Born in Arkansas in 1915 Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced Rock and Popular music more then most people know. A young Little Richard got his start by opening for her before anybody knew who he was. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan all cite Sister Rosetta as a major influence, and during her heyday she performed for stadium sized crowds all over the world. In short, Sister Rosetta was a rockstar before Rock n’ Roll even existed.
Soul Jazz Records
For fans of James Brown, Irma Thomas, Tina Turner, and The Meters
When you think of the greatest Soul singers of all time you probably don’t think of the name Betty Harris. Despite being as talented as superstars like Tina Turner and Etta James, Ms. Harris isn’t a household name. During the 1960’s she only released a handful of singles and only a few of those became hits. She then retired in 1970 to focus on her family. While her music has become very popular among Soul record collectors and aficionados over the years, it has never reached a mass audience. Fortunately the good folks at Soul Jazz Records are trying to change that with their recent release, BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL!
Born in Orlando FL, in 1941 (or possibly 1939) Ms. Harris started out singing gospel music when she was very young. Part of a very religious family, Harris wasn’t allowed to sing secular music while under her parent’s roof. She left home in her late teens to perform Blues and Soul music in California. After several years on the West Coast she moved to New York City where she hooked up with songwriter/producer Bert Berns. In 1963 she recorded her first hit, “Cry To Me”, a slow rendition of a tune singer Solomon Burke had recorded a year earlier. The song became a big hit for Harris and actually surpassed Burke’s original recording on the national charts! The success of “Cry To Me” inspired a few more releases from the Berns/Harris team including a fiery number called “Mo Jo Hannah”. Unfortunately none of these other recordings because hits and Burns and Harris went their separate ways.
WORKING WITH ALLEN TOUSSAINT
Shortly after her relationship with Burt Berns ended Harris met master Musican/Songwriter Allen Toussaint and began recording for his New Orleans based record label Sansu. Even though only one of the singles she recorded for Sansu charted nationally, the recordings she made while at the label are classic and make up the material on BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL. The music on this compilation is all killer-no-filler and ranges from classic R&B to HARD FUNK ! Songs like “There’s A Break In Every Road” and “12 Red Roses” are so funky you can smell ’em and the balled “Lonely Hearts” is greasier then a plate of food from a Louisiana Bayou Fish Fry! While it’s Harris’ larger-then-life vocals that command the most attention on these songs we must also note that the backing band is made up of some of New Orleans’ finest musicians, including the legendary Funk group, The Meters. Like the Funk Brothers at Motown or Booker T. & The MG’s at STAX, The Meters are as important to the recording as the artist they are supporting. Finally, we must acknowledge that none of these recordings would’ve been possible without master musician/producer Allen Toussiant behind the board. Not only do his talents as a producer take these recordings to another level, he also wrote all of these songs!
THE BOTTOM LINE
BETTY HARRIS: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL is an excellent compilation of Harris’ Sansu recordings. Even though there are other compilations that go a bit deeper into her career this one hits all the main points and is a must have for FUNK loving fans.
THE ROLLING STOMES BLUE AND LONESOME (Universal Records)
For fans of Muddy Waters, B.B. King,
Of all the blues influenced rock bands to come out of England during the 1960’s, few perform American Blues music with the same authenticity as The Rolling Stones. Ever since the band’s early days when singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards bonded over their love for Blues artists like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, the Blues have been a big part of the band’s sound. On their first visit to the states in 1964 they included a trip to Chess Records in Chicago to record where their Blues heroes had recorded. They’ve introduced Blues artists to a whole new audience by taking them on tour and donated to Blues museums. They’ve even picked up the tab for the funeral expenses of Blues musicians when the musician’s family couldn’t afford it. Now for their most recent release the band has decided to release a whole album paying tribute to their Blues heroes. Entitled Blue and Lonesome, this record shows that even after decades of sold out tours and millions of records sold they really are just a bunch of guys that want to play the Blues.
The recent formula of an artist recording a “Blues Tribute album” when they’re unable to come up with new original material is a tired one, but here The Stones actually deliver! The band performs the songs on BLUE AND LONESOME (universal records) with a swagger that has long separated them from other Blues-based rock bands. The record kicks off with a cover of Little Walter’s “Just A Fool”. For those that are unaware Little Walter Jacobs was THE harmonica player on the Chicago Blues scene during the 1950’s and has even been called “The Jimi Hendrix of Harmonica”. While trying to match the exact sound and power of Little Walter’s playing is impossible, Mick Jagger gets a lot closer then you’d think. His own harp playing isn’t as flashy as Walter’s but it more than gets the point across.
Another stand-out track is the slow Blues “Little Rain”. Again The Stones come up big with their rendition of this lesser known Jimmy Reed tune. Playing slower tunes like this without losing the plot is usually tough on drummers. Fortunately for the Stones they have Charlie Watts behind the drums to keep them in-check. His laid-back drumming style perfectly fits this style of music by allowing the songs room to breath but without letting the bottom fallout. Such is the same with the rest of the Stones on this record. “Less is more” is the name of the game with this band and even when Eric Clapton joins the party on “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” the focus is always on playing what’s best for the song.
Bottom line is BLUE AND LONESOME is an excellent record that shows us the Stones are still just a bunch of music fans trying to turn people on to the Blues.
WILLIAM BELL: THIS IS WHERE I LIVE Stax Records/Concord Music Group
Singer William Bell is a national treasure. Besides being one of the few artists still performing today that was with STAX Records in the early 60’s, he also is one of the few artists still performing classic Southern Soul. His new album THIS IS WHERE I LIVE (Stax/Conord) finds the singer in fine form performing simple but well-crafted songs that draw from a variety of influences. The up-beat “Poison In The Well” could easily be a gospel song if the lyrics were slightly different and the slow-funky groove of “The Three Of Me” calls to mind the sound of urban-funksters The Impressions. The Blues are here too. While the decision to do a updated rendition of his Blues classic “Born Under A Bad Sign” could’ve been a mistake Bell and the band actually deliver! The song is given a complete make-over and is a bit darker sounding then the original. This is a real treat considering that most of the time when artists decide to cover their own music or “update” one of their classics it usually ends up being a step backwards for the song and the artist. Without a doubt, THIS IS WHERE I LIVE is a very welcome addition to William Bell’s already impressive catalog.
A LITTLE HISTORY ON WILLIAM BELL
William Bell started out performing in the late 50’s as part of the vocal group The Del-Rios. After a releasing a few singles with the group that failed to catch any major attention, Bell decided to go solo and signed STAX Records in the fall of 1961. His first single for STAX was the gospel-flavored balled “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry)”. Released in 1961 the song turned out to be a hit and his career at STAX was off and running. He released various singles for STAX through out the 60’s finding major success again in 1967 when he co-wrote the Blues classic “Born Under A Bad Sigh” for label-mate Albert King. The song was not only a hit for King but it also became a crossover hit when it was recorded by the rock band Cream in 1968. Also in 1967 Bell released his first full-legenth album for STAX, THE SOUL OF A BELL. The album was very successful and yielded the hits “Everybody Loves A Winer” and “Never Like This Before”. Bell’s success continued in 1968 when he released the very popular single “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”.
Bell stayed with STAX until 1975 when the label officially closed it’s doors. STAX Records still exists today but as a brand only. After STAX, Bell went to Mercury Records and scored another hit “Trying To Love You Two”. He continued to release music and perform throughout the 80’s and 90’s but never regained the success he had with STAX durning the 1960’s and 70’s. Still all that being said, his voice has never left him and along with Booker T., Steve Cropper, and Mavis Staples he continues to introduce new audiences to the sound of sweet southern soul music.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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…
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!
THE RELATIVES The Electric Word (Yep Roc Records)
Psychedelic Gospel? YES PLEASE!
Founded in Dallas, Texas in 1970 by two brothers, Rev. Gean and Rev. Tommie West, The Relatives have been playing their special brand of Funky-Gospel for over 40 years. The band enjoyed some local success the 1970’s, releasing three singles and sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in Gospel and Soul as well as headlined their own shows. Then in 1980 after a decade of playing gigs of all shapes and sizes the band members called it quits to focus on other parts of their lives. Then in 2009 the good people at Heavy Light Records re-released the band’s singles on the compilation Don’t Let Me Fall. The album received very positive feedback and inspired the band to start performing live again. Word soon got out about the band’s amazing live show and the group was booked into many of the top festivals in the country. Now after a successful return to the stage that’s brought the band many new fans they’ve decided it’s time to head back to the recording studio and give the people a new studio record called, The Electric Word.
After listening to The Electric Word (Yep Roc) you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that this is The Relatives’ first release of new music in almost 40 years. Produced and recorded by fellow Texan Jim Eno of the band Spoon, the band sounds just as powerful and soulful as ever. As you’d expect, the bands vocals and t harmonies are spot on but what really sticks out about this recording is the power of the band! On the tune Let Your Light Shine the bass and guitar are LOUD and up in the mix giving the tune a real psychedelic rock vibe. Think Sly Stone meets Band of Gypsies. This song is just begging to be performed live. Along with psychedelic rock the band also serves up a healthy dose of FUNK. Things Are Changing and It’s Coming Up Again both have a great James Brown/O.V. Wright vibe and Speak To Me (What’s Wrong With America?) is a beautiful civil-rights balled that shows off the bands true vocal power. The band may not be re-inventing the wheel with it’s songwriting but that really doesn’t matter. This album’s purpose is to get you out to see the band on-stage where they really shine. Which is exactly what you should do if these guys pass through your town.