Curley's Melancholy Soul Train
"Soul Train" (W. Quegergue & E. King)
Curley Moore, Hot Line 901, ca 1965
After a long search, I picked up this single a while back on auction for a very reasonable price (it can happen!). Although several earlier and later songs (and a TV show) had the same title, this is the original New Orleans "Soul Train", as sung by Curley Moore, and having nothing to do with Don Cornelius. Actually, Curley's rendition appeared twice around 1964 -1965: the Hot Line issue, backed with "This Way I Do"; and one on Nola (#707 - label shot courtesy of Red Kelly) with a different flip side, "Please Do Something For Me". I think the Hot Line (a subsidiary of Nola) may have been first - not sure about it, though, and haven't found a clue about why it appeared twice. The Nola single came out between two other classics, Smokey Johnson's proto-funk "It Ain't My Fault" and Willie Tee's "Teasin' You"; but the good placement did not help "Soul Train" achieve anything other than some local popularity.
I didn't buy the single because it was rare, but because I have long been crazy about this odd little tune, co-written by Earl King and producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue. Thought it has been covered several times, as I'll go over a bit later, nothing beats the original for my money. That said, I can kind of see why it didn't have "legs". While numerous popular songs called out the popular dances on the era and various places around the country to connect with the dancing and record buying public, those generally attempted to evoke a party atmosphere of some kind. But the music on "Soul Train" seems far too subdued to call the kids out to the floor. Hear how the saxes play those long low notes under the verses and chorus. Almost stately. The trumpets have a bit rhythm as they follow the chords on the verses, but punchy and upbeat they aren't. On top of all that, Curley's vocal sounds wistful somehow. There is a kind of a feeling of longing to it, almost as if the song were in a minor key (which it is not). Then consider King's lyric on the chorus, "Oh, that Soul Train, music pouring out like rain. Just like rain." Don't know about you, Earl, but rain imagery equates to tears, thus sadness, for most folks. But, damn, it's a fine song, nonetheless. It definitely evokes a mood that gets to me, just a strange mood for a song about dancing; although there's nothing wrong in dancing when you're sad. This all brings up an association with another unusual New Orleans dance number, Chris Kenner's rather languid original version of "Land Of 1000 Dances" from 1962, which even started with part of a hymn, certainly a unique way to try to fill up a dance floor. Only the later hit cover versions sped it up and got a party started. In some strange homage, Earl King lifts several of the dance names plus pieces of Kenner's lyrics from that song and blatantly uses them in "Soul Train". Odd, but, hey, it's New Orleans, Jake.
In spite of it all, Quezergue's arrangement here seems a thing of pop beauty to me: very simple, yet syncopated, with a great flow. The drums, definitely by Smokey Johnson, are understated but create a superb, locked-in groove with just a few well placed beats per measure on the kick drum, snare rim, and tom-toms. Accompanying that is a perfectly integrated shaker, mainly on the offbeats throughout. Listening to this cut, and knowing when it was recorded, makes it pretty easy to figure out the possible players involved. Quezergue's recollections about who played on "Teasin' You" suggest the likely rhythm section: Johnson, of course, with George French on bass, George Davis, guitar, and maybe Tee or the producer himself on piano. The horns section probably was pulled from Quezergue's band, the Royal Dukes of Rhythm.
At first, I knew of "Soul Train" through cover versions, starting with Snooks Eaglin's live repertoire; and for nitty-gritty versions of famous and obscure New Orleans classics, nobody beats Snooks. He recorded it for his 1992 Black Top CD, Teasin' You. Later, Cyril Neville also covered the song decently on his solo CD, New Orleans Cookin'. But the version lots of fans and collectors of early funk talk highly about is by Bobby and the Heavyweights, originally issued on the local Mor Soul label abound 1967 and soon picked up for national distribution by Atlantic. While not a direct lift of Curley Moore's version, it's still a close enough copy. Arranged by a young Traci Borges from suburban Metairie, LA, next door to New Orleans, their take on "Soul Train" attempted to move it up a notch, especially on the chorus, messing with the rhythm and making the horns more prominent and punchy. To my ears, though, Bobby and the Heavyweights only managed to sound like a competent but soulless lounge cover band.
So, my advice is to get on the Soul Train with at least a digitized version of the orginal, such as can be found on the Funky Delicacies/Tuff City compilation of Quezergue's productions, Sixty Smokin Soul Senders. If not that, go with Snooks.