Willie Hightower



(Honest Jons HJRCD11)

Back in the heyday of acid house I used to deejay in the backroom of what was then one of London's hippest clubs. The record I associate most with those nights is Willie Hightower's version of Joe South's 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes'. Though most of the kids who heard it each week probably wouldn't have had any idea who Willie Hightower or Joe South were, let alone any understanding of what was meant by 'southern soul', every time I played that single the dance floor would be heaving. It's an irresistibly propulsive record with a loping, yet


undeniably funky beat. The choruses are an explosion of horns, rhythm and vocals - and it's the vocals that are the crowning glory. Sounding like a cross between Sam Cooke and Little Richard, Willie preaches as much as sings the words. The song starts with Willie doing his best roughed-up Sam Cooke vocal, but as things progress he starts to scream the words whilst the bass, drums and piano dance around him. Joe South's lyrics about interpersonal empathy are transformed into a hymn to interracial understanding that's a kinder cousin to Percy Mayfield's 'You're In For A Big Surprise' as sung by Ray Charles. It's musically and emotionally as perfect a three and a half minutes of music as you're ever likely to hear. It's a record that deserved a much better fate than to be corralled by retentive soul fans like myself. It was born to be heard booming from open windows on hot summer days, crackling and exploding from the speakers of radios and boom boxes.

It was producer Rick Hall's idea that Willie record 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes'. In a Swedish TV documentary filmed at the Fame studio in 1969 during the song's recording, Rick says, 'I don't think the production on the original record is very good, even though it's a big hit record, so I want to get an R&B version on it. I'm cutting it basically for an R&B record but I'm hoping it will go pop and pick up some sales that he'll miss. In fact, I think I've cut a better record than the Joe South version.' It's hard to disagree with that.

Willie Hightower was born in 1940 in Gadsden, Alabama, where - the proud grandfather of six - he still earns his living singing today. 'My grandkids like the records I made,' he tells me. 'You'd be surprised at how much the young people like the old music. I started singing at the age of six. I was singing in the church, in the choir. I've been singing all my life.' He began singing professionally in 1958 and spent the next six years performing small gigs around the South. 'I started singing in clubs when I was eighteen. I was singing Sam Cooke-type stuff. I've liked Sam Cooke since way back when he was in the Soul Stirrers singing gospel. I just loved the sound of his voice.'

Things changed when a local deejay called up Bobby Robinson - a record company owner and producer in New York. As Willie says, 'I got together with Bobby when Shelly Stewart, who became my manager, called New York and told Bobby he had to hear me. Shelly was a black deejay on WENN playing R&B and soul. He ended up managing me and stayed that way for a good ten years.' Bobby obviously valued Shelly's opinion because he flew Willie up to New York just to hear him sing.

'I loved New York. I'd never been to a place like that before. Working with Bobby was good too. He was the man to work with. It made a big difference to my life. I'd never even been in a studio before. I also got to play places like the Apollo in New York, where I'd just been playing little clubs before.'

Before signing with Bobby, Willie had only written one song, the mournful 'It's Too Late'. This became his first release - coming out on Enjoy, one of several labels owned by Bobby Robinson. Despite the fact that Willie says he wrote the song before hooking up with Bobby, it's credited to both of them. Very different in feel from most of the other material that Willie recorded over the next half dozen years, it displays none of the Sam Cooke influence that's so strong in much of Willie's other work.

Memorably described by writer Barney Hoskyns - in his classic 'Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted' - as sometimes sounding 'like Sam Cooke after a night on the tiles', Willie owed an immense debt to Sam Cooke, but he was far more than just a copyist. Just like Louis Williams of Memphis group The Ovations, Willie could sound uncannily like Sam, but he always got away with it because his voice not only recalls Sam's in tone and timbre but also in its spirit and soul. Just like Sam, Willie was a great communicator - of tenderness, sadness and vulnerability one moment, joy and optimism the next. Two of his most successful songs commune with the music that Sam Cooke was making just before his death.

