If you know the name Lorraine Ellison, an underappreciated soul singer who died young of cancer in 1983, it’s most likely because of 1966′s “Stay With Me”. (You might also recognize the song without knowing the original vocalist, from Bette Midler’s version in the movie The Rose.)
The song, co-written by the prolific Jerry Ragovoy and displaying the full range and power of Ellison’s voice, is one of soul music’s most stirring high-drama pieces. The verses travel at a smolder, setting you up for a chorus where the intensity reaches blue-flame levels while a backing orchestra defines what it means to swell.
Ellison seems to be prying the words from a place in the soul even deeper than where anguish lives, suggesting nothing less than dead-of-the-night desperation. Still, although flirting with that destination, the performance never goes over the top.
“Stay With Me” was a career-definer (its slow burn mirrored on the almost-as-compelling “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love”), but as the songs that surround it on this three-disc collection of recordings Ellison made for Warner Bros. from 1966-73 make clear, she was far from a one-style performer. The first two discs show Ellison confidently shifting from standards such as “Heart And Soul” and “Cry Me A River” — which boast sophisticated arrangements and adventurous vocal flights that have more in common with jazz and big-band than with soul — to grittier, funkier fare such as the Al Kooper-penned “Doin’ Me Dirty”.
“It really wasn’t my bag at all” is a liner-note quote attributed to Ellison about the Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”, which producer Ragovoy talked her into performing. Sure enough, covers of Randy Newman’s “I’ll Be Home”, Van Morrison’s “Caravan”, and a monumental, Donny Hathaway-rivaling “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” — all three recorded in Muscle Shoals — suggest she was more comfortable with works from the rock and singer-songwriter camps than from inside the soul circle.
Further evidence comes on “Many Rivers To Cross”, which starts lovely and finishes drop-dead gorgeous, as well as a joyful take on “You’ve Got A Friend”, which, until now, I felt I never needed to hear again. And not that there are a lot of Lorraine Ellison completists out there, but it’s worth noting that “You’ve Got A Friend” and a powerhouse version of “Walk Around Heaven” are among a number of previously unissued tracks in this set.
The third disc consists of fifteen piano-driven demos of Ellison’s own compositions recorded in ’72. The stripped-down performances are interesting in small doses, but because full-blown versions of the songs don’t appear elsewhere, you get only a partial look at the creative process. No matter. By that point, Ellison’s spirit and her gutsy, versatile vocals will have long since won you over.