X-Ray Spex Vol. 1: Homer Banks’ Tales of Forbidden Love

HOMERBANKS-Nice1

.wherin the Blogger induges his penchant for obessive examinations of a single songwriter’s body of work, sometimes focusing on a single song out of that body of work…because geekery.

Homer Banks is a prime example of how a songwriter can be largely unknown [even amongst snobs and affictionados], while creating iconic works that span generations. Say his name to even a die-hard music lover and you’ll likely get a blank stare in return. But let someone hear one of his songs and you’ll get an “A ha!” of recognition almost immediately. You may not know Homer Banks, but it’s s sure bet you know his songs.

The Backstory:

Born in 1941 in Memphis, Homer Banks started singing at 16, forming the Soul Consolidators, a gospel group that he wrote original songs for as well. After a military hitch, he retutned to Memphis where he signed with the Genie label and eventually ended up working for Estelle Axton in the record shop adjunct to the Stax Recording Studios. He wasn’t offered a recording contract at Stax, but did get signed as a writer, making his mark almost immediately, writing “I Can’t Stand Up [For Falling Down]” with Allen Jones for Sam & Dave [a bigger hit in the UK than stateside] and “Ain’t That Loving You” [For More Reasons than One]” with Jones for Johnnie Taylor [a popular tune with reggae singers and producers].

Eventually Banks formed “We Three” with Bettye Crutcher and Raymond Jackson, a writing team that would work with almost all the Stax artists, before writing Johnnie Taylor’s biggest hit – the R&B classic “Who’s Making Love”

The Classic:

Banks’ true genius moment would happen in 1970 while working with Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson. “If Loving You Is Wrong [I Don’t Wanna Be Right]” was originally intended for the Emotions, but Stax brass decided the song was too “risque” and shelved it. Stax newcomer Veda Brown also cut the song but that version was shelved as well. Still believing in the song, Banks played his own vocal demo for Luther Ingram, who jumped on the tune, slowing its tempo down and giving it a darker, more desperate reading. Released on the Stax-distributed independent label Koko, “If Loving You Is Wrong” was an instant smash, going to #1 on the R&B charts and #3 on the Billboard pop chart [a rarity in 1972].

If Loving You Is Wrong” while a collaborative effort, really is a triumph for Homer Banks. What makes Banks so compelling is no matter who he’s witing with, he seems to be the common element in why each song is as reat as it is. All of his biggest songs have a conversational tack, that not only makes them real, but makes them universal, easily translated into any style, any voice any gender. Banks’s songs eschew drama for honesty, which is the soruce code for songs that speak to us on a cellular level. “If Loving You Is Wrong” has inspired dozens of cover versions since Ingram’s and no matter what artist or what style, the song itself stands tall, indestructible and impossible to ignore:

The Original: Luther Ingram [1972]

The All-time Heavyweight Champion. Ingram’s instincs were spot on, as this song is prefect for his style and voice. His high tenor doesn’t spend time on drama or wasted effort. He comes to the song like a man who has actually tasted how sweet a forbidden love can be, and will do whatever it takes for a second dring from that secret fountain…and a third…and…

The Bluesman: Bobby Bland [1973]

Regal and articulate, Bobby Bland always stood at the crossroads where blues and soul meet and diverge. Had he recorded for Stax or Hi or Chess, his name might be a household word. Bland’s version is from his first non-Duke lp His California Album and you can feel him flexing his remarkable voice on the song, finding even deeper levels of emotion and passion than  Ingram. This should a sold a zillion copies. Alas.

Black Jesus: Isaac Hayes [1973]

Hayes’ version almost feels like a soundtrack outtake: Subtle piano at the opening, leading to string drama and then a sharp exchange with his background singers before the crescendo. Hayes, remains at the center of this inspired production, giving the desperate lyric a sense of haunted emptiness that shows us a totally different side of the illicit affair. Eccentric, yes, but a personal favorite.

The Sister’s Side of the Story: Millie Jackson [1974]

Millie Jackson received two well-deserved Grammy nominations for this version. She almost seems to allow Ingram to possess her for this version, adding just the right hint of feminie spin…and then at the 4 minute mark, she goes into one of her famous raps, adding layer upon layer of tension and straight talk. By the six minute mark we’re on her side and by the nine minute mark we wish we were the one she were sneaking out to see. Jackson is more a connoisseur’s favorite than a mainstream personality, but songs like this are why people who are into her are really into her.

The Rock Star: Rod Stewart [1977]

It’s harder and harder to remember that once Rod Stewart was a straight up Artist, who’s ability to elevate the songs of others was unsurpassed. Listening to this version, one can only wonder what would have happened if this had been released as a single instead of “Hot Legs.” Oh well.

The Good Girl [?]: Barbara Mandrell [1978]

Mandrell was tagged as “country’s sweetheart” after a long string of well-mannered Billy Sherril-produced hits, but somehow she always managed to end up singing cheating songs. It’s not surprising that this went to #1 country right after Mandrell had scored a #1 with “Sleeping Single In a Double Bed” Now she does the Branson thing with her sisters, but once upon a time, Barbara Mandrell had a lot going on.

The Stylist: Cassandra Wilson [2003]

Long a mainstay on the jazz scene, Wilson would open the 21st century by re-making herself as a force of nature, fluent in any and all musical languages. Her 2003 album Glamoured is no exception. She pours her languid contralto over the accoustic-bossa arrangement like honey over a lover’s tongue. It’s so sweet and lovely, you almost forget she’s singing about cheating on someone. That’s some serious art there.

The Survivor: LeAnn Rimes [2006]

You can tell from the opening, that LeAnn is taking her cue from the ’78 Mandrell cover, but anyone familiar with Rimes’ story knows she’s got enough personal subtext to make this song happen on her own. The arrangement tips it’s hat to the ’78 verson as wel, but isn’t afraid to rock a bit harder. This makes you wish someone would talk Rimes into making a LeAnn in Memphis album.

The New Classic: Renee Yoxon [2015]

Smokey Robinson said that a great song is one you can play with two fingers on a piano and still know it’s great. Case in point. Renée Yoxon is a jazz vocalist, teacher, and writer living in Montreal. Armed with only a piano and a web cam, she still makes this mighty song bend to her will. Sometimes the simple things are the most thrilling.

NEXT: While Their Dream Goes On…

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