BIG MAMA THORNTON: A TRIBUTE

BIG MAMA THORNTON December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984

RECOMMENDED ALBUMS: BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EURPOE (Arhoolie), BIG MAMA THORNTON AND THE MUDDY WATERS BLUES BAND (Arhoolie), THE ORIGINAL HOUND DOG (Ace Records)

While there are many who claim to be the true “Queen of the Blues” few make a better argument then Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Born near Montgomery, Alabama in 1926 Big Mama enjoyed an incredible career that lasted over 30 years. Even though she never became as much of a household name as the people she influenced she still made her mark on the music world. While she is best known for singing the original version of the song “Hound Dog” (a song that was written specifically for her) that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her influence on music history. An openly gay African-American woman in the music industry Big Mama was a trailblazer. She commanded the stage with her towering figure and booming voice. Artists such as Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin sang her praises (quite literally in the case of Janis) and there is even a music camp for young women named in her honor (williemaerockcamp.org). While life wasn’t always easy for Big Mama she always stuck to her guns and kept moving forward.
BIG MAMA’S HOUND DOG
Recorded 1952 and released on Don Robey’s Peacock Records, Big Mama’s version of “Hound Dog” was an instant hit. Originally more of a blues song, “Hound Dog” was written with Big Mama specifically in mind by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Even though the song eventually became a number 1 hit, it didn’t translate into a big payday for anyone except record label owner Don Robey. While the exact story isn’t totally clear, Big Mama only received $500 for her services and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller got almost nothing. Of course Leiber and Stroller would eventually cash in BIG in 1956 when Elvis Presley recorded his reworked version of “Hound Dog” but as Big Mama wasn’t one of the songwriters the success of the Elvis version didn’t translate into any kind of payday for her. Always the business man, Robey tried to cash in again for himself when the Elvis version became a hit by rereleasing Big Mama’s version of the track but nothing much came of it. In 1965 Big Mama re-recorded the tune with blues guitar great Buddy Guy for her album BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EUROPE. This version might be some of her best work and smokes any version ever sung by Elvis.
THE SIXTIES
While she made many recordings during her career it was her live performances that set her apart from other blues singers. An entertainer through and though, Big Mama was a multi-instrumentalist and her live show regularly featured her playing a variety of instruments. She kept a rigorous touring schedule usually touring as part of travelling multi-performer blues revues and package tours with other artists. Even though she was almost always the only woman on these shows Big Mama NEVER got pushed around and usually was the highlight of the show. In fact there were several times when performing as the opening act, she put on such a powerful show that the headliner refused to perform! That said, the life of a touring musician can be a grueling and strenuous one. In the late 50’s. Rock n’ Roll and Soul started taking over the music charts and soon barroom blues artists like Big Mama were left on the outside looking in. Realizing it was time for a change she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area and began performing in local clubs.
 As the sixties began Big Mama started to see her career pick up steam again. In 1965 she recorded her first album for the Berkeley based roots music label Arhoolie. Entitled BIG MAMA THORNTON IN EUROPE, and recorded while she was on tour in Europe with traditional Chicago blues legends Buddy Guy, Big Walter Horton, and Eddie Boyd this album turned out to be one of the best albums of her career. While Big Mama sounds right at home fronting a big electric band, producer (and Arhoolie label owner) Chris Strachwitz fortunately had the foresight to know she would also sound good in an acoustic setting. So he paired her with country blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell for three songs. A second record for Arhoolie followed in 1966 this time pairing Big Mama with The Muddy Waters Blues band.  Again Big Mama nails these recordings and sounds so good you almost forget that Muddy Waters was also in the room. The Arhoolie albums proved to be nothing short of a godsend for her career. While she still fell short of being a household name the albums introduced her music to a younger audience and made her a regular on the blues and folk festival circuit.
In 1966 while performing in a San Francisco club Big Mama was approached by a young Janis Joplin. A huge fan of Big Mama’s, Janis asked her if she could cover her song Ball N’ Chain with her band Big Brother & The Holding Company. Big Mama gave Janis her blessing and soon thereafter Janis and her group reworded the song into a loud rockin slow blues. After being a live staple of their live show for several years Janis and her band released a live version of Ball N’ Chain in 1968 on their album CHEAP THRILLS. The album became a huge hit and Ball N’ Chain soon became a blues standard performed by many different groups. While this time Big Mama was credited as the songwriter, the matter of who owned the copyright became a huge mess. Apparently Big Mama had recorded the song in the early 60’s for Bay Tone records but the label never released the recording. They did however hold onto the copyright which allowed them to cash in on the song’s success thanks to the CHEAP THRILLS album. So while Big Mama did see some royalties from the recording she definitely didn’t make as much as she should have.
THE FINAL YEARS
Trying to ride the success of Janis Joplin’s version of Ball N’ Chain on CHEAP THRILLS, Arhoolie Records released a third Big Mama album entitled BALL N’ CHAIN. While the album is mostly a collection of her previously released Arhoolie Recordings the record does contain her performing a newly recorded version of Ball N’ Chain. Unfortunately this would be her last album for Arhoolie. Even with the success of Ball N’ Chain and Janis Joplin singing her praises she still failed to gain the national notoriety she deserved. As the 70’s began Big Mama continued to perform but her recorded output, while solid, was much less inspired and didn’t grab the attention of anyone besides blues connoisseurs. It also didn’t help that her health was beginning to fail due to years of drinking and hard living. In 1983 she was involved in a terrible automobile accident. She continued to perform but her mobility was limited. She ended up passing away from a heart attack in 1984 at only 57 years of age.
While she left us too soon and definitely didn’t ever achieve the notoriety she deserved she more than made her mark on the musical world. Fortunately all of her Arhoolie albums are still in print (as of Feb 2021) and are digitized and available on iMusic and Spotify. As for her earlier Peacock works, there are many collections available on-line and in record stores.  For those that want to see her in action there are many videos of her on YouTube where you can see her and different stages of her career.  Hopefully her body of work continues to find new ears and eyes and bring attention

