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
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.
There was a time when all an artist would need to make a good recording was their instrument, a microphone, and a tape recorder. In fact, some of the greatest and most influential recordings of our time were made in rural areas in the back of small country stores or small cabins on equipment that was powered a car battery. Known as “field recordings”, these recordings were usually done by folklorists determined on documenting maters of American Roots music in a natural setting.
Personally, some of my favorite field recordings where done by music historian George Mitchell. Born in Coral Gables, Florida and raised in Athens, Georgia, Mr. Mitchell has recorded hundreds of hours of music, mostly by musicians who would’ve never been heard outside of their living room if it weren’t for him. He was the first to record Hill-Country Blues guitarist R.L. Burnside in 1967 in Mississippi, a recording session that yielded some the most heart-felt acoustic Blues ever recorded. He also was responsible for some excellent late-in-career recordings of Blues legends Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis.
In 2008 Fat Possum records complied a large number of George Mitchell’s recordings for a massive 7-disc box-set simply titled “The George Mitchell Recordings Vol. 1-45”. While the amount of music in this collection may have been perfect for the Blues connoisseur wanting to get completely stuffed on Mitchell’s field recordings, the collection lacked a certain intimacy you get when you focus on just one single artist’s session. Thankfully, the good people at Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records realize this and over the years have released entire sessions from individual artists recorded by George Mitchell. Below are some of my very favorites… No studio tricks, no auto-tune, just a musician and their music.
R.L. Burnside First Recordings Recorded in 1968
A popular style of Blues played by musicians from Northern Mississippi, “Hill Country Blues” focuses more on creating a hypnotic rhythm and less on following a specific chord progression. While musicians such as Otha Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Mississippi Fred McDowell (actually from Tennessee) are masters of this style, the two best known Hill Country Blues musicians are Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Both Kimbrough and Burnside made their first recordings in the 1960’s with the latter recording for George Mitchell in 1968.
George Mitchell first caught wind of R.L. Burnside while recording another Hill Country Blues master, Otha Turner. It was Turner who suggested to Mitchell that if he wanted to hear someone who could REALLY PLAY, he should check out his neighbor R.L. Burnside. Although both Turner and Burnside where unknown to the outside world at the time they were very popular in their respective communities and masters of the their instrument.
During his session for Mitchell, Burnside performed excellent versions of Hill Country standards, “Poor Black Mattie”, “Goin’ Down South” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin”. He also played a slow eerie-blues entitled “Just Like A Bird Without A Feather”, which is the best track on this wonderful album.
JOE CALLICOT Ain’t Gonna Lie To You Recorded in 1967
Recorded in 1967 and reminiscent of recordings by fellow guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, AIN’T GONNA LIE TO YOU is a mix of Blues standards and Gospel numbers. Also like Hurt, Joe’s voice isn’t the strongest in the world but yet it wonderfully complements his soft finger-picking guitar style. A perfect example of this is Joe’s beautiful rendition of the Folk standard “Frankie and Albert”. While Joe’s career actually began in the 1920’s and included recording sessions and performances outside of Mississippi he was never a household name and even gave up music in the 1940’s. Fortunately for us he returned to recording after meeting George Mitchell in 1967.
J.W. WARREN Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ Recorded in 1981 & 1982
J.W. Warren was born in 1921 in Enterprise, Alabama. Like many of the musicians recorded by George Mitchell, Warren was a farmer who mostly performed just for friends at parties and in local juke joints. The recordings on LIFE AIN’T WORTH LIVIN’ were done in Warren’s own home in Alabama by Mitchell on September 15th, 1981 and in March 27th, 1982. Musically, Warren stuck mostly to traditional-sounding Country Blues. His powerful voice is best displayed on the tune “Hoboing Into Hollywood” and at times bares resemblance to the voice of Country Blues legend Bukka White. Also like White, J.W. Warren was a slide guitar player who’s raw playing style helped him obtain local notoriety. He would scrap his jack-knife against the strings of his guitar to create the sound of a slide (documented here on the recording “My Mind Gets To Wandering”). Mostly a homebody, Warren never toured and rarely travelled out of his hometown. He lived out his final years at home in Ariton, AL, passing away on August 15th, 2003. Fortunately for us we can remember him through these excellent recordings.
