Friday, October 30, 2020

Watch Your Step - The Music of Bobby Parker

The first time I ever heard of Bobby Parker was when I bought Carlos Santana's Havana Moon album in the early 80's.  That whole album was an eye-, and ear-opening experience for me, as it introduced me to a lot of new sounds and musicians that I'd never really heard before......Booker T. Jones and the Fabulous Thunderbirds would both later become favorites.  There was lots of old school rock n' roll and Tex-Mex included......just a great album that you should check out if you're a fan of Santana or any of the other artists (even Willie Nelson made an appearance).

Although Bobby Parker wasn't on the album, one of his songs was....."Watch Your Step" opened the disc in a big way and quickly became my favorite song on the album.  I did find out that it was a cover of a early 60's hit by Bobby Parker.  Of course, back then it wasn't like old songs appeared on the radio, other than on Sunday nights, when I could pick up WLAC out of Nashville.  They played songs from the late 50's/early 60's frequently and that's where I first heard the original version of "Watch Your Step," which blew me away all over again.


It was next to impossible for me to find recordings of older artists like Parker where I lived.  I listened to what I could find, thanks to a few mail-order places that I was able to track down via the ads in Living Blues magazine, but I was never able to track down any music from Bobby Parker.  I think it was mainly due to the fact that Parker just recorded singles and for multiple labels, so it was hard to collect them all together into a "Best Of" due to licensing issues and such.

Fortunately, my favorite record label at the time, Black Top Records, released Bent Out Of Shape, Parker's first official album, in 1993.  I heard about it via Mississippi's Public Radio Saturday night show, Highway 61.  They played a track off the album (the title track, I think) as part of their set and two days later, I was driving to the record store, where I quickly grabbed a copy.




Bent Out Of Shape was everything I expected it to be.  Parker was the total package....a great guitarist, singer, and songwriter (though I'd never seen him perform, I knew that had to be part of the package as well).  I played that album over and over for a long time, and when Black Top released a follow-up in 1995, Shine Me Up, I played it almost as much.  Both albums are permanent fixtures on my iPod playlist, along with many of Black Top's other albums.

Upon hearing Bent Out Of Shape, my biggest question was why Bobby Parker didn't become a big star then and why wasn't he regarded as one of big stars of his era??  I found out over the years that he was a huge influence on a host of acts, particularly Santana, John Lennon, Spencer Davis, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Bobby Radcliff, who described Parker as "Guitar Slim meets James Brown," which sums him up about as well as I've ever heard.


Parker was born in Lafayette, LA in 1937, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a kid.  Bitten by the show biz bug at an early age, he was influenced by a number of big stage acts that he saw locally......Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Mr. B., Billy Eckstine, which made him a fan of jazz early on.  However, when he saw some of the West Coast blues gutiarists.....T-Bone Walker, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Pee Wee Crayton, and Lowell Fulson, he became a man of the blues.

He won a talent contest in the late 50's, which led to a gig with Otis Williams & the Charms, later backing Bo Diddley (even appearing on Ed Sullivan), and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams before he settled down in Washington D.C., where he became a solo act, recording "Watch Your Step" in 1961 for V-Tone Records.  Some of his other singles included "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" (Parker claimed that he wrote the B-side, "You Got What It Takes," but it was stolen by Berry Gordy) and "It's Hard By It's Fair," both of which he reprised on Bent Out Of Shape many years later.


Parker remained active over the years, but spent most of his time performing in the D.C. area.  Upon the release of his two Black Top efforts, Santana took Parker on the road with him for several shows, one of which was captured for DVD in the late 90's.  


Parker remained active until he passed away in October of 2013 from a heart attack at 76.  If you missed out on Bobby Parker, you missed a real treat.  Luckily, his music is still available via streaming or CD, and there's an upcoming release that collects his 50's and 60's recordings that is on my radar for sure.


Friday, October 23, 2020

More Big Doings at The Little Big Store

So I had a doctor visit this past Friday for a routine checkup (all was well).  While I was out and in the neighborhood......give or take about twenty-five miles.....I decided to stop by The Little Big Store, where I found those great deals during the summer.  I had been planning to return for a couple of weekends, but things didn't work out, so I decided to make it work out while I had a chance.

I was really glad that I did, because they had some "new" old albums to choose from this time around.  I had a couple that I was intending to purchase if they were still there when I returned, and I did, but there were some other great selections that I picked up while I was there.  Let's check out a couple of them, why don't we......


Johnny Shines' music has always intrigued me.  I first saw him in the mid-80's on a public TV documentary about the Delta Blues Festival.  This was early on into my journey through the blues and I was just fascinated by his style.......that slide guitar and his powerful vocals just grabbed your attention.  Later on, when I read Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home, I learned much more about him.....how he traveled and played with Robert Johnson and probably knew as much about him as any musician of that time.

In the 40's and 50's, he played electric blues in Chicago, recording for Chess and J.O.B. among others, but returned to his roots in the 60's and 70's, playing in solo acoustic format on many of his albums.  I've picked up several Johnny Shines albums at The Little Big Store over the past few months and I left Traditional Delta Blues, hoping it would be there for my next visit.  Thank goodness it was still there.

These 14 sides were recorded in the early 70's, but I'm not sure if they were ever released until the early 90's by Biograph Records, the liner notes don't really say.  I don't understand why such great music sits on the shelf for so long, but I guess that's the music business.  Anyway, Shines covers several of Robert Johnson's songs ("Milk Cow Blues," "Dynaflow Blues," and "Tell Me Mama," which Shines learned from Johnson, who never recorded it).  He also covers Charley Patton's "Pony Blues," "Sitting On Top Of The World" (from the Mississippi Sheiks), and Memphis Minnie's "Bumble Bee," allegedly the first song Shines ever learned to play.  It's a great set of Delta blues and one of Shines' many excellent recordings.



