Down just at the southern tip of the Mississippi Delta sits Yazoo county. The area isn’t anything special to the average traveler and in fact many try to avoid stopping there at all. There are very few business, the weather is usually awful, and there isn’t much to see except for acres of farm land. At the southern end of Yazoo country just off Highway 49 sits the town of Bentonia, population less then 600. Like the rest of Yazoo country, Bentonia, MS might not be much to look at for the average traveler but if you’re a Blues fan, this is an essential spot for you to visit. For this desolate area is home to one of the most legendary Juke Joints on the Mississippi Blues trail, The Blue Front Cafe.
The Blue Front Cafe has called Bentonia, Mississippi home since Carey and Mary Holmes first opened the establishment 1948. A home for live Blues for over 70 years, the cafe now belongs to the couple’s son Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. While the place might not be as well known as it should be when it comes to historical music venues, it still regularly receives visitors from all over the world. During the cafe’s heyday performers such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Skip James, and Son Thomas all graced it’s stage.
In addition to running the cafe Holmes also helps keep the Blues alive by regularly performing at the cafe for his guests. An accomplished Blues guitarist in his own right he’s released several albums over the years but sadly none have gained much attention outside of a few die-hard Blues fans. Fortunately for Holmes, one of those fans is Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach and he feels like that should change.
Recorded at Auerbach’s own Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, CYPRESS GROVE is Holmes’ first release for Auerbach’s label (also called Easy Eye Sound). Even thought the music was recorded in a studio with top session players, the vibe on CYPRESS GROVE is dark and gloomy and has more in common with the swamps of Mississippi then the bright lights of Music Row. Classic Blues songs like “Little Red Rooster” and “Catfish Blues” are given new life while still keeping their bluesy feel. In fact the garage-blues feel of “Rooster” makes it sound like it could be on a Tom Waits album.
Another stand out track is Holmes’ version of “Devil Got My Women”. Originally written and performed by the late Skip James (also from the Bentonia area) this song has been performed by many but done right by very few. For their version of the song Holmes and Auerbach stick close to the original over all feel of the tune but make it their own by adding a little percussion and some acoustic lead guitar in choice moments. Thus creating a beautiful version of a very sad song.
At 72 years of age Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is no spring chicken but he isn’t dead either. He is however one of the last living links to a time and genre of Blues that are almost gone. Thus making Cypress Grove a very important album, especially this day in age. Here we have two people from very different walks of like but yet, they together have created a wonderful album that should please fans of both modern and traditional Blues. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of this very talented partnership.
You don’t need to be religious to enjoy religious music. Almost every style of popular music has roots in gospel music, so if the “message” isn’t doing it for you, the music probably will. Personally, I am not a religious person, but some of my favorite recordings are by artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Staple Singers, and The Dixie Hummingbirds. In the 40’s and 50’s gospel performers like these filled arenas and stadiums! Granted it was a different time but still that’s a pretty impressive feat. I could go on and on here but in the interest of time and space I’ll just say that if you want to read more of my thoughts on the subject of gospel and religious music please see my previous post here… https://www.bottleneckcafe.com/2018/07/gospel-music-is-the-roots/
While the “Golden Age Of Gospel” may have ended in the 1950’s, there still are plenty of wonderful groups today performing good ol’ traditional gospel music. Now thanks to record man Bruce Watson’s new label BIBLE & TIRE Recording Co. some of that music will be more readily available to the masses. Watson has big plans for BIBLE & TIRE. Not only is the label going to be reissuing recordings by lesser known artists but they also plan to release newly record music as well. As Watson was one of the driving forces behind Fat Possum records kick-starting the Mississippi Hill-Country Blues revival, there’s no doubt that the new releases from BIBLE & TIRE will be essential listening for fans of American roots music.
The first of the two initial releases from BIBLE & TIRE is a collection of recordings by ELIZABETH KING & THE GOSPEL SOULS. Recorded in the 1970’s for the D-VINE Spirituals label in Memphis, many of these tracks have never seen the light of day until now. The music here is top-shelf and the recording quality is crystal clear. King’s powerful voice is front and center in the mix and leads the way on tracks such as “Jesus is My Captain”, “I Found Him”, and “I Heard the Voice”. While King is obviously the star here, the rest of the group is equally talented when given the spotlight. The guys take center stage on the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away” and make it sound fresh and new. Even though I have many other versions of this tune in my musical library I found myself listening to this track over and over. This record is essential for anyone who wants to hear no-frills authentic southern gospel music. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last we hear of Elizabeth King and The Gospel Sounds.
