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. 

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 ! 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.

 

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.

RL_Burnside

R.L. Burnside First Recordings  Recorded in 1968

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 1968.

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.

LEON BRIDGES: Coming Home

leon-bridges-coming-home1LEON BRIDGES COMING HOME  Columbia Records

www.leonbridges.com

For fans of: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, The Temptations

Sounding like it was written and recorded in 1960, Leon Bridges’ debut album COMING HOME might be one of 2015’s best releases. Sometimes referred to as “Sam Cooke reincarnated”, Leon Bridges didn’t actually start listening to Sam Cooke’s music until fairly recently. A fan of modern soul artists like Usher and Ginuwine it wasn’t until someone compared one of his songs to the music of Cooke that Leon decided he needed to go back and listen to the classics. Inspired by the legendary soul artists he was discovering, Leon moved away from the electronic beats he was using to create songs and took a more organic approach to songwriting.  After working up some new material Leon hit the Fort Worth music scene hard. Performing for anyone that would listen, his first real break in 2014 when he was approached by White Denim guitarist Austin Jenkins. Jenkins was so impressed with Leon’s performance that he insisted the two of them make a record together.  A few weeks later the the duo of Jenkins and Bridges were hard at work in the studio writing songs for what would become Leon’s debut album. Now with a record to promote Leon will hit the road this summer playing shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Not bad for a kid from Fort Worth, Texas who just over a year ago was washing dishes and playing to a crowd of five people in a Texas dive bar.

 

COMING HOME ALBUM REVIEW

Clocking in at just under 35 minutes COMING HOME is a breath of fresh air for today’s soul music scene. The songs are simple, but well-crafted and the musicianship is solid but not ridged.  If fact, part of the reason this album flows so well is because Leon and the band don’t try to do too much. A perfect example of this is the blues-boogie track “Flowers”. Here the band let’s the groove do the talking as they swing hard over Leon’s smooth vocals. In fact, Leon doesn’t really scream or shout throughout the entire album. A self-proclaimed “smooth cat”, he keeps things smooth and soulful, always serving the music and not over powering song. Another stand out track is the Motown-esq “Smooth Salin”. An upbeat dance number, “Smooth Sailin” is stuck somewhere between early Marvin Gaye and Wilson Pickett. Again, Leon’s vocals perfectly serve the song as they coast smoothly over the tune’s driving back-beat. Definitely the album’s most danceable number, this song is surely going to be a hit when performed live. Still, even though the music on COMING HOME is mostly upbeat, the album’s finest moments are the slower gospel-soul tracks. The soul-gospel ballad, “River” is by far the the best song on the album.  A beautiful song about life reflection and being honest with yourself, this song is a perfect way to close out the album. Reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come”, Leon Bridges’ “River” is his defining moment.

All this being said, if there’s one complaint I have about COMING HOME it’s that sometimes Leon sounds a little too much like his influences. Songs like “Brown-Skin Girl” and “Twistin’ and Groovin” sound almost like they could be Sam Cooke b-sides. While some might think that’s not a bad problem to have, I personally feel that Leon’s too talented to become a Sam Cooke cover act.  Also, some of the videos that he’s filmed for the album almost look like they could be part of a Sam Cooke or Otis Redding documentary. While I’m sure that his label has a lot to do with this, I think that Leon will really begin to shine when he finds his own sound. Think about it this way, artists like Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke all started out trying to copy their influences. It was when they found their own voice that they became legendary artists and had successful careers. I’m suspect that in time Leon will find his too.  It’s obvious that this young man is incredibly talented and has the drive to really make a run at stardom. He’s written an excellent album and released it at a time when soul music really needs someone like him. Here’s hoping he stays the course and we hear about him for years to come.

 

 

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

take-me-to-the-river

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

Directed by Martin Shore

Social Capital Films (Soundtrack available from Concord Music/STAX)

Few cities have played a bigger role in the development of popular music then the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Artists like B.B. King, Otis Redding, Elivs Presley, and Al Green all came to Memphis looking for opportunities that couldn’t be found in their hometowns. Overtime, artists like these changed the sound of the Memphis scene as well as the sound popular music, but they didn’t do it alone. Just as important as the artists, if not more in some cases, are the produces, songwriters, and label owners who took chances with them. The story of the Memphis music scene can’t be told without including people like Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, STAX A&R man Al Bell, STAX Founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and producer Willie Mitchell. These people put up money for studio time, did the promotion, produced the sessions, and in some cases even risked their lives for the music they believed in!  It took many different people from different backgrounds to make the Memphis music scene happen. Now thanks to a new documentary from director Martin Shore, the story of the Memphis music scene is finally be told the way it should be told… by the people who lived it.

