Music Reviews
10:54 am
Wed January 15, 2014

The Soul Singer Who Never Quite Made It

Originally published on Wed January 15, 2014 2:46 pm

James Govan isn't a household name — and until recently, when Kent Records issued some of his unreleased recordings under the title Wanted, there wasn't much to hear from him. But there was a time when people in the know in Memphis said he was Otis Redding's natural successor.

Govan was born in Mississippi in 1949, and was still a baby when his parents relocated to Memphis. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing guitar and drums and singing in a group called The Vans; the band was heard one night by George Jackson, a producer and songwriter for Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Jackson had been telling the folks back at Fame that they should open an operation in Memphis — that not all the good talent had been signed — so Rick Hall, Fame's owner, opened a small studio to record demos there in 1969. He put Mickey Buckins, an up-and-coming producer and engineer, in charge of it.

George Jackson was hanging around Memphis a lot, and he put Buckins and Govan together. Buckins heard a similarity to Otis Redding, and soon enough, Govan was at Fame in Muscle Shoals, recording "Wanted: Lover," a song that had been a B-side for Laura Lee during her legendary but hitless recording sessions there.

The sudden change of Govan's voice for the chorus, the superb backing track — none of it made a difference. The record went nowhere. Buckins, though, didn't give up. He had an idea to take a contemporary rock song and see what Govan could do with it. What he did was pretty wonderful. "Just Like a Woman" and his equally tremendous version of "I Shall Be Released" never got issued. In 1971, though, Hall took another chance on Govan, and did it with a rock song called "Something," which did get released.

Again, nothing happened. Buckins remembered a legendary tape that had been cut at Fame when Otis Redding dropped by with a song he gave to Arthur Conley. Maybe "You Left the Water Running" would be right for James. By this time, Buckins had moved back to Muscle Shoals and was the studio manager there. But Fame Records was losing momentum, and he and Govan parted company.

Over the subsequent years, Govan has recorded sporadically, his last album coming out in 1996, and he became a star in Italy thanks to the Poretta Soul Festival. But mostly, he and a guy named Don Chandler have fronted the Boogie Blues Band at the Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street in Memphis. He doesn't like to be interviewed, and he's stopped playing Poretta. But whatever he chooses to do with his talent in the future, these recordings for Fame are unparalleled.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. James Govan isn't a household name; and until recently, when Kent Records issued an album of mostly unreleased recordings - called "Wanted" - there wasn't much to hear from him. But there was a time when some people in the know in Memphis said this Southern soul singer was Otis Redding's natural successor. Rock historian Ed Ward has his story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "YOU GET A LOT TO LIKE")

JAMES GOVAN: (Singing) Oh, you get a lot to like when you love me, baby. My feelings are worth waiting for. One little taste is all it takes, and you'll be coming back for more. Now, listen to me, baby. And let me put you straight 'cause I ain't getting no younger, and you can't afford to wait. It might sound like I'm bragging but baby, it's understood if my preview is out of sight, you know my future has got to be good. Oh, baby. Oh, you get a lot to like...

ED WARD, BYLINE: James Govan was born in Mississippi in 1949, and was still a baby when his parents relocated to Memphis. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing guitar and drums, and singing in a group called The Vans, who were heard one night by George Jackson, a producer and songwriter for Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals.

Jackson had been telling the folks back at Fame that they should open an operation in Memphis, that not all the good talent had been signed. So Rick Hall, Fame's owner, opened a small studio to record demos there, in 1969. He put Mickey Buckins, an up-and-coming producer and engineer, in charge of it.

George Jackson was hanging around Memphis a lot, and he put Buckins and Govan together. Buckins heard a similarity to Otis Redding and soon enough, Govan was at Fame in Muscle Shoals, recording a song that had been a B-side for Laura Lee during her legendary but hitless recording sessions there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANTED: LOVER")

GOVAN: (Singing) Oh. I'm looking for someone to be my lover 24 hours a day. Yeah. I'll give her good loving, kisses every hour, and a love right every day. Yeah. I've got to have somebody to love me before I go insane, yeah. That's why I'm going to put me an ad in the paper that will read big and plain. It's going to say: Wanted: Lover. No experience necessary. Wanted...

The sudden change of Govan's voice for the chorus, the superb backing track - none of it made a difference. The record went nowhere. Buckins, though, didn't give up. He had an idea: Take a contemporary rock song, and see what Govan could do with it. What he did was pretty wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST LIKE A WOMAN")

GOVAN: (Singing) Nobody feels any pain tonight, as I stand inside the rain. Everybody knows that baby's got new clothes. Lately, I see a ribbon and her bows. And the problem, the problem comes when she takes just like a woman. She makes love just like a woman. She aches just like a woman. Oh, but she breaks up like a little girl...

WARD: That one, and his equally wonderful version of "I Shall Be Released," never got issued. In 1971, though, Hall took another chance on Govan, and did it with a rock song - which did get released.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING")

GOVAN: (Singing) Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover. Something in the way she woos me. I don't want to leave her now. You know I believe and how. Somewhere in her smile, she knows...

WARD: Again, nothing happened. Buckins remembered a legendary tape that had been cut at Fame when Otis Redding dropped by with a song he gave to Arthur Conley. Maybe this would be right for James.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU LEFT THE WATER RUNNING")

GOVAN: (Singing) You left the water running when you left me behind. Baby, now that you left all your water running, running from these eyes of mine. And there you go. You turn off your light of love. You left with another guy. Baby, now that you turned off all your love for me but you forgot to turn off your crying. You forgot to turn off the crying. There you go. You pull the shade...

WARD: By this time, Buckins had moved back to Muscle Shoals and was the studio manager there. But Fame Records was losing momentum, and he and Govan parted company. Over the subsequent years, Govan has recorded sporadically, his last album coming out in 1966; and he became a star in Italy, thanks to the Poretta Soul Festival. But mostly, he and a guy named Don Chandler have fronted the Boogie Blues Band at the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street in Memphis.

He doesn't like to be interviewed, and he's stopped playing Poretta. But whatever he chooses to do with his talent in the future, these recordings for Fame are unparalleled.

GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed "Wanted: James Govan's Fame Recordings." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.