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: ALMOST HOME

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: ALMOST HOME single lock records
For fans of Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Southern Soul
The Blind Boys of Alabama are a true American treasure. The band is about to enter their eighth decade as a group and the guys have done just about everything you could hope to do in the music business. They’ve performed in front of tens of thousands of people, won countless awards, and have even performed at the White House for three different presidents. Quite an achievement for a group of African American musicians that grew up in the segregated south where they couldn’t even perform in most venues. The group’s founding members originally met when they were very young at the Alabama Institute for the Blind in 1939. Not able to perform “black gospel” music at their own school (which was run by whites) the group took to the road. Needless to say, touring came with it’s own challenges thanks to the south’s Jim Crow Laws. Regardless, the band stuck it out and after many years of bad contracts and line-up changes the band started to enjoy some success.
In the early to mid 1950’s the band really began to take off and was an in-demand live act. They toured tirelessly throughout the American South and played to packed halls, churches, and auditoriums. Unfortunately for the group as the 50’s drew to a close gospel music’s popularity began to fade. Even gospel giants such as Sam Cooke started to crossover and begin recording secular music. Not interested in changing their sound the band continued to record and perform religious music. As the 60’s began the band was still a household name on the gospel music circuit and became very involved in the Civil Rights movement. Along with gospel contemporaries like Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers the band regularly performed benefit shows for Dr. Martin Luther King. Sadly the decade ended andso would the band’s popularity. The next several decades were tough on the band. Members of the groups came and went and their audience dwindled, radio airplay for the group was non-existent.
 Down but never out, the band pressed on and in 1983 thanks to their part in the musical “The Gospel at Colonus” they enjoyed a second wave of success that they still ride today. More popular than ever these days the group is not only still a dynamite live act but  they’re also a force in the recording studio. A large part of this new success can be attributed to their willingness to try new things and expand their musical palette. A perfect example of this occurred in 2001 when the group released the albums SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY and HIGHER GROUND for Real World Records.  These albums found the group not only covering contemporary artists such as Prince and Tom Waits but also recording fresh new versions of gospel standards. Both albums were very successful and introduced the group to a whole new younger audience.
 In the years since the release of the albums for Real World Records the group has continued to regularly release albums. While most of the albums have been pretty strong, their best moment on record is the group’s recent album ALMOST HOME.  Originally recorded 2017 as an Amazon exclusive the album is now available on all streaming mediums courtesy of Single Lock Records. Featuring songs “Stay on the Gospel Side” and “Almost Home”, the album tells the story of the band’s amazing career.  It also should be noted that a portion of this album was recorded at the legendary FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Like the Blind Boys themselves, FAME studios has been a fixture in the music industry for decades and is still going strong today.
ALMOST HOME opens with the country soul flavored “Stay on The Gospel Side”. A wonderfully uplifting story of staying true to yourself, this tune is exactly what we need right now. The song was co-written by singer songwriters Marc Cohen and John Leventhal with input by former Blind Boys frontman the late Clarence Fountain. Mr. Carter’s gruff vocals give the song it’s authenticity and sets the tone for the rest of the album. Another stand out track on the album is “Let My Mother Live”. Opening with a bluesy Allman Brothers-esq guitar riff, this song finds the band starting to open up vocally and is reminiscent of Clarence Carter’s country-soul hit “Patches” (also recorded at FAME studios). Like “Patches” the song has been well received by those in the industry and was nominated for a grammy.
 For the songs on ALMOST HOME the band collaborated with the team of Cohen/Leventhal for the majority of the album but also worked with several other songwriters such as Valerie June, Phil Cook, and Cris Jacobs. They also tackled a number of covers including “Live Forever” by Billy Joe Shaver and “I Shall Be Released” by Bob Dylan. All that said, the album’s strongest track might be the gospel ballad “God Knows Everything”. Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, this is a beautiful song. Again, this tune is penned by the songwriting team of John Leventhal and Marc Cohen. For those unsure of what sacred soul music should sound like, start here.
It goes without saying that ALMOST HOME is the strongest and most cohesive recorded that the Blind Boys have ever released. Unfortunately as it was initially released as an Amazon exclusive not everyone got the chance to hear it when it first came out. But, such is the way things are now in the music industry. Thankfully Single Lock Records is giving the record second chance and has made it more widely available. Now that all can enjoy this historic group’s finest hour, do yourself a favor and check out, ALMOST HOME today.

