The Holmes Brothers - Jubilation (Real World Records): When this was released in 1992, the Holmes Brothers had only been recording for a couple of years and were still pretty new to most blues and roots fans. Their initial releases on Rounder Records mixed equal doses of blues, soul, R&B, country, and gospel...sort of like they do today. When I first heard them, they reminded me a bit of the Chambers Brothers, of "Time Has Come Today" fame, an earlier band following the same musical pattern. Several things really stood out to me about their sound.....1) the gritty vocals of Sherman Holmes, 2) the positively angelic falsetto of Popsy Dixon, and 3) the amazing pedal steel guitar from Gib Wharton, which gave the brothers' music a totally new twist.
This release was on Peter Gabriel's Third World Records label, which featured a diverse group of artists from all over the world, and it was the Holmes' first complete album of gospel music. The brothers take on many traditional tunes, such as a rousing version of "Amazing Grace," "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," "I'll Fly Away," and "Oh, How I Love Jesus," but some of the less familiar tunes really stand out, too. Dixon's amazing vocal range is evident on the traditional "I Had My Chance," and the group harmonies on "All Night, All Day" is captivating. The group is often backed by an unusual array of instruments, such as soukous and bamboo flute, but Wharton's pedal steel guitar is the real secret weapon here, and the fact that he's not better known in the music world is a real shame. The Holmes Brothers now have an impressive set of recordings behind them now, but Jubilation is one that sort of slipped in under the radar during their early years and is certainly worth checking out.
Albert King - Talkin' Blues (Thirsty Ear Records): This set was released in 2003, capturing a late 70's previously unheard live set in Chicago. There are seven songs on the disc, mostly familiar to Albert King fans ("I'll Play The Blues For You," "Born Under A Bad Sign," "Blues At Sunrise," "As The Years Go Passing By," etc....) and there's plenty of his soulful guitar work and fiery vocals on these tunes, as well as a few others......in other words, the Albert King that we all know and love. It's a really good, well-recorded performance that is a great addition to any fan's King collection. The added bonus is the inclusion of an interview that King did with Thirsty Ear label head Peter Gordon. King discusses his early years, growing up poor, the influence of promoter Bill Graham on his career, and the blues and life in general. It's just a solid disc all around and one that doesn't get nearly enough attention.....definitely worth it for both the music and the interviews.
Mason Ruffner - Gypsy Blood (CBS): Ruffner was supposed to be the next big thing in the mid 80's, a guitarist, songwriter, and singer with good looks and talent to burn. He got his start in Texas, playing with Robert Ealey, and later moved to New Orleans, backing blues artists like Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker, His first release, self-titled, was a hit with critics and mixed blues and rock in a way that was really catching on....remember this was during the time that artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, Jeff Healey, were starting to break out. Ruffner was a great fit with those guys.
While I liked his debut release, his follow-up really blew me away. It rocks relentlessly. When I first bought it on cassette in 1987, I almost played it non-stop. I remember some critics not really liking it because they thought producer Dave Edmunds gave it a too-slick feel, and it is a little slicker, but it doesn't matter when everything is firing just right. I managed to track this one down a few years ago on CD (still haven't gotten a CD copy of his debut yet), and like 25 years before, I played it almost non-stop. This is a great listen for blues fans, rock fans, and music fans in general. Ruffner didn't release another album for ten years, which was always a mystery to me.
Clarence Spady - Nature of the Beast (Evidence Records): I remember this one receiving a lot of attention in 1996, but didn't pick it up at the time because it was only available on CD, and I was still stubbornly buying cassettes. Several years after I switched formats, I found it in a used CD bin and snatched it up. Spady is a Pennsylvania native, who started out playing in R&B bands. Like other young musicians in the 80's, he battled personal and substance problems, and some of those issues come through in his original songs and his selection of covers, which vary from tracks from a diverse list of performers including Raful Neal ("Change My Way of Living"), Son Seals ("Bad Axe"), Willie Dixon ("Built For Comfort"), Robert Higgenbotham ("Hi-Heel Sneakers"), and jazz man Clifford Brown ("Blues Walk"). Spady himself proves to be a good songwriter and guitarist, and a strong vocalist. He uses his previous experience in R&B to good effect in his brand of blues, also mixing in some funk elements.
The music business is a funny thing sometimes. Spady cut this album in the early 90's, and Evidence picked it up and reissued it to wide acclaim. At the time, he signed a multi-disc deal with the label, but nothing else materialized from this contract. He didn't release anything else until 2008, when Severn Records issued his second album, which you might have also missed as well (I did). Regardless, Nature of the Beast is a remarkable debut release from an artist who should be more widely heard.
Bobby Womack - Back to My Roots (Capitol Records): The late, great Bobby Womack was my bridge between soul and the blues. There was something extra in his vocal style that made him much more than a soul/R&B artist. Listening to his recordings over the years, you can almost feel the link between soul, R&B, and the blues, and Womack moved almost effortlessly between those styles, even occasionally tackling country, jazz, and most importantly, gospel. Womack actually got his performing start in gospel as part of the Womack Brothers, a gospel group consisting of young Bobby and his four brothers. In the early 60's, the quintet recorded for Sam Cooke's SAR Records. Eventually, Cooke persuaded the group to record R&B, against the wishes of Womack's father, who dreamed of his sons being a gospel group, and the Womack Brothers became the Valentinos. Womack later became a session guitarist (that's him on Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair"), a songwriter, and solo performer of high regard in the late 60's, eventually landing him in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Womack experienced his up's and down's over his career, battling drug abuse and personal tragedies. He bounced back multiple times with hits in R&B, jazz (with the Crusaders' Wilton Felder), and even rock & roll (singing back-up on the Rolling Stones' hit, "Harlem Shuffle"). In 1999, he came full circle, recording a complete album of gospel and inspirational music and fulfilling a promise he made to his father, to whom the album is dedicated. If you're familiar with Womack, you already know that he sings these songs as if his life depends on it......that's the only way that he could sing, and maybe his life did depend on it, in a way. The whole album comes off as a labor of love, and it melds all of his musical influences together, heavy on gospel, blues, and soul......the only way he knew how to do it. I think his dad would have been proud of this release.