Toe Hold

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At this point Al Kooper is most famous for playing the organ on “Like a Rolling Stone.” The tale has been retold countless times, it’s become part of rock lore, overshadowing all the rest of Al’s musical contributions, which are formidable in number and scale.

You start with cowriting “This Diamond Ring,” a huge hit for Gary Lewis & the Playboys, despite being played in a completely different arrangement than Al imagined, he saw it as a soul number.

And then there was the almost forgotten tenure with the Blues Project which morphed into Blood, Sweat & Tears which ultimately broke through to gigantic success with Al’s blueprint on the second LP after he was kicked out of the band, but history has now been properly written, it’s the first BS&T LP that is memorable, that is the one, that still holds up today.

And then Al started the jam band record paradigm with “Super Session”…ultimately we ended up with Moby Grape’s bonus record “Grape Jam” and the third LP of George Harrison’s opus “All Things Must Pass,” entitled “Apple Jam.” One can even say that Al pushed the envelope with extended numbers, with the “Super Session” remake of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”

And then Al cut his first solo album “I Stand Alone,” an unrecognized triumph that never generated a hit record, that has been forgotten to the sands of time, but is one of my absolute favorites, I play it all the time.

The original, the title track, “I Stand Alone,” is marvelous, in the league of Al’s previous peaks. But then the album took a turn, Al went on an adventure, he covered Harry Nilsson’s “One” before Three Dog Night turned it into a regional hit and long before Nilsson’s own career gained traction.

Following that you got a cover of “Coloured Rain.” Superior to the original on the initial Traffic LP. Which Al also boosted by covering “Dear Mr. Fantasy” on his double live album with Mike Bloomfield. And at this point if you were paying attention you knew the original from FM radio, but it was these covers along with the aforementioned Three Dog Night’s rendition of “Heaven Is In Your Mind” that got me to buy Traffic’s album in its U.S. form, different from the original U.K. iteration. But I was disappointed, the songs were there, but not the production. Traffic peaked with its second LP, when Dave Mason was a full time member of the band. And Three Dog Night’s take of “Heaven Is In Your Mind” is more full-bodied with more energy than Traffic’s original recording. And Traffic’s take on “Coloured Rain” features an incredible full-throated vocal by Steve Winwood, but Al threw in horns, everything including the kitchen sink, along with raindrops, and turned the song into a tour-de-force. As for “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” no one could ever compete with Traffic’s original version, a stone cold classic that Steve renders accurately to this day, you’ll be stunned his voice is still intact, but even more you’ll be wowed by his playing, he’s not known as a gunslinger but after you see him picking the notes you’ll be re-evaluating.

And on the second side of “I Stand Alone” there’s a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” which became iconic when done by Elvis Presley, although in this case it’s almost an imitation, an homage, it’s fun, nearly a throwaway, then again when I first heard it on Al’s album I knew no previous recording, being nine years younger than Al, from almost an entirely different generation.

And then came “Toe Hold.”

But the piece-de-resistance was the second to last song on Al’s album, “Hey, Western Union Man.” It was the horn section flourish, the rich background vocals and the telegraph sound, sending a message throughout. “Hey, Western Union Man” is one of my go-to tracks, played constantly. That return of the horn flourish two-thirds of the way through…I wait for it, and then I want it to return when it won’t so I just play the track over and over again.

And then I was pushing the SiriusXM buttons one night and lo and behold I came across the original!

Jerry Butler’s take went to number 16 on the “Billboard” chart but in this era the chart didn’t necessarily square with local radio. Then again, by ’68 I was already dedicated to FM, I didn’t know it. But I was stunned when I heard it. It’s the same arrangement, the same song, but a different production. Butler’s take is soul, not rock, there’s a slower dreamy groove, and Al’s horns are strings, Jerry’s take is for making out, Al’s take is for sex, Jerry’s is a warm-up, Al’s is the main event, it’s pure action, it’s not deep, it’s all on the surface, it’s in-your-face, it’s undeniable, not that many people have heard it.

