The waifish soul rocker from Watts had escaped an abusive marriage by taking a road gig as an Ikette, brought her two young children to London, where she had snagged a record deal with pop svengali Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label, and balanced her career and child-rearing duties, right up until Immediate suddenly and unexpectedly fell apart. The voice that sang the Gibb-penned single ‘Bury Me Down by the River’ and nine other tracks had weathered all of these storms but was still a tender 23.
Arnold’s voice was all that Gibb describes, and then some: dark and husky when at the lowest depths of her range, it gained a brassy power when a melody rose in pitch and volume. From her very first Immediate single, Cat Stevens’ ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, she harnessed that voice to remarkable effect. As the dynamics of her backing music rose and fell, she could shift with ease from hurt and vulnerable to confident and powerful - often in a single four-bar transition from verse to chorus. Her early single ‘(If You Think You’re) Groovy’ (written expressly for her by Immediate stable-mates Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces) showcases her rare vocal range. The listener can hear her literally finding strength in the crescendo as she sings, “Now my dreams have really changed/They’re rearranged/They’re still for two/But not for you!” The song fades out with Arnold swinging back and forth between soaring wails and delightfully bitchy staccato shouts. ‘Groovy’ remains a fan favourite to this day, in part because it encapsulates so well all of the elements that made her early work so exciting. Here was an African American woman, raised singing gospel music, singing a white-British pop song in the midst of a musical arrangement which, with its oh-so-sixties flute part giving way to a full horn section in the chorus, managed to bridge - even erase - the gap between those musical genres.
Arnold’s star rose with the release of two albums, The First Lady of Immediate and the ambitious Oldham-produced Kafunta. But distribution issues put a drag on record sales, cracks opened in Immediate’s finances, and the company eventually collapsed, leaving Arnold without a record deal. Thus began a five-decade odyssey that would keep The Turning Tide out of listeners’ hands until late 2017.
Initially, Arnold’s budding friendship with Barry Gibb broke her fall. Introduced to her by her husband-to-be Jim Morris, Gibb had been impressed with the Kafunta album version of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’, and set about finding her a new deal. Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood soon took the reins, and, temporarily on the outs with his bandmate brothers, Gibb poured his latest crop of songs and his production skills into Arnold’s planned first outing for Stigwood’s RSO label. Arranged by Bee Gees studio man Bill Shepherd, the ten songs from these sessions that make it to the final version of The Turning Tide take Arnold a welcome baby-step back from some of the more overwrought Kafunta orchestrations, bringing her closer to the simpler English pop sounds that characterized her most enduring work. On covers such as Blood Sweat & Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’, Gibb and Shepherd wisely hold back from copying the original’s bombastic excesses, keeping a spirited performance from descending into parody.
Gibb’s acumen as a producer is matched only by his songwriting talent. As Arnold told Shindig! magazine last year, “Songs ran through Barry.” And for these sessions, he offered her material as well-crafted as the Bee Gees’ strongest early material: two songs, 'Bury Me Down by the River' and the title track, would find their way onto Barry and Maurice Gibb’s two-thirds Bee Gees album Cucumber Castle the following year. ‘Bury Me…’ is a particular pleasure, and a source of intrigue for me; hearing it for the first time, I was convinced that Gibb had nicked the tune whole from the Ike Turner-penned ‘Unlucky Creature’ (released on Ike & Tina’s Come Together album in 1970). It came as quite a surprise (and further credit to Gibb) to find that Arnold had in fact released ‘Bury Me…’ as a single a year before the Turner track, to realize that it was Gibb who had come up with such a soulful pop ditty, and Turner who had plucked it and made even better! Listen to both of these wonderful songs back-to-back, and be amazed.
To hear these tracks off of The Turning Tide, Arnold, Gibb - indeed, all the players involved - are clearly committed to the music they are making. But as inspired as the sessions were, they failed to inspire Stigwood, who put a stop to the sessions. Stigwood did find Arnold live work, opening for Eric Clapton and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Through that UK tour, she got to know Clapton, who took a shot of his own at producing her. The three tracks that resulted from their two-day session (covers of Van Morrison’s ‘Brand New Day’, Traffic’s ‘Medicated Goo’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’) swing the pendulum back toward Arnold’s musical home territory - the sounds Clapton shoots for, particularly on the stellar Turning Tide opener ‘Medicated Goo’, could have come from her former bosses Ike and Tina Turner. But Stigwood remained somehow deaf to the magic in Arnold’s music; he sat on the recordings, and eventually dropped her from RSO.
Give Arnold credit: she pressed on when others would have given up. Her next creative partner was studio musician Caleb Quaye, who had first met her as an arranger for some of her Immediate sides. And far from backing off from recording ventures that at this point must have seemed cursed, Arnold dove headlong into the project, co-writing and co-producing with Quaye the two final pieces of the Turning Tide puzzle, the hippie-soul gems ‘If This Were My World’ and ‘Children of the Last War’. Sadly, by this time Arnold was not only without a label but also without a manager. Her album lost momentum, she moved on to other gigs and session work, and the masters began gathering their decades' worth of dust.
It takes a certain alchemy to make a hit single or a classic album, a mix of canny promotion and good timing that can propel a record into the public consciousness. Sadly, a fiasco of mismanagement robbed Arnold of those key ingredients. The tracks of The Turning Tide would remain in a record-company wilderness for the better part of fifty years, until long after their alchemical moment had passed, before the singer managed, through an epic series of legal and logistical battles, to win back the rights to them and give them the release they deserved.
But if that alchemy didn’t extend to the industry side of things, it’s all over the recordings themselves. In fact, with the pall that Arnold’s faltering career must have cast over her artistic endeavors, it seems something of a miracle that she managed to maintain her mojo through no less than three stop-start attempts. Her vocal performance sits atop three solid pillars: songwriting, arrangement and production. In the rare instance that one of these pillars fails (for instance, when the Clapton-produced ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ veers away from the pop-gospel that would have best suited Arnold’s vocals and into too-funky R&B rhythms), the song still stands on the sheer quality of what remains. And listening to Arnold sing, from mournful murmurs to ecstatic cries, one imagines that her excitement, her drive, her sheer belief in herself and what she was doing, could have made any song fly.
It’s heartbreaking that an audience primed for the type of music Arnold was recording, listeners who grooved to the Anglo-American soul rock of the early seventies, were kept from hearing these stellar tracks because of petty music-business politics. It borders on tragic that a number of key players from the era that spawned Mad Dogs & Englishmen and the Concert for Bangladesh, players on the Turning Tide sessions themselves (saxophone player Bobby Keys and bassist Carl Radle, to name two), would not live to hear the finished results of their fine work. But then, the joyful noise that leaps from the speakers when the needle drops on The Turning Tide is here for the rest of us, and it doesn’t age. Its sonics are a perfect reflection of their era, while the spirit fueling them is utterly timeless. The music loses not a single watt of its electricity, and Arnold’s voice keeps every bit of its youthful fire. Its triumph is only made that much sweeter for being so hard-won.