WILLIAM BELL: THIS IS WHERE I LIVE

William bell

WILLIAM BELL: THIS IS WHERE I LIVE Stax Records/Concord Music Group

Singer William Bell is a national treasure. Besides being one of the few artists still performing today that was with STAX Records in the early 60’s, he also is one of the few artists still performing classic Southern Soul.  His new album THIS IS WHERE I LIVE (Stax/Conord) finds the singer in fine form performing simple but well-crafted songs that draw from a variety of influences. The up-beat “Poison In The Well” could easily be a gospel song if the lyrics were slightly different and the slow-funky groove of “The Three Of Me” calls to mind the sound of urban-funksters The Impressions. The Blues are here too. While the decision to do a updated rendition of his Blues classic “Born Under A Bad Sign” could’ve been a mistake Bell and the band actually deliver! The song is given a complete make-over and is a bit darker sounding then the original. This is a real treat considering that most of the time when artists decide to cover their own music or “update” one of their classics it usually ends up being a step backwards for the song and the artist. Without a doubt, THIS IS WHERE I LIVE is a very welcome addition to William Bell’s already impressive catalog.

A LITTLE HISTORY ON WILLIAM BELL

The Soul Of A Bell

William Bell started out performing in the late 50’s as part of the vocal group The Del-Rios. After a releasing a few singles with the group that failed to catch any major attention, Bell decided to go solo and signed STAX Records in the fall of 1961. His first single for STAX was the gospel-flavored balled “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry)”. Released in 1961 the song turned out to be a hit and his career at STAX was off and running. He released various singles for STAX through out the 60’s finding major success again in 1967 when he co-wrote the Blues classic “Born Under A Bad Sigh” for label-mate Albert King. The song was not only a hit for King but it also became a crossover hit when it was recorded by the rock band Cream in 1968. Also in 1967 Bell released his first full-legenth album for STAX, THE SOUL OF A BELL. The album was very successful and yielded the hits “Everybody Loves A Winer” and “Never Like This Before”. Bell’s success continued in 1968 when he released the very popular single “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”.

Bell stayed with STAX until 1975 when the label officially closed it’s doors. STAX Records still exists today but as a brand only. After STAX, Bell went to Mercury Records and scored another hit “Trying To Love You Two”. He continued to release music and perform throughout the 80’s and 90’s but never regained the success he had with STAX durning the 1960’s and 70’s. Still all that being said, his voice has never left him and along with Booker T., Steve Cropper, and Mavis Staples he continues to introduce new audiences to the sound of sweet southern soul music.

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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

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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.

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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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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

 

 

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.

 

MAVIS STAPELS One True Vine

Mavis-Staples

MAVIS STAPLES  One True Vine (Anti)

For Fans of: Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Bonnie Raitt, and Tracy Chapman

Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy have teamed up once again to give us another album that is sure to become a Mavis Staples classic, One True Vine. Like it’s predecessor, You Are Not Alone, the music on One True Vine is a mix of covers and Jeff Tweedy originals all of which fit perfectly together and give the album a nice organic sound. The cover songs chosen for the album consist mainly of traditional Gospel tunes except for Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That?” from their masterpiece album Maggot Brain!  One of the album’s strongest moments  is the song “I Like The Things About Me“.  Originally written by Mavis’ father Pops Staples for the Staple Singers this is a song that should be playing on everyone’s MP3 player and stereo from now on!  As for the Tweedy originals, both the title track “One True Vine” and “Jesus Wept” have nice Gospel-Country vibe and are just begging to be performed live. Which brings me to another point, if you’ve never been to a Mavis Staples performance now’s your chance.  She has live dates scheduled in the States and Europe all the way into 2014!  So make sure to keep an eye out for this soulful songbird who after 63 years in the business seems to only be getting better.