‘I’ve Been Searchin’ For The Dolphins . . .’

Originally posted May 13, 2008

Al Wilson was a singer I’d never thought much about or looked too deeply into. He had four Top 40 hits, the largest of which, “Show And Tell,” went to No. 1 in the early weeks of 1974 and stayed at the top spot for one week.

That one single was all I ever really knew about Al Wilson, who died April 21 at the age of sixty-eight. As it turned out, I had to learn about “Show And Tell” after the fact: I was overseas the first part of 1974, living in a youth hostel, and no one back home sent us a tape of Wilson’s Show And Tell album. So it wasn’t until I was back in the States in May that I had a chance to hear “Show And Tell” (and a multitude of other songs that had been popular while I was gone but that I’d missed).

I liked “Show And Tell,” but it didn’t strike me any harder than any other R&B single of the time, and I never looked more deeply into Wilson, even during my record-buying spree of the late 1990s; my LP stacks go from Willie & The Bees to Jackie Wilson. Sometime after I got my computer eight years ago, I borrowed a CD from a friend or the library, and “Show And Tell” found its way into the collection. It was the only Al Wilson I had; I knew he’d had a few other hits, but I wasn’t going to go looking.

Then, shortly after Wilson crossed over last month, Jeff at AM, Then FM, told his tale of a crate-digging session that brought him a copy of Searching for the Dolphins, Wilson’s debut album from 1968. Jeff said his copy of the record was in pretty poor shape, with a lot of pops and some skips, but his assessment and the tracks he shared made it seem as if it was a good piece of work. What truly grabbed my attention, though, was that the record had been released on Soul City, the label owned by Johnny Rivers. Then Jeff pointed out the recent release in the United Kingdom of Searching for the Dolphins: The Complete Soul City Recordings and More, 1967-71, a CD package that supplements the Dolphins album with eleven of Wilson’s singles on three different labels from 1967 into 1971.

So I went shopping.

It’s a nice package. The Dolphins album is better than I expected, with some interesting covers: “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Poor Side of Town,” “Brother, Where Are You” and “Summer Rain” jumped out of the list at me. The last two were highlights of Rivers’ own 1968 record, Realization (admittedly one of my favorite albums of all time). Also on the album was Wilson’s first Top 40 hit, “The Snake,” a nifty piece of pop soul that went to No. 27 in the autumn of 1968.

The bonus tracks are good, too, but it’s the album that I find fascinating. Partly, it’s the material; I think the songs on the album – eight of its eleven tracks were released as singles – are stronger than the songs added as bonus tracks. I dunno. Maybe I’m hearing something that isn’t there. But Rivers produced the Dolphins album and in 1968, he was in the midst of that tremendous stretch of albums I’ve mentioned here before, albums that if not quite concept albums were pieces that at least had central themes. I’ll have to listen a few more times to the Wilson album as a whole to see if I discern any themes. But there is a unity to the album that I don’t hear in the supplementary singles, even those on Soul City.

One thing I do hear is top-notch musicians behind Wilson, and that’s one of the reasons I tend to seek out Soul City releases when I can: The album had Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon on drums and percussion, Joe Osborne on bass and guitar, James Burton on guitar, Larry Knechtel on keyboards and Jim Horn on flute and recorder.

Even before the CD arrived in the mail, the song I wanted to hear most was the first track, “The Dolphins,” a Fred Neil composition about isolation found in retreat from the world’s care and anguish. (The album is neatly bracketed with “The Dolphins” at the start and the closer of “Brother, Where Are You,” which examines the isolation of those who do not retreat.)

I’d heard “The Dolphins” a number of times, having versions by Linda Ronstadt, Gale Garnett & the Gentle Reign, Dion, Richie Havens, It’s A Beautiful Day and studio and live versions from composer Fred Neil. Of those, I prefer Neil’s stoic original although Havens’ version has its moments as well.

Others who have covered “The Dolphins” include Billy Bragg, Tim Buckley, Cyrus Faryar (his entry at All-Music Guide intrigues me; I will have to dig a little), Dave Graney, Beth Orton, Eddi Reader, Gove Scrivenor and the Soul Bossa Trio. There are no doubt others who have covered the song as well, but these were just the most obvious.

The best place to start remains with the original. So here are Neil’s version from his 1967 album Fred Neil and Wilson’s version from Searching For The Dolphins a year later. (Both recordings were released as singles, Neil’s as Capitol 5786 and Wilson’s as Soul City 771.)

Fred Neil – “The Dolphins” [1967]

Al Wilson – “The Dolphins” [1968]

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One Response to “‘I’ve Been Searchin’ For The Dolphins . . .’”

  1. Saturday Single No. 86 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] version of “Summer Rain” from his Searching For The Dolphins, an album whose CD release I discussed a while back. It’s a good version, but again, I hold out for the original, in this case by Johnny […]

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