Friday, January 13, 2017

2016 Tributes

As most music fans are well aware, 2016 saw the deaths of numerous musicians in numerous genres.  Artists like David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner, Earth, Wind & Fire founder (and former Chess Records drummer) Maurice White, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, Prince, Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Bobby Vee, Leonard Cohen, and George Michael all died in 2016, a stunning number of major and influential musicians.

2016 also saw a large number of blues artists breathe their last, some major stars among them, and some you may not have known.  This week Friday Blues Fix pays tribute to a few......

Long John Hunter (7/13/1931 - 1/4/2016) - Texas blues singer/guitarist

Otis Clay (2/11/1942 - 1/8/2016) - Soul/blues legend

Jerry Beach (12/11/1941 - 1/10/2016) - Shreveport guitarist and songwriter ("I'll Play the Blues For You")

L.C. Ulmer (8/28/1928 - 2/14/2016) - Central Mississippi singer/guitarist

Elmo Williams (2/6/1933 - 2/16/2016) - Natchez, MS-based singer/guitarist

Clarence Lewis, Jr. (8/20/1934 - 2/26/2016) - Alabama-based singer/songwriter (co-wrote "Ya Ya," "Fannie Mae," "The Sky Is Crying"), also known as C.L. Blast

Aron Burton (6/15/1938 - 2/29/2016) - Chicago bass player/bandleader

David Egan (3/20/1954 - 3/18/2016) - Louisiana-based singer/songwriter/keyboardist ("First You Cry," "Even Now," "Wake Up Call")

Boo Hanks (4/30/1928 - 4/15/2016) - North Carolina blues man

Lonnie Mack (7/18/1941 - 4/21/2016) - legendary guitarist/singer

Harrison Calloway (11/6/1940 - 4/30/2016) - founding member of Muscle Shoals Horns/arranger for Malaco Records

Charlie Fite (1930 - 5/3/2016) - Nashville-based R&B singer (Frank Howard & the Commanders)

Candye Kane (11/13/1961 - 5/6/2016) - Blues singer/entertainer

Chips Moman (6/14/1937 - 6/13/2016) - legendary Memphis producer/songwriter (co-wrote "Dark End of the Street," "Do Right Woman-Do Right Man")

Bill Ham (2/4/1937 - 6/20/2016) - Music impressario, manager/producer for ZZ Top

Wayne Jackson (11/24/1941 - 6/21/2016) - Memphis trumpet player (Memphis Horns, Mar-Keys, Robert Cray)

Sir Mack Rice (11/10/1933 - 6/27/2016) - singer/songwriter ("Cheaper To Keep Her," "Respect Yourself," "Mustang Sally")

Scotty Moore (12/27/1931 - 6/28/2016) - influential guitarist (Elvis Presley)

L.T. McGee (7/7/1945 - 6/29/2016) - Chicago singer (the Homewreckers)

Jesse Yawn (9/4/1937 - 7/5/2016) - blues/R&B singer

Leo Graham (12/5/1941 - 8/5/2016) - Chicago-based producer/songwriter ("Turning Point" and "So Good (To Be Home With You)" for Tyrone Davis, "Shining Star" for the Manhattans)

Ruby Wilson (2/29/1948 - 8/12/2016) - Memphis singer, "The Queen of Beale Street"

Preston Hubbard (3/15/1953 - 8/17/2016) - bass player (Roomful of Blues, Fabulous Thunderbirds)

Clifford Curry (11/3/1936 - 9/7/2016) - Nashville blues/R&B singer ("She Shot a Hole in My Soul")

Buckwheat Zydeco (11/14/1947 - 9/24/2016) - Zydeco legend

Leon Russell (4/2/1942 - 11/13/2016) - singer/songwriter/keyboardist/producer (Freddie King's Shelter Recordings)

Bob Walsh (1948 - 11/15/2016) - Quebec-based singer/guitarist/songwriter

Mose Allison (11/11/1927 - 11/15/2016) - blues/jazz singer/pianist/songwriter

Sharon Jones (5/4/1956 - 11/18/2016) - NY-based funk/soul singer (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings)

Barrelhouse Chuck (7/10/1958 - 12/12/2016) - Chicago singer/keyboardist/songwriter

Sven Zetterberg (1952 - 12/18/2016) - One of Sweden's most celebrated blues artists

Friday, January 6, 2017

Ten Questions With......Dave Keller

Back in 2009, I reviewed Ronnie Earl's CD, Living in the Light, for Blues Bytes.  As most blues fans know, since Mr. Earl doesn't do vocals, he usually employs a skilled vocalist for a few tracks on each of his CDs.  On this CD, he enlisted Fabulous T-Bird Kim Wilson and New Englander Dave Keller.  Keller sang on two tracks, the funky opening track, "Love Love Love," and a mesmerizing version of Bob Dylan's "What Can I Do For You," where he was backed by members of Earl's church choir.  While Bob Dylan may have written that song, Earl and Keller make it their own.  Their version is one of my favorite songs of any genre.

