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

REV. JOHN WILKINS: A TRIBUTE

On the morning of October 6, 2020, The Reverend John Wilkins passed
away at the age of 76.  A talented guitarist and performer, Wilkins
was enjoying some late in life success thanks to his recently released
albums YOU CAN’T HURRY GOD and TROUBLE.  He was a popular performer at
Blues festivals and because of his unique Country/Blues guitar playing
style, many considered Wilkins to be one of the last living links to a
musical period long gone. He is survived by a loving family (some of
whom performed with him at his concerts) and will always be
remembered by members of the church where he was a pastor in Como,
Mississippi.

Born in Memphis in 1943 into a musical family Wilkins began playing
guitar at a young age thanks to his father, pre-war Blues guitarist
Robert Wilkins.  Best known for his song “Prodigal Son” (which was
covered by The Rolling Stones in 1968), Robert Wilkins had a career
that started in the late 1920’s but didn’t enjoy mass success until
his “rediscovery” in 1964 as part of the Blues revival. From about
1936 until his rediscovery in ’64 Robert temporarily gave up playing
Blues and began focusing on Gospel music. It was during these years
that young John came into this world and began performing alongside
his father at church.  While his father was probably his biggest
influence on his playing directly, John also soaked up the musical
sounds of Memphis during the 50’s and 60’s. He would go on to do
studio sessions and play in various groups around the city before
eventually settling down and becoming a pastor of the Hunter Chapel in
Como, Mississippi in 1985.

Even though Hunter Chapel had its fair share of blues musicians as
part of their congregation over the years once Wilkins took over as
pastor he gave up playing guitar entirely. He finally picked it up
again in 2003 after he attended a funeral for his friend, musician
Otha Turner. Inspired to pick up playing music again he got back into
performing and in 2010 he released his debut album YOU CAN’T HURRY GOD
(Big Legal Mess Records).  The record was well received by many and
soon Wilkins found himself bringing the sound of the Mississippi Hill
Country (or as Wilkins called it “Hand-clappin’ foot-stompin” music)
to places like London and Paris. He became a major fixture at Blues
festivals all over the world and in 2019 recorded a follow up album.

All seemed to be going well for Wilkins and his family until April
2019 when he contracted COVID. Like many who have contracted the
disease Wilkins first found himself having trouble breathing and
feeling like he had the flu. He phoned his daughter and was quickly
admitted to a local hospital where he was hooked up on a respirator.
He stayed in the ICU for 5 weeks before his health slowly started to
improve. Then in mid June, Wilkins got the good news he was all clear
and returned home!  Not long after his release from the Hospital he
released the album TROUBLE (Goner Records) that he recorded in 2019.

Recorded in Memphis at the legendary Royal Studios, TROUBLE was
finally released September 18th, 2020 and received rave reviews upon
its release . Formally the recording home of Willie Mitchell’s
Hi-Records (Al Green, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles) Royal Studios has been
one of the prominent spots to record in the south since 1957. The
recording session was sort of a homecoming for Wilkins as he performed
on sessions here in his earlier years. The studio is also known for
taking Soul music to the next level in the 60’s and 70. So, it seems
only fitting that the album Wilkins recorded here would be musically
diverse. Featuring a little something for everyone, TROUBLE is truly a
Memphis record. Here we find Wilkins and his band mixing Country and
Soul along with their normal mix of Blues and Gospel thus giving the
album more of a “Southern Soul” feel then his previous record. It also
must be said that one of highlights on this record is hearing Wilkins’
own daughters perform alongside him.  Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones, Tawana Cunningham are all very talented in their own right and give the band sort of a Staple Singers sound on tunes like “Wade In The Water”, “Walk With Me”, and “Darkest Hour”.

If there’s any part of TROUBLE that is a bummer it’s that Wilkins
wasn’t alive long enough to see it enjoyed by his fans.  As previously
mentioned he passed away October 6, 2020 from unknown causes. While he
will be missed by many all over the world we are fortunate he left us
two wonderful albums of music along with a lifetime of memories.
Hopefully his music will live on and find new listeners in the years
to come. After all, who doesn’t love some good Hand-clappin, foot-stompin’ music!

