Arthur Conley arguably was one of Soul's most tender stars. Arthur's star shone short but bright, immortalizing himself with the smash Sweet Soul Music. The genre's anthem, one of those songs everybody knows and knows how to shake their hips to. Few might know Conley sang the damn record, but everybody knows how to participate in its joy. You'll find few, if any, folks who do not like that particular song. The song might have been a blessing to the buying public, one might wonder if it was such a blessing to Arthur. Sweet Soul Music defined the path his career was going to take. After hitting big once Arthur was surrounded by people who wanted to see him repeat that success. It locked a few doors Arthur might have taken and ultimately was one of the reasons why his career stalled.
Arthur started out as Otis Redding protégé, cutting sides for his Jotis label. But pupil or not, Conley was clearly the better singer. His voice was clearer and had a much better range than Otis'. Anybody who's heard "Let Nothing Separate Us" on the Sweet Soul Music album will adhere to that. Arthur was a mighty fine Deep Soul singer, able to instil a fragility in his testimonies, an honesty in his ache that was quite rare in the macho world of Soul. Arthur was one of those artists that gained an enormous respect amongst his peers. This was reflected in his inclusion in the Soul Clan, the only Soul super group the sixties ever knew. The Soul clan consisted of Solomon Burke, Wilson Picket, Ben E. King and Joe Tex. In sales Conley was a light weight compared to those, in talent he was their equal. But with his career being pushed in the direction Sweet Soul Music had taken, this talent never fully materialized.
Conley was never cut for the music business , a sensitive Soul who just wasn't up to the harsh realities and strain the record biz brought. On top of that Arthur was a homosexual man in the masculine world of Soul, something he hid from his peers. After Otis, his rock of Gibraltar, died, Conley soon left the business. First living in Brussels and London, he finally found the love of his life in Amsterdam in 1981, a Dutch carpet weaver, who had no idea who Arthur Conley was, and miraculously had never heard Sweet Soul Music.
But before Conley said farewell to live and recording music for good he had something of a hidden comeback on the wrong side of the track in Amsterdam. In 1979 Conley lived in Amsterdam under the name of Lee Roberts. Conley formed a band under that 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 centre. 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 to be Conley the word spread like wild fire. By the final night the tiny cultural centre had people standing outside the door. Somebody in the audience was so smart to record 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.
Although the sound is raggedy, Arthur Conley and the Sweaters is one of Soul's greatest live albums. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square club. The backing band is far from tight but pure and raw Soul. Arthur's voice hovers somewhere between the raucous vocals of Otis and the near perfection of Sam Cooke. As the evening progresses and Arthur gets deep into the great Soul hits (none of his own) you can feel the excitement and the tension building. The crowd is almost visible hanging on his lips, knowing they are witness to a private comeback of one of Soul's legends. Arthur came back full force that night in the intimacy of a few hundred people. A few more performances would follow before the curtain fell for good. But thanks to that one recording his final moment of glory is kept for eternity. The Album is now finally available for the international market for the first time. Live in Amsterdam is an essential album in my book. Dick Baars released it through his own label with a minimum of distribution. So it might be hard to find. Luckily Baars now runs a small record store, remember those, in Amsterdam. Stop by if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.
Arthur Conley, Sweet Soul Music
Available on Sweet Soul Music
Read more on Arthur over at Red Kelly's excellent "B" Side
Springsteen performed the song regularly during the Tunnel of Love Express tour