A few months later, I was able to review Keller's own release, Play For Love, and I discovered that in addition to being a great singer, he was also a fine guitarist and songwriter who had released a couple of previous out of print, sadly. In 2011, he teamed with producer Bob Perry to release Where I'm Coming From...., a fantastic set of soul and blues covers which won the 2012 I.B.C. Best Self-Produced CD Award.

In 2013, Keller released Soul Changes, an excellent album of half originals and half covers which was recorded in Memphis with the original Hi Records rhythm section that graced 70's albums by Al Green, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, and O.V. Wright.  That album was nominated for Best Soul/Blues Album at the 2014 Blues Music Awards.

A few months ago, Keller released Right Back Atcha, an album he recorded in Vermont with his working band (Ira Friedman - keyboards, Gary Lotspeich - bass, Brett Hoffman - drums), along with the Mo' Sax Horns (Jessica Friedman, former Wilson Pickett sideman Joe Moore, and Terry Youk), and mostly original songs written by Keller or co-written with Darryl Carter and Ira Friedman (plus a wonderful cover of Willie Clayton's "It's Time You Made Up Your Mind," which was written by Carter, Don Bryant, and Earl Randle back in the early 70's).  To these ears, this is the best Keller release that I've heard and it made it onto FBF's Top 20 Albums for 2017 last week.

Friday Blues Fix thanks Dave Keller for agreeing to sit down for Ten Questions.  This is one that I've been hoping to do for awhile, so without further ado, please sit back and enjoy.....

Ten Questions With……Dave Keller

Friday Blues Fix:  Growing up, did you dream of becoming a musician, or was it something that just happened along the way?

Dave Keller:  When I was about 10 or 11, I used to play air guitar in my room, and pretend I was in the spotlight. I don't think I ever imagined it would be a career for me, though. In college, I was an English major, and figured when I graduated I would get a job writing about environmental issues, and just play gigs on the weekends. Of course, the more I 'got into' playing music, and became a better singer and guitarist, the more money I was able to make, and the more I was able to shift into becoming a full-time working musician.

Did you listen to or perform soul and blues initially or did you gravitate to those styles?

I started learning guitar at age 16, but didn't join my first band and start playing out until age 20. That first band was a rock and punk cover band, with some originals, called “Cup O' Pizza”. Around that time I discovered blues, and started really focusing on learning it. A year later, I started a blues band called “Rhythm Method”. These were both college bands at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. For about 10 years, all I played was blues, all I listened to was blues (radio, albums, live shows, etc.). Eventually I really fell in love with deep soul music.

You started out playing guitar, and later became a singer, which amazes me because you’re such a natural and soulful singer, I would have thought that came first…….what led you to start singing?

I grew up singing in Hebrew school and around the house. But I really never considered myself a singer. In my college bands, I sang a few songs out of necessity, but I was horrible. A couple years after graduating, I moved out west to Kettle Falls, WA. There wasn't much blues out there, and I realized that if I wanted to perform blues, I would have to learn to sing the songs myself, rather than rely on finding a singer. So every day on my lunch break, I had a little spot on a mountain road where I would park my car, and sit on the hood, and crank my tape deck up, and sing nice and loud where nobody could hear me (or criticize me). I imitated Son House, Ray Charles, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Staple Singers. Over time – we're talking 20 years - I got better.

Who are some of your influences as a guitarist, and who are some of your vocal influences?

Ronnie Earl is my biggest influence as a guitarist. I used to see him all the time back in my 20s. I loved his intensity, and his wide dynamic range. Also it was cool to know that you could be Jewish and play the blues so soulfully. Robert Ward was another big influence on my guitar playing. I love the little 'Chinese' double-stops he played, and his quavering Magnatone sound. I think I have a lot of Robert Cray in my electric style as well. For my acoustic fingerpicking stuff, Paul Rishell showed my 80% of what I know. Lightnin' Wells showed me most of the other 20%.

My biggest influences as a singer are Mighty Sam McClain and O.V. Wright. Also Johnny Rawls, for his stage presence and ability to connect with an audience. I also love Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Arthur Alexander, David Ruffin, Otis Clay, the Patterson Brothers, and so many other soul greats.

