Blues and Soul Civil Rights Songs

Blues and Soul music has always contained some of the most moving socially-minded songs. Here are a few of my favorites…

 

Syl-JohnsonSYL JOHNSON “Is it Because I’m Black?”

This moody number might be one of the saddest songs about racial inequality ever written. Released in 1970 on the album IS IT BECAUSE I’M BLACK it’s sung from the point of view of a African American man living in an inner-city ghetto. Guitarist Syl Johnson wrote many songs about “real life” but this might be his finest moment.

 

 

Otis SpannOTIS SPANN “Tribute To Martin Luther King” 

A very somber but moving song about the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King.  Written in 1968 shortly after King’s death and recorded at a tribute concert for Dr. King. Muddy Waters plays guitar on the tack. Available on the album LIVE THE LIFE (Testament Records).

 

 

LeniorJ.B Lenoir “Down In Mississippi” (Album & Song)

An under-rated member of the Chicago Blues scene during the 50’s, Lenior was “rediscovered” by Willie Dixon in the mid 1960’s. He returned to recording in 1965 during the height of the civil rights movement to record two of the most powerful folk blues albums of all time, ALABAMA BLUES and DOWN IN MISSISSIPPI. Produced by Dixion, both albums feature Lenior in strip-down acoustic setting tackling subjects such as Vietnam, James Meredith, and the march to Selma, Alabama.  While these records are hard to find today on vinyl they are available together on a CD called VIETNAM BLUES.

 

NinaNINA SIMONE “Backlash Blues”

Ms. Simone has recorded many songs about the struggle for civil rights but few of them are as soulful as “Backlash Blues”. Recorded for her 1967 album NINA SIMONE SINGS THE BLUES (RCA Records) this song talks about how some public officials used different forms of intimidation to keep African Americans from exercising their civil rights. Lyrics for the tune were penned by Jazz poet Langston Hughes.

 

 

Big BillBIG BILL BROONZY “When Will I Get To Be Called A Man?” & “Black, Brown, & White”

Both of these tunes were written by Broonzy and recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. They can both be found on the CD TROUBLE IN MIND (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).

Broonzy said he wrote “Black, Brown, and White” in 1939 while he was working as a molder. After he put in many long hours on the job he was told to train an new co-worker (who happened to be white).  Broonzy did as he was told and took the new hire under his wing, teaching him all he knew about molding. Shortly after his training was complete the man he trained was promoted and became Broonzy’s boss!  Weather or not this actually happened to Broonzy is inconsequential. Situations like these did (and unfortunately still sometimes do) happen in our society.

Staple SingersTHE STAPLE SINGERS “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”

Written by Roebuck “Pops” Staples in 1965, “Why Am I Treated So Bad” is one of the most popular Civil Rights songs ever written.  It’s said that Pops wrote the tune after watching what is sometimes referred to as  “Little Rock Nine” on TV.  The Little Rock Nine was a group of nine children who were refused entry to a public school in Little Rock Arkansas because they were African American. Tensions were so high in Little Rock that eventually President Eisenhower had to intervene and sent the National Guard to Little Rock to escort the children into the school.  Outraged by this event Pops wrote this powerful song which he regularly performed at rallies with his group The Staple Singers.  According to Pops’ daughter Mavis, the song was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King. You can find this song on the Staple Singers “best of” collection FREEDOM HIGHWAY: The Epic Years (Epic Recordings).

 

JLHJOHN LEE HOOKER “I Don’t Wanna Go To Vietnam”

While this might not be John Lee Hooker’s best know song it’s definitely one of his most powerful.  From the underrated 1969 album SIMPLY THE TRUTH, this song finds Hooker calling out to his missing friends fighting overseas. Frustrated with the government he sings about the problems going on domestically and asks why they got involved with Vietnam when there were so many troubles at home? This is a beautiful song about a difficult time in U.S. history.

 

Other civil rights songs I recommend…

JAMES BROWN “Say it LOUD, I’m Black and I’m Proud”

THE TEMPTATIONS “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”

WILLIE HIGHTOWER “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”

THE STAPLE SINGERS Long Walk To D.C.”