The Beginning: Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues
In 1992 a small indie label called Fat Possum Records gave the American Blues scene a much needed kick-in-the-ass when they released the debut album from 62 year-old Bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Entitled ALL NIGHT LONG, the record was met with rave reviews from both critics and Blues fans and gave Kimbrough some well deserved national attention. Shortly after the success of the Kimbrough record Fat Possum also started having success with another one of their artists, R.L. Burnside. Like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was in his 60’s and a resident of the area surrounding Holly Springs, Mississippi known as the Mississippi Hill Country. Also like Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different then the well known Delta Blues style, Hill Country Blues focuses more on creating a groove and sometimes features other instruments such as Drums. With both the Kimbrough and Burnside records receiving some good press, Fat Possum began recording other Hill Country Blues musicians. Unfortunately the label quickly ran into the problem that many of the musicians they recorded were usually older and in very poor health. Sadly, many of them died before or shortly after their album got released. Down but not out Fat Possum Records kept plugging along and in 2000 they released a record by a 59 year-old construction worker named Robert Belfour.
Robert Belfour was born in 1940 in Red Banks, Mississippi. Growing up in the Hill Country, he was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar by watching his father play. As his interest in the guitar grew he began performing for friends and family at picnics. He continued his musical education by watching local legends like Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough who both lived in the area and regularly performed at parties and in local Juke-Joints. Unfortunately when Robert was just 13 years old his father passed away and he was forced to get a job in order support the family. Then in 1959 Robert got married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He worked in construction for the next 35 years and only played music when he had time. In fact, it was until the late 80’s when he really began to take music seriously again. His first real break came in 1994 he was featured on the compilation album THE SPIRIT LIVES ON, DEEP SOUTH COUNTRY BLUES & SPIRITUALS. The recordings he contributed to the record got the attention of Fat Possum Records and in the year 2000 the label issued his debut album WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. A dark-acoustic record, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU showcased Roberts percussive guitar work and rich deep voice. The album featured a mixture of originals and covers, many of which had been made popular by other Hill Country Blues musicians. The album was a success with many Blues enthusiasts and introduced Robert to an international audience.
In 2003 Robert released his second album on Fat Possum, the humorously titled, PUSHIN’ MY LUCK. Like it’s predecessor, the album was primarily acoustic and pleased both fans and critics. Internationally, Robert’s popularity grew and he started to play a number of European Blues festivals. Back in the states, Robert kept his home in Memphis and continued to be a regular performer on the Juke-Joint scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi. A dynamic performer into his 70’s, Robert’s shows would usually last late into the the night and sometimes be as long as three hours! Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Robert Balfour passed away at his home in Memphis on February 25, 2015. Fortunately for us (and thanks to the good folks at Fat Possum Records) his recordings are still readily available and can be found on iTunes, Amazon, and at your local record store.
LEO “BUD” WELCH: I DON’T PREFER NO BLUES
Big Legal Mess Records/Fat Possum Records
For Fans of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and The White Stripes
Sadly, the future of the Blues looks pretty bleak. While there are still a few living legends left in the world they rarely perform or record. Or if they do still record their record label or producer tries to place them with Classic Rockers who may not have even heard of the them. This is why the new album from 82 year-old guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch is a such welcome release! Recorded for Big Legal Mess records in Mississippi, I Don’t Prefer No Blues is full of no-nonsense stripped-down gritty Blues. If you ever wondered what a Juke-Joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi sounds like on a Saturday night, well, here you go.
