Today I offer up one of my favorite Southern soul songs. Certainly one of my favorite soul ballads: “I’m a Lonely Stranger,” by Arthur Conley. He’s best known as a protégé of Otis Redding and had one ginormous hit with “Sweet Soul Music,” back in 1967.
A few years earlier, when Conley was a former gospel singer trying to make it in the secular world, he caught Otis Redding’s ear. Redding was looking for talent in order to launch his own label, Jotis, and he booked some time for Conley at Stax Records. In September, 1965, he recorded his original composition, “I’m a Lonely Stranger,” backed by Booker T. & The MGs and the Memphis Horns.
This is no surprise since they don’t get less upbeat than “I’m a Lonely Stranger.” In typical Stax records fashion, there is incredibly sparse instrumentation. Everyone is playing very little and rarely all at the same time. I swear you could fit an entire Motown song between some of these notes.
[From here on out, this will probably make the most sense to those that have seen Wim Wenders’s 1984 film Paris, Texas.]
For reasons I can barely articulate, this song has always reminded me of the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard collaboration Paris, Texas. I’ve been a fan of this film since it came out, and its barren loneliness has always been an emotional touchstone for me. The central character, Travis, played by Harry Dean Stanton, feels much but shows little—and the imagery of “I’m a Lonely Stranger” touches those same nerves (for me at least).
Those familiar with the film might disagree—but then again, that film doesn’t shove any notion down your throat. I mean, it allows each viewer to let his or her own personal experiences complete the picture.
So, for me, when Arthur Conley pours out his heart with such lines as “I’m so afraid of the dark at night,” and “Why do I have to be a lonely stranger, traveling around this lonely world?” Paris, Texas’s images such as these come to mind…