One of the new finds was an album that I had been long been in search of.  I first heard Skip James via his Vanguard recordings in the mid-60's, but the sides recorded on Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers (also on Biograph Records), done just a couple of months after James' incredible appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, preceded his first Vanguard album by about a year.  

James re-recorded six of his classic 1931 sides for this session and introduced six new songs, several of which described his ongoing battle with cancer (which eventually claimed his life in 1968).  Those sides are especially powerful and somber.......James' brand of blues were really blues at times....not exactly dance tunes or singalongs, which might have explained why his Paramount recordings of the 30's didn't sell that well. 

Still, while his guitar playing had declined a bit over the 30 year span, his vocals were even more powerful and expressive than they had been.  Listening to him is guaranteed to induce chill bumps, especially late at night.  While I love the Vanguard recordings for their amazing clarity and James' performances, I would put these recordings on the same level as those.  If you can't find this version, Biograph actually re-released it in the early 2000's as Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, with the songs in different playing order (that track is just killer on the Biograph or Vanguard albums...check it out below).  Either version is worth a listen and a great introduction to Skip James' music.


These trips to The Little Big Store have really stirred my interest in acoustic blues and I will be talking about even more of my finds in the future, so stay tuned.

Friday, October 2, 2020

New Blues For You - October, 2020 Edition

It's been a wild couple of weeks around here, both at home and at work.  Now that things have settled down a little bit, folks are trying to make up for lost time all over the place, especially at work, which is part of the reason why there was no post last week and why there nearly wasn't one this week.  Luckily, things have eased up a bit for a couple of hours, so here's a look at some of the new blues I've been listening to for review in future issues of Blues Bytes.....THE monthly online magazine of blues CD reviews!!  Here are three recent releases that showed up that have managed to stick around my listening room for awhile.


Matty T. Wall - Transpacific Blues Vol. 1 (Hipsterdumpster Records):  For his latest release, the Australian guitarist decided to take on eight of his favorite blues classics tunes.  They have to be favorites because he really cuts loose on these tracks, both vocally and on guitar.  Blues fans will be familiar with all of these tracks, previously released by John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Robert Cray, Albert King, among others.  While Wall really doesn't need any help interpreting this classics, he invited several of his guitar-playing friends to participate.....Dave Hole, Eric Gales, Kid Ramos, Walter Trout, and Kirk Fletcher.  Wall's collaboration with Fletcher on the blues standard "Born Under A Bad Sign" is a standout among standouts.  If a modern take on traditional blues favorites is in your wheelhouse, then you must, by all means, give Transpacific Blues Vol. 1 a spin.  You'll be beating the bushes for Vol. 2 after you listen.


Bobby Rush - Rawer Than Raw (Deep Rush Records):  In 2007, Bobby Rush released Raw, his first foray into acoustic blues.  Since his appearance in The Blues series in 2003, Rush has mixed his raucous brand of soul-blues with the occasional stripped-down blues and widened his audience considerably in the process.  This release is a sequel of sorts to the 2007 release.  It's a bit of a change to hear him in this format, but that doesn't mean that he's not comfortable in his surroundings, in this case accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar.  Rush is a good guitarist, but a most excellent harmonica player.  He wrote five of the eleven tracks here and really puts his own distinct, personal spin on the covers.....at this point in his career, he can't help but put his own personality into any song her performs.  Longtime fans needn't worry that he's softening up in his old age (87 this November).....there's still plenty of fire left in his delivery on these tracks.  So, is Rawer Than Raw rawer than Raw???  It's a close call, but the best way to decide is to check out both of these great releases and make up your own mind.


Sugar Blue - Colors (Beeble Music LLC):  If you are old enough to remember The Rolling Stones' #1 hit "Miss You" from the mid 70's, you probably remember that distinctive, piercing harmonica that wove through the track....and other tracks from the Some Girls and Emotional Rescue albums.  Sugar Blue played the harmonica on assorted tracks from both albums.....Mick Jagger discovered the young harmonica playing on the streets of Paris and invited him to play at the sessions.  Previously backing such blues luminaries as Johnny Shines, Roosevelt Sykes, and Louisiana Red, Blue's appearances with the Stones helped launch his solo career.  Though he's not been exactly prolific during the following forty-something years, his work has always been of high quality, and Colors may be his best effort yet.  He's always been able to mesh other styles into his brand of blues and with this release, he probably covers the most ground this time, with tracks of rock, jazz, world music, and a fine pair of acoustic tracks.  His songwriting is great as well and he's always been able to incorporate a bit of humor into his songs, but is not afraid to step on a few toes as well.  Sugar Blue is one of the best harmonica players currently practicing and there's plenty of great harp work here......this is one blues artist who should be better known than he is.  Check this disc out......you won't be disappointed.

Note:  The song in this video is “Dirty Old Man,” not “Man Like Me.”


Friday, September 18, 2020

Vintage Blues - The Dirty Dozens


Several years ago, I heard a couple of tracks on an anthology collection from the UK label, JSP Records from Jimmy Rogers and Left Hand Frank Craig. It sounded like a fairly intimate session, maybe performed in a small English club. I think that was what captured my attention. There wasn’t a lot of musical accompaniment, bass and drums, and the focus was on Rogers and Craig.







