GET LOST IN THE ROCK AND ROLL OF `DRIFT AWAY' DOBIE GRAY
SATURDAY, July 29, 2000
by Bill Ellis
Few songs have had a more sublime chorus than the one in Drift Away:"Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul/ I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away."
Some 27 years after it captivated the American airwaves with its seamless blend of soul, country and pop, the Nashville-made tune remains instantly memorable and timeless. And if you think it sounds more than a little Memphis in its stylistic freedom, you're right. Among the session players were Bluff City guitarist Reggie Young, who crafted one of the greatest guitar parts ever put on record. The singer, of course, was Dobie Gray, and Drift Away was his biggest hit. In fact, the song's ambiguously rich arrangement (which Gray applied to several wonderful albums from that period) proved to be his undoing; radio - even in the anything-goes '70s - didn't know how to format this singular artist. He was too soul to be country and too country to be soul. Gray still has that smooth yet complex voice. So it makes sense that he's making his next record in Memphis, a town with no concern whatsoever for musical boundaries.
Gray, who turned 57 Wednesday, has signed with Norbert Putnam's downtown enterprise, Cadre Entertainment, and its Internet-only label, CDMemphis.com, which will market veteran and new talent through independent means on the Web. Putnam says the company has also signed Eddie Floyd, Rufus Thomas, Ruby Wilson, Don McMinn, Jeremiah Tucker, Planet Swan (Billy Swan's daughter) and Nashville act Stephanie Beck. Jerry Butler's contract is in the mail, according to Putnam.
But the first record goes to Gray, a Nashville-based musician since 1978 whose style nevertheless reflects what the Memphis label is all about: great singers, great songs and a great sound. "Cadre is doing a beautiful job of trying to resurrect that Memphis image and put it back on the map," says Gray after a long day of recording. The album, still untitled, is a smart, soulful blend of old and new, cut at Cadre's 149 Monroe bank-turned-studio. Produced by Putnam - whose credits include playing bass behind Elvis Presley and making hit records for Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez and Dan Fogelberg - the album uses a coterie (cadre?) of Memphis's finest, including Rick Steff, Marvell Thomas, James Lott, Niko Lyras, Jack Holder, Dave Smith, Andrew Love, Jim Spake and Scott Thompson. Jimmy Griffin, once of Bread, provides harmonies. The record has two tunes by Memphis songwriters: Showman's Life by Jesse Winchester and Blue Angel by John Kilzer. Both are moving ballads, Gray's forte.
A song called Soul Days comes off like an R&B version of Bob Seger's Night Moves and could be the record's single (if it gets released to radio, that is), while Love to Burn - co-written by Gray and covered in 1990 by Etta James - simmers with Hi funkiness. There are also knowing renditions of People Get Ready and When a Man Loves a Woman.
The centerpiece, however, is another Gray-written number, Right About Now, replete with quintessential Andrew Love sax solos. This selection could be the title track, as it neatly sums up the comeback album, Gray's best since his trio of '70s classics.Through it all, Gray's voice, mellow and mature, is the main event.
Putnam is foremost a singer's producer, and nothing gets in the way of Gray's graceful interpretations, which feel spontaneously upfront. That's because Gray's vocals are 95 percent live and cut with a band so the guys could feed off one another. It's so old-fashioned it worked. Besides, you just don't tinker with a natural. "Dobie is blessed with an identifiable voice, says Putnam. "Like Nat King Cole. Like Ray Charles. And that's the greatest blessing of all."
Gray is nonchalant about what he does: "If you get a good night's rest and you've had your honey and your lemon and your tea, you can kind of pull it off."
He has been pulling it off for years. Born Lawrence Darrow Brown in Simonton, Texas, he moved as a teenager to Los Angeles, where he wanted to pursue acting. "I did a few TV things," he says. "Music started paying the bills and buttering the bread." An audition with Sonny Bono, then an A&R manager for Specialty Records, sent Gray to an independent label, Stripe. There his name was changed (in a not-so-sly reference to television character Dobie Gillis). Gray had a minor hit in 1963 with Look at Me on the Cor-Dak label, though it was another small label, Charger, that produced his first hit, a 1965 pop capsule called The "In" Crowd.