REV. JOHN WILKINS albums are currently available for streaming on Spotify and for purchase through most on-line retailers. 

YOU CAN’T HURRY GOD (Big Legal Mess Records) 2010

TROUBLE (Goner Records) 2020

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.

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. 

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!

ROBERT BELFOUR 1940-2015

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

 

The Beginning: Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues

In 1992 a small indie label called Fat Possum Records gave the American Blues scene a much needed kick-in-the-ass when they released the debut album from 62 year-old Bluesman Junior Kimbrough. Entitled ALL NIGHT LONG, the record was met with rave reviews from both critics and Blues fans and gave Kimbrough some well deserved national attention.  Shortly after the success of the Kimbrough record Fat Possum also started having success with another one of their artists, R.L. Burnside. Like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was in his 60’s a resident of the Mississippi Hill Country and a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different than the well known Delta Blues style, Hill Country Blues focuses more on creating a groove and sometimes features other instruments such as Drums.  With both the Kimbrough and Burnside records receiving some good press, Fat Possum began recording other Hill Country Blues musicians. Unfortunately the label quickly ran into the problem that many of the musicians they recorded were usually older and in very poor health.  Sadly, many of them died before or shortly after their album got released. Down but not out Fat Possum Records kept plugging along and in 2000 they released a record by a 59 year-old construction worker named Robert Belfour.

BelfourFat Possum and Mr. Robert Belfour

Robert Belfour was born in 1940 in Red Banks, Mississippi. Growing up in the Hill Country, he was surrounded by music and learned to play the guitar by watching his father play.  As his interest in the guitar grew he began performing for friends and family at picnics. He continued his musical education by watching local legends like Othar Turner and Junior Kimbrough who both lived in the area and regularly performed at parties and in local Juke-Joints.  Unfortunately when Robert was just 13 years old his father passed away and he was forced to get a job in order support the family.  Then in 1959 Robert got married and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He worked in construction for the next 35 years and only played music when he had time. In fact, it was until the late 80’s when he really began to take music seriously again. His first real break came in 1994 he was featured on the compilation album THE SPIRIT LIVES ON, DEEP SOUTH COUNTRY BLUES & SPIRITUALS. The recordings he contributed to the record got the attention of Fat Possum Records and in the year 2000 the label issued his debut album WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU.  A dark-acoustic record, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU showcased Roberts percussive guitar work and rich deep voice. The album featured a mixture of  originals and covers, many of which had been made popular by other Hill Country Blues musicians. The album was a success with many Blues enthusiasts and introduced Robert to an international audience.

BelfourIn 2003 Robert released his second album on Fat Possum, the humorously titled, PUSHIN’ MY LUCK.  Like it’s predecessor, the album was primarily acoustic and pleased both fans and critics. Internationally, Robert’s popularity grew and he started to play a number of European Blues festivals. Back in the states, Robert kept his home in Memphis and continued to be a regular performer on the Juke-Joint scene in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  A dynamic performer into his 70’s, Robert’s shows would usually last late into the the night and sometimes be as long as three hours!  Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Robert Balfour passed away at his home in Memphis on February 25, 2015. Fortunately for us (and thanks to the good folks at Fat Possum Records) his recordings are still readily available and can be found on iMusic, Spotify, Amazon, and at your local record store.

 

JAMES GOVAN 1949-2014

james govan

James Govan might be the best singer you’ve never heard of. A staple of the local music scene for many years, James Govan was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1949.  His first big break came in 1967 when his talent caught the attention of songwriter/producer George Jackson. Jackson, who at the time was a songwriter for the legendary Muscle Shoals record label FAME, immediately recognized there was something special in James’ voice and decided to introduced him to FAME Records owner Rick Hall.  Hall also heard potential and soon after their meeting James starting recording sides for FAME. While the material was strong and James would go on to recorded a number of songs for FAME between 1969 and 1972  the label only released a few of them as singles. In fact, most of the music went unreleased until 2013 when the good people at ACE Records complied and released James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings. Even though none of these recordings were big hits it’s still an amazing body of work that’s essential to any Soul music fan’s record collection.

