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.
FANTASTIC NEGRITO: THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND
LABEL: Blackball Universe
For fans of Fishbone, Tom Waits, Funkadelic, Junior Kimbrough
For those of you who believe there is no more good new music being released these days, I invite you to listen to the new album, THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND, from multi-instrumentalist Fantastic Negrito. Born Xavier Dphrepaulezz, and raised in a strict and religious household, the man now known as Fantastic Negrito is one of the most exciting artists to emerge from the Bay Area music scene in a long time. He moved to Oakland when he was 12 years old and immediately immersed himself in the wide variety of music styles that make up the Bay Area music scene. This explains to us why Dphrepaulezz’s own musical style really can’t be described as one genre. Elements of Funk, Soul, Gospel, Folk, and Blues make up the songs on THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND, and much like the city the album is named after, the music on the album is wonderful blend of styles and culture.
While this might be the first release for “Fantastic Negrito” it’s not the first release for Xavier Dphrepaulezz. In the early 90’s Dphrepaulezz was living in Los Angeles and briefly signed to Interscope Records and released one album. The album failed to satisfy the powers that be at Interscope and he was released from the label. Frustrated he actually gave up music. He then was involved in a terrible car accident which left him bedridden for several months. He returned to Oakland and several years later after the birth of his son the creative juices started to flow again and “Fantastic Negrito” was born. Then last year after many gigs around the Bay Area, Fantastic Negrito finally drew some well-deserved national attention last year when he won NPR’s Tiny Desk contest. Now hopefully the publicity he got from NPR will translate into record and ticket sales for Fantastic Negrito, as he is a musician that deserves to be heard by the masses.
The music on THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND takes the listener on a journey through the history of American roots music. The haunting Blues-Gospel tune “In The Pines” is a song that dates back to the late 1800’s and has been covered by everyone from Leadbelly to Nirvana. Here the song is given new life by Fantastic Negrito who recently released an accompanying video to the song that talks about the impact of gun violence in America today. Another one of my favorite tunes on the record is “Lost In The Crowd”. Originally released on his Deluxe LP in 2015 Fantastic Negrito commands your attention while he screams and shouts through this bluesy-rocker. A word also must be mentioned about the album’s cover art. The cover art features a character sitting a top a street sign that marks the location of Saint Andrews Plaza in West Oakland. Behind them is a beautiful drawing of the City of Oakland and a sunset. It might not be as important as the music on the record but the cover art truly makes this album a complete work of art. For fans who like something a little different or are fans of artists like Tom Waits, Fishbone, and Funkadelic, THE LAST DAYS OF OAKLAND is a must have.
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.
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.
SAUN & STARR LOOK CLOSER Daptone Records
For Fans of: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, The Supremes, and Tina Turner
Both originally from New York’s South Bronx, Saun and Starr have been part of the city’s music scene pretty much their entire lives. Saun started out singing in church and local clubs before fronting her own band “Saundra & The Force”. Starr also started out singing church before finding her way to performing on Broadway. While the ladies did cross paths at different times in their careers it wasn’t until fate planted them both in a hard-working local wedding band (featuring a then unknown Sharon Jones) that they seriously started performing together. The group performed all over New York for most of the 90’s but eventually each of the ladies left the group and went their own way. It wasn’t until the release of Sharon Jones’ fourth LP I Learned The Hard Way in 2008 that the trio of Sharon, Saun, and Starr would work together again. Originally only hired for one show as back up singers for Sharon, the duo of Saun and Starr took the whole group’s performance to another level. Asked to join the band as “The Dapettes” the ladies quickly became an important part of the show. Now after seven years of performing behind Ms. Jones, the ladies are now stepping out on their own as “Saun & Starr” with their first full-length LP LOOK CLOSER.
Like many other Daptone releases the music on LOOK CLOSER was recorded in New York at Daptone’s own “House of Soul” studios and was written and produced by members of the Dap-Kings. Even though the music on LOOK CLOSER isn’t a huge leap from the music on a Sharon Jones album this record isn’t just “a record by the ladies that backup Sharon”. The performances here are really strong and the songs are well written. “Your Face Before My Eyes” is an up-tempo hard-soul scorcher, while tracks “Hot Shot” and “Big Wheel” both swing like something off a late 60’s Motown record. Another stand-out track is the bouncy “Sunshine (You’re Blowin My Cool)”. Full of wonderful harmonies this song is definitely more soulful then anything you’ll hear on today’s Top 40 radio stations. A huge reason why the songs on LOOK CLOSER are so good is due to the vocal interplay between Saun & Starr. After logging thousands of miles with Sharon Jones these ladies definitely know what works and what doesn’t. They switch effortlessly from sounding like one voice to taking turns leading the band. These ladies are true professionals and it’s obvious that they’re too talented to be confined to supporting roles.
In short, the debut album from Saun & Starr is a solid buy front to back. Here’s hoping it brings them the attention they’ve worked so hard for and so rightly deserve.
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 and a resident of the area surrounding Holly Springs, Mississippi known as the Mississippi Hill Country. Also like Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside was a master of a style of music called “Hill Country Blues”. Different then 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.
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.
In 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 iTunes, Amazon, and at your local record store.
LEO “BUD” WELCH: I DON’T PREFER NO BLUES
Big Legal Mess Records/Fat Possum Records
For Fans of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and The White Stripes
Sadly, the future of the Blues looks pretty bleak. While there are still a few living legends left in the world they rarely perform or record. Or if they do still record their record label or producer tries to place them with Classic Rockers who may not have even heard of the them. This is why the new album from 82 year-old guitarist Leo “Bud” Welch is a such welcome release! Recorded for Big Legal Mess records in Mississippi, I Don’t Prefer No Blues is full of no-nonsense stripped-down gritty Blues. If you ever wondered what a Juke-Joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi sounds like on a Saturday night, well, here you go.
In 2014 Leo Welch gave the Blues scene a much needed shot of life when he released his first album Sabougla Voices (also on Big Legal Mess Records). Like it’s predecessor, I Don’t Prefer No Blues was produced by Big Legal Mess label owner Bruce Watson. For this album Watson enlisted the help of fellow Mississippi roots musician Jimbo Mathus (of Squirrel Nut Zippers fame) and together the pair pushed Leo record a much more Juke-Joint Blues sounding record. Featuring a number of Blues standards like “I Woke Up This Morning” and “Poor Boy”, this album might the best REAL Blues album of the year.
The album opens with the acoustic standard “Poor Boy”. Backed by an upright bass and featuring some beautiful backing vocals courtesy of Sharde Thomas (Othar Turner’s granddaughter) this track is excellent rendition of a tune that’s been performed by delta musicians since the 1920’s. Leo and Sharde add their own stamp to the tune that leaves us hoping they’ll work together again soon. Up next is dark funky blues tune “Girl In The Holler”. Powered by a firm back-beat the song slowly builds to a boiling point before simmering down and fading out. Dynamics are key here and the musicians backing Leo on this record are true masters of capturing the authentic electric-delta sound.
Other fine moments on the album are the boogie-shuffle “Cadillac Baby” and fuzzy slow blues “Going Down Slow”. Both tunes should quickly become crowd favorites when they’re performed live as they feature Leo at his very best. Even though I Don’t Prefer No Blues focuses on the Blues-side of Leo’s repertoire he doesn’t totally abandon his love for Gospel music. Possibly the album’s strongest track, “Pray On” is a combination of all the things that make this album great. Fuzzy-guitar, boogie blues, and a slammin’ band! Llike the album, this song shows us that at 82 years young, Leo isn’t slowing down. He’s just getting started.
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.