THE DEDICATED MEN OF ZION: Can’t Turn Me Around

CAN’T TURN ME AROUND Bible & Tire Records

For fans of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and The Staple Singers

The new record from the Dedicated Men of Zion reminds us that the lines between traditional gospel and R&B are blurry at best. Filled with foot-stomping rockers and swinging soulful ballads, CAN’T TURN ME AROUND, is just as appropriate for Saturday Night as it is for Sunday morning. Hailing from rural North Carolina the group has gone through a number of lineup changes since it’s incarnation in 2014. In 2018 the group’s current lineup, consisting of Anthony Daniels, Antoine Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg caught the attention of The Music Maker Relief Fund. The Music Maker Relief Fund is a non-profit organization that helps musicians in the rural south meet their day-to-day needs and promote their music. Even though the band was already popular regionally, working with the Music Maker Relief fund helped the group reach a larger audience and eventually find the ears of Bruce Watson’s Bible & Tire Record label.

Bible & Tire Records was started by Bruce Watson in 2018 as a vehicle for him to record and release “sacred soul” music. A music industry veteren, Watson has made a career out of recording and producing different forms of roots music, most notably albums by Hill Country Blues artists for Fat Possum records. Now with his attention focused squarely on sacred soul artists, Watson’s hit it outta the park again with CAN’T TURN ME AROUND by the Dedicated Men of Zion. Although this might technically be a gospel record, Watson and the Dedicated Men of Zion show us you don’t need to be religious to enjoy religious music, all you need is a pulse.
 The album opens with the hard-driving blues shuffle of “Father, Guide Me, Teach Me”.  One thing that’s immediately noticeable here is that even though the Men of Zion obviously have some incredible vocal abilities they also know how to leave space for each other. As with other gospel groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds or Blind Boys of Alabama everyone gets a chance to showcase their talent but it’s their harmonies that make this group special. While it’s obvious the Men of Zion have a special chemistry with each other, that isn’t the only reason they work so well together. All the guys have spent years performing not only in churches but also performing as hired guns backing up some of music’s biggest acts. Having that type of talent along with the musical maturity to know that “less is sometimes more”, is why these guys are well seasoned performers of the highest caliber.
The album’s second track is the haunting “A Leak in This Old Building”. Here the guys successfully bring down the tempo (but not the energy) as they vocally sway back and forth over a sweltering organ part. This is where gospel and soul music intersect. Sounding a little like a mix of Ray Charles’ “Hard Times” and Isaac Hayes “Walk On” this song makes you understand that while the guys have experienced real pain in their lives, they still press on. Fortunately the somber mood doesn’t last long as guys bring the mood back up on the next two tracks “Down Here Lord” and “I Feel Alright”.
Another stand out track on the album is “It’s a Shame”.  A statement about the current troubled state of today’s society is more inspiring than sad. Thanks to a danceable groove this song might not make you want to dance but instead get up and march. It’s also the most traditional “soul” song on the album and is reminiscent of music recorded in the late 60’s at Stax Records. Speaking of Stax, a big part of the record’s vintage sound is the amazing back-up band.  Mark Stuart (bass), George Sluppick (Drums), Calvin Barnes (Hammond Organ) and Will Sexton (guitar) are all in-demand studio musicians from Memphis, and play with a style reminiscent of Stax studio legends Booker T. & The MG’s. Like many famous studio bands, they provide a solid foundation for each song that allows the vocalists the space to do great things. In short, you might not necessarily notice them when listening to this record but if they weren’t there you’d miss them.