   

It was recorded in the late 70’s, some of it in the 100 Club in London and some in JSP Records head John Stedman’s living room. The sound quality is not exactly pristine, but it is not bad. I’m not sure about the history of Rogers and Craig…..how long they played together, how often, etc….but they have an excellent musical rapport. Rogers was the second guitarist for years behind Muddy Waters and no one played that role better. He plays the same part behind Craig, a great lead guitarist who was criminally under recorded over his career. 



JSP released the set a few years ago as The Dirty Dozens and it’s worth seeking out for fans of traditional Chicago blues. Rogers sings on nine of the fifteen tracks and most of these songs will be familiar to his fans. His vocals leave you with a warm feeling inside. Craig’s six songs are equally fine and they pair pulls out a completely unplanned, unrehearsed version of the salacious title track that’s a lot of fun, too. 




Craig, as the nickname implies, a left-handed guitarist, played with Rogers, Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins, and many others over the years over a quarter century. He ended up migrating to the west coast not long after these sessions, for health reasons, and passed away in 1992. He has a live album, Live at the Knickerbocker Café, that’s hard to find, plus four tracks on the first volume of Alligator Records’ Living Chicago Blues series, a four-volume set that should be in any blues fans’ collection.





FBF did a profile of Rogers many years ago. He had a nice, two-part career, starting in the 40’s with Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Big Bad Smitty (as a harp player), and Waters and later enjoying some solo success with Chess before stepping back in the 60’s. He returned in the early 70’s and recorded several memorable albums for a variety of labels. He passed away in late 1997. If you’re not familiar with The Dirty Dozens and you like basic Chicago blues, this is a great set of blues to unwind with.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Do Right Man Returns

I’ve wanted to write about Dan Penn since I started this blog.  He is truly one of the unsung heroes of soul music, no question.  Peter Guralnick gave a wonderful account of Penn and the rest of the cast of characters who came in and out of the soul music scene in Memphis and Muscle Shoals during the 60’s at FAME and American Studios in his book Sweet Soul Music (I’ll say it again…..if you only read one book about soul music, though I can’t imagine why you would limit yourself in that way, THIS is the book you should read) back in the mid 1980’s.  I was already into R&B and rock, but I ventured deeply into southern soul music after reading it and from there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the blues (with Guralnick showing the way with two other books, Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway).

Penn was born in Vernon, AL and was a performer as a teen in local bands around Muscle Shoals.  He soon became a regular at FAME as a performer, songwriter, and producer, writing and selling “Is A Bluebird Blue?” to Conway Twitty in 1960.  The song became a hit for Twitty, and encouraged Penn to keep at it.  In 1966, he ventured to Memphis to work with Chips Moman at American Studios, and teamed with organist Spooner Oldham.  The pair produced a number of hits, including Bobby & James Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet”, a few for the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby”), “A Woman Left Lonely” (recorded by Janis Joplin and, later, Charlie Rich), “Out of Left Field” (recorded by Percy Sledge and, on his last album, Gregg Allman), and “Sweet Inspiration” (recorded by the Sweet Inspirations and, later, by the Derek Trucks Band).






 

Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham
Two of his most memorable efforts were collaborations with Moman.  In 1967, James Carr recorded “The Dark End of The Street,” a song that has been recorded by numerous soul and blues artists.  Penn calls it “the best cheatin’ song.  Ever,” and it’s hard to argue with his thinking.  Over the years, I’ve heard it performed by soul, blues, country, and pop artists and it’s a perfect fit for all of those genres.  Around the same time, Aretha Franklin recorded Penn and Moman’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”  Franklin almost didn’t record it because her husband/manager, Ted White, had a major argument with FAME Records owner Rick Hall and the couple angrily departed the Muscle Shoals  studios with the song not quite completed.  She ended up finishing the song in NYC a few weeks later with her sisters singing backup. 



 

Besides the ones listed above, most folks have heard “You Left The Water Running” (recorded by Otis Redding, James & Bobby Purify, Barbara Lynn, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and Wilson Pickett) and “It Tears Me Up” (recorded by Percy Sledge).  Penn’s name comes up frequently when discussing great soul tunes of the 60’s, and many that should have been.





Penn and Presley
What's not as well known about Dan Penn is that he’s as good a singer as most of the artists who covered his songs.  James Carr battled emotional issues that eventually sidelined him as a performer, but he turned himself inside out to record “The Dark End of The Street” for Moman, who commented “What would I do if I wanted James to cut one of my songs?  Easiest thing in the world.  Just get Dan Penn to sing it.  He’d sing it, and all of a sudden James Carr could sing it.  He had to sing it, ‘cause Dan sung it so good.”  Penn recorded numerous tracks while with FAME and they were the stuff of legend for years since few, if any, were ever released.  Fortunately, Ace Records in the UK has issued these sides on a pair of CDs and listeners can hear for themselves what the fuss was about.

 

Penn has recorded sporadically over the years, releasing Nobody’s Fool in the early 70’s and the magnificent Do Right Man in 1994, where Penn returned to Muscle Shoals and recorded some of his classic tunes from the 60’s, along with some pretty impressive newer songs.  Penn and Oldham teamed up for a series of shows in the UK in 1998 and Proper Records released a live CD and DVD, called Moments From This Theater that’s one of my favorite live recordings.  Penn’s vocals are just amazing, blending grit, sweetness, vulnerability, and most of all…..soul.  Penn has also released a few “demo” albums on his own Dandy label over the past fifteen years that he recorded at home.  I’ve only been able to track down one of these so far, Blue Nite Lounge, which was very enjoyable.




