Getting your hands on a great soul compilation (especially one with the name Kent or Sundazed attached) is like inheriting a box that belonged to a parent or grandparent, a little treasure chest full of 30- or 40-year-old trinkets, still-shiny jewels, and quirky keepsakes. Adding to the experience is that most of the pieces come with a story.
The two-disc Looking for My Baby! collects R&B gems (and deep soul gems and protofunk gems and ...) released under the geographically wide-reaching Bell Records banner from 1963 to 1969. This is far from a convention of household names--Gladys Knight & the Pips, represented by some very early cuts, and Aaron Neville are the biggest names--but there's some cool stuff here, and some cool stories.
Roosevelt Grier was better known as a football player than as a soul singer, but his "C'mon Cupid" impresses. The Emperors' rowdy "Karate" which kicks off the first disc, was the basis for Santana's "Everybody's Everything," and the Johnny Watson who teams up with Larry Williams for a pair of cuts on disc two (including the wonderfully riffy "Can't Find No Substitute for Love") is, in fact, Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Other random highlights include Sam Hutchins' reworked, worked-out version of Roger Miller's "Dang Me," a near-gospel take on the Dan Penn/Buddy Killen cowrite "Long Ago" from underrated duo Ben & Spence, and the catchy "You Can Give But You Can't Take" from Neville by way of Allen Toussaint's prolific pen.
One of the more interesting tales chronicled in the Looking for My Baby! liner notes involves Detroit's Gino Washington. Washington received his draft notice in '64, and in his absence, an ex-American serviceman using the name Geno Washington took England by storm, leading to confusion that exists to this day.
(The pretender Geno was even the subject of a song by Dexy's Midnight Runners in the '80s.)
The Kent compilation, A Soldier's Sad Story, deals with other, often much more grave, Vietnam-era tribulations. Subtitled "Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1966-73," the 24-song collection attempts to reflect the whole experience, from draft notices and tearful goodbyes to mail calls and troubled homecomings. And it succeeds, producing a powerful and, unfortunately, timeless document that's dotted with names familiar to soul music fans, including James Carr, the O'Jays, William Bell, and the Whispers.
Songs such as Eddy Giles' "While I'm Away (Baby Keep the Faith)" and Joe Tex's "I Believe I'm Gonna Make It" spotlight both the sense of duty that led young men to become soldiers and the hope that kept them going once they reached the jungles and rice fields.
Others, notably Edwin Starr's riotous "Stop the War Now" and Freda Payne's "Bring the Boys Home" (which musically recalls her big hit "Band of Gold"), make their anti-war sentiments crystal clear. But it's the final three songs that are the most penetrating, each examining what it's like to, in the words of Curtis Mayfield's title, get "Back to the World." Sandwiching the Mayfield cut are Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left-Handed," the story of a disabled vet, and a brilliant version of John Prine's tragic "Sam Stone" by Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams. Be careful what you ask for: A Soldier's Sad Story is a compilation of stories that are perhaps a little too real.