Sami Jo Cole – Lady With the Powerhouse Voice – Page 2


Last Update: 2007
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By 1970, Tony Caterine had opened another Losers Club, this one in Memphis. Sami was headlining there one night when she met a songwriter and record producer named Sonny Limbo—a man who would prove to be an important catalyst in her career. “Sonny was sitting in the audience with his chair turned backwards and he was totally mesmerized by the show. It was hard not to notice him and his enthusiasm, but I had no idea who he was. After the show, he came up to me, handed me his business card, and told me to call him the next day. He said he wanted to take me into the studio, but to be honest, I really didn’t take him seriously. However, I called him and surprisingly, he did have a studio and we wound up cutting some demos together.”

Sami had hooked up with a man whose outrageous personality and numerous eccentricities were legendary in the Memphis record industry. “To describe Sonny Limbo, God rest his soul, would be very difficult to do,” Sami admitted. “He had a great ear for hearing what others could not. Sonny was a very complicated man with a tremendous amount of talent. Most times, it seems the two go hand in hand.”

Sonny Limbo apparently saw a tremendous amount of talent in Sami, as well. In the 1977 book, Rock and Roll is Here to Pay, by Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo, it was said that after he discovered her and took her under his wing, Sonny set out to turn Sami into “your basic city fox”. He instructed her: “Do everything I tell you and I’ll make you a Star.” Limbo told Chapple and Garofalo, “She did. I did. And we did. That kind of attitude, an outasight voice and a motherfucker song—to break a chick that’s what it takes. Then, if she looks good and has big tits, she just might make it.”

Obviously, Limbo was a total character, but today Sami will only say: “Because of some serious personal problems and insecurities, Sonny was his own worst enemy. He had a sadness that could never be explained and I truly believe that it led to his early death.” After shepherding such acts as Bertie Higgins (Key Largo) and the country band Alabama into stardom, Sonny Limbo died some years ago.

In late 1970, Limbo managed to get Sami a singles deal with Rick Hall’s Fame Records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Home to the legendary ‘Muscle Shoals Sound’ of soul, r&b, and southern rock, the Fame enterprise had, since its inception in the early 60s, played host to such stellar acts as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter and Candi Staton, and by 1970 it was branching out to record more pop-flavored artists, like Mac Davis and The Osmonds. Rick Hall had great faith in Sami’s talent and took her into the studio with his sidemen Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Steve “Sandy Kay” Leigh and David Hood, where they cut a mainstream pop song, Don’t Hang No Halos On Me (Fame 1481), released February 1971. The tune was written by Wayne Carson Thompson, who had penned The Box Tops’ # 1 hit, The Letter, in 1967.

“Don’t Hang No Halos…was a pretty good record but nothing much happened with it,” Sami recalled. When the song failed to make the charts, she resumed her club work but returned to the Fame studios the following year to cut another single. This time, Sonny Limbo produced her session and they released Big Silver Angel (Fame 91003), which was the kind of uptempo, horn-driven pop record that was so popular back then. But just like her previous release, the single failed to chart, ushering in Sami Jo’s exit from Fame Records in late 1972. Still, “It was a good place for me to start,” Sami said, “and I got to work with some really dynamite people.”

Despite her obvious disappointment, Sami forged on—as did Sonny Limbo, who was, after all, determined to make her a star—and in 1973 he got Sami a new record deal with an offshoot of MGM South, an offshoot of MGM Records. It would prove to be both a good, and a bad, move for Sami’s career. According to the Internet article “MGM South Album Discography” by Mike Callahan and Peter Preuss:

MGM South was a short-lived subsidiary label of MGM, primarily directed toward country music. There were about 34 singles issued on MGM South, and two albums. The artist roster included Tommy Roe, Dennis Yost & the Classics IV, Billy Joe Royal, Sami Jo, Christopher Paul, Us, Shawn, Glen Wood, and a few others. The first two singles on the label, released in the fall of 1972, both charted. Tommy Roe‘s “Mean Little Woman, Rosalie” [MGM South 7001] made #92, while Dennis Yost and the Classic IV’s “What Am I Crying For” cracked the top 40. Each artist had a followup single on the charts also…Roe with “Working Class Hero” [MGM South 7013, #97 pop and #73 country in May, 1973], and Yost with “Rosanna” [MGM South 7012, #95 in March, 1973]. A planned Tommy Roe album was canceled, and the Dennis Yost album was issued, but didn’t chart. Singles by Billy Joe Royal didn’t chart at all. Part of the problem of MGM South was identity. Rock and Roll/Pop retreads like Tommy Roe, Billy Joe Royal, or the Classics IV were not received as country acts, no matter how hard MGM pushed them. Royal would later find a home in the country charts, but that was over a decade in the future.”

In its brief time in existence, Sami Jo would prove to be MGM South’s most successful act. “Sonny Limbo had gotten together with Bill Lowery, who was head of the label, and he brought me to Atlanta to meet him. What is really funny is that Bill was known to not be very fond of female singers, but he liked me and he said he was willing to give me a chance. At the time, the guys in charge of signing new artists at MGM were Stan Moress and the Scotti Brothers (who went on to manage teen star Leif Garrett in the late 70s). Stan later came out to Dallas, watched my stage show then offered me a deal and said, ‘Baby, I’m gonna make you a star!’ (laughs) You know, the same line that Sonny had used. Stan and I have laughed about this many times since because he says that I looked at him and said, ‘Sure you are.’ Well, he did wind up helping me a lot. Stan Moress and I became great friends and we still are to this day.”

Sami Jo during the time of her hit record, Tell me a LieIn 1973, Sonny Limbo found a dramatic, country/pop ballad with southern soul overtones, called Tell Me A Lie, for Sami to record, and it would become her biggest chart hit. A secretary at Bill Lowery’s studio who had heard some tracks Sami had cut with Sonny reportedly wrote the song with Sami in mind. Later covered by such disparate singers as soul diva Bettye Lavette, German artist Tina Rainford and country star Janie Fricke, the song told the story of a lonely woman who meets a man in a bar and reveals to him the kinds of lies some men tell their one-night stands. By the song’s end, after he’s spent the night with her, she is begging him to tell her what she wants to hear: namely, that he’ll “be back one day”.

Tell Me A Lie was a bona fide hit for Sami, reaching # 14 on Billboard’s Easy Listening Chart and #21 on the Top 100 Pop Chart. Sami made a flurry of TV appearances in support of the record (American Bandstand, among them) and then went back into the studio to record her first LP for the label. The resulting album, titled It Could Have Been Me, showcased Sami’s strong, husky voice and ably straddled the fence between country, MOR and pop. With the album’s tracks arranged by The Georgia Power Rhythm Section (with future Dolly Parton producer Steve Buckingham on lead guitar, and the co-producer of the album, Mickey Buckins, on percussion) and with the additional support of The Memphis Horns, the record had a soulful, contemporary sound strongly akin to the music such popular acts as Joe South and Tony Joe White were also making at the time. In fact, along with Sami’s follow-up single It Could Have Been Me, which reached # 31 on Billboard’s Easy Listening Chart, the album boasted covers of Joe South’s Games People Play and Harry Nilsson’s Without You, and even included a controversial song about the sordid life of an Atlanta call girl, Lovely Daughter.

Sami Jo in 1974“During this time people began disagreeing about what kind of singer I was,” said Sami. “Some said blues, some said country, others said pop, while others called me a ‘white soul singer’. Needless to say, it was a very exciting time (because of the success of Tell Me A Lie) but also a very confusing time—not only for me, but for the people around me, too. The main concern of everyone seemed to be: ‘which way should we go with her’? We also had to hold up the release of the album because MGM South’s president Gil Beltron decided he wanted me to record his favorite song (Without You), so we had to go back into the studio and add it to the album. Why, I don’t know, but he insisted.

“Also, Sonny Limbo was having some serious personal problems around this time and I was working more with Mickey Buckins and a lot of other people, which made things quite chaotic. Finally, Steve Buckingham, who later became a top executive at Sony Records, took over my sessions and helped me finish the album. Steve also became a wonderful friend.”

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