The second of the two initial releases from BIBLE & TIRE is a newly recorded album by THE SENSATIONAL BARNES BROTHERS. Entitled NOBODY’S FAULT BUT MY OWN, the album is the brothers take on classic gospel recordings from the Designer Records label. Along with Watson, the Barnes went through hundreds of recordings and handpicked songs to use for this album. Recorded in Memphis and produced by Watson himself this album has a wonderful vintage sound and finds the brothers sounding like a gospel-version of Sam & Dave! While the whole album is strong, the album’s stand out track for me is the Brothers’ version of Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. While this tune has been re-recorded many times before by many different artists it’s never sounded like this! Featuring a strong back-beat, wailing organ, and in-your-face horns, this song is now full on dance number. Hopefully Pops would approve. The musical overtone of the tune might be more upbeat then the original but the message is still just as powerful.
Regardless of your stance on organized religion, if you’re a fan of American Roots music, you need both these albums in your collection. Both will serve you well regardless of whether you play them Saturday or Sunday morning.
Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know. A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.
Soul Jazz Records
For fans of James Brown, Irma Thomas, Tina Turner, and The Meters
When you think of the greatest Soul singers of all time you probably don’t think of the name Betty Harris. Despite being as talented as superstars like Tina Turner and Etta James, Ms. Harris isn’t a household name. During the 1960’s she only released a handful of singles and only a few of those became hits. She then retired in 1970 to focus on her family. While her music has become very popular among Soul record collectors and aficionados over the years, it has never reached a mass audience. Fortunately the good folks at Soul Jazz Records are trying to change that with their recent release, BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL!
Born in Orlando FL, in 1941 (or possibly 1939) Ms. Harris started out singing gospel music when she was very young. Part of a very religious family, Harris wasn’t allowed to sing secular music while under her parent’s roof. She left home in her late teens to perform Blues and Soul music in California. After several years on the West Coast she moved to New York City where she hooked up with songwriter/producer Bert Berns. In 1963 she recorded her first hit, “Cry To Me”, a slow rendition of a tune singer Solomon Burke had recorded a year earlier. The song became a big hit for Harris and actually surpassed Burke’s original recording on the national charts! The success of “Cry To Me” inspired a few more releases from the Berns/Harris team including a fiery number called “Mo Jo Hannah”. Unfortunately none of these other recordings because hits and Burns and Harris went their separate ways.
WORKING WITH ALLEN TOUSSAINT
Shortly after her relationship with Burt Berns ended Harris met master Musican/Songwriter Allen Toussaint and began recording for his New Orleans based record label Sansu. Even though only one of the singles she recorded for Sansu charted nationally, the recordings she made while at the label are classic and make up the material on BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL. The music on this compilation is all killer-no-filler and ranges from classic R&B to HARD FUNK ! Songs like “There’s A Break In Every Road” and “12 Red Roses” are so funky you can smell ’em and the balled “Lonely Hearts” is greasier then a plate of food from a Louisiana Bayou Fish Fry! While it’s Harris’ larger-then-life vocals that command the most attention on these songs we must also note that the backing band is made up of some of New Orleans’ finest musicians, including the legendary Funk group, The Meters. Like the Funk Brothers at Motown or Booker T. & The MG’s at STAX, The Meters are as important to the recording as the artist they are supporting. Finally, we must acknowledge that none of these recordings would’ve been possible without master musician/producer Allen Toussiant behind the board. Not only do his talents as a producer take these recordings to another level, he also wrote all of these songs!
THE BOTTOM LINE
BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL is an excellent compilation of Harris’ Sansu recordings. Even though there are other compilations that go a bit deeper into her career this one hits all the main points and is a must have for FUNK loving fans.
THE ROLLING STOMES BLUE AND LONESOME (Universal Records)
For fans of Muddy Waters, B.B. King,
Of all the blues influenced rock bands to come out of England during the 1960’s, few perform American Blues music with the same authenticity as The Rolling Stones. Ever since the band’s early days when singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards bonded over their love for Blues artists like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, the Blues have been a big part of the band’s sound. On their first visit to the states in 1964 they included a trip to Chess Records in Chicago to record where their Blues heroes had recorded. They’ve introduced Blues artists to a whole new audience by taking them on tour and donated to Blues museums. They’ve even picked up the tab for the funeral expenses of Blues musicians when the musician’s family couldn’t afford it. Now for their most recent release the band has decided to release a whole album paying tribute to their Blues heroes. Entitled Blue and Lonesome, this record shows that even after decades of sold out tours and millions of records sold they really are just a bunch of guys that want to play the Blues.
