2016 has been a year that America would like to forget, but never will. If you’re old enough to remember 1968 you know that there was the same feeling in the air then that there is now. There is a sense that the whole country is falling part, that the center cannot hold, that we are so divided that the wounds can never be healed. The comparison to 1968 does provide any solace. It was a terrible year, but we held on, just as we’re holding on now. We got through it then. It remains to be seen whether we really can overcome once again.
This week’s column has nothing to do with the events that have recently taken place in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, and in Dallas, except that those events have caused me to take shelter in the music that I love, the music that I celebrate every week in this column. I hope that this music brings you some peace too.
Last week I wrote about the extraordinary life of Gene Chandler. He had many career highlights as a singer, but it didn’t end there. At one point he produced so many hit records that he won a Producer of the Year award for his work. Among the artists that he helped to put on the charts were Mel & Tim.
Chandler had already scored big hits like “Duke of Earl,” “Just Be True,” and “Rainbow ’65,” but he had grown weary of the road, and he turned his attention to production in the late ’60s. Cousins Melvin Hardin and Tim McPherson were from Mississippi, but they eventually moved to Chicago, where they were discovered by Chandler. He signed the duo to his own Bamboo Records label and co-produced, along with Karl Tarleton, the smash hit “Backfield in Motion” for them.
The single, which was written by Hardin and McPherson, reached #10 on the Pop chart, and #3 on the R&B chart in 1969. It was a million-seller, and Mel & Tim were awarded a gold record to mark the achievement. In 1970 they followed up with “Good Guys Only Win in the Movies.” The single was again produced by Chandler and Tarleton, and while it wasn’t quite as big a hit as “Backfield,” it did manage to reach the Top 50 on the Pop chart, and the Top 20 on the R&B chart.
Mel & Tim still had success in front of them, but it required a move to Stax Records to find it. Stax, as they often did, sent the duo to Muscle Shoals to record with the Swampers, two of whom, Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins, produced the next Mel & Tim hit. “Starting All Over Again” was written by Phillip Mitchell and released on Stax in 1972. The record, with its production modeled on the Chi-Lites hit “Have You Seen Her” (including the use of the electric sitar), was a Top 20 hit on the Pop chart, and reached #4 on the R&B chart. “Starting All Over Again” remained on the charts for 20 weeks, and became Mel & Tim’s second million-seller.
It’s hard to know why some talented artists have long lasting careers while others fade away. Mel & Tim performed at the fabled Wattstax concert in 1972, but even that highly visible appearance didn’t help them find any real chart success with their subsequent releases. “I May Not Be What You Want” (1973), “That’s the Way I Want to Live My Life” (1974), and “Forever and a Day” (1974) all found a place in the Top 100 on the R&B chart, but unlike Mel & Tim’s earlier hits, did not have much in the way of crossover success.
Tim McPherson passed away in 1986. Five years later a cover of the Mel & Tim hit “Starting All Over Again” by Daryl Hall and John Oates became a Top 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart.