Saturday, 22 September 2018

Life Is Free

I don't know much at all about this man, but one thing I do know is that Donald Height was an unheralded singer/songwriter who unfortunately flew under pretty much everybody's radar. This giant of obscurity recorded in a wide array of styles from across the spectrum. R&B boppers, northern soul stompers, deep southern styled ballads, funked up ass-shakers and even hints of disco in later years. I put on my sleuth cap for this one and dug in deep friends. I also fortunately received an above and beyond helping hand from a very generous contributor.

Originally from Goldsboro, North Carolina, Height joined the Navy as a young man and after his service, he settled in New York, where it appears the bulk of his recordings took place. Despite having a hefty amount of top-notch songs under his belt, Height never had a big hit record and in fact, only had two chart entries in his career, with just one climbing above the Top 30; "My Baby's Gone" spent 8 weeks on the R&B Billboard charts and peaked at #20 in 1967 and "Games People Play" did only 3 weeks, peaking at #47 in 1969. One of his earlier recordings with The Hollywood Flames, "Gee" peaked at #26 in 1961 but I doubt much credit went Donald's way for it. In the 70s, either after or towards the end of his recording career, Height returned to Goldsboro where he lived out his remaining days, passing away in 1999 at age 59.

Donald Height's debut 45 came late in 1960 on King Records and fits right in with their fare at the time. The a-side, "I've Been Crying" is a blistering country tinged deep soul ballad and the flip, "How Lonely Can You Be" is a barn burning, bluesed out R&B rocker.

From 1961 to 1962 Height, like many others, did a brief stint as lead vocalist for The Hollywood Flames, who at that point were pretty far removed from their 50s doo-wop roots. There may be up to 5 unissued recordings from these sessions featuring Height on lead vocals. His released sides amounted to two 45s with the group (technically three). The first, released on Chess Records, "Yes They Do" bw "Gee" are both teen boppers but the former of the two features a burning, yearning vocal delivery from Donald. The second single with the Hollywood Flames was initially issued by Goldmark's Goldie Records and featured only one side with Height on lead. The flip-side was "Elizabeth" (a song about Elizabeth Taylor that Billboard hailed as "excellent"), featuring Curtis Williams on lead. However, late in 1962, Goldmark leased those sessions to Coronet Records who rolled out Height's previously released side, the haunting deep soul masterpiece "Believe In Me" and backed it with his oh so ironically titled "I Can't Get A Hit Record". Height's on lead here but it's more rantin', ravin', hootin' and hollerin' than singing on this number ... but it works well with its country jive vibe and somewhat comedic nature.

His follow-up solo credited 45 was one of four singles released by short-lived (I believe) L.A. based label, SooZee Records in 1962. "Take Your Loving On The Outside" is a sad but sweet soul drenched number with some some very nice yet subtle horn work. The flip, "Don't Cry" gives us a glimpse of why Height eventually found his widest audience with northern soul fans.

For reasons unknown to me, Height's next pair of singles were released under the name of Don Day Curtis on ABC-Paramount Records in 1963. Both singles are what I would call radio friendly/pop oriented standard soul fare for the time. And not that surprising as both were produced by and co-written and arranged by Teddy Vann. "The Story Of Janie" and "Bumble Bee" (with it's strong gospel-esque opening) are the best of these four recordings in my opinion.

His next single, released as Donald Height, was still under the heavy hand of Vann's production and was released via indie label Jubilee Records in the fall of that year. Much in the same vain as the ABC recordings but the b-side, "Soul Monkey Twist" is a super hit in my books. A superb southern style take on a popular NYC club dancer.

In 1964 Height moved to Hy Weiss' Old Town Records where he wrote, produced (or co-produced) and released 4 singles in a year. Here we find Height coming into his own sort of speak. His label debut was two beautiful ballads, "Crazy Little Girl" bw "I'll Never Forget You", the latter is perhaps slightly too up-tempo to be called deep soul but both songs certainly lean in that direction. The next single, "Pretty Girl" bw "You Can't Trust Your Best Friend" had a more jazzy bandstand approach, quite similar to what Freddie Scott was doing at that time. His next single, "Climbin' The Pole" bw "Baby Set Me Free" is a return to some rockin' R&B. Definitely dance-able but delivered with gritty and strained soulful yearning. Height's final 45 with Old Town was the wonderful deep soul offering "A Tribute To Sam" in tribute to the mighty Sam Cooke. The lyrics imply that they had a close personal relationship but I'm unclear as to if that's in fact true, and if so, in what capacity.