Mighty Sam McClain

Can you share with us any interesting stories about your career as a musician? Are there any musicians you have worked with or met that have helped shape your career in a particular way?

Getting to know the great soul singer, Mighty Sam McClain, as a friend, really helped me believe in myself as a singer and a bandleader. Before I met him, I remember that his 'comeback album', Give It Up to Love, was my favorite CD back in the mid 90s. I knew a booking agent who was putting together a blues fest in VT, and I begged him to get Mighty Sam on the bill. But I made him promise to put me on as an opening act. I didn't even care about getting paid. I just wanted to hear Sam live, and get to meet him. Well, I did get to meet him, and handed him my debut CD, Faith. A few days later I got a call on my answering machine from Sam, saying how much he loved the CD, and asking me to give him a call. Ever since that moment, up until he passed away in June 2015, we were friends. He was always there when I needed advice, and was a true friend. Intense, funny, spiritual, loving. A beautiful person, just like his music.

Dave Keller and Ronnie Earl

How did you get together with Ronnie Earl for his album Living In The Light? Your cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Can I Do For You” is awesome.

Thank you. I met Ronnie at a Stevie Wonder concert! I was walking in the front gate and Ronnie was sitting there waiting for his wife. He was wearing a Marvin Gaye t-shirt that said “War Is Not the Answer”. I have the same t-shirt. That's how I noticed him. I introduced myself, and told him he was a huge inspiration to me. We ended up chatting for 10 minutes or so, and exchanged addresses. I sent him my CD, Play for Love, and he loved it. Not long after, he asked me to sing on his record. I've since gotten to sing with him on many occasions, including at the Blues Music Awards ceremony, and it's always a thrill. He's been very gracious and generous, and like his music, he's full of love.

Several years ago, you released an album of soul and blues covers (Where I’m Coming From....). I’ve always been intrigued as to how artists choose cover songs for their albums. How did you choose some of these songs…….were they just favorites or did they speak to you in a personal way?

Some of the songs were songs that I'd loved for years. And some were ones my producer Bob Perry thought would fit me. All of them spoke to my situation, which was being in an unhappy marriage, that unbeknownst to me, was about to implode. So the tension was there, and the songs were ones that spoke to that tension I was feeling. (Strangely, the songs I'd selected ended up as the even-numbered ones on the CD, and the ones Bob suggested were the odd-numbered ones.)

Your album from a couple of years ago (Soul Changes) mixed originals and covers, and was also released while you were going through some difficult times in your life. However, your most recent album, RightBack Atcha, is nearly all original songs…..and from listening, it seems like you’re in a much better place. How hard or easy is it to channel your personal feelings into your songwriting? Is it more difficult for you to write songs when things are going well than when things are going bad?

It's definitely easier to write when I'm struggling with things. But it's also been fun to write happier, fun, sexy songs. Kinda new for me, honestly. I definitely write from my own experience. Writing songs from a made up perspective would seem weird. I certainly won't run out of experience to write from anytime soon!

What are your future plans? Do you have any special projects in the works? Is there anyone that you would like to work with that you haven’t worked with?

No exact future plans, other than to keep writing, keep recording, keep playing out. I'd love to tour beyond New England more regularly, but I'm committed to being a good father to my two girls. I'd love to record with my buddy Johnny Rawls. I'd love to get to work with Candi Staton, or William Bell, or Mavis Staples.

Suppose I’m putting together a Best of Dave Keller CD…….which ten or twelve songs would you want to include on it…..originals or covers?

1. "Play for Love" (from Play for Love)
2. "Here I Am" (from Play for Love)
3. "I Was No Angel" (from Play for Love)
4. "Superhero" (from Down at the Aloha)
5. "Everything I Know" (from Down at the Aloha)
6. "17 Years" (from Soul Changes) – co-written with Darryl Carter
7. "Old Man's Lullaby" (from Soul Changes)
8. "Back In Love Again" (from Soul Changes) – a cover
9. "Right Back Atcha" (from Right Back Atcha)
10. "Deeper Than the Eye Can See" (from Right Back Atcha) – co-written with Darryl Carter
11. "Circles" (from Right Back Atcha) – co-written with Ira Friedman

What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time? Who are some of your favorites?

Mighty Sam McClain, Ronnie Earl, Robert Ward, O.V. Wright, Robert Cray, Otis Clay, Arthur Alexander, Johnny Lang, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Al Green, Solomon Burke, the Patterson Brothers, Mavis Staples, Candi Staton, Tommy Tate, James Carr.

If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

I'd love to be a writer.  If that didn't work, maybe a tour guide.  I like people and traveling!

