Friday, 9 June 2017

William DeVaughn: Be Thankful for What You Got

A friend of mine suggested the other day at a vide grenier (or attic sale) that nothing in life quite beat the sense of anticipation you experience between buying a record and bringing it home to play it. I can think of one or two other things, but I know what he meant. I experienced it that Sunday, in fact, when I found a clutch of old jazz records. All I wanted to do was to get home and put them on the turntable. Oblivious to conversation, everything else seemed a mere distraction. Impatience, it was my middle name.

I still keenly remember the experience of stumbling upon a whole stack of vinyl cut-outs at the vegetable stall I used to frequent in Kensington Gardens, Brighton. There I went with my bag, expecting to buy potatoes and onions, and I found instead records by the likes of Ben E. King, Blue Magic, Margie Joseph, the Rascals and William DeVaughn. You don't see them these days, the record covers in which a little nick or hole is made when the company decides that enough is enough. No more will be re-printed by our firm. They usually went for a song. I think I paid about 50p for each of my prizes. Records are now boutique items and far too valuable for such profligacy.

Most of that haul were Atlantic-label records, but Be Thankful was on the little seen Roxbury label, part of the little known Chelsea Records Corporation of Los Angeles, which probably went out of business decades ago. So it's a precious record even if the album itself is somewhat disappointing. It was bound to be. That sense of anticipation couldn't possibly be fulfilled.

It was anticipation based on a love for the single, which is – despite the fact that Dave Marsh omits it from his book of the 1,001 greatest singles ever made (and he has known to be hasty or downright wrong in his judgements) – one of the greatest soul records of the '70s, or any other decade for that matter. It's got to be. Don't take my word for it, check out Massive Attack's re-make/re-model or watch Rumer's rendition of it on YouTube at Darryl Hall's house. If anything, my love for it has grown even stronger over time.

Although nothing, alas, quite comes close to it on the album, it's nevertheless a good album and one that I still play more often than most. It was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios with Phillysound house musicians of the calibre of guitarists Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, drummer Earl Young and the great Vince Montana, whose vibes are probably the signature sound of the album. As a Philly record, it's arguably as good as anything by Harold Melvin, the O'Jays and Billy Paul, whose unsurpassable 'Me & Mrs. Jones' is echoed on DeVaughn's own 'Kiss & Make Up' and 'We Are His Children'.

The sentiments of the latter give a strong clue about Mr. DeVaughn, who is now remembered – if at all – only for 'Be Thankful' and just possibly for 'Crème de Crème', a great single that came out eight years later in the UK on the still more obscure Excaliber Records. Born in Washington D.C., I'm sure I read somewhere that he was a Jehovah's Witness. Certainly his songs have a strong moral, even religious theme. The follow-up single to 'Be Thankful', 'Blood is Thicker Than Water' (which sounds like a 'Be Thankful' that's lost and scratching around for its bearings), for example, suggests that 'blood may be thicker than water/But nothing's thicker than love'.

This much we do know. He had a sweet-soul voice that could have easily been mistaken for Curtis Mayfield's. In the album's opener, 'Give the Little Man a Great Big Hand', DeVaughn could almost be singing about himself. He started and, when he became disenchanted with the music industry and gave up on his search for that elusive million-selling follow-up smash, ended his career as a humble office worker. If you've searched on YouTube for a live performance of 'Be Thankful', you may have stumbled upon a very bizarre video of DeVaughn dressed in a long white double-breasted coat, singing his masterpiece over a backing track at what appears to be his retirement party.

One has to hope that William DeVaughn is enjoying his retirement. At least he can tell grandchildren on his knee that he wrote and recorded a song that sold almost 2 million copies. I wouldn't know how many copies the album sold. Not nearly so many presumably, since it was remaindered. If there's one thing, however, that the album has over the single it's the fact that the album version is roughly twice as long. It opens the second side and, at 7 minutes, it's still frustratingly short. Were it not for 'You Can Do It', a Mayfield song if ever there wasn't quite one, I would be thankful if it occupied the entire side. Not only is it a wonderful melody with memorable lyrics and a timeless message, but the musical performance is second to none. The way that the opening conga ushers in first the driving bass line and the swirling organ, and then the choppy wah-wah guitar and that heavy insistent tom-tom beat that pushes towards the extended break when the guitar and Vince Montana's vibes take over the melody line until DeVaughn is ready to come back in. But when the bass kicks up a notch and there's a flurry of drums, you know that the end sadly is nigh.

The brief liner notes suggest that 'William DeVaughn has the imagination and creative ability to translate the soul and feelings of everyone's life into words and music'. He may have been only a minor figure in the panoply of black music, but be thankful that he dug the scene with a gangster lean to give us this one diamond of a song. Give this (figuratively) little man a great big hand.

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