JIMMY BARNES 1984 – 2019

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I Gotcha (J Tex) Jimmy Barnes 1991 and When Something Is Wrong with My Baby (I Hayes/D Porter) – John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes 1991

In December 1990 Jimmy Barnes and producer Don Gehman decided to compile an album of soul covers of 1960’s and 70’s songs from the music vaults of Motown, Stax/Volt, and Atlantic Records, unbeknown to Mushroom Records. As the cost of using live players to recreate the soul sound they were seeking, would have been prohibitive, they decided to use music samples for the brass – trombone, trumpet, saxophone – and drums. The album was recorded at Barnes Freight Train studios (Bowral) and sent to Michael Gudinski for final approval to release. When this album of soul covers arrived from out of the blue Gudinski was gobsmacked, and subsequently tried to convince Barnes not to release it, to go back and make a straight rock record, and to stop confusing his fans, but Barnes was adamant and believed that he had produced a good record. Below left to right – Joe Tex, Atlantic stars front- Percy Sledge, Esther Phillips, King Curtis, at rear Wilson Pickett, and Don Covay; and Sam and Dave

A covers album of some of the greatest soul records of all time was risky for Barnes, original hits by such soul luminaries as Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, Ike and Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Al Green and Joe Tex, were so well known and revered, infused with the earthiness, anger, carnality, hope, lust, joy and sadness, that only an artist who had lived those lyrics would know their true meaning. This was really rolling the dice, could a Scots-born Aussie pub rocker invest these songs with the same passion and pain as their originators had over 30 years ago? Would slick contemporary recording techniques and music samples possibly measure up to the combined talents of Booker T and the MGs (Stax/Volt), the Funk Brothers (Motown), and the Wrecking Crew (Phil Spector), could the melodic horn lines, sinuous bass, funky organ and guitars, and driving drumbeat of those classic hits be successfully re-created?

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The first single lifted of the album known as Soul Deep would be a cover of I Gotcha, a Joe Tex hit from 1972, in which Tex had perfected his unique vocal styling which blended funk, gospel, rhythm and blues with an early version of rap; it was declamatory, sexy, uber funky, and sounded like James Brown, who Tex feuded with throughout most of his career. Barnes’s white man version certainly captured the energy and some of the carnality of the original, if not the soulfulness and grittiness of the original, and it charted #5 nationally to launch the new album successfully.   

Jimmy supported the Motown Event Tour in 2009, but he struggled to win over the crowds who were there to see the Four Tops, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Supremes, stiff competition for Barnes even though most of them were in their dotage.

Sam Moore and Dave Prater, better known as the Dynamic Duo “Sam and Dave”, recorded When Something Is Wrong With My Baby in Memphis in 1967 for Stax Records with the peerless backing of Booker T and the MGs’. The song was written by David Porter, and the legendary singer/songwriter/producer Isaac Hayes, and had been covered by such soul legends as Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, as well as Charlie Rich, Hall and Oates and Linda Ronstadt.

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John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes (above with Diesel) got together at Barnes Freight Train studios (Bowral) in 1991 to put down their duet version of this famous song, American Don Gehman (below) was on hand to produce, an impressive group of studio musicians were assembled and Barnesy and Farnesy went about recreating some Stax magic in the NSW hinterland.

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The structure and rhythm of the song is naturally quite dramatic and lends itself to an impassioned performance, guitar backing by Jeff Neil, Diesel and Rick Will combined effectively with the vocal backing of Wendy Fraser, Jessica Williams, and Marcie Levy, and established the vocal platform for the two leads. String and horn inserts arranged by Phil Shenale added “Memphis” color to the production and the lead vocalists did their best to blend the tenor baritone of Farnham with the whisky baritone of Barnes. But their combined vocals came across as strident and overwrought, lacking the iron fist in the velvet glove ambience which made the Sam and Dave version so definitive. But it certainly had its fans, charted at #2 nationally for the two legendary solo performers of Australian popular music.

Performing this song sitting down was not a good idea, Farnesy looks uncomfortable, check out original performance by S&D.

Soul Deep became Barnes biggest-selling album with sales in excess of 630,000, it was his sixth consecutive #1 album, even his manager Michael Gudinski, had to concede that Barnes instincts about releasing an album of soul covers was astute, but he couldn’t help but comment years later in Christie Eliezer’s book High Voltage Rock ‘N’ RollOne thing I was on his back about, particularly during the Soul Deep era, was that he didn’t need to scream…. The guy has one of the greatest singing voices and I tried to make sure that he screamed less “, Gudinski seems to have failed in this regard. But Jimmy concedes that he does scream a lot, and was prepared to provided a screaming chorus to a song called Big Enough, written by Australian Kirin Callinin, and performed by Alex Cameron, whistler Molly Lewis, and Jimmy Barnes in 2017.The music video recreated an old wild west scenario in which a ghostly translucent Jimmy Barnes appears in the sky and screams the chorus, it has had over 58 million views on YouTube, and became a famous internet meme, and Barnes willingness to mock himself was applauded.

Brokeback Mountain meets The Man From Snowy River meets Spaghetti Westerns plus Jimmy “True Grit” Barnes!

Notwithstanding the commercial success of Soul Deep, and the subsequent release of further collections of soul standards with Soul Deeper … Songs From the South (#3 in 2000) and Soul Searching (#1 in 2016) the true soul believers did not really embrace the Barnes treatment of these treasured classics. Soul music belonged to another era, music that had been recorded on two or four track recording technology, colored by the racial tension, economic hardship, and institutionalized injustice that its creators didn’t just imagine, because they had lived it, and that was what Jimmy Barnes Soul Deep album, for all its good intentions, could never capture.

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