'It's A Miracle' is Willie's personal favourite of all the records he released. Co-written by Willie and Bobby Robinson, it's a stately, gospel-tinged ballad that celebrates the redemptive power of love. 'Of all the records I made 'It's A Miracle' is the one I'm proudest of. I liked the arrangement a lot and I was more comfortable doing that song than anything else I've ever recorded.'

'Time Has Brought About A Change' - released on Fame and this time written by Willie alone -is perhaps the greatest of all Willie's compositions. It was conceived as a sequel to Sam Cooke's signature civil rights anthem 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. 'I loved that song because I knew that a change was on its way. I believed in the lyrics. There was a big change back then. It was on its way anyway. Things are much better now for blacks. We can go any place we like. We have the opportunity to get good jobs if we want them. Things are so much better.'

When Willie was playing live back then it would often be to segregated audiences, and even though he might be the featured artist his skin colour meant that he often had to enter clubs through the back door. Indeed it's hard to hear either of these Willie Hightower songs without reference to what was happening politically. Whilst not explicitly concerned with the civil rights movement they were undoubtedly touched by it. Though both are concerned with how one man feels, there's something about the way Willie sings them that makes them universal in theme. Back in the sixties Willie took part in civil rights demonstrations in his hometown in Alabama and the spirit of those marches can be heard in much of the music he recorded at the time. That spirit lends it much of the power it still has today.

Perhaps Willie's most obvious allusion to the civil rights movement is his interpretation - on Fury, another of Bobby's labels - of the Pete Seeger/Lee Hays composition 'If I Had A Hammer'. It had been a massive hit in 1963 for Trini Lopez - which makes it easy to forget that it was written as a protest song - though Willie learned it from a version by Sam Cooke on his 1964 live album from the Copa, an upmarket supper club in New York. Recorded before a largely white and well-to-do audience, 'Live At The Copa' is about as far away from soul music as Sam Cooke got, though with a voice like Sam's you could never stray far. Willie loved Sam's version of the song and incorporated it into his stage show, and this recording was one of Willie's biggest hits.

Willie signed to Capitol after releasing just three singles through Bobby's own imprints, though he continued to work with Bobby at Capitol, and his album for the label featured four of the six sides that he'd released with Bobby. When the Capitol deal came to an end, Willie was picked up by the Alabama-based Fame operation. Fame was owned by Rick Hall, who had already made a name for himself working with such big-name soul acts as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Etta James; and who by the end of the decade had made the sleepy, richly musical backwater of Muscle Shoals as important a centre of Soul as Memphis or Detroit. 'Capitol and Fame were doing business together back then, and Fame was seen as their rhythm and blues label, and because I was a rhythm and blues artist they put me on Fame. So I joined with Rick Hall and I liked working with him. He was a good man to get along with. He changed the style as well. With Capitol I'd been closer to pop but with Rick it was very much rhythm and blues.'

Willie Hightower only released three singles whilst contracted to Fame, but they're three of the greatest soul records ever made, six simple songs that contain all that's magical about southern soul. They stand alongside anything to come out of Rick Hall's small studio, which is saying something when you count in classics like Etta James' 'I'd Rather Go Blind', Otis Redding's 'You Left The Water Running', Aretha Franklin's 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man'. That's not even getting into the records that Rick released on his own Fame imprint by artists like Candi Staton, Spencer Wiggins and George Jackson.

After his stint at Fame, Willie signed to Mercury, where he recorded a number of high-quality singles. 'Rick let me go after those three singles. He let some of his other R&B acts go as well. People like Clarence Carter. I think he was moving on to a different thing. He had those hits with The Osmonds'. After leaving Mercury, Willie recorded only sporadically, but he never stopped singing. He's currently planning his long-awaited second album. 'I play round Alabama, anywhere they want me really. I still sing the old songs, pretty much all of them in fact. I still do 'Walk A Mile In My Shoes'.' It's good that Willie's still out there because the world needs singers like Willie, singers with real grit and belief, and genuine soul in the way they sing.