Part history lesson, part musical tribute, TAKE ME TO THE RIVER not only tells the story of record labels like STAX and Hi-Records but also shows the recording of the movie’s soundtrack. Recorded in Memphis, the album version of TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (Stax/Concord Music Group) showcases legendary Memphis musicians performing alongside younger players who’ve been inspired by the music of Memphis. While not all the duets might be the perfect match up of artists there’s still something very heart warming about music bringing people from different backgrounds together.  One of the album’s the best duets is the pairing of 72 year-old Soul-Shouter Otis Clay and 12 year-old rapper P-nut on the track “Trying To Live My Life Without You”. Originally a hit for Otis in 1972 the song still sounds fresh. Otis is still in great vocal form and the band is right on the money. While some may view the addition of the 12 year-old P-Nut as some sort of gimmick, it’s anything but. P-Nut nails his part and sounds great. Also, you get the sense while watching the film that Otis legitimately enjoys listening to P-nut rap over his tune.

Another standout duet on the album is the match up of Mavis Staples with The North Mississippi All-Stars on “Wish I Had Answered”. Originally recorded by the Staple Singers in 1963, the song was selected by the All-Star’s own Luther Dickinson. Many times for these type of star-studded duet projects you get bands that sound a little flat even though they’re made up of top-notch studio musicians. This is not the case here. The All-Stars are students of American music and along with an outstanding vocal performance by Ms. Staples, they perfectly capture the original spirit of the tune. Pops would be proud.

If the movie has any faults, it’s only that the short lived Goldwax label isn’t mentioned. Producing singers such as James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, and The Ovations, this little label was started by former Sun Records guitarist Quinton Claunch in 1964. Unfortunately due to money issues and to Carr’s mental instability (he was the label’s star performer) the Goldwax was out of business in 1969. Still, during it’s short lifespan it was responsible for some of the most soulful music to ever come out of Memphis. Still, even without the mention of Goldwax TAKE ME TO THE RIVER gives the viewer and excellent in-depth look at the musical history of Memphis, as told by the people that lived it. Here’s hoping both the film and soundtrack inspire a younger generation to discover this music and make music history of their own.

 

BLUESIN’ BY THE BAYOU: Swamp Blues at it’s finest!

Bluesin' By The Bayou

Few people were better at discovering musical talent in Louisiana during the 1950’s and 60’s then J.D. Miller and Eddie Shuler. Instrumental in bringing styles such as Zydeco, Cajun, and Swamp Pop to the ears of the world, they each made their mark by recording and producing local unknown talent. Miller recorded the artists he discovered then usually sold the tapes to other record labels while Shuler recorded and released music on his own Goldband label. Now, thanks to the fine people at ACE Records, there are TWO new excellent compilations that focus on the Blues recordings produced by Miller and Shuler.

Part of ACE’s “By The Bayou” series, these discs, entitled Bluesin’ By The Bayou and Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Rough & Tough, are both supreme examples of the Louisiana Blues scene during the 50’s and 60’s. Sometimes known as “Swamp Blues” the music on these recordings is a mix of down-home Country Blues with a few touches of R&B, Zydeco, and Cajun Music thrown in for good measure. These recordings are essential for any Blues or Roots Music fan’s record collection. This is as greasy as it gets!

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Some of the artists featured on Bluesin’ On The Bayou

SLIM HARPO

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Slim Harpo was one of the most successful and best known of all Swamp Blues artists. His songs “I’m A King Bee” (1957) and “Shake Your Hips” (1961) were both covered by The Rolling Stones and he had a number one hit in 1966 with “Baby Scratch My Back”. Included on Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Rough and Tough are his single “My Little Queen Bee”, an answer to his first hit “King Bee”, and a cover of Lonesome Sundown’s “Bought Me A Ticket”

LONESOME SUNDOWN

Lonesome Sundown was born Cornelius Green in 1931 on a plantation in Donaldsville, Louisiana.  Well versed in a variety of musical styles, Lonesome Sundown’s music ranged from down-home Blues to Country to Roll-licking R&B.  He was never a household name but nevertheless was responsible for some of the most exciting music to come out of Louisiana in the 50’s and 60’s. Included on Bluesin’ By The Bayou: Rough and Tough are romping versions of his songs “I’m Gonna Stick To You Baby” and “If Anybody Asks You”. Both songs are essential listening for ANY Blues fan.