 

A few weeks ago, Penn released Living On Mercy, his first full-blown studio release in 26 years.  Recorded in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Penn sounds as good as ever.  The session is relatively laid back and relaxed and the songs, mostly new, are very strong.  At 78 years old, he’s still got it.  He sounds just as good as he did on Do Right Man...if anything, his voice is an even better fit for this music.  If you're reading this, more than likely, you've heard some of Dan Penn's songs from other artists.  I'm telling you now that no one does Dan Penn's songs better than Dan Penn.






Friday, September 4, 2020

New Blues For You (Sort of) - September, 2020 Edition

In my spare time (such as it is), I contribute CD reviews to Blues Bytes, a music site sponsored by the Phoenix Blues Society.  I've been contributing reviews for almost 21 years and I really enjoy it...it's as close to a hobby as I have, I guess....other than listening to the blues.  I've gotten to hear a lot of great music that I probably would have missed otherwise.  Occasionally, I like to tip my fellow FBF'ers off to some great new releases, and while the ones I'm discussing today aren't exactly new, they definitely deserve to be heard by as many blues fans as possible.  Extended reviews of each of these will be up in a week or so in Blues Bytes' September issue, but this will give you a sneak preview.  Here we go.......


When I started listening to the blues in the mid-80's, one of my first purchases was an Alligator Records sampler called Genuine Houserockin' Music.  It featured a track from Jimmy Johnson called "You Don't Know What Love Is," and I loved it because it was such a great mix of blues and soul with Jimmy's distinctive guitar and his soulful, gospel-influenced vocals.  Over the years, I managed to track down most of his albums and was never disappointed.  Every Day Of Your Life (Delmark) was his first album in at least 20 years and it came out late last year.  Johnson does nine tunes here, four songs with two different bands, and one song with him singing and playing piano.  He wrote half of the tunes and they're all keepers, and he does a marvelous job on the cover tunes.  The album came out around the time that Johnson celebrated his NINETY-FIRST birthday.  He sings and plays like a blues man half his age.and I get the feeling he's not close to hanging up his guitar.  Blues fans don't know how fortunate they are to still have Jimmy Johnson making music and I hope he doesn't stop anytime soon. 




 A few years ago, I got to review this great album called Broken Chains by a singer/songwriter/guitarist named Kern Pratt, from Greenville, MS.  His latest release, Greenville, MS...What About You? (Endless Blues Records), is even better.  Pratt wrote three of the songs and the other seven tracks are covers of some of his favorite songs.  He grew up in the Mississippi blues scene and met a lot of the area's blues legends when they shopped in his dad's hardware store, becoming immersed in their music at a very young age.  He's a very expressive singer with a lot of soul and his guitar playing is superlative, really standing out on some of the slow burners on the album.  He's assisted on these tracks by producer Bob Dowell, who plays a host of instruments as well, along with slide guitarist Chris Gill and Memphis-based guitarist Jeff Jensen, along with Gregg Allman's horn section (Marc Franklin and Kris Jensen), and Muscle Shoals legend Clayton Ivey.  Check out Pratt and Jensen wailing away on Bobby Rush's classic, "Chicken Heads."




Waylon Thibodeaux, known as Louisiana's Rockin' Fiddler, has released a couple of entertaining albums on Rabadash Records over the past decade, both of which deftly blend Cajun music with rock, soul, Swamp Pop, and the blues.  His third release for the label, Here We Go Again, focuses firmly on the blues, with guest appearances from bass player Benny Turner, guitarist Josh Garrett, harmonica player Johnny Sansone, and Rabadash head man and keyboardist John Autin, who also produced.  Thibodeaux is a great singer in a variety of genres and his fiddle playing is always a pleasure to hear...he even used an effects pedal to great effect on several tracks.  His own songs cover a wide range of styles from Cajun to country with an emphasis on the blues and he covers songs from the late, great David Egan, J.J. Cale, Edgar Winter, and Willie Nelson.  Few people realize what an effective instrument the fiddle is when playing the blues, but everywhere I've heard it was a perfect fit.  Thibodeaux certainly doesn't do anything to disprove my previous thoughts.  If you like the blues, or any of the great music that's found in the Pelican State, you will love this disc.



In Case You Missed It.....

Longtime readers of FBF are aware that Walter "Wolfman" Washington is one of my favorites, ever since I saw him perform at Jazz Fest in 1987.  He's the total package for me, a fierce guitarist, a dynamite singer, and comfortable playing blues, soul, funk, and jazz.  He has a rock solid catalog of music dating back to the mid 80's and there's not a clunker in the bunch.  A few years ago, I found Triple Threat, a collaboration with Washington, organist Joe Krown, and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. that I'd never even heard of, at Amazon and snatched it up.  All three artists are mainstays of the Crescent City music scene and this album shows why.  It's a mix of blues, funk, and soul, fairly evenly split between instrumentals and vocals from Washington.  After listening, I can't understand how I let this one slip by me the first time around.  The trio have released a couple of additional albums, including a live set at the fabled Maple Leaf, that I definitely have to track down, but this one will do for now.




Friday, August 28, 2020

Thanks, Stevie!!

Yesterday morning was the 30th anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic death.  Ten years ago, during the first year of the blog, I wrote a lengthy tribute to SRV, so I won’t repeat myself as far as what his music means to me (and lots of others).  I will elaborate on how he helped steer me to the blues, or at least improve my focus toward the music.  I don’t think I went into that in as much detail back then…..if so, sorry, here I go again. 
 

