The Dells – 1971 – Freedom Means
1971 was a huge year for Soul Music – especially American Soul. Marvin Gaye’s staggering “What’s Going On” on Tamla (which many argue is the greatest LP every made in any genre and they might be right) – Aretha Franklin’s right-on Grooveathon “Aretha Live At Fillmore East” and the Blaxploitation big daddy of them all (with a dose of extra bling) – Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft“. All of them went to the coveted No. 1 spot on the US R&B charts in 1971. Even Curtis Mayfield’s socially conscious inner city opus “Curtis” on Curtom Records proved to have extended legs from its release in October 1970 when it too went all the way – eventually hitting the No. 1 spot in February 1971 and staying there for 5 weeks.
But I’d argue it was a stunning and pivotal year because of those ‘other’ albums you hear about in hushed tones and deep Soul-worshiping circles. I’m talking about Bobby Womack’s “Communication” on United Artists – Earth, Wind & Fire’s eponymous debut on Warner Brothers – The Isley Brothers doing Rock in a Soulful way on their awesome covers album “Givin’ It Back” on T-Neck and Gil Scott-Heron’s beat poetry vs. music mash-up “Small Talk At 125th And Lennox” on Flying Dutchman. I’d like to add my further penny’s worth with Minnie Riperton’s “Come To My Garden” on GRT Records – The (New) Rotary Connection’s “Hey, Love” on Cadet – and released in the same month of August 1971 and on the same label – the wonderful “Freedom Means” by The Dells. All of the last three mentioned have a connection – they were Arranged and Produced by the genius that was CHARLES STEPNEY.
A1 Freedom Means 4:12
A2 Rather Be With You 4:00
A3 The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind) 4:00
A4 One Less Bell to Answer 4:48
A5 It’s All Up to You 4:00
B1 If You Go Away / Love Story (Medley) 6:48
B2 Make It With You 3:27
B3 Free and Easy 4:58
B4 Melody Man 3:40
B5 Freedom Theme 0:20
By Mark Barry
Stepney is a big name in small circles and I’ve been singing his praises in my SOUNDS GOOD e-Book on ‘Soul, Funk and Jazz Fusion’ for years (he was sadly lost to us in May 1976 aged only 46). But what puts “Freedom Means” up there is the alliance on the same record with Stepney and Soul Boys/Songwriting Heroes – Larry Wade and Terry Callier. This dynamic-duo provided six of the nine songs on the LP and man does it show.
Written by Wade, Stepney and Callier and somehow reflecting the heady days of blacks and whites finally coming together in some kind of shared bond – the album opens with the upbeat message song “Freedom Means“. A spoken intro advises that speaking right out – finding space in time – working it all out together – is where it’s at (man). The smooch vocals soon turn into a righteous groove with the little guitar flicks of Phil Upchurch subtly evident. Wade, Stepney and Callier song number two is the busy “Rather Be With You” – a love song with a pulse. Callier would return to the song almost two years later (as “I’d Rather Be With You”) for release on his “What Color Is Love” album (Cadet CA 50019 in March 1973). Callier’s later cut is a leaner version – his gorgeous voice carrying the melody yet again. The Dells version of “Rather Be With You” initially features the huge Bass lungs of Chuck Barksdale singing sexily into his lady’s ears only to be joined by Bacharach type brass and the complimentary Tenor voice of Johnny Carter. It’s a hugely romantic song and with Barksdale’s deep timber has more than a shade of Brook Benton over on Atlantic Records.
Magic then wallops you in the proverbial goolies – the sensational “The Love We Had (Stays On My Mind)“. Marvin Junior gets a lion’s share of the passionate outbursts – but all five voices are up there harmonising like pros to make a sublime cohesive whole. This song alone makes the album five-stars and is surely one of the loveliest examples of Harmony Soul out there (the public took it to heart too over the months eventually putting it up to No. 8 on the R&B charts and even giving it a No. 30 placing on the normally resistant Rock and Pop charts). “One Less Bell To Answer” is the first of three cover versions – a Burt Bacharach and Hal David creation made famous by The 5th Dimension who put their version on Bell 940 on the No. 2 spot in late 1970. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of this overly busy song – or the Jacques Brel/Rod McKuen combo of “If You Go Away/Love Story” – the second cover on the LP. Both may have some reaching for the word ‘cheese’ and the remote control’s forward button. Better is the very Terry Callier “It’s All Up To You” which feels 5th Dimension but in a more genuinely joyful way.
Their 3rd cover is the David Gates Bread classic “Make It With You” which The Dells radically rearrange into a Funky Stroller with Brass. Galloway’s liner notes reckon it’s a rare misstep – but I love it better than the supposed wonder of that “Love Story” talking-schlock. But they fade into memory as I totally trip out on another fave-rave of mine – the stunning groove of “Free And Easy” – where Phil Upchurch finally gets to shine for close on five minutes. The voices swing and sway and there he is – flicking away on the frets – complimenting the very ‘California Soul’ groove in the melody. Apparently Stepney had charts for Upchurch to play – but he also knew that the virtuoso guitarist liked to improvise and ‘feel it’ (like all great Jazzers) – so that’s what he let Upchurch do (this is why so many musicians wanted to work with CS – he understood how to get the best out of them). The lead vocals are also just stunning. “Melody Man” brings it home and the 20-seconds of “Freedom Theme” feels like an eerie ghost somehow trying to tell us something important from the past…a quiet and ‘be still’ moment…
Barksdale wisely commented once – “…God allotted Charles Stepney just so much time to be here…that was time exquisitely spent…”
More albums by the Dells in our back pages here