at Wishbone. “I’ll never do that again!” he told me when we visited the studio last month.
With the equipment finally where he wanted it, Billy brought in studio veterans like the aforementioned Clayton Ivey, Travis Wammack and Will McFarlane, and proceeded to cut a record that is pure Muscle Shoals magic. As the tracks were completed, Quinton began sending them up to John Broven and I here in New York, and we were just knocked out. This was Real Soul, as good as anything Willie had ever recorded! John in turn played them for Roger Armstrong at Ace in the UK, who jumped at the chance to release this landmark album.
…but the forces of The Universe weren’t through. Old friend Noah Schaffer got in touch a while back and asked for Willie’s number. His buddy Eli Reed wanted to throw a 40th birthday party for him, he said, and was hoping Willie would agree to sing with his band. I honestly didn’t think they could pull it off but, lo and behold, Willie Hightower performed what may have been his first ever Boston area gig on September 7th at Club Sonia in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along with Deep Soul songstress Thelma Jones and The Natural Wonders, this show just rocked the house! Peter Guralnick was there, John Broven was there and so was I. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
…and as you can see, the show was truly amazing! Both Willie and Thelma Jones performances were an absolute revelation, and Eli’s smoking band just tore it up! Life is Good!