In 2014 Leo Welch gave the Blues scene a much needed shot of life when he released his first album Sabougla Voices (also on Big Legal Mess Records). Like it’s predecessor, I Don’t Prefer No Blues was produced by Big Legal Mess label owner Bruce Watson. For this album Watson enlisted the help of fellow Mississippi roots musician Jimbo Mathus (of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame) and together the pair pushed Leo record a much more Juke-Joint Blues sounding record. Featuring a number of Blues standards like “I Woke Up This Morning” and “Poor Boy”, this album might the best REAL Blues album of the year.
The album opens with the acoustic standard “Poor Boy”. Backed by an upright bass and featuring some beautiful backing vocals courtesy of Sharde Thomas (Othar Turner’s granddaughter) this track is excellent rendition of a tune that’s been performed by delta musicians since the 1920’s. Leo and Sharde add their own stamp to the tune that leaves us hoping they’ll work together again soon. Up next is dark funky blues tune “Girl In The Holler”. Powered by a firm back-beat the song slowly builds to a boiling point before simmering down and fading out. Dynamics are key here and the musicians backing Leo on this record are true masters of capturing the authentic electric-delta sound.
Other fine moments on the album are the boogie-shuffle “Cadillac Baby” and fuzzy slow blues “Going Down Slow”. Both tunes should quickly become crowd favorites when they’re performed live as they feature Leo at his very best. Even though I Don’t Prefer No Blues focuses on the Blues-side of Leo’s repertoire he doesn’t totally abandon his love for Gospel music. Possibly the album’s strongest track, “Pray On” is a combination of all the things that make this album great. Fuzzy-guitar, boogie blues, and a slammin’ band! Llike the album, this song shows us that at 82 years young, Leo isn’t slowing down. He’s just getting started.
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.
Full of Jump Blues, early R&B, and down-home Country Blues, the double-disc collection No More Doggin’ The RPM Records Story Vol. 1 might be one of the best introductions to early 50’s blues ever. Compiled by the good folks at ACE Records, this collection covers the early years of RPM Records and features well know artists like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Started in 1950 by the Bihari Brothers, RPM was meant to be a subsidiary of the Bihari’s very popular label Modern Records. After initially having lots of success with Modern, the Bihari’s began having trouble getting their records played on the radio due to stations not wanting to play too many sides from any one label. So in order to get their product on the airwaves the Bihari’s started a number of subsidiary labels. Probably the most popular of Modern’s subsidiary labels, RPM introduced the world to a Memphis radio DJ by the name of Riley B. King. Eventually known as “B.B. King”, Riley came to the attention of the Bihari Brothers thanks to their working relationship with Memphis talent scout/producer Sam Phillips. Phillips at the time was recording local artists with his Memphis Recording Service then sending the masters to labels like Modern and Chess. Trough their relationship with Phillips, the Bihari’s got hooked up with some of the best talent in Memphis. Unfortunately their relationship ended when Phillips and the Bihari’s had a disagreement over a B.B. King session and went their separate ways. Fed up with feeding product he recorded to other labels, Phillips then decided to start his own label, Sun Records. As for Modern/RPM, even without the help of Phillips the label still went on to produce many more hits, including B.B. King’s breakthrough hit record Three O’Clock Blues.
No More Doggin’ The RPM Records Story Vol. 1 starts off with the Dixieland-style track “Alabama Bound”. Sung by Adele Francis, this tune was RPM’s first release in 1950. Other stand out tracks are Sonny Blair’s down-and-out blues ballad “Glad To Be Back Home”, B.B. King’s “Other Night Blues, and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Riding In The Moonlight”. My personal favorite recordings on this collection are the Lightnin’ Hopkins tracks. Excellent versions of “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Another Fool In Town” showcase Hopkins at his bluesy best, while “Jake Head Boogie” shows that he also could ROCK when he wanted to. Another nice surprise on this collection is the tune “It’s Time For Lovin’ To Be Done”. Performed by Detroit Bluesman Little Eddie Kirkland, the song features uncredited backing vocals by the great John Lee Hooker!