Reuniting with Teddy Vann in the spring of 1965, Height released a lone single with RCA Records produced by Vann. "Mr Ocean" is a smooth, sweet power-house of a ballad and "Girl Do You Love Me" is a gritty up-tempo all-night dancer. Both tracks feature some beautiful female backing vocals.

The Height/Vann duo paired up for 2 more singles before the year was up. Both released on Roulette Records. "I Can't Help Falling In Love" bw "Bow 'N' Arrow" and "Song Of The Street" bw "You're Too Much". Vann's pop-oriented production is prominent here. Though far more subdued, these recordings also have (unknown to me) female backing vocals that give these otherwise lacking tracks the gusto they so desperately needed.

In 1966 Donald Height rallied to Bert Berns' newly minted Shout Records where he released 7 scorchin' singles in just shy of 2 years.  The first Shout 45 was an absolute stunner! The funked out stomper "Talk Of The Grapevine" bw "There'll Be No Tomorrow". The latter being one of those slightly sped up deep soulers that was a staple of his Old Town stint. His horn and rhythm section is top notch to boot. The follow-up "You're Gonna Miss Me" bw "My Baby's Gone" are full fledged deep soul divers and feature Height's most powerful pipe work in my opinion. His unrestrained pleading in "My Baby's Gone" carry all the conviction of the southern style gospel soul heavyweights and sends shivers up and down my spine every time. "Three Hundred & Sixty Five Days" is a horn driven, funkafied blues rocker while its flip, "I'm Willing To Wait" is a piano driven deep soul number, accompanied by some enchanting group backing vocals. Height's only 1967 release, "We Gotta Make Up" bw "I Can't Get Enough" comes across as an attempted chart grabber to me. Shooting for the same sound that resembled acts like Sam & Dave (who were blowing up at the time). Thankfully the following year returned with a single more similar to his label debut. Leading this time with deep soul side, "Good To Me" bw the furiously funked up "Bona Fide Lover". Mirroring the same format, Height's next single led with the funky R&B cut "Rags To Riches" and featured a fairly decent deep soul flip with "Please Don't Hurt Me". His last 45 with Shout was a double dose of deep soul ... "You've Got To Be A Believer" bw "Never Let Me Go".

Shortly after Berns' untimely death and the eventual dissolution of Shout Records, Height's final 45 from those Shout sessions was released on Mayhew Records in the fall of 1968. "One Love" bw "Everything That Shines Ain't Gold". The former a forceful deep soul number, the latter an up-tempo R&B number, resembling his lone 1967 offering.

Towards the end of 1968, Height re-signed with Jubilee Records and working closely with producer Tommy Smalls, released 6 more righteous singles in the coming year. "Looking For My Baby", a strong mid-tempo humdinger, backed with one of Height's more stand-alone offerings ... Sonny & Cher's 1967 hit, "You Better Sit Down Kids" kicked them off. The follow-up, "Games People Play" bw "Looking For My Baby" (the a-side on the former single and also repeated on future releases) are a more appropriate pairing with their mid-tempo rhythm and slightly tortured vocal delivery. "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" bw "You Sure Know How To Make A Man Feel Good" slow it down again with a pair of sweet soul ballads. The former has a real jazzy flow to it while the flip is straight up deep soul. The next single featured only one new cut, "Don't Let Me Down" and it's one of Height's deadliest tracks. A cumulation of Height's various styles come to a head with this monster recording. "She Blew A Good Thing" is top-teir dancer right up northern soul fans alley. The flip "Twelth of Never" is the only track I'm missing and have yet to hear. His final 45 with Jubilee was another winner. The a-side "If I Can" is a great deep soul stunner and the b-side "If It Ain't Clean" is a lovely funkafied number featuring incredible vocal blasts from Height and some solid horns.

In 1970 Jubilee Records were in financial disarray and by early '71 declared bankruptcy. Height had a hard time finding a lasting home after this. A pair of one-off's came early in 1971 c/o Hurdy-Gurdy and Honey Records (NYC) but it was at this point that Height's recording efforts really began to peter out. The Hurdy-Gurdy 45 is far superior with its hard driving "Life Is Free", hands down one of my favorite funk jams to date. The flip "De Da Da" isn't phenomenal but a strong R&B offering all the same. The Honey 45 features 2 dance floor oriented numbers with "Dancing To The Music Of Love" and "Rags To Riches To Rags". Both of these tracks I could easily do without.

