Friday, January 30, 2015

The Soul Side of the Blues

This year, my ever-patient, ever-thoughtful wife gave me an Amazon Gift Card for Christmas.  Whenever I get one of these cards, I usually try to find some good deals on music that moves a bit beyond my usual listening patterns, though I usually mix in a few blues albums as well.  I try to focus on older albums that I missed first time around, or compilations by some of my favorite artists.  This year, I picked up discs from a pretty wide-ranging group, but most of them were linked in one way or another to the blues.....of course, most music is linked to the blues anyway, so yeah, it wasn't much of a reach.  Most of my purchases focused on the soul side of the blues, so let's look at a few of them this week, and some of their music that inspired others to listen or emulate.

I actually came to the blues via soul music, so I actually had a lot of music from these artists from years ago, albeit in a different format......cassette.  CDs usually offer many more tunes from artists at very comparable prices if you do a little bit of searching.  It was really good to hear some of this music again after a number of years and to realize that these artists influenced a lot of todays blues artists in one way or another.

Percy Sledge - It Tears Me Up:  The Best of Percy Sledge (Atlantic/Rhino):  I can remember when I worked in the grocery store as a teenager, I would take groceries out to this older white guy's car.  He was probably in his early 40's at the time.  He always had an 8-Track tape of The Best of Percy Sledge sitting on his console.  While I had heard Sledge's biggest song previously, "When A Man Loves A Woman," I was unfamiliar with the rest of his catalog and it intrigued me that this middle-aged white dude, who wore cowboy boots and looked like a old western gunfighter had this tape in his collection (later on, when I attended my first blues festival, this guy was one of the first people I saw in the crowd).  He and Percy Sledge appeared to be from two different worlds, based on appearances.  Later on, I was reading the paper and looking at the music section, I saw that Sledge would be appearing at The Country Music Palace in Vaiden, MS, which I really thought was surprising.  I later found out that he appeared there regularly, several times a year.

Several years later, I picked up this set on cassette and I finally saw the whole story.  Sure, I had read about Sledge over the years (Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music, etc....), but had not delved into the catalog very deeply until I picked up this one.  Suddenly, it all made sense to me.  Sledge's magnificent vocals blurred all sorts of musical lines.  The magnificent "When A Man Loves A Woman," for all it's deep southern soul, is also a blues song delivered with tremendous passion and anguish.  By the same token, the lyrics and feeling are equally appealing to country music fans......the guy at the grocery store was not the only middle-aged white guy I've met over the years that liked Sledge's music.  Percy Sledge was as much a crossover success in the Deep South as anybody.  You go anywhere in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, etc...... and you will still hear Percy Sledge's music today in all sorts of different venues.

 I actually made the 90 minute trip to Vaiden several years ago to hear Sledge.  The crowd was probably 95% white and he was backed by a local band who played about 45 minutes worth of Southern Rock prior to his taking the stage.  Believe it or not, Sledge DIDN'T sing "When A Man Loves A Woman" during his 90 minute set, but the audience didn't care (well, I cared a little bit).  This is the first thing that you will realize when you listen to this excellent set of Sledge's best songs.  If he'd never recorded that song (which was his first-ever single), he still would have had a catalog of southern soul classics that rivaled any other soul singer's.  That's the thing you get from listening to this......songs like "It Tears Me Up" (written by the great Dan Penn), "Take Time To Know Her," "Out of Left Field," and "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" are soul masterpieces in Sledge's hands.  If you've never ventured beyond his biggest hit, you will find that there's much more below the surface and this is a good place to hear it for yourself.

Otis Redding - The Very Best of Otis Redding, Volumes 1 & 2 (Atlantic/Rhino):  I wrote several years ago about he started out as a singer/valet for Johnny Jenkins' band, the Pinetoppers, in the early 60's when he took advantage of some extra studio time during a Jenkins session at Stax Records to record the amazing "These Arms of Mine," which became a smash on the R&B charts.  For about three years, until his untimely death in a plane crash in December of 1967, Redding was one of the biggest soul singers around.  He covered such a wide range as a singer from party tunes to deep soul, and he was a very good composer (writing "Respect," which Aretha Franklin took to another level), and interpreter (his reading of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" is incredible, as is his impassioned version of the O.V. Wright classic, "That's How Strong My Love Is.").  Of course, he's best remembered for "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," a song he finished just days before his death that became his masterpiece.

