Friday, May 22, 2020

A "One Night Stand!" To Remember!!!

The first time I ever heard Sam Cooke sing, I think it was when I was in my early teens and I was watching one of those afternoon commercials where they sold various music collections on LP, 8 track, or cassette.  Seems like there was a set devoted to Sam Cooke....2 LPs or 1 8-track or cassette....that played snippets of his songs as the titles scrolled down the screen.  I thought he had the most amazing voice, but I had no idea who he was.  At that time, I had a pretty limited knowledge of music, but I was open to hearing new things, so that voice got my attention.

I still didn't know much about him a couple of years later when I found a collection of his music in the cut-out cassette bin at a record store, but I picked that up as soon as I saw it.  There were a few songs that I remembered from the commercial.....his song "What A Wonderful World" was a hit on the radio a few years earlier in a pop version from several stars at the time (Art Garfunkel, James Taylor, and Paul Simon), but Cooke's version was naturally much better.  However, most of the tracks on this collection I bought were laden with strings and background choruses and sort of overwhelmed his overwhelming voice at times, so I ended up not listening as much as I anticipated.  I still enjoyed that magnificent voice, but wished that there was something a little less "produced" that I could find.

Sometime during the mid-80's, RCA (Cooke's label in the 60's) launched a series of recordings paying tribute to was around the time that he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a charter member.  One of them was a compilation of his best-known songs called The Man and His Music, and it pretty much covered the bases....28 songs, even including a pair of songs from his early years as a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers (it was a major deal when he made the switch from gospel to secular music.....he was gospel music's first "teen idol," drawing a large female crowd wherever the group performed.  While it was pretty much all anyone ever needed to hear from Cooke, the same issue remained with the strings, chorus backing vocals, and pop arrangements (though Cooke was able to exert a little more control in the last years of his career...we'll discuss one of those releases, my favorite, in the future).

Original cover from 1985 release
However, around the same time The Man and His Music hit stores, another album was released.  It was called One Night Stand!  Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 and it was the answer to this listener's prayers.  It was recorded on January 12, 1963 in Miami at the city's Harlem Square Club.  Earlier, RCA had decided that the label needed a live album from Cooke and decided to capture his performance in Miami.  The club was a small spot in Miami's Overtown neighborhood and was filled with some of Cooke's biggest, most appreciative fans, many of which had followed him since his gospel days.  Cooke was backed by some of his own band (guitarist Cliff White and drummer June Gardner), along with guitarist Cornell Dupree and the great King Curtis on saxophone.

Upon hearing the tapes, RCA decided that the show was too loud, too raw, and maybe a little too intimate.  The label wanted a live album that would appeal more to a pop audience and lead to bigger sales.  They decided instead to release Sam Cooke at the Copa, a performance in front of a upscale, largely white audience.  Cooke's performance was toned down and most of the material was more pop-oriented.  Compared to the Miami show, it was pretty tame, though he sounds great.  However, this was more in line with what the label's vision, so it was released in the summer of 1964 and the Harlem Square Club show was put on the shelf and largely forgotten after Cooke's death in December of 1964.

The Harlem Square Club date shows Cooke pulling out all the stops in front of his oldest, and most loyal audience.  In a way, it's almost like a church performance with Cooke singing these familiar songs of his with a primal urgency that marks a change from his studio work.  He basically has the audience eating out of his hand with torrid versions of "Feel It," "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Twistin' The Night Away."  My favorite is "Somebody Have Mercy," which also features some fantastic blowing from sax legend King Curtis.  The set is just over 37 minutes, but to these ears, it's one of the best live albums I've ever heard.

Cover for 2005 release
I bought the original release on cassette in the mid 80's and recently picked up the remastered 2005 release on Sony.  On the original release, the audience was further up in the mix, so it was almost like you were in the crowd and really made for intense, sometimes exciting listening.  The 2005 release cuts the crowd noise back a bit, but not too far, and places more emphasis on Cooke's amazing vocals, which are unlike most everything he ever put to wax......there were some performances that capture the intensity and soul he displayed with The Soul Stirrers, some of them from performances we will discuss in the near future.

