The U.K.'s Kent Soul label has reunited me with an old friend I thought I'd never hear again after 48 years: Darrow Fletcher's irresistibly insistent Chicago soul tune "The Pain Gets a Little Deeper." It was the 14-year-old's (8 months younger than Stevie Wonder) début hit -- and his all-time biggest -- rising to #23 soul on Billboard and crossing over onto the Hot 100, reaching #89 in January 1966. Co-written by Fletcher, it's propelled by hand-claps and an irrepressible backbeat as it poignantly describes the plight of a teenager experiencing the vicissitudes of first love and inevitable heartbreak. The singing by this Chicago high school freshman is astoundingly expressive and emotional, and when he hits the title word "deeper" he sounds so wounded you can only hope he was administered first aid once the tape stopped rolling. Yet it's a solid dance groover all the way that was issued on the appropriately named Groovy label out of New York City (the short-lived [1965-67] label's very first release).
I call this an "old friend" because I remember hearing it at the time on soul radio, liking it a lot but wishing I could hear it some more before it disappeared, seemingly forever. I mentioned Fletcher's closeness in age to Stevie Wonder, plus they sang in a similar high register back then, possibly causing a bit of confusion with listeners as to who this artist was. It just so happened that this record was exactly contemporaneous with Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," his biggest soul chart vocal hit of the 1960s. But Fletcher's singing has more grit, making this record just what the U.K. Northern Soul dance fans were looking for a decade or so later as an alternative to soulless disco. This CD release out of the U.K. (along with the companion one of Fletcher's later '70s material) attests to his newer-found popularity across the pond. The really good news is that he is still only 62 and we are sure to be hearing more from him.
Making "The Pain Gets a Little Deeper" an even greater 45 is its B-side "My Judgement Day," a midtempo ballad (featuring a fine horn chart) whose lyrics decry the crime and violence of the inner city from a young person's perspective. It got some well-deserved airplay in Chicago after the top-side had peaked. Of the other three Groovy A-sides, "Gotta Draw the Line" was the only one to dent the Chicago soul Top 30, but you can easily tell why it later became a Northern Soul biggie. Originally by the Three Degrees, it has Four Tops mid-'60s Motown soul written all over it.
Next (late '66/'67), it was on to Chicago's Jacklyn label founded by Fletcher's adoptive father. The lack of financial push behind these three very good singles doomed them to obscurity, although the first, "Sitting There That Night," did fairly well locally. It is easily the best soul "sitting" song between Billy Stewart's "Sitting in the Park" and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay": a gorgeous romantic ballad with another excellent horn chart -- and as a bonus, Fletcher, who composed the music, put in his own brief Curtis Mayfield-styled electric guitar solo in the middle.
Seeking better promotion and distribution, Fletcher next joined LA-based MCA who presided over a whole stable of labels. It was here, on its Congress imprint, in early 1970, that he landed his second national soul chart placement [#47 / and predictably higher in Chicago: #12 on WVON] with the Don Mancha-written-and-produced "I Think I'm Gonna Write a Song," a smooth soul groover that sounds a bit like the missing link between Stevie Wonder's "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" and Al Green. Its follow-up, "When Love Calls," from the summer of 1970 (issued on MCA's Uni label as Uni 55244, just two releases ahead of Elton John's "Border Song" and six ahead of Neil Diamond's #1 pop song "Cracklin' Rosie"), is his greatest ballad, featuring a rather complex but irresistibly slinky arrangement by Tom "Tom Tom" Washington [check out his work on Otis Clay's great "Truth Is" CD from earlier in 2013]. This beautifully soulful gem rose to #13 on Chicago's WVON, while placing nationally at #56 on Cash Box's R&B chart.
Finally on this collection, it's 1971 and Fletcher puts out (on the Genna label, his sixth in seven years) a more experimental psychedelic-soul-influenced two-part peace-and-harmony song ("Now Is the Time for Love") that name-drops the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion."
Darrow Fletcher is a tremendous talent whose early work finally gets its full due with this sterling CD researched and compiled to a tee by Ady Croasdell with a stunning 20-page booklet that contains superbly written, ultra-informative and comprehensive liner notes by both Robert Pruter (author of the book "Chicago Soul") and Croasdell. It's photo-filled, showing Fletcher from 1965 to 2012 as well as color repros of all of the discs' labels (both sides). That Kent was able to acquire the licensing rights to all 14 of these early singles (A and B sides) issued on six different labels speaks volumes about their motivation, commitment and perseverance.