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

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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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

LITTLE WILLIE JOHN: The Authorized Biography

Little Willie John

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

Author: Susan Whitall  Publisher: Titan Books

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

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

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

Little Willie John

 

 

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.

 

VISITING MEMPHIS!

Traveling to Memphis!

This past spring I had the privilege of getting to spend a few days in Memphis, Tennessee.   Let me start out by saying that I found Memphis to be a wonderful city with amazing history!  While Memphis has received a bad reputation for it’s level of crime and high homeless population at no time did I feel unsafe.  I had an excellent visit and found the locals of Memphis very friendly and helpful.   If you have any interest in American Roots music or the History of the Civil Rights movement you should start making plans to visit Memphis immediately.

MUST DO’s while in Memphis.

National Civil Rights Museum  450 Mulberry St  Memphis, TN 38103  http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/

In my opinion to really understand the history of American roots music you need to learn about the struggle for Civil Rights in this country. Start your visit here! This beautiful museum will set the tone for the rest of your visit.  Located in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the museum elegantly tells the story of the men and women that fought hard for equality in this country.  Learning about the struggle for Civil Rights will help you see why multiracial bands at Stax Records and Fame Studios were so historically significant.

Civil Rights MuseumIMG_0186

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stax Museum of American Soul Music 926 E. McLemore Ave. (901) 942-SOUL  www.staxmuseum.com

Possibly one of the best museums in the United States, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the little record label that could.  From field workers singing gospel music to the artists of today this museum leaves no stone unturned.  Also the museum doesn’t just stick to talking about Stax artists.  It covers artists from Motown, Atlantic, Chess, Duke, Goldwax (my personal favorite), and everything in-between!  You’ll see things like Issac Hayes’ car, Rufus Thomas Mater Tapes, and a recreation of the studio where Booker T. and The MG’s backed many amazing artists.  The museum has lots of interactive touch-screens and even a full on dance floor!  The staff are very knowledgeable and are dedicated to getting you the whole story of Soul music.  Keep in mind if you’re staying downtown you’ll have to take a cab, bus, or car to get here as it’s a little off the beaten path, but you’ll learn there’s a reason for that.  This museum is worth the short trip from downtown.  Only here will you’ll get the whole story of American Blues and Soul music.

IMG_0250 Stax Studio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEALE STREET

Although it’s now pretty much a tourist trap, Beale Street should be a stop on your trip.   This is the street where so many musicians got their “start”.  W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Furry Lewis, Rosco Gordon, Rufus Thomas, Memphis Minnie, all have graced the stages of clubs here on Beale.  There is still plenty of live music here but it can be very hit or miss. Luckily, I had a chance to catch the great Dr. Feelgood Potts while I was here and he didn’t disappoint!  He and his put put on a great show and had the place jumpin’! Check him out if you get the chance!

EATING ON BEALE

Blues City Cafe 138 Beale St, Memphis TN  (901) 526-3637  http://www.bluescitycafe.com/

The one sure thing on Beale that’s around today is the restaurant Blues City Cafe.  Memphis has as many amazing restaurants as it does Blues legends and the Blues City Cafe is one of the best.  Late hours, great spices, amazing BBQ, what’s not to love?  I had some of the best Fried Catfish I’ve ever had in my life here!

Blues City

The Rock N’ Soul Museum

Located at Beale and Hwy 61 (across the street from the Gibson Guitar Factory)

This museum isn’t as essential as the Stax Museum but it’s still VERY good.  They have an amazing collection of stuff from Ike Turner’s Piano to part of a classic Southern style church.  They cover all the essentials from Gospel to today’s Soul and they have a really nice exhibit on Memphis’ own WDIA!  If you’re short on time and cant’s make it to the Stax Museum then make sure you hit this place up!  It also offers a FREE shuttle to Sun Records and is walking distance to lots of stuff in Downtown Memphis.

Another thing to do while in Memphis is vist The Memphis Cotton Exchange Museum.  Cotton was king in the American south and because the history of the Blues has so much to do with the life a sharecropper lived you really can’t pass up this museum.