As mentioned above, Cooke was killed in December of 1964 under mysterious circumstances.  He had started his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961, recording a number of artists who eventually became stars in their own right.....Bobby Womack (as part of the Valentinos), Johnnie Taylor, Mel Carter, and the Simms Twins.  He recorded soul, R&B, and gospel artists.  He wrote many of his own hits, "Chain Gang," "Twistin' The Night Away," "Chain Gang," "Another Saturday Night," "Cupid," and "Bring It On Home To Me" (that's Lou Rawls singing back-up).  He had 29 Top 40 hits on the Pop charts.

Cooke was born in Clarksdale, MS and had a Mississippi Blues Trail marker dedicated to him in 2009.  Though he's not often associated with the blues, his sound incorporated the blues, R&B, and pop effectively and he has been an influence on singers in multiple genres.  Rod Stewart provided comments on the back cover of the 2005 release, concluding with "...if there weren't a Sam, there might not have been a Rod."  Listening to this release makes it easier to hear Sam Cooke in Rod Stewart's singing.  I also remember Bobby Womack doing a pitch perfect impression of Cooke on one of his mid 90's albums, and I hear a lot of Sam Cooke in Robert Cray's vocals on his most recent album, That's What I Heard.  His performance on One Night Stand!  Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963 provides ample evidence of the blues in his musical roots.  It you haven't heard it, I highly recommend it!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Revisiting The Slide Brothers

Aubrey Ghent, Darick Campbell, Calvin Cooke, Robert Randolph, Chuck Campbell
One of my iPod playlists is called "Sacred Steel," and it's one of my go-to lists that stays on my iPod about 90% of the time.  I first started listening to Sacred Steel in the early 2000's, after I happened to catch Robert Randolph and the Family Band on Austin City Limits one Saturday night.  The music was developed in the 1930's by a group of Pentecostal churches, at least in two denominations of the church.

Those two denominations (the Jewell Dominion, based in Indianapolis, and the Keith Dominion, based in Nashville) introduced steel guitar into their worship.  The sounds of the steel guitar replicate an extra singing voice at times and the new instrument was very successful in the churches in these two denominations, which have expanded to at least 22 states.

In the past 20 or so years, several of the guitarists have been recorded by various labels.  Arhoolie Records released several anthologies, which is where I heard a lot of them......The Campbell Brothers, Sonny Treadway, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, Ted Beard, and Randolph, who took up steel guitar at 17, starting as a drummer (the usual progression in the churches).

Randolph supplemented his gospel music with other influences after he heard recordings from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sly & The Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Allman Brothers Band, and Buddy Guy.  Randolph combined the influences with the Sacred Steel tradition and set the music world on its ear, combining gospel and secular music effortlessly (though he's moved a bit more toward the sacred side on his recent effort with satisfying results).

I still plan to devote an entire post to the Sacred Steel tradition in the near future (yeah, I know I've been saying that for nearly a decade......I'm GONNA, okay???!!!).  Today, I wanted to talk about one album in particular that I pulled out earlier in the week after hearing about the death of Darick Campbell, one of two steel guitarist in the Campbell Brothers.  A few years ago, Darick and his brother Chuck appeared with two other Sacred Steel legends mentioned above.....Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent.....on an album conceived and co-produced by Randolph which bore the name Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers.

I plugged this album a few years ago at FBF with a mini-review, but it's worth revisiting.  The set list is a mix of blues, rock, and inspirational tunes, eleven in all.  Each guitarist gets a couple of tracks to shine.  The disc opens with the ABB's "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'," with Cooke singing and the Campbell Brothers' twin steel guitars soaring (with brother Phil playing guitar as well).  The Campbells also tackle George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," with vocalist Jimmy Carter (Blind Boys of Alabama) taking the mic.