Selected Discography (all on Tastee Tone Records)

Down At The Aloha (2001)

Play For Love (2009)

Where I'm Coming From.... (2011)

Soul Changes (2013)

Right Back Atcha (2016)

Friday, December 30, 2016

FBF's Top Twenty Blues Albums for 2016

I hope everyone had a great Christmas last weekend.  Things were very good here in Far East Mississippi, but unfortunately the weather has followed typical Mississippi winter standards by having several days with temperatures peaking in the mid/upper 40's followed by days approaching 80 degrees.  Though this has happened frequently this winter, your humble correspondent finally fell prey to the requisite sinus infection in a major way on Christmas Day, so this post may be shorter than my usual Top 20 posts, so I hope you'll understand.  I'm trying to work on it a little bit at a time during the week.

2016 saw some excellent releases on the blues side of the record aisle.  I reviewed roughly about 180 albums this year and it was really difficult to pare it down to just a Top 20.  In a few short weeks, Blues Bytes will be featuring each of their reviewers' Top 10 albums for the year, so you can follow up from here to see my Top 10.

So, without further delay, here are FBF's Top 20 Blues releases for 2016......listed in alphabetical order:

Lurrie Bell - Can't Shake This Feeling (Delmark Records):  This is another marvelous release from this Chicago guitarist who has overcome numerous obstacles to reach near-legendary status.  Bell covers several Chicago classics and adds a few of his own compositions

The Bo-Keys - Heartaches By The Number (Omnivore Recordings):  For their third release, this Memphis ensemble adds a full-time vocalist (Percy Wiggins) and dives into the music of their neighbor to the east in Nashville, covering a host of country music standards, plus a few that could have been.  This should prove once and for all that the line between country, soul, and the blues is razor-thin.

Toronzo Cannon - The Chicago Way (Alligator Records):  Cannon's Alligator debut release lets the rest of the world know what a lot of his fans have known for a while......he's one of the most electrifying songwriters and performers to come around in a long time.  He makes the most of this opportunity, turning in one of the finest blues albums to hit the airwaves in a while.

Luther Dickinson - Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger's Songbook, Volumes 1 & 2) (New West Records):  A musical autobiography of sorts, Dickinson collects 21 traditional folk or blues-based songs he's written himself or learned from friends and family members.  There are guest stars and highlights galore.  No music lover should be without this disc.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds - Strong Like That (Severn Records):  The T-Birds continue their journey through the soul side of the blues.  Kim Wilson sounds great on this set of mostly soul covers and he gets great support from T-Birds guitarist Johnny Moeller, guest Anson Funderburgh, and the fabulous Severn house band.  Hopefully, Wilson and the band will continue this musical direction for a few more albums.

The Fremonts - Alligator (Truax Records):  One of my favorite groups comes through with another great set of old school swamp blues and R&B and Mississippi Delta blues.  Recorded live in the studio and mixed in mono, this set really captures the vintage sounds of the old Excello recordings.

Cee Cee James - Stripped Down & Surrendered (FWG Records):  While Cee Cee James may be "stripped down" on this effort, she has by no means "surrendered."  Nobody pours as much of their soul into their music.  She has lived or is living these lyrics to the hilt.  No one does it quite like her and she has the perfect musical partner in guitarist/husband Rob "Slideboy" Andrews, whose fretwork is equally inspired.

Dennis Jones - Both Sides Of The Track (Blue Rock Records):  I'm not sure why Dennis Jones isn't a bigger deal.  He's released five excellent powerhouse blues rock albums since 2003.  He's a great guitarist and singer, and he's a very good songwriter, too.  This release should be the one that puts in on the "must hear"'s loaded with what blues fans hunger for.

Dave Keller - Right Back Atcha (Tastee Tone Records):  For his latest release, Keller returned to his home state of Vermont and recorded with his working band.  He wrote or co-wrote all but one of the tunes and they find him in a much better place in his personal life.  He's regarded as one of the best voices in the blues and soul fields these days, but he's a formidable guitarist as well.  If you're not on board with Dave Keller yet, this is a great place to get started.  You'll find out more about Mr. Keller in a few weeks.

Guy King - Truth (Delmark Records):  I've been following Guy King a long time, dating back to when I heard his distinctive guitar work on a Willie Kent CD.  I was thrilled to read where he had signed with Delmark, who released this wonderful set earlier this year.  King acknowledges his influences by covering tunes by Ray Charles and Percy Mayfield and B.B. and Albert King.  He also collaborates with musical biographer David Ritz on several tasty originals.  This is a diverse, well-rounded set that will get a lot of replays on your media player of choice.  Check out our Ten Questions with Guy right here when you get a chance.