A lone single with Bell Records came in the summer of 1972. "Can't Live (Without You)" bw "Good Things Don't Always Last" find Height back in his comfy saddle with 2 mid-to-slow tempo ballads that straddle the line between deep soul and northern soul.

The following year Height surfaced on Dakar Records with a somewhat unimpressive single. "A Mean Thing" bw "Sumpin' Sumpin" broke no molds, nor showcased Height's previously established talents. 3 years later in 1976, a final single was issued by Dakar. "I Choose You" is a half decent soul song but the production here is geared towards disco audiences and the result is a far cry from Height's incredible early efforts.

Well folks, that's all I got. If any of you out there could share any pertinent information to add to this, I would deeply appreciate it. Looking for pre and post career details, marriage, special relationships (working or otherwise), studio musician details and/or interesting tidbits.

Life Is Free collects 61 of Donald Height's 62 sides in what's got to be the only retrospective collection available anywhere on the net! All files chronicled, cleanly tagged and MP3 @ 320kbs. Also included is a folder with corresponding labels. As always, thanks to original uploaders but a very special thank you to hwolf for providing close to 25% of these wonderful recordings and the only personal information gathered here. This collection very likely would not have seen the light of day without his contributions. <3 enjoy all!

*Missing side:
51. Donald Height - The Twelfth Of Never - 1969 - Jubilee 5681


musicyoucan said...

Excellent post as usual :-)
Thanks a lot

KING said...

I have a request do you have any Jean Plum music ?

hwolf said...

That is a brilliant post. So much detail.
Donald was truly one of the
great unknown soul singers.
Thank you for the credit.

Bob Mac said...

Another artist I'm not familiar with. As always many thanks for putting these interesting collections together.

Preslives said...

Wonderful! Thank you very much. I imagine that Donald Height's family would probably like to see your great tribute to him. Any contacts?

Anonymous said...

Waouh, what a post!
Thanks a great, great lot!!!

s13 said...

I often find my bio info after collections are assembled and even pretty obscure artists' info can be found on wiki or allmusic. Failing that, sir shambling and/or Red Kelly usually have the scoop on rare stuff. When you first sent those songs, I started searching but as you know, found absolutely nothing. I knew I had to make this one much more in depth and happy to do so. I love Donald's music and never really thought the collection would come this close to completion so thought I should go the extra mile. I hope that some folks enjoy these songs as much as we do. Again, thank you so very much.

s13 said...

thanks kindly.

that's a good idea. his sister's name is Carolyn Sherard and I believe she's in the Goldsboro, NC area but can't find any contact details for her online.

Anonymous said...

a northern soul legend m8!
brilliant work again,thank you
young fella!

whitby willie

soulpapa said...

Just an amazing post! Thanks so much once again!

Preslives said...

Nice. Good luck.

Anton said...

Wow ! Thanks !

muddyw123 said...

What a great sharings. Thank you (both) for the great info too.

SoulTime59 said...

Loving your work - great to have Donald's tracks all in one place, and likewise for the excellent McKinley Mitchell.

Might you or any of your followers have these Jan Bradley tracks?

Curfew Blues - Formal 1962
He'll Wait On Me - Chess 1966
Trust Me/These Are The Things A Woman Needs - Chess 1967
And probably a long shot:
Jan & Chuck - What A Weekend/West Coasting Living - NightOwl 1966

All contributions gratefully received!!

s13 said...

Thank you kindly SoulTime, always appreciate you popping in and on that note, just saw your recent posts at TZ. Guess I can cease and desist with my Ural Thomas collection. With your post and the add-ons from bob and imnokid, think that does it. I'm excited to dig into it and the other ones as well. Not familiar with either outfit. Listening to UT's new album and can't believe the man's 80!!! He sounds like a young man to me!

stay groovy my man

re: Jan Bradley ... I have half a dozen tracks, none on your list though, sorry :(

s13 said...

Do you mind if I do a Ural Thomas post actually? Using some of your files, some of my files and imnokid's live LP? They're touring next month and it could help plug those dates and the new record.

SoulTime59 said...

Go for it! If it gets more people through the doors to see the man and his band, that can only be good!

Unknown said...

I knew him in my late teens. I always wondered what happened to him. I didn't know he passed at such an early age. Thank you for the closure. May he rest in peace.