The Campbell Brothers actually team up for three more tunes on the disc, a stunning instrumental reading of "Wade In The Water" (where one can really pick up the "singing" quality of the steel guitars), Tampa Red's "It Hurts Me Too," (with vocals from Cooke), and the traditional tune "Motherless Children," which they keep pretty close to the Eric Clapton version from the early 70's.  Chuck Campbell joins Randolph on the Elmore James standard "The Sky Is Crying" (with another vocal from Cooke and bass from Hendrix alum Billy Cox) near the end of the disc.

Cooke takes center stage with his own inspirational "Help Me Make It Through," playing guitar and singing.  He also joins Ghent on two of his three featured tracks, sharing steel guitar duties on a funky take on Mylon LeFevre's "Sunday School Blues," and one of a pair of tunes from Andrew Ramsey....a blues-meets-the-church call-and-response version of "Catch That Train." Ghent also gives a spirited performance on Ramsey's joyous "No Cheap Seats In Heaven."

In addition to his appearance with Chuck Campbell on the Elmore James classic, Randolph makes a memorable appearance on "Praise You," a tune actually written by Fatboy Slim, with blues belter Shemekia Copeland, who nearly brings the roof down with her performance.  Randolph's brother Marcus, who usually plays drums, joins Robert on steel guitar on this track......the tradition continues.

The rest of the Family band (bassist Danyel Morgan, keyboardist Jason Crosby) also make appearances, as do members of the Campbell Brothers band (bassist Orlando Wright, drummer Carlton Campbell), as well as former Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton and keyboardist Marty Sammon.

The song selection is split between gospel and secular, but the delivery of the songs can be interpreted in either direction for the most part, so there's something here for the spiritual and non-spiritual to enjoy.  It's definitely worth a listen and it might pique your interest in this fascinating genre of music, which we will explore more deeply in the future.......I promise!!

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Last Show

The Allman Brothers Band - October 28, 2014
Several years ago, I took one of my daughters to the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival to see one of her favorite bands.  Some twenty years earlier, her mother and I were regular visitors to Jazz Fest, but had gotten out of the habit when additional responsibilities reared their head.  Things had changed a LOT since my last visit to the Fairgrounds in the mid 90's.......I don't think I'd ever seen as many people in one place in my life (I think attendance that day is still a Jazz Fest record) and there were a lot more major musical acts present than when I used to go.  It was really hard to work your way up to a stage to see an act.....luckily there were those huge jumbo-trons on most of the stages, so while we might have been a quarter mile from the stage, we were able to see who was actually on stage.

While we were wandering around trying to find a place for three people to stand for over five minutes (my sister went with us), I noticed a tent that was selling Live at Jazz Fest CDs, which piqued my interest.  One of my favorite things to do when I used to go to Jazz Fest was check out the Record Tent.  I had been to the Record Tent earlier and there wasn't much there that really interested me and most of it was oppressively expensive.  The Live at Jazz Fest Tent was quite different.  I had seen some Live at Jazz Fest CDs available at Amazon, but they were very expensive there.  At the tent, they were about the price of a regular CD, and there were a lot of them to choose from.....some artists had performances recorded during multiple years.  I grabbed CDs from two of my Louisiana favorites, Walter "Wolfman" Washington and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.  The sound was great on both of them, even though on one of the Zydeco Cha Chas' set, the vocal track was accidentally lost.

These CDs were also available on the Jazz Fest website, via Munck Music.  This company has recordings from Jazz Fest going back to 2008 (not all the bands, unfortunately, but a VERY nice selection).  There were also two sets recorded by The Allman Brothers Band from their 2007 and 2010 performances, so I picked these up last year (both are highly recommended).  While surfing Munck Music's site, I discovered that they had recorded most of the Allman's live performances since 2008, including their final recordings in 2014.  I filed that away for future reference.

This year, I finally decided to pick up the ABB's final-ever performance, at the Beacon Theatre in NYC on October 28, 2014.  I had read about the performance and decided that would be a good thing to pursue during the current situation.  It came in the mail a couple of weeks ago.

