Friday, October 11, 2013

Rawls Does Wright

O.V. Wright
Regular Friday Blues Fix visitors should know that your humble correspondent happens to be a huge O.V. Wright fan, so much so that I devoted an entire post to his music some time back.  Wright possessed an incredibly powerful voice that was at home performing soul, blues and gospel music.

Indeed, Wright's roots as a gospel singer played a big part in the performances of his later soul classics of the 60's and 70's.  Today, most nearly all of the current singers on the soul/blues circuit were either directly influenced by Wright or were influenced by somebody who was influenced by him.

One such performer is Johnny Rawls.  Actually, Rawls has a closer claim to Wright as an influence than most.  After learning to play guitar and backing artists like Joe Tex and Z.Z. Hill when he was in his teens, he joined up with Wright's band in the  mid 70's, serving as Wright's guitarist and musical director through the rest of the decade.  After Wright's death in 1980, Rawls kept the band together as a touring unit and they backed such 80's soul/blues stalwarts as Little Johnny Taylor, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Lattimore, Lynn White, and Little Milton.

Johnny Rawls
Later, Rawls took what he had learned from his mentor and carved out a successful career himself as a performer, with recordings for Rooster Blues (with L.C. Luckett), JSP, Topcat, Deep South, and now Catfood Records.  Although all of his records have been critically acclaimed and well-received by listeners, his last few releases with Catfood found Rawls really hitting his stride as a performer and songwriter.  His music takes the great sounds of his mentors and joins it with his knack for writing timely lyrics exploring age-old blues topics.

Several years ago, Sirius XM Satellite Radio host Bill Wax suggested the idea of Rawls doing an album of Wright songs, but Rawls initially was hesitant to do so.  Around that time, Catfood label head/bass player Bob Trenchard and guitarist Johnny McGhee persuaded him to cover "Ace of Spades" for Rawls' 2009 album of the same title.  Rawls did a magnificent job with it, so from that point on, he included one Wright song per album ("Blind, Crippled, & Crazy" on 2011's Memphis Still Got Soul and "Eight Men, Four Women" on Soul Survivor from 2012).

Next week (October 15) will see the release of Rawls' full album tribute to his mentor, Remembering O.V., and fans of both artists will discover that it was worth the long wait.  Rawls covers nine of Wright's tunes, including reworkings of the three songs he had done on his earlier discs, plus classics like "Nickel and a Nail" and "Precious, Precious," and "I've Been Searching."

There are also a couple of Wright songs that will be less familiar, but Rawls' interpretations of "Poor Boy" and "Don't Let My Baby Ride" will make you wonder why they weren't better known.  In addition, making a great album even greater, Rawls enlists another soul legend, and former Wright label mate at Hi Records, Otis Clay on three songs.  Clay has already done wonders with his version of "Nickel and a Nail," and shines in tandem with Rawls on this version.  The smoldering opening cut, Wright's Hi Records-era hit, "Into Something (I Can't Shake Loose)" is also a highlight for both singers, as Clay really tears into it.

The closing song, "Blaze of Glory," is the lone non-Wright song, but it's a tribute tune written by Rawls and Trenchard that honors Wright and Little Johnny Taylor, another soul pioneer who was traveling with Rawls and Wright when Wright was stricken by his fatal heart attack.  In this tune, powerfully done by Rawls and Clay, Rawls pledges to keep both men's memory and music alive.

To me, Rawls has never sounded better.  True, he doesn't sing like O.V. Wright (but, really, who does?), but his own vocals are loaded with passion and emotion and he follows the model pretty darn closely.  Clay is his usual impeccable self and one would certainly hope that a Rawls-produced album by Clay would soon appear on the horizon, based on this collaboration.

Otis Clay
It doesn't hurt one bit that Rawls and Clay are backed by one of the best soul bands in the business, the Catfood house band, The Rays (Johnny McGhee - guitar, Bob Trenchard - bass, Dan Ferguson - keyboards, Richy Puga - drums, percussion, Andy Roman - saxophones, Mike Middleton - trumpet, Robert Claiborne - trombone) and backing vocalists The Iveys (Arlen, Jessica, and Jillian).

Soul blues fans will absolutely love this release.  If you're not familiar with O. V. Wright, pick up Remembering O.V.  Afterward, you'll be trying to track down his work, along with more Johnny Rawls and Otis Clay.  You won't regret it a bit.

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