BIG JOE WILLIAMS “The Death of Martin Luther King”

STEVIE WONDER “Living For The City”

MANCE LIPSCOMEB Mean Boss Man”

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE “Everyday People”

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: The Story of The Memphis Music Scene

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TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Directed by Martin Shore

Social Capital Films (Soundtrack available from Concord Music/STAX)

Few cities have played a bigger role in the development of popular music then the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Artists like B.B. King, Otis Redding, Elivs Presley, and Al Green all came to Memphis looking for opportunities that couldn’t be found in their hometowns. Overtime, artists like these changed the sound of the Memphis scene as well as the sound popular music, but they didn’t do it alone. Just as important as the artists, if not more in some cases, are the produces, songwriters, and label owners who took chances with them. The story of the Memphis music scene can’t be told without including people like Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, STAX A&R man Al Bell, STAX Founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and producer Willie Mitchell. These people put up money for studio time, did the promotion, produced the sessions, and in some cases even risked their lives for the music they believed in!  It took many different people from different backgrounds to make the Memphis music scene happen. Now thanks to a new documentary from director Martin Shore, the story of the Memphis music scene is finally be told the way it should be told… by the people who lived it.

Part history lesson, part musical tribute, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER not only tells the story of record labels like STAX and Hi-Records but also shows the recording of the movie’s soundtrack. Recorded in Memphis, the album version of TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (Stax/Concord Music Group) showcases legendary Memphis musicians performing alongside younger players who’ve been inspired by the music of Memphis. While not all the duets might be the perfect match up of artists there’s still something very heart warming about music bringing people from different backgrounds together.  One of the album’s the best duets is the pairing of 72 year-old Soul-Shouter Otis Clay and 12 year-old rapper P-nut on the track “Trying To Live My Life Without You”. Originally a hit for Otis in 1972 the song still sounds fresh. Otis is still in great vocal form and the band is right on the money. While some may view the addition of the 12 year-old P-Nut as some sort of gimmick, it’s anything but. P-Nut nails his part and sounds great. Also, you get the sense while watching the film that Otis legitimately enjoys listening to P-nut rap over his tune.

Another standout duet on the album is the match up of Mavis Staples with The North Mississippi All-Stars on “Wish I Had Answered”. Originally recorded by the Staple Singers in 1963, the song was selected by the All-Star’s own Luther Dickinson. Many times for these type of star-studded duet projects you get bands that sound a little flat even though they’re made up of top-notch studio musicians. This is not the case here. The All-Stars are students of American music and along with an outstanding vocal performance by Ms. Staples, they perfectly capture the original spirit of the tune. Pops would be proud.

If the movie has any faults, it’s only that the short lived Goldwax label isn’t mentioned. Producing singers such as James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, and The Ovations, this little label was started by former Sun Records guitarist Quinton Claunch in 1964. Unfortunately due to money issues and to Carr’s mental instability (he was the label’s star performer) the Goldwax was out of business in 1969. Still, during it’s short lifespan it was responsible for some of the most soulful music to ever come out of Memphis. Still, even without the mention of Goldwax TAKE ME TO THE RIVER gives the viewer and excellent in-depth look at the musical history of Memphis, as told by the people that lived it. Here’s hoping both the film and soundtrack inspire a younger generation to discover this music and make music history of their own.

 

MAVIS STAPLES: A Tribute to a living legend

MavisStaplesjpg

Mavis Staples is a living legend.  Over the past 60 years she’s not only brought Gospel music to the masses but she’s also been a voice of hope and strength for those fighting for Civil Rights. Her career started in Chicago during the late 1940’s. Mavis and her siblings would perform in churches alongside their Father, the legendary Roebuck “Pops” Staples.  With a sound was rooted in Southern Gospel and Delta Blues “The Staple Singers” soon became local favorites and in the early 50′s began recording sides for labels like VeeJay, Riverside, and Checker.  In addition to Gospel music fans the band was also embraced by the folk music scene during the folk revival of late 50′s and early 60′s. At this time band also became very active in the civil rights movement and regularly performed at rallies and events hosted by Dr. Martin Luther King. In the late 60′s and early 70′s the music scene was changing and the band changed right along with it. They signed with the legendary STAX Records and under the guidance of STAX’s A&R man Al Bell they started adopting more of a Soul-Gospel style. Their music might have become a little funkier but it still contained the same message of hope and tolerance. Songs like “Respect Yourself“, and “I’ll Take You There” made the band a household name and catapulted them into stardom. Unfortunately, due to some questionable business decisions by Al Bell STAX Records filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and was forced to shutdown.

Over the next several years the Staples put out several releases, none of which had much success. Then in the 1990’s the Staples Family found themselves back in the spotlight.  Pops won a Grammy for his solo record Father, Father and the whole band was inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Sadly this was Pops’ last hurrah as he would pass away in December of 2000 from complications caused by a concussion he suffered while at his home. During the 2000’s Mavis continued to perform and release solo albums. Paired with producers such as Ry Cooder and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, these records introduced Mavis to a whole new audience. In 2013 her Jeff Tweedy-produced album You Are Not Alone won a Grammy for “Best Americana Album”.