There’s also Sun Records, the studio where Sam Phillips recorded Elvis, Cash, Jerry Lee, and many others.   Now don’t get me wrong, I like the Rockabilly stuff that was done at Sun Records but I’m personally more interested in the Blues that Sam Phillips recorded with his Memphis Recording Service.  Sadly there is little mention of the Blues at Sun Records today, but to be fair, most of their visitors don’t really seem to care about that.  Most of them probably aren’t even aware that Sam Phillips once called Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” the greatest recording he ever made.   So besides an original wax copy of Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” there really isn’t much about the Blues here at Sun Records.  The studio is now very touristy and has a large gift shop and cafe in it.  During my visit I tried to imagine Johnny Cash taking a break from a session to shop for a Sun Records hoodie but it made me sad so I left.  However, if you’re into Rockabilly or Elvis Presley you should make this an essential part of your Memphis trip.

Some other non-essential but fun spots to see Memphis 

Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,

The Blues Foundation office (when they finish building their Blues museum this will become an essential stop)

West Memphis, Arkansas (The clubs in West Memphis were where musicians from Memphis went to REALLY show their stuff)

Also make sure you check out the site www.msbluestrail.org.  Here you’ll find information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and Historical markers that are set up at spots along the trail where Blues history actually happened!  There are a number of these markers around Memphis and they provide a nice overview of the city’s Blues history.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST…

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

If you’re in Memphis, Tennessee then you’re only about 90 short minutes from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  I HIGHLY recommend taking at least a day and travel down to Clarksdale.    If you’re into Blues, Soul, Gospel, or History you will LOVE Clarksdale.  Here you will get your fill of NO FRILLS BLUES HISTORY.   There is so much to see and do in Clarksdale that I can’t list it all here.  So if you’d like suggestions about visiting Clarksdale please contact me through this blog and I’ll be in touch with you.  Keep in mind that many of the amazing clubs, shops, and museums in Clarksdale are disappearing due to the recent influx of Casinos along the Mississippi river.  So see them while you can!

Happy travels!

 

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FUNKY SOUL: THREE ESSENTIAL COLLECTIONS!

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

Play ’em loud and enjoy!

SATURDAY NIGHT FISH FRY: NEW ORLEANS FUNK AND SOUL 

Label: SOUL JAZZ RECORDS

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

 

 

THE FUNKY 16 CORNERS

Label: STONES THROW RECORDS

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

 

 

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

Label: Luv N’ Haight/Ubiquity

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

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

 

Etta James & Johnny Otis

 

This morning as I was writing a post to pay tribute to the life of the great Johnny Otis, who passed away yesterday, I learned of the passing of one of the greatest artists Johnny ever discovered, Ms. Etta James. While Etta James is a house-hold name (and rightfully so) the name Johnny Otis is sadly becoming less and less known by today’s music fans. Besides giving Etta James her first big break, Mr. Otis also helped start the careers of many top R&B performers. When not performing with his own band he was in the studio recording and producing sides for many of the best R&B performers. It was Johnny Otis who produced and performed on the original 1952 recording of Hound Dog featuring Big Mama Thornton. Two years later in 1954 Otis found himself in the studio again with another young blues singer, a woman by the name of Jamesetta Hawkins. Like Big Mama Thornton, Jamesetta started out performing with The Johnny Otis Band. She then moved to Los Angeles and entered the studio with the band to record what would be her break out song “The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)”. Written by Johnny Otis “The Wallflower” was an answer song to the Hank Ballard tune “Work With Me Annie”. Shortly after the release of the song Jamesetta (now going by the stage name Etta James) started off on a solo career that would last over 50 years. She recorded many smash hits for a number of different labels and released albums up until 2011. In addition to being successful in the recording studio James was also successful on the stage and would continue to be an in-demand performer until 2009 when she was unable to perform due to health issues.
As for Johnny Otis, discovering Etta James was just one of the many highlights in a career that lasted well into his eighties. A true renaissance man, Otis was a songwriter, performer, producer, author, store and bar owner, and painter. He even got involved in politics in his home state of California during the 1960’s. However, with all these accomplishments Johnny Otis is probably best know for writing the hit song “Willie and The Hand Jive” which would sell over 1.5 million copies and be covered by Eric Clapton for his 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard.
During the their lifetimes both Etta James and Johnny Otis brought to joy to millions of fans all over the world, they are both members of multiple halls of fame, and their influence can be heard in the music of artists in every genre of music. They will both be dearly missed.