The King Brothers - Get Up And Shake It (Club Savoy Entertainment Group):  Last week, FBF posted about the King Brothers' latest and their other releases.  Their new one is a great set that refuses to leave my stereo.  Mostly covers, but the Kings add their own unique touch to these familiar classics.  Lee and Sam King have got themselves a winner with this disc.  If you didn't check it out after last week's post, we're giving you another opportunity to do so.  You can thank me later.

Brian Langlinais - Right Hand Road (Patoutville Records):  This excellent release is the result of Langlinais and his fellow musicians being stranded in the singer/guitarist's native Lafayette, LA.  It went from a group of guys laying down a few cover tunes in the studio to developing into a full-fledged album of rocking roadhouse blues tunes.  There's plenty of deep south, Gulf Coast-influenced blues and R&B on this set.  Check out our Ten Questions With Brian from a couple of months ago, and check out this disc at your first opportunity.

John Long - Stand Your Ground (Delta Groove Music):  An impressive effort from the man Muddy Waters called "the best young country blues artist playing today" back in the 70's.  Muddy knew of what he spoke, but most people may not be familiar with Long because he doesn't make it into the studio that much.  When he does, however, it's certainly worth hearing.  Long covers tunes from pre-war artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and his musical mentor Homesick James Williamson, but his original tunes sound just like they were penned during the same era.  This is a masterwork from an American musical treasure.

Trudy Lynn - I'll Sing The Blues For You (Connor Ray Music):  An internet friend of mine from Houston turned me onto Ms. Trudy Lynn (among other great Houston-based blues artists) back in the late 90's.  I'm sure glad that he did.  She's one of the finest blues singers around.  She's enjoyed a productive stint with Connor Ray Music and this release is one of her best.  She tackles a great set of blues classics and she's backed by an excellent band.  Ms. Trudy never disappoints and this set is no exception.

Elam McKnight - Radio (Big Black Hand Music):  I've been listening to Elam McKnight for a long time now, and it's been really cool watching him develop his sound.  He's explored Hill Country blues, Delta blues, deep southern soul, rock, pop, country, and gospel over his previous releases, but with this one, he brings everything together in a big way.  All of his releases are daring and different approaches to the blues and there's always a "WOW" moment mixed in.  This one will put a hop in your step for sure.

Reggie Wayne Morris - Don't Bring Me Daylight (Blue Jay Sound):  Fifteen years have passed since Morris' last album released and the Baltimore-based guitarist shows that he hasn't lost a step during that time......he's worked hard on the festival circuit in the interim.  This release has a mix of slick urban blues in a B.B. King vein and smooth southern soul.  Morris has the voice and the guitar skills to easily handle both.  The whole CD has a great old school feel to it and should satisfy both blues and soul fans.

Johnny Rawls - Tiger In A Cage (Catfood Records):  This is as good as modern soul/blues gets.  Rawls has always had the ability to recreate the best parts of classic Hi/Stax-era soul while keeping things in the modern perspective as well.  His music appeals to both longtime soul/blues fans and newcomers.  Great new songs that pay tribute to the 70's era soul men like Bobby Womack and Marvin Gaye combined with covers of classic tunes by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and the Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome (Interscope Records):  I rambled on about the upcoming release of this album a few weeks ago, pointing out that the Stones have long acknowledged their debt to the blues.  They started out playing the blues and this album brings them full circle.  It's actually their first all-blues album, and it developed out of the blue (sorry) when they were trying out a new studio and cranked up a version of Little Walter's "Blue & Lonesome."  What was sort of neat to me is how the Stones are now as old or older than their musical influences all those years ago.  They've been playing this music as long or longer than many of their influences did.  They do a masterful job on this set of Chicago blues chestnuts and, with any luck, they will open the door to even more fans checking out the original sources.

Robert Lee "Lil' Poochie" Watson & Hezekiah Early - Natchez Burnin' (Broke & Hungry Records):  Watson and Early are veterans of the Natchez, MS blues scene and the Mississippi and Louisiana festival circuits.  They play acoustic and electric Delta blues, New Orleans-styled R&B, rock n' roll, and soul.  Though this is their first recording together, they've collaborated for years and it shows on this set.  Anyone who likes traditional Mississippi blues will want this in their collection.

Tweed Funk - Come Together (Tweed Tone Records):  Tweed Funk just gets better and better.  This set will make vintage soul fans happy and probably make new and old listeners alike wonder why this music went out of style in the first place.  Tweed Funk makes it sound like it never went away with their awesome horn section, nasty and funky rhythm section and the impeccable vocals of "Smokey" Holman.  I had a blast listening to this one, and you will, too.