CD Reviews: Ronny McNeir – self-titled & Johnny Pate – Outrageous (Dusty Groove America)

Those who have been following my writing over the years probably know that I am a big fan of obscure soul music. I grew up listening to a lot of blues music thanks to my brother Robert, who was always a huge fan of artists such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters and many other blues artists of their vintage. I think he picked it up the way I did: through The Rolling Stones. Robert was a huge Rolling Stones fan and introduced me to the band by constantly playing their records until I had memorized just about all their lyrics, even the ones I couldn’t understand (and there were lots of those). Though we both loved the Beatles as well, The Stones were it as far as he was concerned, and, being the dutiful and older-brother worshiping little dude that I was, I agreed with him. Often when he was hanging out with his buddies or his girlfriend-du-jour I would rifle through his record collection and study the liner notes. I began to wonder who “C. Berry” was and who or what was “McKinley Morganfield” and all the other writers who wrote the songs The Stones covered on their early albums. After going to the local record stores and searching them out by name (Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters) and then purchasing their music and absorbing it, I received an education in early R&B that couldn’t come from any book. Reading those songwriting credits and liner notes was like a who’s who of blues and soul music: Irma Thomas, Don Covay, Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding and James Brown were just some others whose music I immersed myself in thanks to the props they received from The Stones. Brown and his various productions were particular faves of my brother and I and we listened to Brown’s music all the time. Other more obscure soul acts followed and I knew that thanks to my brother’s great taste in music I was hooked for life on sweet soul music.

Later in life, after I had absorbed tons of music from the so-called “big names” in soul music I had started searching more obscure artists out. Each name led to another. Al Green led to Willie Mitchell and his other Hi Records acts, Stax led to Muscle Shoals which led to Eddie Hinton and tons of others – tons of obscure soul artists who made music that would rip your heart out it was so good. When I was young these records were very hard to find, almost impossible – until rap came along. Now, I love all kinds of music but there’s little about rap I can stomach. The one good thing about rap is that the real good DJ’s and crate diggers used obscure soul samples that made soul fans like myself want to dig up the original records and listen to them. Smart record labels realized there were more people like me and thankfully started reissuing old soul by the bushel full. Now, thanks equally to the great reissue labels and the internet, these formerly rare releases are a lot easier to find. Dusty Groove is one of these great reissue labels. Already they have reissued about thirty very hard-to-find essential rare groove soul releases that are must hears for any true soul fans. The two I have chosen for this review are a couple of the best (and my personal faves) from that big batch: Ronnie McNeir and Johnny Pate!

A self-taught piano player from his teens onward, McNeir left Detroit for California and musical fame and fortune. Picking up a job as a church keyboard player, McNeir eventually met former Motown star Kim Weston who allowed him to use her studio to record his first album, the self-titled Ronnie McNeir, which Dusty Groove America has just re-released. On the strength of this album, McNeir was eventually signed with Motown and released one album for that label and several more decent but poorly-selling albums over the next thirty-plus years. In between his sporadic solo albums, McNeir also became a respected session musician, songwriter, producer and served as the musical director for The Four Tops for many years. A true R&B journeyman, McNeir has nonetheless carved out a niche for himself that has led to him being involved with several decent hits for other artists while maintaining his own separate career which has made him a marketable commodity in Europe, if not famous in the US. Hopefully the re-release of his very first album will rectify that and put McNeir in a loftier echelon. Probably won’t, but the music business is never fair is it? This album is so widely loved because it’s more like a concept album than a collection of songs, though it is definitely the latter but McNeir’s talent at sequencing and flair for adding little interludes to make the songs flow make it seem like a cohesive work. Only 22 when the album was recorded, McNeir’s keyboard prowess and sweet tenor was in full effect and the songs show a maturity much older than his chronological years. The only thing the album lacks is a snappy single, the album possibly too smooth for it’s own good, though the crate-diggers and deep soul fans know how good it really is and have kept the demand for original vinyl copies high (as is their price when auctioned). Thank God Dusty Groove America have seen fit to make this available on CD for the first time. Though no one would consider this the best soul album ever, there is very much to love about this album and one listen will tell why it is held in such high regard by soul freaks.

Pate had a childhood filled with music, learning the piano and tuba as a child and eventually learning to play bass and arrange music while serving in the Army. Following up his term of service with more service, this time for bandleaders Coleridge Davis and Stuff Smith in the late ’40’s, Pate eventually signed with the Federal label and scored a decent hit for them in 1957 with the song Swinging Shepherd Blues under the name of The Johnny Pate Quintet. On the strength of this hit, Pate was lured away from Federal by the Okeh label, who signed him to write arrangements for their roster of artists. Soon, Pate was working with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions and helped them with several singles, the most notable being Keep On Pushing in 1964. The label heads liked what they were hearing and the money they were counting and promoted Pate to head of A&R in the label’s newly-opened Chicago office. While singing acts like The Marvelows and Betty Everett, Pate’s work with Mayfield and The Impressions continued with hits like People Get Ready, Women’s Got Soul, We’re A Winner – and many, many others. By the end of the ’60’s, Mayfield had hired Pate to work for the Curtom Label where he stayed until 1972 when he left to work freelance for other artists/labels and movie soundtracks. Pate has worked with tons of heavyweights on sessions ranging from blues to soul to pop and all the while releasing solo albums throughout his career, of which his 1970 release Outrageous is probably the best – bridging the gap between Pate’s early big-band and orchestral experiences with his later years spent toiling as one of soul music’s most prolific arrangers. The music is written, arranged and produced by Pate, who was required to record at least one album under his own name by MGM while working for the label. Knowing some of the best session players in soul music, Pate called a bunch of them in on this recording: drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarists Joe Beck and Cornell Dupree, bassist Chuck Rainey – to name but a few of the ringers on this great album. Using a thirteen piece orchestra to create his musical magic, Pate delivers a masterstroke of R&B and jazz, using the players perfectly and exquisitely and making the album his own despite not playing a note on it himself. Quincy Jones would give his soul to create an album this good and Pate makes it seem so easy, each flute or sax solo perfect, the electric guitars creating stabbing rhythms or scintillatingly funky leads, Purdie playing hit kit as if it was to be his last session. You simply must hear this for yourself. I thought I had a soul collection until I heard this album and realized it wasn’t shit without Outrageous in it.

I thank God for labels and websites like Dusty Groove whose faithful employess work tirelessly to seek out and re-release the best of America’s obscure soul music. There are so many great artists who never got their due yet who made music just as good and deep and soulful as any of the well-known acts who sold tons of records and received massive amounts of airplay. These are but two of them. I am sure you know about some yourself. Keep the faith and until your faves get their props, check out these releases and many more from Dusty Groove and “dance until the world gets right”. Or something like that.