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January 2005

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Willie Hightower
The Capitol Sides
EMI / Honest Jon's Records (U.K.)

Willie Hightower

The Capitol Sides, from Willie Hightower, is the third wonderful reissue from EMI-U.K. this past year, (see the Best of 2004's releases in this issue). All of these releases have been culled from the vaults if Capitol Records and have not been released by a U.S. company due to contractual differences. All three releases had their roots in the Fame Recording Studios of Muscle Shoals Alabama.

To best describe the music contained here, I like to tell people, think of Sam Cooke with funky horns. Recorded in the late '60s and early '70s, Hightower had two top 40 R&B hits, with "It's A Miracle" reaching number 33 in 1969 and the great "Walk A Mile In My Shoes," which made it to number 26 in 1970. The latter was a number 12 pop hit for its writer Joe South.

Of the 18 great tracks that appear here, some highlights are Hightower's "Time Has Brought About A Change," an answer to Sam Cooke's civil rights song "A Change is Gonna Come." Willie's most obvious nod toward the civil rights movement was his classic interpretation of Pete Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer," which was a huge hit for Trini Lopez in 1963. "Nobody But You" once again shows the Sam Cooke influence.

As described by Barney Hoskins in his classic book, Say It One Time for the Broken Hearted, Willie could sound uncannily like Sam Cooke, but he was far more than just a copyist. 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 and joy and optimism the next.

It was the era of storytelling songs, as "Poor Man" (one of my favorite Willie Hightower tracks) so perfectly illustrates. "You Are Mine" shows his voice at its absolute zenith, a track that should have been another hit for him, but failed to chart. Nowhere is his Cooke inflections more apparent. The CD closes with a medley of two Sam Cooke songs,. "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons/You Send Me" What a finish.

I bought this a few days before Christmas and I could not have given myself a better musical gift. This is one more great reissue that should be in every music collection.

Willie's alive, still performing around Alabama, and currently planning his long awaited second album. Perhaps the re-release of these classic sides will serve as an impetus for some enterprising record company to get that second album recorded.

-- Alan Shutro

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