This year Mavis will turn 75 years young and she’s just as popular as ever. People all over the world still cram into venues to see her perform and she’s a regular musical guest on late-nite TV.  Her music still carries with it a message of hope and tolerance. A message that reminds us that even though there have been victories in the struggle for civil rights, the fight is far from over.

StapleSingers

STAPLE SINGERS/MAVIS STAPLES SUGGESTED LISTENING

The Staple Singers: Uncloudy Day (VeeJay)

The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (Epic/Legacy)

The Staple Singers: Be Attitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)

The Staple Singers: The Staple Swingers (Stax)

The Staple Singers: The Best of The Staple Singers (Stax)

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti) produced by Ry Cooder

Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy

Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti) produced by Jeff Tweedy

 

LEE FIELDS: Emma Jean

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LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS EMMA JEAN Truth & Soul Records

For Fans of: Issac Hayes, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Charles Bradley

This summer Lee Fields & The Expressions are back on the scene with a new record full of sweet soul music!  Entitled Emma Jean in honor of Lee’s late mother, this record finds the band incorporating more elements of Folk and Gospel into their sound more then they have in the past. In fact, the album’s first single is a soulful version of the J.J. Cale tune “Magnolia”. Sounding a little like Solomon Burke, Lee croons his way through this Folk classic with help from pedal-steel guitar master Russ Pahl. While the song is stylistically a little different then songs Lee and his band have done in the past, they still sound great.  That being said, Emma Jean has something for everyone. Fans of classic hard-soul will enjoy songs like “In the Woods” and “Stone Angel” while fans of the teary-eyed ballads will have a new favorite song in “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.  The album’s standout track however is the piano-driven “Eye to Eye”. In this song the band sways back and forth while Lee pleads with his lover to take him back. Singing like his life depends on it, Lee is clearly still at the top of his game. For a guy who’s been releasing music since 1969, this album might be his crowning achievement.

 

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SONNY KNIGHT & THE LAKERS “I’m Still Here”

SONNY-KNIGHT SONNY KNIGHT AND THE LAKERS: I’M STILL HERE Secret Stash Records

For fans of: James Brown, Otis Clay, Lee Fields, and Dyke & The Blazers

Sonny Knight has been part of the Minnesota music scene for over 50 years. Originally from Jackson, Mississippi, Sonny moved to St. Paul, Minnesota with his family when he was only 7 years old.  In his early teens he became involved with the local doo-wop scene and sang with a number of groups before eventually cutting his first single, “Tears On My Pillow” in 1965.  Unfortunately his musical career had to be put on hold when he got drafted in to the Army and was sent to fight in Vietnam. When Sonny returned home from overseas he was unable to find consistent work as a musician. He ended up taking a full-time job as a truck driver while continuing to sing off and on with different groups during the 70’s and 80’s. Then in 2012 the Minnesota indie-label, Secret Stash Records, released the compilation album Twin Cities Funk & Soul 1964-1979.  To help promote the release, Secret Stash co-founder Eric Foss put together a show featuring some of the artists that appeared on the album. One of these groups was 60’s R&B group The Valdons. As he was currently performing with members of The Valdons, Sonny was asked to participate with the band in their reunion show.  While working to prepare for the show Foss became so impressed with Sonny’s talent that he signed him to Secret Stash and put together a band to back him on a solo record.  Now known as Sonny Knight and The Lakers, the guys have decided to share their sound with the world by releasing what might just be the best album of 2014.

The name of the album is I‘m Still Here and the music on it is hard hitting funk!  This album was recorded the way an album should be recorded, LIVE and with everybody playing together. You can hear the band feeding off each others energy on tracks like “Sonny’s Boogaloo” and “Get Up and Dance”. These guys might not have been on the scene as long as their 66 year-old front man has but they’re still seasoned pros. Label owner Foss handles the drumming duties on the record. A rock solid drummer, he keeps things steady and makes it easy for the band to fall in behind him. Songs like “Through With You” and the James Brown-esq “Juicy Lucy”, groove hard and are full of soul. The album’s strongest track might be the Stax-flavored “Hey Girl”.  Sure to please dance floors everywhere, this tune makes you wonder what Wilson Pickett would have sounded like if he had been backed by the 70’s funk band Black Heat.  Still, even with all these great players in the room, the star of the show is Sonny Knight. After only a few minutes of listening to him you can tell that this guy’s the REAL DEAL. Hopefully with the release of I’m Still Here he’ll get the attention he so rightly deserves.

LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: The Authorized Biography

Little Willie John

FEVER: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul 

Author: Susan Whitall  Publisher: Titan Books

Armed with a lion-like voice and sparkling personality Little Willie John was one of the most popular entertainers during the 1950’s and 60’s. Songs like “All Around The World”, “Fever”, and “Talk To Me” all made it to the top of the R&B charts and became the blueprint for what would later be called “Soul Music”. He consistently filled concert halls throughout his career always delivering an electric stage show that left audiences wanting more. On the road more often then not Willie lived his life fast and hard. He regularly stayed out until the wee-hours of the morning drinking and socializing.  One night after a show in Seattle, Washington while he was drinking at an after-hours club Willie was involved in an altercation that ended with him stabbing a man. Willie ended up being charged with manslaughter and was sent away to the Washington State Penitentiary where he died on May 26 1968 at the age of 30. Although the cause of his death is listed as “Heart Attack”, there are questions about the care he was given while incarcerated.  However it happened, it’s a sad but true fact that Little Willie John left this world too soon.

In her book FEVER: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death, and the Birth of Soul, author Susan Whitall gives us a detailed and in-dept look at the life of one of music’s greatest voices. Written with the help of Willie John’s son Kevin and filled with interviews from those who knew Willie John this book is essential for anyone interested in the history of Soul music.

Essential listening  Little Willie John: Complete Hit Single’s A’s & B’s

Little Willie John

 

 

SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS: GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!

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GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT Daptone Records

Full of raw Funk and organic Soul, Give The People What They Want might be Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings finest hour. The album opens with the in-your-face sound of “Retreat”, the album’s first single, before flowing nicely into the Motown flavored “Stranger To My Happiness”.  On both these tunes we hear the band swinging like never before.  For all the credit we give Ms. Jones we need to also recognize the talents of her band the Dap-Kings.  Able to move effortlessly from one style of music to another, these talented musicians are a big reason this album flows so well. On the Latin infused “Long Time, Wrong Time” the band leads the way with a mellow groove reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”.  Tasteful playing is the name of the game here and the band finds a nice groove behind Sharon’s soulful vocals. Other stand out tracks are the beautiful ballad “Slow Down, Love” and the hard driving “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” (they bust out the tympani drums for this one).  But this record is more then a collection of songs, it’s a reminder that the best things in life are worth fighting for.

In early 2012 Sharon lost her mother to cancer.  On tour when her mother passed Sharon found comfort in her music. Instead of taking a break she kept performing and began working on this album.  Shortly after the recording was complete she started experiencing some health problems  and was diagnosed with cancer herself.  Fortunately doctors caught it in time and Sharon is now cancer free!  Now with a new lease on life and album to promote she’s back and able to do what she does best… and that’s GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!

 

 

RESPECT YOURSELF: The Story of STAX Records

STAX

RESPECT YOURSELF: THE STORY OF STAX RECORDS Bloomsbury USA

Author Robert Gordon has been writing about the music of Memphis for almost 30 years. In Respect Yourself: The Story of STAX Records Mr. Gordon not only tells the story of STAX but also the story of the Civil Rights movement in Memphis.  Passionately written and meticulously researched this book takes you from the label’s meager beginnings in a garage outside Memphis to it’s bankruptcy in 1975.   Along with Mr. Gordon’s narration you hear from the people that made STAX happen, making this book one of a kind.

A LITTLE STAX HISTORY…

Started by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1957, STAX Records was more then just a record label.  It was a voice in the community.  The label’s open door policy made it possible for anyone to come in off the street and set up an audition. It didn’t matter where you were from or what the color of your skin was, you were welcomed at STAX as long as you had a passion for music.

Right from the beginning STAX did things it’s own way. Segregation may have been alive and well in Memphis during the 1960’s, but that didn’t stop STAX founder Jim Stewart from hiring an African American DJ named Al Bell to be his lead promotions man.  Working together side by side Jim, Estelle, and Al turned STAX records from a little indie label into a household name!  STAX artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. & The MG’s, Carla Thomas, and William Bell put the label on the map with singles that started appearing on the R&B and Pop charts.  Money was coming in and things were really rolling, until one very dark December day in 1967…

Today many people can remember exactly where they were when they learned that the plane carrying Otis Redding and The Bar-Keys went down. Otis was the soul of STAX and the voice of soul music.  A few months later while the people of STAX were still grieving over the loss of Otis and the Bar Keys their world was rocked again.  On the evening of April 4, 1968  Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  Needless to say, after the assassination of Dr. King everything was different, especially in Memphis.  If all this wasn’t enough,  the label’s distributor Atlantic Records ended it’s relationship with STAX.  With it’s biggest star gone and no way to get music to the stores most label’s would have called it a day, but most labels didn’t have Al Bell.  It was then that Al and the folks at STAX hunkered down and staged one of the biggest comebacks in music history.