Rhino and Atlantic Records actually released two volumes of The Very Best of Otis Redding.  Volume 1 covers all the songs that most music fans will be familiar with, while Volume 2 covers some of his lesser-known singles ("Hard to Handle" and the awesome "Chained and Bound"), plus a few really impressive covers of popular songs of the time, such as Smokey Robinson's "My Girl," Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come," the Beatles' "Day Tripper, and James Brown's "Papa Got A Brand New Bag."  There have been other sets that covered more ground than these two discs as far as Redding's career goes, but if these are is all the Otis you ever get, you will be in excellent shape.  It has all the familiar songs and hits, plus a few tracks that you may not have heard before that you really shouldn't miss.

Sam & Dave - The Very Best of Sam & Dave (Atlantic/Rhino):  Sam Moore and Dave Prater's brand of soul had it's roots on the gospel side of things, as evidenced by their passionate delivery.  Their recordings were unsuccessful at first until they hooked up with Atlantic Records, who moved them to Stax Records in Memphis where they had their sound developed under the tutelage of producers/songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter.  Their body of work ranks with the finest soul artists of the 60's, with songs like "You Don't Know Like I Know," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "I Think You" (later covered by ZZ Top), and, of course, "Soul Man."  Many blues fans my age were first exposed to the blues by the Blues Brothers, who covered the song in the late 70's (utilizing guitarist Steve Cropper and bass player Donald "Duck" Dunn, who played on the original) and patterned a lot of their stage act after the duo.  Moore and Prater worked amazingly well together, all the more impressive considering the fact that they could barely stand to be in a room together by the time they broke up in 1970.  This disc pretty much contains all of Sam & Dave's hits, plus a few key album tracks and is all you could want in a Sam & Dave collection.

King Curtis - Instant Soul:  The Legendary King Curtis (Razor & Tie):  You may not know who King Curtis was, but chances are better than average that you own some music that he played on.  Considered the last of the great R&B tenor sax players, he played on numerous recordings by The Coasters, including "Yakety Yak," and other R&B acts on the Atlantic label.  He also had some of his own charting hits during that time, notably "Soul Twist" and the wonderful "Soul Serenade."  He later produced a pair of albums for Freddy King on Atlantic and led Aretha Franklin's band, the Kingpins.  Tragically, he was murdered in front of his NYC apartment in the summer of 1971, when he confronted two thugs who were taking drugs in front of his apartment.  After you hear the original, check out Duane Allman's moving tribute to Curtis just a few days after his death, when he played "Soul Serenade" on guitar with the rest of the Allman Brothers in support.  He was obviously grieved at this saxophone giant's passing, and only lived a couple of months after this performance himself.  This set collects most of his R&B hits and shows his amazing versatility.

Booker T & the MG's - The Very Best of Booker T & the MG's (Atlantic/Rhino):  I wrote at length about Booker T & the MG's soon after their bass player, Donald "Duck" Dunn, passed away, so you can find that post here.  Their sound was so influential during their heyday and even today, and it came to epitomize what we all call "Memphis Soul."  They played on nearly every Stax Records song, serving as the house band, and recorded numerous classic instrumentals on their own.  Booker T Jones' smooth work on the B3 and Steve Cropper's crisp and economical guitar work were the main features of the band, but Dunn and drummer Al Jackson were one of the tightest rhythm sections ever.  There are several "Greatest Hit" collections from the band, but this one covers the most territory and has all their classics.  It's hard to believe that "Green Onions" actually came into existence during a jam while the band was waiting for an artist to show up for a recording session.

Bobby Womack - Only Survivor:  The MCA Years (MCA Records):  The Womack was the last link for me between soul and the blues.  Womack's gritty vocals and amazingly personal songwriting appealed to a lot of R&B fans in the early 80's.  He touched on a lot of issues about love and romance that most regular folks could relate to.  I first heard Womack when he began recording for MCA in the mid 80's, and while he had more chart success earlier in his career, he released three very good albums for MCA, the best of which is collected on this set.  My favorite of his albums on MCA was the middle release, Womagic, from 1986 where he reunited with legendary Memphis producer, Chips Moman, and many of the musicians that he played with when he was a session player in the 60's.  Several of those songs are featured on this set, and they have held up well over the nearly 30 years since they were recorded.  Songs from the other two Womack MCA releases sound a bit dated musically, with those infernal drum machines and metallic-sounding synthsizers, but Womack's songs and his incredible voice stand the test of time.  There are also three songs featured that Womack recorded with saxophonist Wilton Felder of the Crusaders.  While Womack recorded better work earlier and later than these recordings, this was the starting point for me.  This is a nice place to start with his music, but please backtrack to the late 60's/early 70's work for even more listening pleasure.


Jones Morris said...

This is my first time visit here. From the tons of comments on your articles,I guess I am not only one having all the enjoyment right here! Jim

Graham said...

Welcome. Glad you stopped by. Hope you will come back.