Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience (Rhino '01) Rating: A
Ah, the good old days. Given that these days you can probably count the number of premiere soul artists on one hand, I had a blast listening to his monstrous 6-cd box set, which is worth every cent of its asking price (which 'aint cheap). Really, '70s soul, and by that I mean the lush, smooth "Philly soul" sound engineered by producer svengalis such as Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff (the sound that dominates much of these 6 cds, though there's much more as well), never got its just due from the critics during its '70s heyday.

Can You Dig It? shows just how deep the soul reservoir was in those days, with Rhino's typical first-rate packaging, sound, and liner notes providing added incentives. It's not perfect, as hits such as "Want Ads" (Honey Cone), "Mr. Big Stuff" (Jean Knight), "I Can See Clearly Now" (Johnny Nash), "Rock The Boat" (The Hues Corporation), "Best Of My Love" (The Emotions), and "Reunited" (Peaches and Herb) are fine pop hits that don't belong on a soul collection, and much of discs 5 and 6 would be better described as disco or funk (or discofied funk). Still, by and large this box is dominated by slick, string-drenched ballads sung by guys (or gals) who could really sing (including high-pitched falsettos, deep baritones, whispery pillow talk, and even early raps), and the superlative overall quality of these songs (especially on discs 3 and 4) overcomes the fact that a lot of them share a similar vibe or are overly lightweight.

Limiting each artist to a maximum of two songs was a wise move, and though some significant artists (Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, P-Funk, The Commodores) were curiously omitted, presumably for licensing reasons, most major soul artists from the 70s are ably represented. You probably know songs such as "Hey There Lonely Girl" (Eddie Holman), "Give Me Just A Little More Time" (Chairmen Of The Board), "Love On A Two-Way Street" (The Moments), "O-O-H Child" (The 5 Stairsteps), "Too Late To Turn Back Now" (Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose), "Everybody Plays The Fool" (The Main Ingredient), and "Lovin' You" (Minnie Ripperton), maybe without even realizing it upon glancing at the titles, and if you don't know Sly & The Family Stone ("Everybody Is A Star," "Everyday People"), Al Green ("Let's Stay Together"), Curtis Mayfield ("Freddie's Dead," "So In Love"), The Temptations ("Papa Was A Rollin' Stone"), The Four Tops (the atypical "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)"), Marvin Gaye ("Let's Get It On"), James Brown ("The Payback Part I"), and Smokey Robinson ("Crusin'") then you probably should get out of the house more.

Other stellar artists such as Wilson Pickett ("Don't Knock My Love Pt. I"), Isaac Hayes ("Theme From "Shaft"," "Do Your Thing"), The Staple Singers ("Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There"), Bill Withers ("Lean On Me," "Use Me"), The Spinners ("I'll Be Around," "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love"), The O'Jays ("Back Stabbers," "Love Train"), The Isley Brothers ("That Lady"), Glady's Knight and The Pips ("Midnight Train To Georgia"), War (a pair of polar opposites: "The World Is A Ghetto," "Why Can't We Be Friends"), and Earth, Wind, & Fire ("Reasons," "Shining Star") also appear, and you would do well to seek out more (at least a compilation) from the likes of Brook Benton ("A Rainy Night In Georgia"), The Delfonics ("Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)"), Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band ("Express Yourself"), The Dramatics ("Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get," "In The Rain"), Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes ("If You Don't Know Me By Now," "The Love I Lost Part I"), The Chi-Lites ("Have You Seen Her," "Oh Girl,"), The Stylistics ("Betcha By Golly, Wow"), Ann Peebles ("I Can't Stand The Rain"), Bobby Womack ("Lookin' For A Love"), Kool & The Gang ("Hollywood Swinging"), Rufus ("Tell Me Something Good"), Average White Band ("Pick Up The Pieces," "Cut The Cake"), LaBelle ("Lady Marmalade"), and Lou Rawls ("You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine").

But where this collection is invaluable is in the way it showcases great songs from one or two hit wonders (at least they're one or two hit wonders to me; let me know if I'm missing out) whose albums I would never shell out big bucks for. Among these are The Three Degrees ("When Will I See You Again"), Edwin Starr ("War"), The Beginning Of The End ("Funky Nassau Part I"), Paul Humphrey & His Cool Aid Chemists ("Cool Aid"), The Persuaders ("Thin Line Between Love and Hate"), Joe Simon ("Drowning In The Sea Of Love"), Frederick Knight ("I've Been Lonely For So Long"), The 8th Day ("She's Not Just Another Woman"), Luther Ingram ("(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want To Be Right"), Mel & Tim ("Starting All Over Again"), Billy Paul ("Me And Mrs. Jones," arguably the ultimate "other woman" song), session ace turned solo artist Billy Preston ("Outa-Space"), Slyvia ("Pillow Talk"), Bloodstone ("Natural High"), Al Wilson ("Show And Tell"), William DeVaughn ("Be Thankful For What you Got"), Blue Magic ("Sideshow"), George McCrae ("Rock Your Baby"), Carl Carlton ("Everlasting Love"), The Blackbyrds ("Walking In Rhythm"), Rose Royce ("I Wanna Get Next To You"), The Manhattans ("Kiss And Say Goodbye"), The Floaters ("Float On"), Heatwave ("Always and Forever"), and Bobby Caldwell ("What You Won't Do For Love"), and all of these memorably entertaining songs hold up after repeat listens, regardless of the sequencing (in fact, this compilation is perfect for selecting random play and/or condensing these six discs into a one or two-cd "best of" set).

Really, even the biggest soul vet is likely to be consistently surprised by this set, such as by the early appearance of excellent Latin songs (Malo's "Suavecito" and Chicano's "Tell Her She's Lovely") well before Ricky Martin (but after Santana), as well as the continuing vitality of Holland-Dozier-Holland (who guided quite a few of these artists) well after their much ballyhooed Motown heyday. Like I said before, Can You Dig It? The '70s Soul Experience is far from perfect (as if any such endeavor could be), but it nevertheless is an essential box set that deserves to comfortably sit beside other landmark various artist soul boxes such as The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968, Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974, and Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971.

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