The early 70’s found STAX again at the top of the Soul music world. This time around STAX would reach heights that were even greater then it did in the 1960’s.  Al Bell gained full control of the label and STAX rode the success of artists like Isaac Hayes, The Emotions, Johnnie Taylor, and The Staple Singers all the way to the top of the charts.  Sadly this rebirth would be short lived as some questionable business decisions and over expatiation lead to STAX eventually having to declaring bankruptcy in 1975.

 

FUNKY SOUL: THREE ESSENTIAL COLLECTIONS!

Funk and Soul music has always been a large part of my music collection.  My first exposure to Funk and Soul came through my High School band director Dr. Van Decker.  While most other school bands in the area did the marching band thing we played music by Herbie Hancock, James Brown, and Monk.   Inspired by the music we learned about in class, I would often head to Lou’s Record Shop after school and pick up albums so I could hear the original version of the song we were learning in class.  At first listen most of the grooves on these original recordings sounded simple but when you listened a little closer you could hear all the little nuances of the song that made it really move.  So, for those who want to get into what I call “Street Funk” here are three of my favorite compilations.

Play ’em loud and enjoy!

SATURDAY NIGHT FISH FRY: NEW ORLEANS FUNK AND SOUL 

Label: SOUL JAZZ RECORDS

This record from the good folks at SOUL JAZZ RECORDS is a great mix of funk, soul, and gospel from a group of artists that can only be described as New Orleans royalty.  Besides tracks from popular artists like Dr. John, Lee Dorsey, and Irma Thomas this album contains some great b-sides from lesser know musicians like Eddie Bo,  Eldridge Holmes, and Betty Harris. These artists created some of the most soulful funk to ever come out of New Orleans but unfortunately only achieved limited success nationally.  The stand out track for me on this record is “Pass The Hatchet” by Roger & The Gypsies.  This tune, produced by famed New Orleans musician Eddie Bo, became the first hit for the indie Seven-B label and is a perfect example of how a simple drum beat and a little melody can go a long way.  If I have one complaint about this release it’s that it is currently out of print and doesn’t seem to be on iTunes as of this posting (although some of the tracks are available on other releases).  I came across my copy a few years ago digging through the $1.99 used bin at a local record store.  Let this be a lesson to ALWAYS check the bargain bin when shopping for records.

 

 

THE FUNKY 16 CORNERS

Label: STONES THROW RECORDS

Released in 2001 by Stones Throw Records, The Funky 16 Corners  features a hefty helping of unreleased funky music recorded during the 60’s and 70’s.   All the tracks on this record are solid and the stories behind the music are just as moving as the music.  If you purchase this release on-line I highly suggest you check out www.stonesthrow.com to read the interviews with the artists that were collected during the formation of this disc.  For example, one of the groups featured on this disc is The Kashmere Stage band.  This was the school band for Kashmere High School in Houston Texas.  In the late 1960’s music director Conrad Johnson took the school’s struggling music program to a new level.  After introducing new arrangements and letting the kids inject some of their own style in the group The Kashmere Stage band started winning numerous awards and competitions.  They traveled all over the country breaking down barriers in many of the places they played (Kashmere H.S. was predominantly black and most of the school band competitions they entered were made up of all white groups). For more information on the story behind the Kashmere Stage Band check out the documentary film THUNDER SOUL.

 

 

Searching For Soul: Rare and Classic Soul, Funk, and Jazz from Michigan  

Label: Luv N’ Haight/Ubiquity

The album Searching For Soul: Rare Classic Soul, Funk, and Jazz from Michigan shows us that there is so much more to the Mid-West Soul scene then Motown.   Soul/Funk/Hip-Hop drummers, this record should be in your collection right next to your James Brown records.  All the grooves on this disc are slick and full of feel.  Robert Lowe’s tune “Back To Funk” is a classic. Filled to the brim with percussion and a tight saxophone solo this tune is Soul Jazz at it’s best.  As for straight-up Soul music, look no further then Dee Williams’ smooth and soulful voice on “(I Can) Deal With That”.  But the real story on this disc is hard FUNK!  Tracks by the Detroit Sex Machines and The Black Aces Of Soul & The Eyes Of Ebony are full of danceable breaks and greasy grooves, making this record essential to any fan of Funk music.

Although I am a big fan of the used bin,  things like this have a habit of going out of print without warning.  As of this posting you can still get this record most places. So don’t wait!  Pick up a copy today.  You’ll be glad you did.