Actually, the first time I heard him was in a record store.  They were playing his album as background music and the track I heard was “Stang’s Swang,” the closing track on Couldn’t Stand The Weather.  I was really into guitar at that time……I listened to a lot of Clapton and a lot of Hendrix, having just discovered him a couple of years earlier.  I was also listening to a lot of jazz and R&B at the time and was a fan of George Benson, Earl Klugh, and Wes Montgomery.  Vaughan’s performance on “Stang’s Swang” really caught my ear because it had that jazz feel to it, but was also a little grittier.




 

I didn’t buy his album then…..I had found something else that I wanted at the time (can’t remember what it was, but probably didn’t make much of an impact, obviously).  A few weeks later, I was back in college and my roommate, who had a really eclectic record collection of rock, blues, and jazz, said “Have you heard this Stevie Ray Vaughan guy?  He’s Jimmie Vaughan’s brother.”  Now I had heard of Jimmie Vaughan because I’d heard of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and they had played on one of my favorite Carlos Santana albums, Havana Moon.  I had tracked down one of their cassettes (T-Bird Rhythm) and really liked it, so I decided to take the plunge on SRV and picked up Couldn’t Stand The Weather.

 

As I said, I was really into Hendrix, so I loved the “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” cover, but the other songs just blew me away, too.  The opener, “Scuttle Buttin’” caught me flat-footed and the title track really pulled me in.  Believe it or not, I’d never heard “Things That I Used To Do,” before I heard SRV’s version (remember, this was pre-blues for me).  I loved “Cold Shot” and the slow burner “Tin Pan Alley” was amazing and the manic “Honey Bee” was fun.  Then I got to hear “Stang’s Swang” in its entirety. 

 

Within a month, I had backtracked and picked up Vaughan’s debut, Texas Flood, and I liked it even more than Couldn’t Stand The Weather….it’s still my go-to SRV disc when I want to hear just one.




 

From that point, I eagerly anticipated each of SRV’s releases, but something else happened along the way.  I’ve always been curious about music and it always fascinated me to hear an earlier version of a song that I liked.  I’m not sure when that started, maybe when I heard a song on the radio that was a version of an older tune…….I liked 50’s and 60’s rock and soul because my uncle had given us a stack of old 45’s and albums from the early mid 60’s when I was a kid and I played them until they warped.  It was always cool to hear another artist’s perspective on an older song.

 

It was hard for me to find old blues recordings back in the mid 80’s, because I wasn’t sure where to look and who to look for, but I noticed that a lot of Vaughan’s songs on his albums were cover tunes (thank you, liner notes), so I began to seek out some of the original tunes.  Keep in mind that this was before the internet……YouTube……Spotify……Pandora, etc……so it was kind of like an Easter Egg hunt at times. 

 

One thing that helped me out was that Vaughan (and Robert Cray and the T-Birds…..and The Blues Brothers movie from a few years earlier going to cable and video) helped inspire a resurgence of interest in the blues, so blues began appearing as if out of nowhere…..on TV ads, on movie soundtracks for starters.  That sort of opened the door for me, because around the same time, various labels started reissuing blues albums and compiling new collections.  Then I discovered Alligator Records (and Vaughan’s collaboration with the great Lonnie Mack) and soon I was on my way to becoming a blues nut.




So, yeah…..Stevie Ray Vaughan played a big part in what music I listen to (and write about) and through his efforts (and others….Clapton, George Thorogood, Robert Cray, B.B. King), I was able to dig deeper and discover a lot of other great guitarists and bluesmen and their music…..Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, etc…..  From listening to those guys, I found lots of other great artists…..Junior Wells, Son Seals, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Luther Allison, etc…), then I dug even deeper (Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, Tommy Johnson, etc…..), and so on and so on.


 

Over the past few months, I’ve had more time than usual and I’ve been revisiting Stevie Ray Vaughan’s catalog.  I had all of his music on cassette many years ago and recently picked up all of his CDs, all of which have added bonus cuts/live tracks, so I now have access to a lot of his music that I didn’t have before.  One that I had missed the first time around for some reason was his collaboration with Albert King, In Session.  I have probably listened to it more than the others because the two guitarist had so much in common musically and they had a genuine rapport and a most genuine mutual respect for each other.  From what I’ve read, the latter didn’t always come easily from King, but Vaughan really won him over and it shows in their playing together.



 

I also read Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s recent biography Texas Flood:  The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan (reviewed here a few months back) and reread the Joe Nick Patoski/Bill Crawford bio from the mid 90’s, Caught In the Crossfire, and Keri Leigh’s underrated Soul To Soul.  Each of the books paint a slightly different picture of Vaughan’s life, his trials, his failures, his shortcomings, and his successes, but all of them agree that he was one of the finest guitarists to come around in a long time and in his short time on the planet, he made some mighty music and influenced a lot of guitarists in a variety of genres, but most definitely the blues.  At the same time, he was never shy about his own influences on guitar and as a songwriter and singer.

 

When a musician dies early in their life, it’s only natural to wonder where they might have gone as an artist if they had lived.  I’ve wondered that a lot with other musicians….Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Magic Sam, to name just a few.  I like to think that, based on one of his last songs on In Step, the  instrumental “Rivera Paradise,” he might have ventured into jazz a bit more.  However, I think that regardless of where he would have directed his talents, he still would have had both feet firmly planted in the blues.  That would have always been present in his music, wherever direction he chose to pursue.


It’s still hard to believe that he died thirty years ago.  I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news.  It’s sad that his life was cut short, but I’m grateful that he helped guide me to this music that I love, and I know he guided a lot of others in that direction, too. 



