TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Arthur Conley was Otis Redding's protege, his special project, and had a number of hits before mysteriously disappearing. Our rock historian Ed Ward has uncovered what he can about Redding's story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SOUL MUSIC")
ARTHUR CONLEY: (Singing) Do you like good music, that sweet soul music. Just as long as it's swingin'. Oh yeah, oh yeah. We're out here on the floor y'all. We're going to a go go. Dancin' with the music, oh yeah, oh yeah. Spotlight on Lou Rawls, y'all.
ED WARD, BYLINE: If people remember Arthur Conley today, it's for his first hit, produced by Otis Redding and all of over jukeboxes early in 1967 and forever after. His career had actually started at McIntosh, Georgia, near Atlanta, where he was born in 1946. His singing was legendary in his church, which is how we wound up in an otherwise all-girl gospel group "The Evening Smiles" before his voice changed. From there, he joined "The Corvettes," the secular Atlanta vocal group that made a couple of records, one of which almost took off. Wanting to reunite with his father, Conley moved to Baltimore, where he joined Harold Holt's band. Holt's manager recorded them in 1965, and allowed Arthur to sing two tunes at the session.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE YOU LEAD ME")
CONLEY: (Singing) Girl you lead me, I will follow. Where you lead me, baby, I will follow you. So take my hand, baby, and lead this fool. I'm a fool so in love with you. Where you lead me...
WARD: Just as Holt's record with Arthur's vocal came off the presses, Otis Redding came to town, and Holt's manager gave him a copy. Redding managed to listen past the ham-fisted production and liked the young singer. He was making plans to start his own label, Jotis, and decided Arthur Conley would be his first signing. He arranged to have them cut a couple of tunes at Stax, which prompted a lawsuit from Harold Holt's manager. Otis decided it was time to manage Conley himself and met him for the first time early in 1967. A couple of weeks later, they were in the FAME Studios in Alabama, updated a Sam Cooke classic, called "Yeah Man" and "Sweet Soul Music" was born. The song, on Atlantic Records Atco subsidiary, quickly rose to number two on both the pop and soul charts. The follow-up, a misguided remake of Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle And Roll" didn't do as well. Then, at the end of 1967, Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin, and Arthur lost his producer, mentor and guide. He had a couple of Redding's productions in the can, including one he'd written.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET NOTHING SEPARATE US")
CONLEY: (Singing) I'll let nothing separate us, darling. I'll let nothing, no, no, separate us. What you asked me to do or say, honey you know, you know, you know that it's OK. And I'll let nothing, darling, separate us. I'll let nothing...
WARD: His next producer was Atlantic Records legendary Tom Dowd. But Arthur complained he didn't communicate well with him - maybe not - but one of the records they did directly inspired The Temptations' "Psychedelic Shag."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUNT DORA'S SOUL SHACK")
CONLEY: (Singing) Hardwood floors is a-breaking, the mini-dresses really shaking. Good soul music playing loud, having fun with the party crowd. Hey man, I'm down at the shack, Aunt Dora's love soul shack. Yakkity yak, that soul shack. Betcha that I'm goin' back.
WARD: From here, Arthur Conley's story gets odd. He was working with Otis Redding's former manager, Phil Walden, who tried to update his sound by putting him in FAME Studios with their new guitarist, Duane Allman, who Conley hated. The version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" they cut does nobody any credit. Then he worked with songwriter-producer Jerry Williams Jr., better known as Swamp Dogg, and it felt that the material he was asked to cut was immoral. In the mid-'70s, Conley abruptly moved to London. That proved expensive, so the next stop was Brussels, which he found too hectic. He then headed to Amsterdam and changed his name to Lee Roberts. Nobody knew Lee Roberts, and at last Conley was able to live in peace with a secret he'd hidden - or thought he had - for his entire career - he was gay. But nobody in Holland cared. He missed performing, so he got a Dutch band together and cut some records. In England, soul record collectors heard them and thought Lee Roberts sounded an awful lot like Arthur Conley. He did a brief interview with a couple of them in 1999 and admitted the truth, then went silent. He moved to a tiny village near the German border, toured a little and died at home in 2008.
GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.