Turley Richards is a talented West Virgina-born singer-songwriter and producer who has been on the verge of stardom several times, only to remain a well kept secret. Damaging his vision in a childhood accident and completely blind by his late 20s, his life has been a whirlwind ride, where predictions of him being "the next big thing" have led to him being signed by seven different labels over the course of his career. Standing at 6' 4", and blessed with a soulful exuberant voice, Richards is a commanding presence.
This vintage Turley Richards performance, recorded at Berkeley's Community Theater when he was opening for Richie Havens, captures the man just after he had signed with Warner Brothers Records, but prior to the release of his self-titled first album for the label. Other than the opening blues-inflected original "Jellyroll Man," the set consists of Richards performing songs by other songwriters, where he exhibits a gifted and distinctive ability at interpretation. Unlike most white singer-songwriters of the era, who usually came from a folksinger background, Richards’ style is firmly rooted in blues and soul music. His vocal inflections reveal an obvious love for the singing style of Jackie Wilson and Ray Charles, with a bit of Wilson Pickett and even Little Richard tossed in for good measure. This makes his approach to songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell unlike anyone else.
Following the previously mentioned opener, "Jellyroll Man," Richards delivers his interpretation of one of Joni Mitchell's ea rly classics, "The Circle Game." His innate ability to make a listener ache with sadness permeates this performance, eliminating the wistfulness inherent to most renditions and bringing additional de pth to the song.
He next approaches gospel territory with an extraordinary cover of the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "I Heard The Voice Of Jesus." Regardless of the obvious religious connotations this is a powerful performance, exhibiting a jazz-inflected sophistication few other singer-songwriters of the era possessed.
Perhaps the most interesting number in the set is next, when Richards displays his softer sensitive side on Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." One of Dylan's most beautiful songs, this is one of the only cover versions that brings anything new to the table, and it would grace Richards' first Warner Brothers album later in the year.
A return to the gospel flavorings heard earlier in the se t, the traditional "Amen, Amen" is another strong performance that showcases his vocal abilities. Near the end, Richards sounds enraptured, especially during a throat-shredding wail that is astounding in its intensity.
The set ends with an utterly unique solo acoustic rearrangement of The Rolling Stones’ "(I Cant Get No) Satisfaction." Filled with spontaneous improvisation, this version sounds like Richards is channeling the great Otis Redding, rather than emulating Mick Jagger. Finding the bluesy roots of this song, Richards raps out improvised vocals over a bluesy vam p. Although some of this sounds dated, with plenty of sock-it-to-yous and other catch phrases of the era, it is a remarkable performance clocking in at nearly ten minutes, with only voice and acoustic guitar to keep the audiences attention.
Turley Richards is still alive and well and he continues to perform and produce music. His ability to overcome his challenges and retain his optimistic attitude continues to drive his music forward to the present day.