Friday, March 21, 2008

You Just Never Know

Versión en español:

Version en français:

So far this year, I’ve discussed the recording careers of several people who didn’t quite make it: Titus Turner, the Five Whispers, Danny Kellarney, and Buddy Sheppard. This week, I’ve been writing about another talented singer who never hit the Top 40, Marlin Greene. Though his song “General of Broken Hearts” was my preferred side of his single when I was little, I have come to appreciate the B side, “If It Takes a Fool” (Philips 40103, 1963) as a tight little rocker with a message that foreshadows “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” in a much less somber way.

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I’ve not found production information for these tracks. I can speculate that Marlin himself may have been the guitarist, for reasons I’ll address in a moment. If he was being considered nothing but a singer in 1963, though, he may have been ushered in to sing against a completed backing track. Bruce Gist wrote this song with David Briggs, who has done some work for television and written the occasional song. Like Gist, he doesn’t seem to have any standards to his credit.

Something about these two sides made Marlin’s record stick with me far longer than most of my pre-Great Meltdown 45s. And for some reason I can’t pin down, about the time I started working regularly as a music journalist, I decided to dig into the career of Marlin Greene. I know one goal was to thank him for cutting a record I could associate so strongly with my mom.

It was 2000 before I got around to doing a serious search for him. First, I came upon a site devoted to Marlin, designed by Hideki Watanabe. There I learned that he had released nine singles between 1957 and 1972, so he was not a One-Cut Wonder, for sure. Two of his singles were on RCA, which shows that he was not completely ignored by the industry. He wrote some of his own material. None of his singles charted nationally.

Marlin earned himself an Elektra recording contract for 1972, and he released an album, Tiptoe Past the Dragon (EKS-75028). The album seemed to have been ignored, but of course I instantly developed a need to own it. However, Elektra didn’t see fit to release it on CD at any point.

Further perusal of Mr. Watanabe’s website showed that Marlin had a parallel career as a recording engineer and a producer, and that’s where I was taken aback.

One song he produced was “When a Man Loves a Woman,” for Percy Sledge. Marlin is the guitarist on that recording.

Everything changed for me then. We’re talking legendary here.

Rick Hall, the owner of Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, gave his overflow work to Quin Ivy, who opened a recording studio nearby for that purpose. Rick Hall turned down an opportunity to record Percy Sledge, and Ivy borrowed Marlin Greene to co-produce “When a Man Loves a Woman” and play guitar. When Ivy took the results to Rick Hall, I wonder if time stood still: Hall immediately recognized what he held in his hands, and he called Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. You know the rest.

From there, Percy Sledge recorded some Ivy-Greene compositions, and Marlin continued to produce the singer. Then he got involved with the Alabama State Troupers, as well as a little outfit called the Allman Joys; he had something to do with producing “Take a Letter, Maria” for R.B. Greaves, and he sang on Sailcat’s “Motorcycle Mama.”

If you know the names Eddie Hinton, Don Nix, Jeannie Greene and Dan Penn, you know people whose work was touched significantly by Marlin Greene. He may have been involved in some work Sonny & Cher did in Alabama, but I’m still digging up details of that possibility. Essentially, Marlin was a large part of the Muscle Shoals Sound.

I found an unopened copy of Tiptoe Past the Dragon, and I bought it. It’s a solid collection of songs that Marlin wrote himself. If you can find it, go for it. I think I’ll put up a short track here, the title cut.

Now that I was so impressed with Marlin’s legacy, I really wanted to drop him a note if I could find him. In addition to all the search results for old references to Marlin Greene the musician, there were search-engine hits for another Marlin Greene, who worked in a completely different field. My search didn’t pan out.

Finally, though, I came across one article that mentioned Marlin Greene the musician and the other Marlin Greene—they were the same guy after all. So I wrote to Marlin Greene. It turned out I had gotten into the same field he had, and we talked about collaborating on a software product.

Eventually, in May, 2006, I was in the same city as Marlin, and we met. If you have never sat down and talked to one of your most admired heroes, I recommend the experience, should you be able to manage it without being a complete idiot in the presence of said icon.

Marlin doesn’t do music any more. But here’s what he did in the 1960s: I spoke with Percy Sledge this past summer, and when I brought up Marlin Greene, the gleam in Mr. Sledge’s eye brought tears to mine. He said Marlin “was my backbone, as far as Percy Sledge was concerned. There would never have been a Percy Sledge without Marlin Greene. . . . Without Marlin, it would never have happened.” Marlin also rescued another hit, “Take Time to Know Her,” which was almost scrapped because of racy lyrics.

And so, Marlin Greene didn’t chart on his own, except as a backing vocalist. But he produced a #1 hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and he brought back a #11 hit, “Take Time to Know Her,” from oblivion.

Don’t forget this fact, as related by Percy Sledge regarding the guitar work on “When a Man Loves a Woman”: “Like everybody else, we thought it was the smoothest, sweetest picking that a guitar player ever put in a ballad, an R&B song. Even that guitar part in ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ doesn’t touch Marlin Greene.”

There’s a legacy-making statement for you.

If you want to learn more about Marlin’s music, a good starting point is the Hideki Watanabe site. There you will see the scans of my 45, credited to “Mr. Sean.” Another site shows those scans, one put together by Terry Gordon to chronicle rockabilly music. Mr. Gordon credits Hideki Watanabe for the scans, since he pulled them from that site, but if you look at the “H” in “Philips,” you will see the telltale handwritten number 88, which guarantees that it’s my 45 on display.

Marlin Greene has been a part of my musical consciousness since I developed one. I’m glad to bring him to yours, if he’s not already there. Thanks for reading. Next time, I’ll bring you a singer who should have been a star, and we’re one track away from another hero of mine. See you Wednesday!

Marlin Greene, If It Takes a Fool

Tiptoe Past the Dragon

If It Takes a Fool label scan


Stephanie said...


Versions in Spanish AND French now, too...???


(And you're cute as well!)

stackja1945 said...

Marlin Greene, If It Takes a Fool similar to Gary Lewis & the Playboys and young Ricky Nelson.
Various styles of music seem to blend into a wonderful mix.

Black Chaos said...

Marlin Greene's Dragon album is a unique blend of country and soul. Too laidback and hard to pigeonhole for it to become a big commercial hit. Really interesting songs with impeccable picking. I love learning about musicians like Marlin.