A few years later and with few hits forthcoming, Gray was invited to Nashville by friends Bobby Goldsboro and Kenny O'Dell. "I hated Nashville," recalls Gray. "It was so hot and dry. I went down and said, `I don't like this place.' So I went back and joined Hair." Gray stayed in the touring cast of Hair for 2 1/2 years. He then joined a fusion band called Pollution, which made two albums on Atlantic in the early '70s. "The album cover - a chicken with a gas mask - was (our) greatest distinction," Gray says with a laugh.
He became a singer at A&M doing demos of songs by Paul Williams, who wrote hits for the Carpenters, Three Dog Night and others. Paul's brother, Mentor Williams, who wanted to get into producing, had composed a tune called Drift Away. He and Gray - signed to Mentor's production company - were soon headed back to Nashville, where they landed a deal with MCA. "He said, `Let's go to Nashville,' " says Gray. "I said, `Oh, man, I've been there, done that. I don't like Nashville.' This time I came back and the whole thing had changed."
What facilitated the change was a group of session players and songwriters with whom Williams and Gray surrounded themselves. Among the group were several musicians from Chips Moman's American Sound Studios, which had cut Memphis-made classics on Dusty Springfield, the Box Tops, Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley. Those players included Reggie Young and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill. Muscle Shoals keyboardist and session great David Briggs also played on the sessions, recorded at Quadrafonic Sound Studios. Interestingly enough, that studio was co-owned by Briggs and Alabama cohort Putnam.
Williams produced three albums on Gray for MCA. The first was the biggest, 1973's "Drift Away." But "Loving Arms" from later that year and the final, 1974 platter, "Hey Dixie" - with guitar work by Lonnie Mack plus another definitive Reggie Young moment on So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away) - were just as enticing. And just as frustrating. "I did three albums for MCA that were country-esque," says Gray. "They didn't know where to place a black guy in country music (except) Charley Pride."
Gray then drifted (though not away), recording for several labels with the occasional glimpse of chart success. He even teamed with Putnam in the early '80s to make demos (still unreleased) at the producer's Franklin, Tenn., studio The Bennett House. "Norbert says he has no idea where they are, but I have copies of everything," says Gray.
Most notable around this time, Gray made two well-received albums for Capitol: 1987's "Love's Talkin'" and, in 1986, "From Where I Stand" (its touching title track was also used as the title tune for an acclaimed 1998 Warner Bros. boxed set on black country music). He has also sung on a number of TV and radio jingles.
In testament to Gray's musical instincts, many of his tunes have ended up being bigger hits for other artists, from Conway Twitty to Dr. Hook to Elvis Presley, who recorded Loving Arms (the Tom Jans classic has also been done by Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Etta James and many others). The most poignant rendition is Gray's, and he almost never sang it. "I really didn't want to do Loving Arms because it was too sad," says Gray. " 'Cause I've had loss in my life. Loss of love, loss of loved ones, loss of family. Mentor insisted, and I'm grateful that he did."
Much of Gray's new album for Cadre has the same bittersweet feel. Old fans will love it. As for the "in crowd," well, that remains to be seen. One thing Putnam and his singer agree on: It'll do gangbusters in South Africa, where Gray has been a huge star for decades. In fact, he has been touring there yearly since the late '70s and - get this - on the strength of his country material, songs such as There's a Honky Tonk Angel (Who'll Take Me Back In). Drift Away, it seems, was only a modest success. "I was told, `If you don't go to South Africa, you're crazy, because you're as big as Elvis Presley there,' " says Gray. "Finally, it came time where I needed the bucks. So I went, and sure enough, it was just unbelievable." Gray became the first artist to play for interracial audiences in South Africa - something he insisted on - and he got to sing in 1998 for Nelson Mandela at his 80th birthday. He will return in September and November. "Malays, Indians, Africans, Afrikaners, they all flocked to the concerts," says Gray. "When you've crossed barriers that hadn't been crossed, you think you've done something."
Gray met his match in South Africa when he shared a bill with bawdy R&B singer Millie Jackson, yet another performer fond of Loving Arms. "Her version was quite different from mine," he says. "I'm telling you, I think Tom Jans would turn over in his Rolls-Royce!"