wax Poetics

Dave Hamilton

“Soul Suite” from Detroit City Grooves

Released 2015
record label Ace Records
Written by Bret Sjerven

Dave Hamilton <i>Detroit City Grooves</i>
Dave Hamilton Detroit City Grooves

    The annals of soul history are lined with talented musicians who didn’t get their due when they were in their stride. Many of them get lost over the decades, but there are those few who get resurrected by happenstance or pure luck. The northern soul scene that swept industrial North England in the 1970s and 1980s sparked a renaissance for a number of nearly forgotten artists and music from soul and funk musicians from Detroit, Chicago, and New York City.

    Multi-instrumentalist Dave Hamilton was one of these fortunate ones who was later pulled from obscurity by a benefactor. The music from what would have been his sophomore solo effort, loosely titled the “Soul Suite,” would not have been heard if it hadn’t been for the efforts of Ady Croasdell and Ace Records of England.

    Hamilton was born in Georgia in 1925 but raised in Detroit. He was attracted to music early on, experimenting on piano as early as five years old and then banjo and ukulele at fifteen. The Motor City’s rich musical environment provided Hamilton with a wealth of opportunities and musical directions to pursue. He naturally fell into the guitar as his main axe, but also studied vibraphone and xylophone alongside his friend, mallet master Milt Jackson. 

    For Hamilton, the 1940s and 1950s were peppered with gigs and recordings with groups playing jazz and early R&B, including a few of his own under Dave Hamilton and the Peppers. Hamilton came to Motown Records’ Berry Gordy when he played on Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” in 1959. Soon thereafter, Hamilton was a regular in what would later become the legendary “Funk Brothers,” the fabulous session men who propelled Motown’s iconic soul sound. His vibe work can be heard on Mary Wells’s “My Guy,” and he helped write “Once Upon a Time,” a duet with Wells and Marvin Gaye, along with Gaye’s “Pretty Little Baby.” 

    In 1963, Hamilton released his debut as a leader, Blue Vibrations, and a single, “Late Freight” b/w “Mellow in Coli,” on the Motown subsidiary Workshop Jazz. The sessions were coproduced by Clarence Paul, a singer-songwriter who had begun his rise in the industry mentoring and producing Little Stevie Wonder, as he was then known. The LP was a collection of easy-listening, jazzy instrumentals focusing on the leader’s vibes and the omnipresent keyboard of the period, the Hammond organ.

    Gordy phased Hamilton out of the Motown assembly line in the mid-’60s, which led to Hamilton creating his first label, Temple, and recording studio. Hamilton faced some ups and downs during the late ’60s. His and songwriter Rony Darrell’s Topper label had little success with his productions for Little Ann, vocalist Ann Bridgeforth, and a number of his own tunes. By the early 1970s, Hamilton had fallen out of the spotlight and was only doing a few musical productions here and there.

    Fast forward to the 1980s in England. Prodded on by another query, northern soul aficionado Ady Croasdell reached out to Hamilton, whose singles had become collector’s items for the British fans. Upon Hamilton’s passing in 1994, Croasdell purchased Hamilton’s tapes from his widow. 

    Amongst the tapes, Croasdell discovered hints of his sophomore album that Hamilton had intended to release on his own TCB label. Two tunes, “The Deacons” and “Pisces Pace,” were released as 7-inch single (TCB 50/51) in 1970, but six more instrumental funk tracks were discovered and sequenced on two boxes amongst the tapes. The pieces were all later compiled and released on the Ace Records 2005 CD, Detroit City Grooves, as the “Soul Suite.”

    The lead tune, “Soul Suite,” launches with an infectious backbeat, quickly introducing a harmonic bed of vibes and guitar, likely overdubbed by Hamilton. His bluesy guitar licks are especially tasty here. The easy, breezy “The Sweeter the Juice” adds Hamilton’s harmonica playing to the mix over a soft shuffle. “Brother Ratt” sounds like it was pillaged from a Blaxploitation chase scene, the grooving bass line and drums providing an incessant pull. The bent funk of “Tell Your Mama” is a standout, the elastic bass and strident harmonica providing a perfect soundtrack for a summer convertible cruise. 

    Pulled for the aforementioned single, “Pisces Pace” is poppy with a bouncy melody shared between vibes and guitar with a weird but attractive distorted organ providing a kind of other-worldly element. The rhythm track was also used in a 1970 Tayster Records single “Can You Dig It” by Chico and Buddy. A bit of confusion surrounds “Pisces Pace 2,” as there were two tracks with the same title, the version released on the 7-inch was found in a box with the title “Moon Dust” appearing on it, while “Pisces Pace” was the title referring to the track meant for the album. Regardless, “Pisces Pace” has a bonkers drum intro and somehow finds a way to be funkily aggressive and swingingly laid back all at once. Hamilton’s harmonica-led, dubby version of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” is a singular version and groovy as hell. “Take It in Stride” sounds like a tune Lou Donaldson would have drummed up and wraps up the program.

    The public is lucky to have inquisitive record folks. Ady Croasdell was able to extend the legend of the great Detroit musician and producer Dave Hamilton by digging in and putting the music out. Hamilton’s unpolished instrumental funky soul jazz is a shining example of what could still be out there to discover. 

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