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The Soul Singer Who Never Quite Made It

The Soul Singer Who Never Quite Made It

James Govan isn't a household name — and until recently, when Kent Records issued some of his unreleased recordings under the title Wanted, there wasn't much to hear from him. But there was a time when people in the know in Memphis said he was Otis Redding's natural successor.

Govan was born in Mississippi in 1949, and was still a baby when his parents relocated to Memphis. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing guitar and drums and singing in a group called The Vans; the band was heard one night by George Jackson, a producer and songwriter for Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Jackson had been telling the folks back at Fame that they should open an operation in Memphis — that not all the good talent had been signed — so Rick Hall, Fame's owner, opened a small studio to record demos there in 1969. He put Mickey Buckins, an up-and-coming producer and engineer, in charge of it.

George Jackson was hanging around Memphis a lot, and he put Buckins and Govan together. Buckins heard a similarity to Otis Redding, and soon enough, Govan was at Fame in Muscle Shoals, recording "Wanted: Lover," a song that had been a B-side for Laura Lee during her legendary but hitless recording sessions there.

The sudden change of Govan's voice for the chorus, the superb backing track — none of it made a difference. The record went nowhere. Buckins, though, didn't give up. He had an idea to take a contemporary rock song and see what Govan could do with it. What he did was pretty wonderful. "Just Like a Woman" and his equally tremendous version of "I Shall Be Released" never got issued. In 1971, though, Hall took another chance on Govan, and did it with a rock song called "Something," which did get released.

Again, nothing happened. Buckins remembered a legendary tape that had been cut at Fame when Otis Redding dropped by with a song he gave to Arthur Conley. Maybe "You Left the Water Running" would be right for James. By this time, Buckins had moved back to Muscle Shoals and was the studio manager there. But Fame Records was losing momentum, and he and Govan parted company.

Over the subsequent years, Govan has recorded sporadically, his last album coming out in 1996, and he became a star in Italy thanks to the Poretta Soul Festival. But mostly, he and a guy named Don Chandler have fronted the Boogie Blues Band at the Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street in Memphis. He doesn't like to be interviewed, and he's stopped playing Poretta. But whatever he chooses to do with his talent in the future, these recordings for Fame are unparalleled.

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Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.