Lou Ragland is one of those obscure names that everyone should know, but no one actually does — destined to bless an UNSUNG episode, or one of Questlove’s lists. And though American notoriety has eluded him, Ragland is definitely proof that fame and musical quality don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Ragland is another student of soul, or as they call it, early R&B. His sound is made up of a malay of acoustic instruments (horns and strings to boot), intricate and thoughtful arrangements and melodies, simple, tight lyrics, and a smooth, clear voice that embodied that era. I like to call it, “suit music.” It’s the same sound that the Mark Ronsons and Raphael Saadiqs of the world emulate. And even though they do it well, that four-track, lo-fi sound with its grit and gut-wrenching tone could only, truly, come from that time.
The same goes for the versatility in song topics. As R&B continues to lock itself in the love box these days, it’s always amazing to hear the music back then, covering a vast array of topics. Sure, Ragland’s got love jams. “We Had True Love,” and “I Travel Alone,” on his first album, Hot Chocolate, one in a re-released set of three, are great, but he also sings songs about his purpose in life, on “I’ve Got Something For Me,” and the simple pleasures on “Red Robin,” an homage to Spring, showing that there’s more to talk about than romance, and that living is not only about loving a woman, but about loving life and all of its nuanced beauty.
On the more funk-tinged, Understand Each Other, Ragland follows the sound of the time, adding a slappier bass line, more muted guitar licks, and less of a croon in his voice. Of course there are still more than enough love songs to choose from — “Since You said You’d Be Mine,” “I Didn’t Mean to Leave You,” “Just For Being You,” just to name a few. But he balances it with the title track, “Understand Each Other,” which has more to do with social peace and human understanding, similar to Marvin’s “What’s Going On.” He also anchors the album with my favorite song of his, the super-funky, “The Next World,” which would’ve been an easy hit, (dare I say) if only The Temptations were singing it. The song pretty much sounds like a souled-out LSD trip on the order of “Cloud Nine,” or even “Ball of Confusion.” A definite, undeniable jam.
Lou Ragland also has a live album (I know right? And you never even heard of him!), Live From Agency but to be completely honest, there’s not much to talk about in regards to it. I mean, he does what sounds like a pretty mean rendition of “The World is a Ghetto,” as well as “Understand Each Other,” but the sound quality is so poor that it’s almost unlistenable. But, I wish I was there. That’s for sure.
So where is Lou Ragland? I don’t know. Is he still putting out records? I don’t know. Is he really going to be on UNSUNG? I don’t know that either. But what I do know is that he’s one of the soul kings that slipped through the cracks before ever getting crowned. His music is honest and evocative, and his voice can only be described as the truth. He was cut from the same cloth as the Motown herd, but unfortunately never reaped the pasture of fame. And that only matters because it keeps people like you (and me, before this review) from getting to know how good his music really is.
- Jason Renolds