The Four Larks - Rain
Someday I’m going to find the missing links in the puzzle and put together a long form article on Philadelphia’s Harthon label. A cooperative effort between Weldon McDougal, Luther Randolph and Johnny Styles, Harthon (as a label and production house) created some of the most memorable soul singles out of Philly (or anywhere for that matter) in the 1960’s. Efforts by Eddie Holman, The Volcanos, Lee Garrett, Larry Clinton, Bernard Williams and the Blue Notes, The Philly Four, and the Cooperettes made Harthon a force to be reckoned with (and a major force on Northern Soul playlists). One of the best remembered groups from the Harthon stable was The Four Larks (aka the Larks, Irma and the Larks), featuring the lead vocals of Irma McDougal (Weldon's wife). The Four Larks release a series of 45’s on the Tower and Uptown labels, the best known (and rarest) is the classic ‘Groovin’ at the Go Go’ on Tower recently changing hands for upwards of $200 USD*. Irma McDougal is also the lead voice on the legendary, unreleased track ‘You Need Love’ by Irma and the Fascinations (based on the same instrumental bed as the Cooperettes ‘Shingaling’). With McDougal’s memorable voice and the ace songwriting/arranging of Tom Bell the Four Larks 45s are some of the finest Harthon-related sides. The record we feature today - 'Rain' - predates ‘Groovin’ At The Go Go’. ‘Rain’ is a great example of the kind of sophisticated, melodically complicated soul music coming out of Philly in the mid-60’s, and a direct precursor of the late 60’s/early 70’s Philly Soul hits of groups like the Stylistics, Intruders, Ethics and Ambassadors. The tune starts out with a tempo, that while subdued is still conducive to dancing. However the introduction of strings lets the listener know that they’re in for something a little more sophisticated than the dance of the week. The lyrics (and the overall feel of the arrangement) bring a melancholy tone, but never so down that the beauty of the melody and the power of the backbeat are diminished. If I were looking for a record to compare ‘Rain’ to I’d have to go right to the Formations ‘At The Top of The Stairs’, another Philly classic (and one of my favorite soul records ever). There’s a very particular sound at work here, in which the customary building blocks of 60’s soul are complemented by flavors of progressive pop and rock (which considering how much the Motown sound contributed to the sound of 60’s pop sees things coming full circle). The cool thing is that this “fusion” stops short of the sometimes overly sweet group soul that was to follow, creating a unique mixture that sadly did not catch on with the listening public. Sadly the Four Larks 45s and unreleased tracks have never been gathered together in a compilation devoted solely to the group which is a shame since McDougal was such a distinctive vocalist. A number of their tracks (not including ‘Rain’) were included on the Goldmine Soul Supply compilation (highly recommended) ‘Groovin’ At The Go Go’, a very nice survey of Harthon productions. Also recommended are the Soul Jazz ‘Philadelphia Roots’ volumes which also include some great Harthon productions. * Those interested should keep an eye out for the 1970’s Harthon reissue of ‘Groovin’ at the Go Go’ which was pressed for the Northern Soul market with an instrumental dub of the song (called ‘Discotheque Groove’) on the b-side. It can be had for considerably less than the Tower original. There are a number of similar reissues (on a plain orange and black Harthon label, not using the distinctive 60’s era logo), including the Volcanos, Lee Garrett, Preludes and Body Motions (instrumental dubs of Volcanos and Preludes sides).