After his time with FAME, James went back to Beale Street where he became a regular performer in blues clubs. He released one album in 1982 which went nowhere and after that didn’t release any new music until the 1990’s. He saw some success again in 1993 when his performance at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy made him a popular performer in Europe. He then released another album in 1996 but like his previous albums, it failed to draw any attention. James may have never had that “big hit record” but he always delivered the good live. He was a regular performer at the famous Run-Boogie Cafe in Memphis for over 20 years.

Sadly James passed on July 18, 2014. Fortunately his amazing talent will live on through his recordings and hopefully in time make James Govan into a household name. You can purchase James Govan Wanted: The FAME Recordings here

 

 

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.

 

 

RESPECT YOURSELF: The Story of STAX Records

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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.

All that said, STAX has lived on in many different ways. Many of their artists are still celebrated today and have found new audiences. Artists such as William Bell, Mavis Staples, and Eddie Floyd still perform and continue to release new music while others like Sam Moore are mostly retired but still appear at the occasional music festival. The studio was rebuilt and is now a museum (possibly the best museum in Memphis not named The National Civil Rights museum). There is also the Stax Music Academy, a music school that is focused on providing music education to local youth. So while the days of Otis roaming the halls and Al Bell running the office might be gone all is not lost. The future of Stax is very bright.

Remembering Bobby “Blue” Bland

 

On Sunday June 23, 2013 the Blues world lost one of its most soulful voices, Bobby “Blue” Bland.  Unlike many of his contemporaries Bland lived to the golden age of 83, thus making him one of the last living connections to the Memphis Blues scene of the 1950’s.  In his early days Bland performed on Beale street along with artists like Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King.  Although he spent his early years performing just up the street from the Mississippi Delta in Memphis, Bland’s smooth vocal style was closer to the big city Rhythm & Blues sound of artists like Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker (he eventually earned the nickname “The Black Sinatra”).

During the 1950’s the Memphis music scene was one the biggest and most competitive in the South.  Musicians from all over flocked to the area to showcase their talent at the clubs on Beale Street and across the river in West Memphis.  In these clubs you had to be not only on top of your game musically but you had to be able to put on a show!  The pool of talent was so impressive that it wasn’t long before record labels like Chess, Modern, and Duke got wind of what was going on and started signing artists to their rosters.  Bobby “Blue” Bland first recordings were for the the Modern and Chess labels. Although they were very good they failed to draw national attention. It wasn’t until he started recording for Duke Records in 1954 that he found success as a recording artist.  His first big single was “Farther On Up The Road” which reached number 1 on the R&B charts.  In 1961 Bland and Duke released the album Two Steps from the Blues which was combined some newly recorded “Big Band” style tracks along with some of his previously released late fifties sides. The album was an instant success and took Bland’s career to the next level.

In the years following Two Steps From The Blues Bland released albums and kept a busy touring schedule.  Duke released like Here’s The ManThe Soul Of The Man but in 1968 due to a number of personal problems Bland disbanded his touring band and cut his live schedule way back.  He enjoyed some success with the single “This Time I’m Gone For Good” from His California Album which broke into the top 50 on the Pop Charts. In 1974 Bland teamed up with B.B. King and released the first of two live albums with B.B. King.   Together for the First Time…Live was a commercial success and helped Bland and King stay in the spotlight through the 70’s.  The pair toured on and off together for the next 35 years.

Although he may not have had the commercial success of B.B. King or Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland was a force to be reckoned with in the would of Blues and R&B.  He’s inspired everyone from the Heavy Metal band Whitesnake to the legendary rapper Jay-Z.   He’s a member of both the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and The Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame and has performed sold out concerts all over the world.  B.B. King credits him as being one of the best singers he’s ever heard.  Personally, I agree with Mr. King.  Thank you Bobby for sharing your music and talent with us.