As usual the folks at ACE left no stone unturned when putting this collection together. Included in this collection is a nice history of RMP records as well as a few words on all the performers. All of the albums 52 tracks sound crisp and clear thanks to the extra care shown by the folks who did the remastering. If you want to hear where Rock N’ Roll really began this collection is for you.
James Govan might be the best singer you’ve never heard of. Born in McComb, Mississippi in 1949, James was raised in Memphis, Tennessee where he was an in-demand performer on Beale Street. His first “big break” came in 1967 when his talent caught the attention of songwriter/producer George Jackson. Jackson who at the time was working for the Muscle Shoals-based record label FAME decided to record a demo with James in Memphis. He sent the demo to FAME label owner Rick Hall who loved what he heard and set James up with producer Mickey Buckins. James recorded a number of songs for FAME between 1969 and 1972 but the label only released a few of them as singles. In fact, most of the music went unreleased until 2013 when the good people at ACE Records complied it and released it as James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings. Even though none of these recordings were big hits that made him a household name it’s still an amazing body of work that’s essential to any music fan’s record collection.
After his time with FAME, James went back to Beale Street where he became a regular performer in blues clubs. He released one album in 1982 which went nowhere and after that didn’t release any new music until the 1990’s. He saw some success in 1993 when his performance at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy made him a popular performer in Europe. He then released another album in 1996 but like his previous albums, it failed to draw any attention. James may have never had that “big hit record” but he always delivered the good live. He was a regular performer at the famous Run-Boogie Cafe in Memphis for over 20 years.
Sadly James passed on July 18, 2014. Fortunately his amazing talent will live on through his recordings and hopefully in time make James Govan into a household name.
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.
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
Leo “Bud” Welch: SABOUGLA VOICE Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum
For Fans of: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, The White Stripes, Rev Louis Overstreet
Guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch was born in Sabougla, Mississippi in 1932. A natural musician, Leo taught himself to play the guitar by learning songs off the radio. As soon as he built up a small repertoire he began performing at parties and local juke-joints. Unfortunately work as a musician was inconsistent and even though he was incredibility talented he was unable to make a living playing music. In order to make ends-meet Leo ended up taking a job as a logger and had to resort to playing music only when he had free time. Then in 1975 Leo switched from playing Blues to playing Gospel. He started performing in churches all over Mississippi and even began hosting a local Gospel Television show. Even though he now considered himself a Gospel musician he still kept in touch with the local Blues scene. As time went on he heard that Blues musicians like Junior Kimbrough were having late-in-life success working with Fat Possum Records. Inspired by this he called up the label and requested an audition. Label owner Bruce Watson agreed to hear Leo play and ended up signing him on the spot. Now thanks to the good people at Fat Possum and Big Legal Mess Records the world finally gets to hear one of the treasures of Mississippi, guitarist Leo Welch.
The album is called Sabougla Voices and the music on it is honest no-frills Mississippi Gospel. Throughout the albums ten tracks Leo’s plays the guitar with the energy of someone half his age. Songs like “Praise His Name” and “You Can’t Hurry God” are upbeat and show us the lines between Blues and Gospel are blurry at best. In fact, if you were to change a few lyrics, these songs could easily be for Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. Another standout track on the record is the acoustic “Me and My Lord”. Sounding a little like Pops Staples, Leo does call and response with his backup singers while playing acoustic guitar. This song is given an extra push by Leo’s backing band which shows it’s professionalism by settling into a nice groove and not over playing.
Even though all of the music on Sabougla Voices is solid, the album’s strongest track is easily the slow and eerie blues tune “A Long Journey”. Beautifully recorded, this song is about accepting the fact that death is part of life. That being said, hopefully Leo will be still be around for a long time as he deserves to enjoy every minute of his new found success! He’s got gigs booked across the U.S. this summer and is even scheduled to perform in Europe! Not bad for someone that at one point had to turn down an audition with B.B. King because he couldn’t afford to travel to Memphis. This album is excellent and belongs in your collection.