But even fewer have heard “Toe Hold.”

Now in the old days it was all about albums, you dropped the needle on a side and let it play through, so I know “Toe Hold” as well as “Hey, Western Union Man,” and after playing the entire LP the other night, “Toe Hold” got stuck in my mind, you know, you’re walking through your house and suddenly you burst out with the chorus and those in the vicinity think you’re nuts but you’re elated, entranced by the music.

And I needed to know more. Obviously it was a cover. But who did the original?

Well, depending on who you listen to you might be confused, Allmusic credits Sam & Dave, but that’s not true. The original was done by Johnnie Taylor. But Sam & Dave did do a version, but so did Wilson Pickett, so did Carla Thomas, even Ellen McIlwaine took a swing at “Toe Hold.” Imagine the songs of today being covered tomorrow… IMPOSSIBLE! First and foremost most are just beats. And as far as iconic pop numbers…they’re few and far between. But acts kept taking a swing at “Toe Hold,” and not one version ever broke through, became ubiquitous.

“All my life I been a po’ boy

It’s been hard to get a dime

Everythin’ I got, umm

I had to pay for it on time, but that’s all right”

Now wait just a minute, Johnnie’s singing from down there, not up here, he’s not talking down to us, he’s not drenched in jewelry, parading in his Benz on the way to the club to make it rain, he’s a nobody trying to survive, but he’s not depressed:

“Long as I got a toehold

As long as I got a piece of you

As long as I got a toehold

I can make it through”

That’s what gets you through, hope. If you have a little traction you feel you’re on your way, if they’re giving you the time of day, paying attention to what you have to say, you’re halfway there.

And I learned this wasn’t written by Johnnie Taylor but David Porter and Isaac Hayes, members of the Memphis Mafia, STAX bedrock. Nashville gets all the attention, Memphis is too often overlooked. but Nashville is country and Memphis is soul, it’s more southern, a stone’s throw from both Mississippi and Arkansas.

Porter and Hayes wrote the Sam & Dave hits. And ultimately Isaac Hayes went on to become Black Moses, a paragon of soul, and ultimately Chef on “South Park,” a role he ultimately ankled in a kerfuffle over the creators parodying his Scientology faith. And it’s funny how it’s the last thing people remember while what came before is plowed under, and the truth is Porter and Hayes didn’t only start with hits with Sam & Dave, actually their first big crossover number was “B-A-B-Y” by Carla Thomas, which was ultimately covered a decade later and made into a ubiquitous new wave number for a whole new generation of fans by Rachel Sweet, an American who recorded for the English company Stiff.

“Now listen

I said I went to my doctor

First thing he talked about is malnutrition

I’m not tryin’ to be a fat man

I’ve got to look after my ambition”

Doctors used to be a regular feature of songs, before the performers believed themselves invincible. And once again, Taylor is not looking for everything, just something, somebody, the object of his affection, who he is not observing from afar, but upon whom he’s got a toehold.

“So baby if you’re with me

I’ll let the whole world be against me

I don’t expect to ever get rich

You may find me diggin’ in a ditch”

It’s you and me baby, against the world. We don’t need everything, just each other. This is not an aspirational tale for the masses, but a situation, a vision they can identify with.

“Oh give it to me baby

A little little little little little little little little little toehold

A little little little little little little little little little toehold”

And now they’re together, participating in monkey business, intimacy, at first he’s singing the song from afar, but now they’re conjoined, having fun. Because he’s got a TOEHOLD!

That’s all we’re looking for.

And now I’m old enough for living history to rear its head, for me to go back and mine the past, and it’s easy to do as a result of the internet and streaming services, you can discover the roots. This music is ready to be found, as fresh as ever. And the provenance of them is there too. Who wrote them, who played on them, these giants.

And it all started with Al Kooper’s covers, he gave me a toehold!

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