The band had decided earlier in the year to call it quits.......guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks both wanted to work with their own bands and Gregg Allman decided to tour with his own band as well (I got to see him in 2016, just before he had to pull out for health reasons.......he was pretty impressive).  The band always put together several multi-night performances at the Beacon, it was pretty much their second home during their "comeback," which lasted twice as long as their first run, and they were always in great form when performing there.

The set is a monster set, 28 songs and close to four hours long.  The band tore through nearly all of the blues classics that they introduced to many of their fans, "Statesboro Blues," "One Way Out," "You Don't Love Me," and "Trouble No More."  There were plenty of their own songs that their fans have grown to love....."Melissa," "Revival," "Dreams," "Black Hearted Woman," "Ain't Wastin' Time No More," "It's Not My Cross To Bear," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "Whipping Post," "Blue Sky," "Mountain Jam" (with two reprises), "Hot 'Lanta," and "Midnight Rider."  There were also newer additions to the band's repertoire, "The High Cost of Low Living," Warren Haynes' ripping read of "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "The Sky Is Crying."

The band sounds fantastic......they certainly didn't go out with a whimper.  There was no let-up at all.  Haynes and Trucks were just incredible and if they didn't match the original twin guitars of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, they were riding the bumper pretty closely.  The percussion team of Jaimoe, Butch Trucks, and Marc Quinones were just relentless, and bassist Otiel Burbridge's rumbling slippery rhythm work gave the old songs new life.  Gregg Allman was in great voice and his highly underrated work on organ was superlative, as always.  The band certainly went out on a high note.

There's very little stage banter throughout the set.....fifteen to twenty seconds a spot.......until after the band returns for their first encore with, what else, "Whipping Post."  After that song concludes and the audience cheers for about two minutes, the band walks to the front of the stage.  Gregg gets a bit emotional as he recalls joining Duane and Dickey with no idea of what would be in store for him over the next 45 years.  He then tells the audience that the band would end their story by playing the first song they ever played together, "Trouble No More," and the band did just that.

I highly recommend this set to any fan of The Allman Brothers Band.  While there's a lot of the ABB's music at Munck Music's site, I encourage everyone to check out the company's other live recordings from Jazz Fest, the Peach Music Festival, the Dark Star Jubilee, the Wanee Music Festival, and many more.  I haven't heard a bad set yet.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Looking Back....John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Early 1967 Edition

While going through a box of CDs in search of a great jazz CD I'd been trying to track down for awhile (Pete Johnson's Pete's Blues, more later), I stumbled onto a pair of CDs that I had reviewed a few years ago for Blues Bytes.  One good thing about having a little spare time these days is that I have an opportunity to track down some mighty fine music that slipped from the main shelf to one of my storage boxes over the past couple of years......doesn't mean the quality of the music is bad, just means I don't have a lot of storage space.

In 2015 and 2016, Forty Below Records released two volumes of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - Live in 1967.  Mayall is the elder statesmen of British blues, having turned 86 in November, and some of the finest British (and American) blues-rock musicians served in the Bluesbreakers, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Harvey Mandel, Coco Montoya, Larry Taylor, and Rocky Athas, among others.   

John Mayall in 1967
Mayall is a fine musician himself, playing guitar, keyboards, and harmonica, but that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when looking at the all-star personnel who worked their way through the Bluesbreakers over the years.  It's no fault of his own and even at 86, he still manages to release an album of new material every couple of  years, and he remains a formidable force on the British blues scene.  

During the 60's, there was a lot of personnel turnover in his band.....there were some 15 editions of the band between 1963 and 1970, as artists moved on to other bands in the then-burgeoning British music scene.  

Peter Green in 1967
One of those groups, Mayall, guitarist Peter Green, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood, were only together for about three months in early 1967, not long enough to do any studio work.  Even though Green and McVie were longtime members of the group, Fleetwood wasn't there very long even though he did appear on a few tracks of the band's A Hard Road album, released later in the year.    