Friday, August 21, 2020

Memphis Soul - Born Again


In the mid-80's, I discovered Memphis soul music via numerous songs by numerous artists on Stax and Hi Records.  While I was in college, one of my regular stops was the local Be-Bop Record Shop, where quite a bit of my disposable income was disposed for a number of years.  During one of my visits, I found that Atlantic Records had released several discount collections from various Stax artists (Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG's, etc.....) and Motown had reissued Al Green's Greatest Hits.  I had only heard bits and pieces of most of these artists, but I jumped in with both feet and I haven't resurfaced yet.  For years, I've been collecting songs from the above-mentioned artists and many, many more.  

While I always enjoyed the Stax artists, and still do, when I dug deeper into Hi Records catalog, I found many of my all-time favorites......Syl Johnson, the incredible O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles, and Otis Clay.  There was something about the combination of these magnificent singers, the smooth production from Willie Mitchell, the amazing Hi Rhythm Section, and the peerless songwriting that really grabbed me.  That was also the combination with Stax, but maybe the music from Hi resonated with me more because it was a little more from my time....similar to the modern music that I had listened to.  I still loved both, and still listen to both, but the music from Hi's tunes (particularly the Rev. Charles Hodges' keyboards, which still draw goosebumps when I hear them) sealed the deal for me.

Of course, most of these guys are no longer with us.....fortunately we still have a few who are still performing.....just a few years ago, I went to see former Stax artist William Bell, who is still getting it done as well as he ever did.  Al Green is still fairly active, having returned to secular music many years ago, and so is Syl Johnson.  I actually saw a performance on public television a few weeks ago from Ann Peebles at Ground Zero in Clarksdale from several years ago, and she was still wonderful.  

Over the past couple of years, there have been some great albums of Memphis soul released.  Boz Scaggs released Memphis, a fine tribute to Memphis Soul a few years ago.  Tad Robinson pays tribute to the sound on a regular basis, as does Robert Cray.  The Sensational Barnes Brothers, a Memphis-based gospel duo, released one of the best albums of last year......Nobody's Fault But My Own, a stunning gospel album that sounded like it came right out of Stax Records.  William Bell released This Is Where I Live on a rejuvenated Stax Records in 2016 and it was a fantastic return to form.

Don Bryant - 1970's
2017 saw another comeback album, seemingly from out of nowhere, this time from a singer/songwriter from Hi Records named Don Bryant.  Bryant started out as a performer with Hi, but eventually settled in as a songwriter.  Mitchell assigned him to work with Peebles, who had just signed with the label, and the pair quickly formed a creative musical and personal bond, which led to their marriage in 1974. Bryant co-wrote several of Peebles' biggest hits ("I Can't Stand The Rain," "99 Pounds," "Fill This World With Love").  His success with his spouse eventually led him to writing material for Green, Johnson, Wright, and Clay.





Ann Peebles & Don Bryant
When Hi Records, folded, both Bryant and Peebles took a break, though he continued to perform gospel music, releasing an album in the mid-80's.  When Peebles returned to recording in the 90's, Bryant was there to provide songs and support.  By this time, he was strictly performing gospel himself, releasing another album in 2000.  In 2012, Peebles suffered a stroke and retired from performing, so in his newly found spare time, Bryant began to work on songwriting again.

In the mid-2000's, a group of Memphis-based musicians called The Bo-Keys emerged on the scene.  Featuring newcomers and veterans of the Memphis soul and blues scene, the group released a couple of albums in 2004 and 2011.  The first was mostly instrumental with just a few spoken-word asides, and the second one featured a few vocal tracks from Clay and Bell.  The third release in 2016, Heartaches By The Number, was an incredible foray into country-soul, covering ten country music classics....nine of which featured vocals.  Two of The Bo-Keys, bassist/producer Scott Bomar and former Hi drummer Howard Grimes talked Bryant into singing the title track, and sing it he did!!



The experience with The Bo-Keys inspired Bryant to return to the studio and in 2017, with help from The Bo-Keys, he released Don't Give Up On Love on Fat Possum Records.  Fellow Hi veterans Grimes, Hodges, and Hubbie Turner also chipped in.  The production is true to the form of those great Hi recordings of the late 60's and early 70's, but the best thing is that Bryant's voice is as powerful as it was some fifty years ago.  It's a mix of some of his classic songs from that time, plus a few new tracks of soul, blues, and gospel, and covers of other soul classics (his take on Wright's "A Nickel And A Nail" is every bit as strong as the original).  At 75 years old, it was like he'd never been away.




Earlier this year, Bryant released You Make Me Feel, which is a delightful breath of fresh air in an otherwise insane year. He wrote eight of the ten songs, some dating back to Hi days ("I Die A Little Each Day," a hit for Clay in the 70's, and "Don't Turn Your Back On Me").  The songwriting is strong, but Bryant's voice is even stronger.  He's 78 years old and to these ears, he's never sounded better, singing with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age.  That vintage Hi Records sound is still present and should bring a big, wide smile to the face of anyone who enjoys classic Memphis soul music.  Actually, either of Bryant's sets will fit the bill.






Friday, August 7, 2020

Essential Recordings - Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo

Professor Longhair 1974 (Photo by Barry Kaiser)
It’s hard to describe just how great Professor Longhair really was. Allmusic.com calls him a “toweringly influential New Orleans pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and vital bridge between jazz, rock & roll, and R&B.”  That sums it up pretty well and still might be an understatement. I had actually never heard of him until I went to JazzFest in the mid 80’s, about six or seven years after he passed, but he was still something of a presence there at that time.....there were posters all around and he was even part of the souvenir program that year.

