Friday, November 11, 2011

Two Ballads for a Friday Night

She was the eternal talent: Billboard called her »young & talented« from around 1968 to 1972, and in 1973 she retired from secular music. A reborn Christian, Ella Wash- ington (Cobbs) said »Like I'm not putting down R&B, soul or whatever you want to call it, but gospel is so much more meaningful ... I'm not saying anything bad about rock, it was good to me, but it was all My Baby Left Me, Another Man's Wife and so on. It kind of lost relevance for me anyway.«

Ella Washington & John Richbourg (both photos from BB, Dec. 21, 1968)

BB Nov. 23, 1968, p. 29
From 1967 to 1972, Ella Washington's career was bound up with Sound Stage 7 and J.R. Enterprises. The latter was the production company of Nashville's WLAC DJ John Richbourg; he produced most of the Sound Stage 7 singles in the late 1960s and »discovered« Ella after she was brought to his attention by Paul Kelly. In 1968, Ella charted for the first and only time during her career with »He Called Me Baby« (which was to become her signature song). The song was a remake of the Harlan Howard tune »She Called Me Baby«, a C&W staple recorded by Patsy Cline and others. Billboard noted that Ella had »resouled« this song (April 19, '69, p. 51) and they even devoted an entire artice in the C&W section to the fact that several Howard tunes »went R&B« (April 12, '69, p. 42). As it is, Ella's »He Called Me Baby« is considered one of the great country soul records. The success of this song (# 38 r&b in early '69) prompted the release of an LP, Sound Stage 7 # SSS-15007 (August 1969).

The self-titled LP came with a funky cover, but actually offers mainly a superb panorama of deep southern soul, mostly in the ballad-vein. Billboard's critic was much taken in with Ella's »overdue debut album« and demanded »the major market treatment« (Aug. 9, 1969). This didn't happen, although it's hard to see, in retrospect, why. Sound Stage 7 tried to push the album by putting out singles even after the LP release, so that eventually nine of the 12 LP tracks were available on 45 in 1969. However, the LP went largely unnoticed at the time.

Photos from the back cover of her self-titled SS7 LP: Ella Washington at the recording studio,
to the left with Allen Orange & Bob Wilson, to the right with John Richbourg.

The mono mixes of all recordings we find on this LP were re-issued in 2008 on the Soulscape CD # SSCD 7014, together with the other SS7 recordings (some hitherto unissued) and a fine booklet by John Ridley (see his webpage here). My LP (a promo copy) has the stereo mixes, so it nicely supplements the CD. The obvious choice of what I would be posting tonight from this LP are two songs, viz. »Sit Down And Cry« (a Clyde Otis tune) and »All The Time« (a Mel Tillis tune). First, these two wonderful songs were never released as 45s. Second, and more importantly, they are just plain great soul ballads and very much define the best of what Ella was recording in the late '60s ... or rather, what any female artist was recording, really.

Ella Washington: »Sit Down And Cry« / »All The Time« from the Sound Stage 7 LP # 15007 (1969):

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NOTE. For more information on John Richbourg, read also Nelson George's thoughtful remembrance in Billboard's »The Rhythm & The Blues« column in the April 19, 1986, issue (page 27).


  1. I remember hearing 'He Called Me Baby' many years ago and not being impressed by her version. But after listening to 'Sit Down and Cry,' ( which really shows off her voice), I decided to seek it out on YouTube. Perhaps the version that I heard so long ago was a re-recording, but I had a completely different reaction to it this time. Thanks for posting these, H.M.S.,; otherwise, I might not have checked Ella out again.

    P.S. I'll be launching again in a new location soon, so I'll let you know.

  2. You know, I always felt the same and still do: Ella's "He Called Me Baby" is not all that great record, and I think for two reasons: First, she sings it constantly in a very high register and her voice loses much force up there, risking to become faint and "pitched" in the tricky passages, and second, because the song (at least in this arrangement) doesn't offer too much for the singer to excel, really (apart from the lyricality). "Sit Down" is just a much better tune, I'd say, it has some soaring passages and a beautifully built-up final climax. And she "sings it up from below" what suits her voice much better. (Same holds true, more or less, of "All the Time", though it's the less spectacular tune) BTW, remarks on the subtleties of vocal art tend to test the limits of my English, so I don't know whether I put my thoughts across well ...
    PS Looking forward to your new location!