Sweet Soul Music
Arthur Conley was born in McIntosh, Georgia, near Atlanta, in January of 1946. His singing career began when he joined otherwise all-girl gospel group, The Evening Smiles before his voice changed. From there in 1959, he joined Arthur & the Corvets, became their lead singer as the group released three singles on the Atlanta-based record label, National Recording Company.
Conley, wanting to live closer to his father, moved to Baltimore where he joined Harold Holt's band. Holt's manager recorded them in 1965, and allowed Arthur to sing two tunes at the session. One song that featured Conley was I’m A Lonely Stranger on the Ru-Jac label. (1)
Promoter Rufus Mitchell passed a copy of the Ru-Jac single to Otis Redding after a 1965 concert at the Baltimore Theatre. Otis was impressed with I'm A Lonely Stranger and asked Arthur to go to Memphis to re-record the song at the Stax studios for his new label, Jotis Records. (2)
Otis, whose own singing career was flourishing, wanted more than to be just another star. He wanted to find and produce new talent for his new label. Do The Sloppy by Billy Young, the first release on Jotis, and the third, Baby Cakes by Loretta Williams, another Otis discovery, did nothing to advance anyone’s career. However, it was the second release that gave Otis credibility not just as a producer but also as a talent scout.
When Otis and Arthur met for the first time early in 1967, they rewrote the Sam Cooke song Yeah Man into Sweet Soul Music, which, at Redding's insistence, was released on the Atlantic subsidiary, Atco Records. The song was recorded at Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama because of a heavy booking schedule at the Stax studios in Memphis. (3)
The song brought a lawsuit from J.W. Alexander, Sam Cooke’s old partner, who still maintained Kags Music with all of Sam’s songs in it. Alexander maintained Conley’s song “borrowed” too much from Cooke’s song. The lawsuit was settled with the agreement of financial consideration, publishing credit and the assurance that Otis would record other songs from the Kags catalogue in the future. No problem for Otis as he always chose Sam’s songs for his albums. (4)
Sweet Soul Music debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on March 11, 1967 and within ten weeks climbed to number two, topped only by The Happening by The Supremes. The song sold over a million copies and was awarded a gold record.
Photo courtesy of albumartbill of albumartexcahnge.com
Atco followed the hit in June with a remake of Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle & Roll. The song peaked in July at a respectable # 31. Whole Lotta Woman, the third Redding produced-single managed to chart at # 73 in November.
On December 10, 1967, Otis Redding, four members of the Bar-Kays and other members of the travel party, were killed in a plane crash near Madison Wisconsin. Among those grieving was Conley, who lost his producer, mentor and guide.
Conley’s next producer was Tom Dowd, the legendary recording engineer for Atlantic Records who worked with Redding, Aretha Franklin and Booker T. and the M.G.’s. Arthur complained he didn’t communicate with Dowd although he reached # 14 with a Dowd-produced song called Funky Street.
It was Redding’s former manager, Phil Walden who attempted to update Conley’s sound by pairing him with Duane Allman, whom Conley detested. Their collaboration produced a forgettable version of The Beatles, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.
In one more attempt to put his career back on track, Conley worked with songwriter-producer Jerry Williams Jr., better known as Swamp Dogg. Conley believed that the material he was asked to cut was immoral.
In 1975, Conley moved to Europe. The first stop was London, which was too expensive, so he headed to Brussels, which moved too fast for his taste. He then headed to Amsterdam in the spring of 1977 and in 1980, changed his name to Lee Roberts, combining his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.
Lee Roberts wasn’t known in Amsterdam, so Conley was able to live with a secret he'd hidden for his entire career - he was gay. To his delight, he discovered nobody in Holland cared.
He missed performing, so in 1979, he got a Dutch band together and cut some records. Conley formed a band under the Lee Roberts name but was uncovered by drummer Dick Baars, who happened across one of the band rehearsals. All though Conley refused to admit it at the time, Baars was sure it was Conley as he had just bought a record of his that same day. Here was the man on the cover!! Baars convinced Conley to join his band The Sweaters on the fact that he claimed to have a real Hammond b-3 organ and horns!
Robert Lee & the Sweaters would ultimately perform four evenings in the ghetto of Amsterdam at a small cultural center. The first night drew few people, without exception all from the former Dutch colony Suriname, where Conley had been a big star. The second night some returned with album sleeves to make sure. Although Robert Lee denied being Conley, the word spread like wild fire.
By the final night the tiny cultural center had people standing outside the door. Somebody in the audience recorded this show, resulting in a live release under the name of Robert Lee in '88. Arthur Conley simply didn't want to be associated with the name that brought him fame. (5)
Conley died at the age of 57 from intestinal cancer in Ruurlo, Netherlands in November 2003. He was buried in Vorden.
Lip-synching to his hit Funky Street, more video of Arthur Conley.
1) Ed Ward, Nevada Public Radio, October 28, 2014, The Mysterious Case of Arthur Conley, Otis Redding's Protégé, Link
2) Harry Young, Soulwalking, Link
3) Wikipedia, Arthur Conley, Link
4) Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Canongate Books, 2002
5) Boss Tracks, Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music, February 27, 2009, Link
Photo courtesy Gilles Petard of Getty Images