I decided when I got back home that I wanted to hear what all the fuss was about, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I went to my local record store a couple of weekends 'later and I saw a couple of Professor Longhair options.  I decided to grab a cassette copy of Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo.....no particular reason why, that’s just the one I picked.

To give you a little perspective about how things were going for Professor Longhair, or "Fess" for short, around this time.....just a few years earlier, he was toiling away as a janitor trying to beat a gambling habit through most of the 60's, after recording some of the Crescent City's finest music from the late 40's through the 50's....songs like "Go To The Mardi Gras" (or "Mardi Gras In New Orleans"), "Ball The Wall," "Tipitina," "In The Night," "Bald Head," "No Buts And No Maybes."  He pretty much gave up the piano until the early 70's, when the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, then in it's early years, invited him to perform.  From there, he recorded a pile of albums on various labels, including this set in 1974.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
The session was recorded in early April in Bogalusa, La.  The extraordinary guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown had come to town a few weeks earlier to record his own album and he met his old friend Fess and they spent an evening talking about old times and playing a few tunes that supposedly left the onlookers amazed and astonished.  It was therefore a no-brainer to invite Brown to participate in Fess' album.  Listeners agreed wholeheartedly.

Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo features a lot of songs that Fess had previously recorded, including several mentioned above.  This version of "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" is amazing and if it doesn't make you move, you need to check into the hospital.  I have several favorites among the fourteen tracks.  "Doin' It" is an inspired, fast-paced instrumental and speaking of such, you should really check out his stunning, breakneck version of "Mess Around" near the end of the album.....another favorite.

"Junco Partner" is another favorite.....a funky rhumba boogie, along with a terrific version of "Tipitina," and some supremely solid blues tunes like "Mean Old World" and "Stagger Lee."  When i hear "How Long Has That Train Been Gone," I can picture my daughters, then about six and two, dancing crazily to Fess' rhythm.  The cherry on top is a riproaring version of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)" that features fiddle from Brown.






Speaking of Brown, his playing is first-rate throughout.  He compliments Fess' amazing piano perfectly.  Both artists are really inspired by the other and while each set an impossibly high standard for their instrumental work over the years, they are both near their peak with this session.


Now......think about these two items for a moment.  First, this session was not released at the time of recording in the United States.  It was issued overseas in Europe, but few copies reached the states.  In the mid 80's, the master tapes were found and it was released.  Sadly, Professor Longhair had passed away in early 1980, but fans in the states had a fit when the album finally hit domestic shores.  

Now, item #2.....just three or four days before recording started on the album in 1974, Professor Longhair's house burned to the ground!  He had no fire insurance and basically lost everything that he had!  Although that had to be weighing heavy on his mind at the time, any sadness he had seemed to virtually disappear when he got behind the keys.  The music is just so full of joy and exuberance....he was just so good, whether playing blues, rhumbas, and even calypso.  This is such a great album.  

Professor Longhair recorded a number of excellent albums over the years......New Orleans Piano (a collection of his Atlantic recordings from the 40's and the 50's), House Party New Orleans Style and Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge (two sets recorded in Baton Rouge during the early 70's with Snooks Eaglin on guitar), Fess:  The Professor Longhair Anthology (an amazing overview from Rhino Records), and his swan song for Alligator Records, Crawfish Fiesta (released around the time of his death).  However, my go-to album when I want to hear Fess is Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo, which captures two excellent musicians at their very best.  If you dig New Orleans piano, or just good music in general, check this disc out at your first opportunity!


Friday, July 24, 2020

Ten Questions with Stevie J. Blues

I first encountered Jackson, MS-based blues artist Stevie J. Blues on a couple of releases from Bobby Rush (Live at Ground Zero and Folkfunk).  He played guitar on the live date and bass on the other release, considered to be one of Rush's finest efforts in an already impressive catalog.  He also performed with Dorothy Moore, Denise LaSalle, Mel Waiters and others on various Malaco Records releases.  He also represented the Central Mississippi Blues Society in the 2009 I.B.C.

A couple of years later, in 2011, I was able to review his 2-disc set, The Diversity Project on Blue Skunk Records.  That was a most interesting release in that it included a disc of traditional blues and a disc of Southern soul music and showed him to be equally gifted in both genres.  The disc was one of the nominees in the album category of the 2011 I.B.C. and was well received by blues and Southern soul fans.  In 2016, Stevie J. Blues released Back 2 Blues, which combined blues and soul (with a little bit of gospel) and managed to embrace both traditional and modern versions of both genres.  It was one of my favorite releases of that year.

During the pandemic, he's been the proverbial busy bee, working on tracks for his upcoming album, Quarantined, releasing a few as singles, and producing for other area artists.  For the first time, he's worked as engineer, producer, vocalist, and principal musician and he certainly has a knack for it.  He's released a solo single, "Come To Daddy," a tasty cover of Little Milton's "If Walls Could Talk," with his friend Vick Allen, a dynamite collaboration with another Mississippi singer, LJ Echols called "My Ex," and a recently released tribute, featuring a number of young Southern soul stars, to the late Jackie Neal, an up-and-coming Southern soul vocalist whose life was tragically cut short back in 2005.




His most promising and ambitious effort is an upcoming album with his new group Urban Ladder Society, The Summit, where he's joined by singer victa nooman, guitarist Chris Gill, and backing vocalists Jonte Mayon and Tamera Tate.  Urban Ladder Society, or ULS for short, combines elements of the blues, soul, hip-hop, R&B, and classic rock.  The tracks I've heard so far indicate that this one will make a lot of noise when it hits stores in January, 2021.