 The bottom line is that The Dedicated Men of Zion’s new record CAN’T TURN ME AROUND is a record that is desperately needed today. It’s inspiring, hopeful, and most of all reminds us that yes, things have been bad before but if we work together we can survive this and make it to the promised land.. whatever you deem that to be.

HERE’S LITTLE RICHARD!: A Tribute

While the question of who started Rock N’ Roll will never be answered definitively, Little Richard was by far one of its main architects. His early recordings for Specialty Records inspired musical giants like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, his live performances inspired the likes of James Brown and Otis Redding, and at one point he even employed a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix in his band. He’s been in movies, on TV shows, and is a member of both the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. That said, even with all of the success he enjoyed in his career he had a complicated life.  Once, while on tour with his band in Australia in 1957, he had a religious “awakening”. He immediately cancelled a concert, decided he was going to do gospel music, then suddenly started disposing of all his jewelry. While this story has taken many forms over the years (some versions have him on a boat throwing the jewelry overboard), one thing is certain, he did leave pop music for a while and strictly recorded gospel. When he retuned to pop music several years later he found other musicians had taken his share of the spotlight. He continued to record and had some limited success with songs here and there but nothing like he’d experienced in the 50’s. 
     In the studio, Richard was never better than he was on the recordings he made for Specialty Records in the 1950’s. Produced by the legendary the producer Bumps Blackwell and recorded by some of New Orleans finest players, these recordings inspired generations of musicians.  It was during one of these early Specialty sessions that Richard’s legendary hit “Tutti Frutti” was recorded. Originally a playful song about homosexual sex, Blackwell felt the lyrics were too much for general audiences so he asked songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to help clean up the lyrics so the song could be on the radio.  Richard himself plays piano on the track. As the song was a late addition to the session, the groups main piano player Huey Smith didn’t have time to learn the part. The song was a hit and eventually reached #17 on the pop Billboard charts. It also inspired several cover version some of which actually charted higher than Richard’s original version. Regardless, this was the beginning of a successful run for Richard and Specialty. 
       While the Specialty years were Richard’s most successful years in the recording studio, one of my personal favorite Little Richard recordings is his version of Don Covay’s “I Don’t Know What You Got But It’s Got Me” recorded for VeeJay Records in 1965. The song is a bit of a change stylistically for Richard who was trying to adapt to the new sound of Soul music that was becoming popular thanks to artists like The Temptations and Otis Redding. Here, Richard gives an outstanding performance that finds him shouting like a Baptist preacher and to make things a little more interesting, features a relatively unknown guitarist at the time named Jimi Hendrix.  
Another time that Richard hit pay dirt in the studio was at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals AL. The year was 1970 and Richard was in town recording what was supposed to be his comeback album, “The Rill Thing”.  While the album didn’t hit the charts like the Richard would’ve hoped, he did record a song called “Greenwood, Mississippi”.  Written by guitarist Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack, the tune is a straight-ahead Country Rocker with a little bit of Soul-flare. Easily the strongest tune on the album, Richard’s vocal take reminds folks where John Fogerty got his vocal sound from. 
      Even though Richard was pretty absent on the Billboard charts for most of his career he was always an in-demand live performer. In his early years on the road Richard’s act was so popular he sometimes would get double booked. As he couldn’t be in two places at once, an impersonator would be hired to play the show the real Little Richard couldn’t perform at. This seem to work for a while until TV became more popular in households across the country. While it might sound like a shady act to fool an audience in this way, things could’ve been worse. A few times Richard’s management hired a young man by the name of James Brown to be “Little Richard” for an evening. Otis Redding was another popular choice. All that said, most folks who were in the audiences said they knew they weren’t getting the REAL Little Richard but were still entertained. 
    There’s no question that Little Richard is one of the most influential musicians of all time. But did he invent Rock N’ Roll? No. It’s hard to say there was ONE person who is responsible for one of music’s most popular genres, but he is one of Rock’s main architects. It’s unfortunate he didn’t get more recognition while he was alive but to be fair part of that was because of Richard himself. He was a talented but complicated guy. Nevertheless, he is Rock n’ Roll royalty and we all owe him a big debt of gratitude. 

MUSIC FOR THE SOUL

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. 

CEDRIC BURNSIDE Benton County Relic

CEDRIC BURNSIDE
BENTON COUNTY RELIC Single Lock Records
For fans of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, John Lee Hooker, and The White Stripes
The Blues are on life-support. For decades now radio has almost totally ignored the genre, purists only want to listen onlyto “classic” recordings, and younger artists are more interested in showing you how many notes they can play thansettling in on a nice groove.  And if all that wasn’t enough to bring down one of America’s greatest contributions to the world of music, most of the genre’s legends are now passing on to the “great gig in the sky”.  So what does this mean for the future of the Blues?  Will webe damned to  see only “Blues Hammer” type bands when wanting to see live Blues (see the movie Ghost World for that reference). Fortunately, the is a little bit of light on the dark horizon, and that light is Cerdic Burnside.
Raised in the Mississippi Hill Country by his grandfather, and Blues legend, R.L. Burnside, Cedric’s whole life has revolved around the Blues. His new album entitled Benton Country Relic is reminiscent of recordings by Mississippi Blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside and might be the best album he’s ever released. The songs have a beautiful looseness and focus more on establishing a strong groove then flashy guitar solos.  If the Blues is going to survive in the 21st century a big reason will be because of Cedric Burnside.
Benton Country Relic opens with the powerful stomping “We Made It”.  Featuring a guitar line and tone that calls to mind the sound of Ali Fara Toure as well as traditional country blues, the song is an excellent example of what’s to come on the rest of the album, REAL DEAL BLUES.  Additionally, Benton Country Relic also contains some great examples of blues drumming. Cedric is an accomplished Blues drummer and has manned the kit for Blues legends Junior Kinbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and his grandfather R.L. Burnside. As with those groups, his steady and syncopated rhythms help drive the music and keep things interesting. On rockers “Typical Day” and “I’m Hurtin” Cedric’s playing swings hard, giving the listener an example of what it might sound like in a Juke Joint in rural Mississippi on Saturday night. For the gloomy “Call on Me” he keeps things loose to the point where it sounds like the band is almost ready to collapse.  This adds to song’s dark ambiance and helps make this one of the album’s coolest tracks.    Another stand out track on the record is the acoustic balled  “There is So Much”. Here the listener gets a chance to catch their breath,while Cedric shows you that he can still move you without the help of electric guitar and drums.
The album’s strongest track “Ain’t Gonna Take No Mess” closes out the record.  One might say this tune sounds like a song by the groups The White Stripes, Black Keys, or even Led Zeppelin, when in fact it’s the other way around.  According to Cedric himself, the Blues is all he’s ever known, it’s all his family has ever known. That’s because it’s an art form that’s literally run in the veins of his family and those in the surrounding area for generations. Way before The White Stripes or Led Zeppelin bought their first instruments, musicians from the Mississippi Hill Country were making music like the music on Benton County Relic. Now it’s Cedric’s turn to keep the sound of the Hill Country Blues alive, and if he keeps releasing albums like this, the blues just might survive.

GOSPEL MUSIC IS THE ROOTS?

The late great Willie Dixon once said “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits”.  While it might be taboo to disagree with a musical legend like Dixon (especially while he was alive as he was also a 300-lbs boxer), I must respectfully do so.  In my personal opinion, it is Gospel and spiritual music that we have to credit with being the musical tree that provided us with most all other forms of popular music.
While popular music may have evolved further and further away from it’s roots in Gospel and spiritual music over the years you can still hear the genre’s influence in some of today’s popular music.  Example, when you listen to artists like Beyonce’, Childish Gambino, and Bruno Mars you can definitely hear that somewhere along the way they were influenced, maybe indirectly, by artists like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.  James, Aretha, and Ray were all influenced heavily by Gospel music.  Aretha grew up in the in the church, Ray took a song by the little known gospel group The Southern Tones and turned it into “I Got A Women”, and Mr. Brown’s stage show was basically a secular version of a baptist revival. Same with Country music. You’d be hard pressed to find a country artist today that wasn’t inspired by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, or George Jones in some way.  Each of those artists recorded gospel albums over their long and impressive careers.  Rock music? Same thing.  Most modern rock bands in some way have been inspired by artists like The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, etc. Those artists listened to the Blues and Blues came from Gospel and spiritual music. We could talk about how Jamaican Reggae and Ska musicians listened to Blues, R&B, and Gospel music in the 1950’s over radio waves they picked up from America, but my feeling is you’re getting my point. The roots of most genres of popular music begin in Gospel and spiritual music.
Now, while one might enjoy the melodies in Gospel music there still might be a hang up when it comes to the lyrics.  I totally understand that.  Personally I am not a religious person and identify more as an atheist. Still, I LOVE classic gospel and spiritual music!  I love the passion in the music and the wonderful melodies.  Also, I appreciate how Gospel music has helped a lot of folks through some very rough times in history.  So while I may not have all the same beliefs as the person singing the music I am still able to enjoy the music.
Here are some of my favorite Gospel albums and artists that I hope you’ll check out.
STAPLE SINGERS
FREEDOM HIGHWAY epic records
 While a live album of the same name was released in 1965 (which is also excellent) this record is compiled of studio versions of Gospel classics such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, and “Wade In The Water”.  The record also features probably the best song band leader Roebuck “Pops” Staples ever wrote, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. Pops wrote the song after watching the events surrounding “The Little Rock Nine” unfold on television.  The song became a hit not only for the Staple Singers but also an anthem of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s.
BROTHER JOHN SELLERS
BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGS smithsonian folkways recordings
Born in Mississippi in 1924, Brother John Sellers was one of the best (and most underrated) Blues/Gospel singers ever to record. His larger-then-life voice is best showcased here on his 1959 album BAPTISTS SHOUTS & GOSPEL SONGSSellers was discovered by the great Mahalia Jackson when he was a youngster performing in local gospel showcases.  As an adult he became an in-demand entertainer performing all over the world with legends like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Jo Jones, and Jackson herself. He passed away from diabetes related complications in 1999.
MAHALIA JACKSON:
MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH columbia records
During Mahalia Jackson’s impressive career she introduced millions of music lovers all over the world to Gospel music. She inspired artists such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin, performed for world leaders, and was a powerful presence in the civil rights movement.  While she has hundreds of recordings my personal favorite is MAHALIA! SINGS GOSPEL RIGHT OUT OF THE CHURCH.  The material is mostly up beat and beautifully recorded. Even though this record came out later in Jackson’s career her voice has never sounded better.
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
20th CENTRY MASTERS COLLECTION
MCA Records
Few Gospel vocal groups have been more influential then The Dixie Hummingbirds. During the 1940’s and 50’s (generally referred to as “The Golden Age of Gospel”), they were megastars. They packed arenas, paved the way for future vocal groups like The Temptations and The Four Tops, and sold piles of records.  You can even trace their influence to modern pop groups like Boys II Men and N’Sync.  While the Hummingbirds have many recordings available a great place to start is their “best of” collection “THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS 20th CENTURY MASTERS”. This collection gives you a good overview of their sound and features their Grammy winning hit “Loves Me Like A Rock”.
THE SOUL STIRRERS
JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS
ABKCO Music & Records
The Soul Stirrers were another group that were megastars during the Gospel’s golden age.  While they are best known for being the group that kick-started Sam Cooke’s career in the 1950’s, the group’s origins go back to the mid 1930’s.  With Cooke in the group the Stirrers achieved rockstar-like status and recorded several hits for Specialty Records.  While the group was at their musical best when they were with Cooke, my personal favorite collection of theirs is JOY IN MY SOUL: THE COMPLETE SAR RECORDINGS.  This collection features recordings the group did for Sam Cooke’s own record label SAR Records after he had officially left the group. Many of these recordings were produced by Cooke himself and show that even in their later years the group was one of the very best vocal Gospel groups.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
GOSPEL OF THE BLUES
MCA RECORDS

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.

While there are many recordings of Sister Rosetta available a good place to start when wanting to learn more about her music is a collection of her early recordings entitled THE GOSPEL OF THE BLUES.  This collection is complied of tracks recorded 1938 – 1948 and features a dynamite version of her hit “Shout, Sister, Shout”. The record also features a number of her recordings with Lucky Millinder’s Orchestra and the Sammy Price Trio. These tracks show that Sister Rosetta could swing as hard as she could rock!

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! While it’s Harris’ larger-then-life vocals that commands 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 members of 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 also 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 almost all of these songs!

 

 

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND

LastDaysofOakland

 

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.

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 stand-out track 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.

 

REAL FOLK BLUES! The George Mitchell Recordings

George_mitchell

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.

Fat_Possum_Records

 

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.

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R.L. Burnside First Recordings  Recorded in 1967

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 1967.

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.

MI0002119691

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.

 

JW_warren

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.