The recent formula of an artist recording a “Blues Tribute album” when they’re unable to come up with new original material is a tired one, but here The Stones actually deliver! The band performs the songs on BLUE AND LONESOME (universal records) with a swagger that has long separated them from other Blues-based rock bands. The record kicks off with a cover of Little Walter’s “Just A Fool”. For those that are unaware Little Walter Jacobs was THE harmonica player on the Chicago Blues scene during the 1950’s and has even been called “The Jimi Hendrix of Harmonica”. While trying to match the exact sound and power of Little Walter’s playing is impossible, Mick Jagger gets a lot closer then you’d think. His own harp playing isn’t as flashy as Walter’s but it more than gets the point across.
Another stand-out track is the slow Blues “Little Rain”. Again The Stones come up big with their rendition of this lesser known Jimmy Reed tune. Playing slower tunes like this without losing the plot is usually tough on drummers. Fortunately for the Stones they have Charlie Watts behind the drums to keep them in-check. His laid-back drumming style perfectly fits this style of music by allowing the songs room to breath but without letting the bottom fallout. Such is the same with the rest of the Stones on this record. “Less is more” is the name of the game with this band and even when Eric Clapton joins the party on “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” the focus is always on playing what’s best for the song.
Bottom line is BLUE AND LONESOME is an excellent record that shows us the Stones are still just a bunch of music fans trying to turn people on to the Blues.
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND
LABEL: Blackball Universe
For fans of Fishbone, Tom Waits, Funkadelic, Junior Kimbrough
For those of you who believe there is no more good new music being released these days, I invite you to listen to the new album, THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND, from multi-instrumentalist Fantastic Negrito. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, and raised in a strict and religious household, the man now known as Fantastic Negrito is one of the most exciting artists to emerge from the Bay Area music scene in a long time. He moved to Oakland when he was 12 years old and immediately immersed himself in the wide variety of music styles that make up the Bay Area music scene. This explains to us why Dphrepaulezz’s own musical style really can’t be described as one genre. Elements of Funk, Soul, Gospel, Folk, and Blues make up the songs on THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND, and much like the city the album is named after, the music on the album is wonderful blend of styles and culture.
While this might be the first release for “Fantastic Negrito” it’s not the first release for Xavier Dphrepaulezz. In the early 90’s Dphrepaulezz was living in Los Angeles and briefly signed to Interscope Records and released one album. The album failed to satisfy the powers that be at Interscope and he was released from the label. Frustrated he actually gave up music. He then was involved in a terrible car accident which left him bedridden for several months. He returned to Oakland and several years later after the birth of his son the creative juices started to flow again and “Fantastic Negrito” was born. Then last year after many gigs around the Bay Area, Fantastic Negrito finally drew some well-deserved national attention last year when he won NPR’s Tiny Desk contest. Now hopefully the publicity he got from NPR will translate into record and ticket sales for Fantastic Negrito, as he is a musician that deserves to be heard by the masses.
The music on THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND takes the listener on a journey through the history of American roots music. The haunting Blues-Gospel tune “In The Pines” is a song that dates back to the late 1800’s and has been covered by everyone from Leadbelly to Nirvana. Here the song is given new life by Fantastic Negrito who recently released an accompanying video to the song that talks about the impact of gun violence in America today. Another one of my favorite tunes on the record is “Lost In The Crowd”. Originally released on his Deluxe LP in 2015 Fantastic Negrito commands your attention while he screams and shouts through this bluesy-rocker. A word also must be mentioned about the album’s cover art. The cover art features a character sitting a top a street sign that marks the location of Saint Andrews Plaza in West Oakland. Behind them is a beautiful drawing of the City of Oakland and a sunset. It might not be as important as the music on the record but the cover art truly makes this album a complete work of art. For fans who like something a little different or are fans of artists like Tom Waits, Fishbone, and Funkadelic, THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND is a must have.
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.