LIGHTNIN’ SLIM

One of the most important and influential bluesmen to ever come out of Louisiana, Lightnin’ Slim was actually born in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved to Louisiana when he was a teenager and soon picked up the guitar and began playing in clubs. In 1954 he recorded “Bad Luck Blues” with J.D. Miller and regularly performed with fellow Louisiana bluesmen Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester, and Slim Harpo. Included here in this collection is his song “Trip To Chicago” which talks about the groups “adventure” to play a gig in the Windy City! Fellow Louisiana bluesman Buddy Guy credits Lightnin’ Slim as one of his biggest influences.

LAZY LESTER

A talented multi-instrumentalist, Lazy Lester performed on many recordings produced by J.D. Miller as both a front-man and backup musician. His first major his was the his 1958 release “I’m A Lover Not A Fighter”. Originally written by J.D. Miller, this song put Lester on the map and was coupled with the b-side “Sugar Coated Love”. Still an excellent performer to this day, he still tours nationally and is a favorite at Blues festivals. He was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame in 2012.

 

NO MORE DOGGIN’ The RPM Records Story: Vol 1 1950-1953

 

RPM RecordsFull of Jump Blues, early R&B, and down-home Country Blues, the double-disc collection No More Doggin’ The RPM Records Story Vol. 1 might be one of the best introductions to early 50’s blues ever.  Compiled by the good folks at ACE Records, this collection covers the early years of RPM Records and features well know artists like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Started in 1950 by the Bihari Brothers, RPM was meant to be a subsidiary of the Bihari’s very popular label Modern Records.  After initially having lots of success with Modern, the Bihari’s began having trouble getting their records played on the radio due to stations not wanting to play too many sides from any one label. So in order to get their product on the airwaves the Bihari’s started a number of subsidiary labels. Probably the most popular of Modern’s subsidiary labels, RPM introduced the world to a Memphis radio DJ by the name of Riley B. King. Eventually known as “B.B. King”, Riley came to the attention of the Bihari Brothers thanks to their working relationship with Memphis talent scout/producer Sam Phillips. Phillips at the time was recording local artists with his Memphis Recording Service then sending the masters to labels like Modern and Chess. Trough their relationship with Phillips, the Bihari’s got hooked up with some of the best talent in Memphis. Unfortunately their relationship ended when Phillips and the Bihari’s had a disagreement over a B.B. King session and went their separate ways. Fed up with feeding product he recorded to other labels, Phillips then decided to start his own label, Sun Records. As for Modern/RPM, even without the help of Phillips the label still went on to produce many more hits, including B.B. King’s breakthrough hit record Three O’Clock Blues.

No More Doggin’ The RPM Records Story Vol. 1 starts off with the Dixieland-style track “Alabama Bound”. Sung by Adele Francis, this tune was RPM’s first release in 1950.  Other stand out tracks are Sonny Blair’s down-and-out blues ballad “Glad To Be Back Home”, B.B. King’s “Other Night Blues, and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Riding In The Moonlight”. My personal favorite recordings on this collection are the Lightnin’ Hopkins tracks. Excellent versions of “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Another Fool In Town” showcase Hopkins at his bluesy best, while “Jake Head Boogie” shows that he also could ROCK when he wanted to.  Another nice surprise on this collection is the tune “It’s Time For Lovin’ To Be Done”. Performed by Detroit Bluesman Little Eddie Kirkland, the song features uncredited backing vocals by the great John Lee Hooker!

As usual the folks at ACE left no stone unturned when putting this collection together. Included in this collection is a nice history of RMP records as well as a few words on all the performers. All of the albums 52 tracks sound crisp and clear thanks to the extra care shown by the folks who did the remastering. If you want to hear where Rock N’ Roll really began this collection is for you.