Out of all the female soul and R&B singers that emerged during the early 60s, Carla Thomas was never one that really caught my attention specifically. I relistened to her two biggest hits, “Gee Whiz, Look At His Eyes” and “B-A-B-Y”, and both are perfectly pleasant, listenable tracks. But I guess when your closest competition is the likes of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and any number of artists during the girl group boom of ’63, it’s pretty easy for Thomas herself to fall between the cracks. Impressively enough, noting the difference in style and production during these two songs – released six years apart – demonstrate Thomas’ impeccable ability to fit herself into whatever style is hot in its corresponding era. The fact that the first song is a low tempo ballad, while the second is a more upbeat, playful composition, also exemplifies her versatility in showcasing her awesome vocal power across a number of moods – something at which even Aretha Franklin often faltered.
Thomas is often considered the “Queen of Memphis Soul”, a designation that referred to the breed of soul music that emerged from Memphis labels Stax Records, Hi Records, and Gold Wax Records in the 60s and 70s. As opposed to the polished, pop-tinged arrangements of the renowned Motown sound, Memphis soul is often grittier and places more emphasis on the blues angle with scratchy guitars and horns thrown in the mix. Carla Thomas is probably best known for her work on both Atlantic and Stax Records during this influential era in R&B music. Although “Gee Whiz” and “B-A-B-Y” were her only top 20 hits on the Hot 100 (reaching #10 and #14, respectively), she was prominent in the R&B charts throughout her entire career and continues to remain commercially successful in these fields to this day, even if she has slipped into obscurity in recent years.
“I Like What You’re Doing to Me” was a relatively well-received effort from Thomas, reaching all the way up to #9 on the R&B charts, though she has unfortunately not had another top ten hit since. It’s pretty standard 60s soul fair, with slightly punchy horns and a funky percussion groove moving the arrangement along the grooves of Thomas’ silky vocals themselves. The guitar in this track kind of gently eases along, and at some points this element reminds me of the breed of psychedelic rock that was all the rage in this time (especially when the wah-wah pedal makes an appearance). In terms of lyrics, it’s a pretty basic song about how the speaker goes absolutely gaga over her lover of choice, even if he does treat her poorly at times. Sometimes, though, these lines can get a bit questionable, as far as what message we’re supposed to make from it. The hook of the song is the straight-forward title and it’s catchy enough, yet with lines like “Your mama called you no good”, “You’re just like your old daddy / They say he didn’t treat your mama right”, and “You’re like Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, part of me wishes the speaker wasn’t wasting her time with someone who seems pretty iffy at best.
I guess I might just be projecting too many of my own moral stances onto what essentially boils down to an effortlessly composed soul track meant for mass consumption. For all I know, this could just be a song about a regular lovers’ quarrel, with little to none of the abusive elements taking hold at all. At the same time, though, there are very few descriptors of how exactly this person “makes [her] feel so good”, at least in comparison to descriptions of his flaws which are awfully damning to his character. Despite this, though, Thomas describes him as “like ten good men wrapped in one”, which just saddens me over how so many people have historically held men to such low expectations. Again, I’m probably just projecting. Even if the lyrics aren’t the sharpest, the horn- and guitar-led instrumentation make this an enjoyable listen anyway. I’m gonna have to go look for more of Carla Thomas ‘ releases.