For a long time, I thought about doing Ten Questions with Stevie J. Blues....we've been emailing back and forth for a couple of years and also chatting on Facebook....but I never could get my act together long enough to put something together, but after hearing some of his recent releases, I knew I had to sit down with him and find out more about him and his music, so sit back and enjoy.......

Ten Questions with.......Stevie J. Blues!!

Friday Blues Fix:  For starters, can you please tell us about your early years, where you grew up, and your family…..just who Stevie J. Blues is?  

Stevie J. Blues:  I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, raised in Jackson, Mississippi. My father was a Pentecostal pastor with 7 churches under his jurisdiction.  My mother had 3 sons…..all musicians.  My younger and older brother are pastors. I’m the blues-playing middle baby. 

FBF:  What kind of music did you grow up listening to?  

SJB:  My parents did not allow secular music in the house, so for me it was Gospel music!  Quartets at first, but then the Winans and Commissioned hit the scene, then I instantly became a Contemporary Gospel fan.  Of course there were artist like Andre Crouch, the Hawkins, and James Cleveland, then Contemporary Christian artists such as Petra, Russ Taff, The Imperials, and Chris Christian…man, EVERYBODY! 

FBF:  When did you decide that you wanted to be a musician?  

SJB:  By my father being a pastor/musician, music was always around.  I knew as early as 4th grade I wanted to be a touring musician.  When I was maybe 8 or 9, there was a concert and nearly all the popular professional quartet groups were on the ticket.  My dad told my mom we may as well make it a church event because ain’t nobody gonna be at church if we have night service….so our entire church family went and in school the next day, all I could think about was performing on that level....I always saw myself on somebody’s tour bus!

FBF:  Who are your musical influences and why? 

SJB:  There are so many!! Slim and the Supreme Angels had a guitarist by the name of Sugar Hightower.  He was amazing!  He would make a guitar grab your undivided attention!  The Dixie Hummingbirds’ Howard Carroll played such electrifying chords!  Mighty Clouds of Joy had a guitarist, Eddie “Spanky” Alford.  He had the jazz chops!!  He would go on to play and record with artists like D’Angelo and Tony!  Toni!  Toné!  Then when I got old enough to have my own place, I started listening to artist like Steely Dan, The Rippingtons, Earth, Wind & Fire, Prince, Michael Jackson, and,omg, JAMES TAYLOR!!!!

FBF:  Did you gravitate to the blues over time from another style of music?  

SJB:  The blues has always been a part of my playing tone but it wasn't until I met Bobby Rush that I started to study and learn the Blues.  I had been a touring quartet musician (1992-2001) and I was ready for a change.  I met Bobby in the studio of Malaco Records and the rest is blues history!

FBF:  You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years….do you have any cool stories about your playing with all these musicians, either in the studio or onstage?  

SJB:  My most memorable moment touring was my very first European trip.  Besides Air France going on strike right before sending my luggage through the carousel....we met some musicians who were singing and playing the blues so well we were nearly running to check them out.  After their set, we rushed over to talk to them only to learn they couldn't speak any English of any kind!! Epiphanic moment for me.  The light came on at that moment!!!!!

FBF:  You have been very busy during the pandemic, releasing some of your own singles and collaborating with other artists……please tell us about some of your recently projects?  

Urban Ladder Society
SJB:  We used this season of not being able to freely perform live to release some songs that would present a happy-type feel like the old Harlem rent party feel, where for the duration of the song take your mind off world issues or problems and just jam one time!!  These songs are setting up a farewell to the Stevie J Blues brand, we are shifting gears and I’m absolutely elated about it!! My pet project is the Urban Ladder Society, a fusion band of BLUES, Hip Hop, Classic Rock, and Neo Soul….GAME CHANGER!! Visit urbanladdersociety.com.  The single “Same Old Thang” is still playing in the Contemporary Blues Markets, College, and European radio.  Frank Roszak does his thing!! The second single, “All About You,” has seen Top Breaker reviews within the UK's Global Soul movement….this song literally came out of the blue!!! We have major distribution on the table but due to the COVID pandemic, everything is on hold, but we are still recording!  The debut album, The Summit, is complete and we are 3 songs into the follow-up.  Expect another ULS single in mid-August!!



FBF:  You recently issued an anthology paying tribute to the late Jackie Neal…..can you share some of her story to those not familiar with her great music and tell us a little bit about the project itself?  

SJB:  Jackie Neal is the late sister of Swamp Blues guru Kenny Neal.  She was an amazing artist with a bright future, and seeing the fruits of a successful career. Unfortunately, her career was short-lived in 2005 by the hands of a jealous boyfriend. The Jackie Neal Celebration is a 9 song compilation of Ms. Neal’s biggest Southern Soul anthems.  It features some of the greatest female talents in the mid-south, with a jam track from Rashad the Blues Kid and myself.  The album is available at all major online retailers.

FBF:  What is it about Mississippi that produces so many great musicians and inspires so much artistic creativity?  

SJB:  Simple....Mississippi is where the soul is.

FBF:  Musically speaking, is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?  

SJB:  I would love to produce a duet with Buddy Guy!!  I think that would be a dope song! Definitely from the ULS take of the Blues.  And I haven't toured with Urban Ladder Society yet, but I see myself on our tour bus now!!!  Other than that, I feel fulfilled in my musical journeys, though I push to keep growing in ability, creativity, and longevity.

FBF:  (Bonus Question) What are some of your favorite albums….the ones you keep playing over and over?  

SJB:  Steely Dan, Aja, Michael Jackson, Off The Wall, Fourplay, 4, Prince, The Black Album, Gary Moore, Live At Montreal.