Jean Wells’ story is not an extraordinary one in the world of soul, although her voice certainly was. Her biggest hit ‘Have A Little Mercy’ from 1967 was a glorious slice of deep soul, a plea to a lover, whom she is addicted to, but who doesn’t seem to notice. Her gospel-trained voice perfectly encapsulating those feelings, whilst a stark arrangement dominated by an ethereal organ and dramatic horn stabs heightens the unbearable effect this man is having on Jean’s life. Yet at the time this record only reached number 25 in the R&B charts, just another bit of genius amongst many, thrown out by the black American music industry at one of its most creative and profligate periods.
Born in West Palm Beach Florida in 1942, Jean Wells was brought up in Belle Glade near the state’s Lake Okeechobee. As a youngster she sang in gospel choirs, and taught herself piano. Unlike some her family didn’t object to secular music and in her teens she formed a girl group with friends whilst she was at High School. With the musical desire firmly in her bones at the age of 17 she left home and headed for Philadelphia, a city that would become her musical base throughout her career.
Philly at the time was at the centre of the American music industry due to it being the place where Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was filmed. This pop TV programme was nationally syndicated and could break records to the important post rock and roll teen audience. As such a slew of local record labels led by Cameo had grown up around the town. Jean went looking for a record deal and soon found herself recording for the tiny Quaker Town label. Her first single – ‘Song Of The Bells’ – was successful enough locally that the label released two further releases ‘If He’s A Good Man’ and ‘I Know He Loves Me’, neither of which managed to build on the success, and they remained unknown outside of the local area.
Jean went back home to Florida, but the desire to be part of the music industry remained and she returned to Philly to record a single record, ‘Don’t Come Running Back To Me’ b/w ‘Little Boots’ for ABC-Paramount, before heading back south once more. Yet she was back again in 1966 and it was at this point that she managed to get traction in the industry. Meeting up with producer and A&R man Clyde Otis, who decided to sign her to his production company Argon. Otis had had great success at Mercury Records where he had produced Brook Benton, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan in the late 50s and Clyde McPhatter who he signed to the label in 1960. Since striking out on his own he had produced some of Aretha Franklin’s finest pre-Atlantic recordings for Columbia including the wonderful ‘One Step At A Time’ which has recently been revived by soul DJs and producers of re-edits alike.
With Jean he saw a singer who could be every bit as good as Aretha or Dinah Washington, similar big sounding singers. His first single with Jean is perhaps the most obscure. The glorious deep soul ballad ‘If You Ever Loved Somebody’ was coupled with ‘Hello Baby- Goodbye Too’ and released on Juggy Murray’s Sue Records subsidiary Eastern. It failed to trouble any charts, but it did put down a calling card for Jean. It was quite clear that this was a singer who could cut high quality material that could match the best of what was coming out at the time.
As Jean worked on new material with Clyde, her producer was sorting out a new label for her to appear on, following the demise of Juggy Murray’s labels late in 1966. He signed a deal with Nate McCalla’s Calla Records. McCalla was a well known face around 1960s New York, and was closely associated with the notorious Morris Levy of Roulette Records, and it fact had his office in Roulette’s building. Stories abound about this colourful figure, who was a decorated hero of the Korean War, but he was a tough guy and his life was prematurely ended when he was murdered in Florida in 1980. His label is a gem, with brilliant records by the likes of Bettye Lavette, Little Jerry Williams (later known as Swamp Dogg) and many others through to its close in 1977. The label always had close ties to Philadelphia, and it is perhaps this link that brought him to Jean.
Her first single on the label was the self-written ‘After Loving You’ a storming club soul cut with a relentless beat. It was coupled with ‘Puttin’ The Best On The Outside’ which sounded as if it could have been written several years earlier. It was a successful start to her time at the label charting at number 31 in Billboard’s R&B chart. The follow up ‘I Feel Good’ was another dancer that peaked at number 33. It was the next release that was the big one and ‘Have A Little Mercy’ burst out of the speakers over the Christmas period of 1967 heading to a peak of number 25. On the flip was a glorious northern soul style dancer ‘With My Love And What You Got’, complete with a vibes filled rhythm section.
Otis took the logical step of following ‘Mercy’ with another deep soul ballad his own ‘Sit Down and Cry’. Once more Jean reaches far inside herself and drags every ounce of emotion from the song in a jaw-dropping performance. It was perhaps a little too intense to be popular, and the single became her first on Calla not to make the R&B charts. She returned to the charts with her very next single, though it would be for the last time. This time the lead number ‘Try Me & See’ was firmly uptempo and is firmly written to sound like Aretha Franklin’s then current hits such as ‘Respect’ or ‘See Saw’. It reached number 45 backed with ‘Best Thing For You Baby’.
At this time Calla also tried to capitalise on her success by releasing the album ‘World, Here Come Jean Wells’ in 1968, it sank without a trace and is now a sought after collectors item. Jean released three more singles on Calla, each one either trying to replicate the success of her previous work or the then current sounds in the pop charts. The best of these was her December 1968 ‘What Have We Got To Lose’ a swaying soul dancer written by Jean, and which in recent years has seen action in the rare soul clubs. Despite Calla losing interest after the 1969 single ‘Our Sweet Love Turned Bitter’ b/w Keep Your Mouth Shut (and Your Eyes Open)’ Clyde Otis kept the faith, and Jean’s next single appeared on the Philadelphia independent Volare recycling ‘Keep Your Mouth Shut’ with the slow funk of ‘I Couldn’t Love You More Than I Do Now’.
Jerry ‘Swamp Dogg’ Williams Canyon label was where her next single turned up. This was the stridently funky ‘He Ain’t Doing Bad’ and the wah wah laden ‘Somebody’s Been Loving You’. These two tracks were recorded in Philadelphia by Earl Young, Norman Harris and Ron Baker. The trio would become the basis of the 1970s Philadelphia Sound and were on hundreds of classic disco and soul recording as well as being the men behind the legendary disco group the Tramps. Clyde Otis employed them for what was supposedly lined up to be an album project on Jean, but only 5 tracks were recorded. As well as the two that appeared on the single, there is the atmospheric ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves, Come Out Lovin’ which features a very advanced - for the time - synthesiser led backing track, and ‘Take Time To Make Time’ which to my mind features one of Jean’s finest vocal parts. The final number ‘Keep On Doing It’ takes us back to the world of funk, but with a very Philly swing to the rhythm section. It appeared briefly as a single on Law-Ton in 1972
These were to be the final recordings that Jean made in this part of her career. She left the industry and according to Clyde Otis she went into the gospel field. She made two slight returns to secular music. In 1979 she made the disco/ boogie single ‘I Just Can’t Stop Dancing’ for the Philadelphia based TEC label. Two years later she was back again, still in the city that she had so often called home, this time recording the disco-fied album ‘Number One’ for Sunshine Recordings.
After this Jean disappeared from sight. Probably back into the world of gospel, she left us with a fantastic recorded legacy, of which her recordings for Clyde Otis, which are gathered here, are the choicest cuts. Vinyl track listing:
1 A: What Have I Got To Lose B: Have A Little Mercy / 2 A: With My Love And What You've Got (We Could Turn This World Around) B: Take Time To Make Time For Me / 3 A: Somebody's Been Loving You (But It AIn't Been Me) B: He Ain't Doing Bad