BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL

 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!

THE BEGINNING

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.

 

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.

 

ROBERT BELFOUR 1940-2015

Similar Artists: Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Lightnin’ Hopkins

 

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.

BelfourFat Possum and Mr. 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.

BelfourIn 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.

 

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

take-me-to-the-river

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.

 

JAMES GOVAN 1949-2014

james govan

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.

govan-8f838e9db94db7fac2252fe76b21b5b70cc40834-s6-c30

 

MAVIS STAPLES: A Tribute to a living legend

 

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

 

LEE FIELDS: Emma Jean

lee-fields-emma-jean

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.

 

 

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.

 

The Great Solomon Burke

On October 10, 2010 we lost the greatest soul singer of all time, Mr. Solomon Burke.   Sadly, Mr. Burke never got as much press as other soul legends like James Brown or Marvin Gaye even though he was just as much of a pioneer in soul music as they were.   Solomon Burke was a true talent who could command the attention of any audience.  I was lucky enough to get to see Mr. Burke in Oakland in November of 2009 and even though he was only allowed to play for a little over an hour, it was one of the best performances I have seen in my life!  Solomon was loved by musicians in every genre of music and I hope that in the coming years his music and impact on popular music get they recognition they deserve.  Today is a sad day for me.  However, I am comforted by the fact that even though Mr. Burke is gone his message of love and kindness will live on through the recordings he has left with us.  Thank you Mr Burke for sharing your talent and music with us.

 

Solomon Burke