John McVie in 1967
A Dutch fan named Tom Huissen was able to sneak a one-channel reel-to-reel tape recorder into five different Bluesbreaker club performances around London between February and May of '67.  These recordings were basically unheard for nearly 50 years until Mayall was able to acquire them and began restoring them with Forty Below Records' Eric Corne, finally releasing Volume 1 in April, 2015 and Volume 2 in July, 2016.

Volume 1 provides proof positive that Mayall has long been influenced by a pair of blues legends – Otis Rush and Freddy King, and both of these artists are well-represented in this set…..Rush with four songs (“I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “Double Trouble,” “All Your Love,” and “So Many Roads”) and King with four (“Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” “San-Ho-Zay,” “The Stumble,” and “Someday After Awhile”).

Mick Fleetwood in 1967
Other cover tunes include “Hi Heel Sneakers” and a powerful version of “Stormy Monday” that closes the disc, with some great interplay between Mayall and Green. There are also two Mayall originals represented, the rousing “Brand New Start” and “Streamline.” 

There's some excellent work from the band on these tracks.  McVie were as rock solid a rhythm section as they are today.  Meanwhile, a lot has been written about Green’s guitar work over the years and when I first started listening to the blues, a lot of folks considered him to be the finest white blues guitarist ever. He does nothing to disprove that statement on these tracks, offering up some exquisite fills and solos throughout.

On Volume 2, Mayall and the band work through a familiar set of ’50s urban blues, including a pair of Sonny Boy Williamson tunes (“Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Bye Bye Bird”) that feature Mayall on harmonica, a pair of Otis Rush tunes (“So Many Roads,” “Double Trouble,” in different versions from the ones featured on Volume 1), Eddie Taylor (“Bad Boy”), T-Bone Walker (also a different version of “Stormy Monday” than on Volume 1, this one showcasing vocalist Ronnie Jones, a member of the first edition of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated). There’s also a rocking take on the Lionel Hampton classic, “Ridin’ On The L & N.”

The Mayall originals on this set will be familiar to his longtime fans. The exquisite slow blues “Tears In My Eyes” eventually appeared on the 1967 album Crusade, which featured young guitarist Mick Taylor. “Please Don’t Tell” appeared on another 1967 Mayall album, The Blues Alone, and the churning “train” instrumental “Chicago Line,” has been revisited by Mayall many times over the years. Green gets a six and half minute instrumental, “Greeny,” to show what all the fuss was about back in the day and why he’s still considered one of the greatest guitarist ever.

Sound is not hi-fidelity for sure, given the recording methods at the time, but the tapes have been re-mastered to the point where it’s not an issue at all, much better than most “bootleg” recordings of that time. It’s definitely not something that should discourage potential listeners.

Early Fleetwood Mac (L to R):  McVie, Danny Kerwin, Green, Fleetwood, Jeremy Spencer
Green, McVie, and Fleetwood would leave the Bluesbreakers and form Fleetwood Mac, who were actually one of the most respected British blues bands prior to becoming a pop-rock powerhouse in the 70's and 80's.  Fleetwood and McVie continue to play with the band, but Green fell off the music scene in the early 70's due to mental issues and drug use, he resurfaced in the late 70's (making an uncredited appearance on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album) and has performed and recorded off and on since with others and leading his own band (Peter Green Splinter Group).  

John Mayall today
John Mayall was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame several years ago, and deservedly so.  He continues to release excellent recordings on a regular basis and also continues to tour worldwide.  These two excellent volumes give blues fans an opportunity to hear one of his finest groups of Bluesbreakers for the first time.  

Friday, April 17, 2020

A Couple of New Ones

One of the reasons I dove into the blues back in the mid 1980's was Robert Cray.  I picked up Showdown! in a music store where I went to college.....strictly on impulse....and never looked back.  While I liked all three of the artists featured on Showdown!, Cray was my favorite.  He not only played excellent guitar, but his soul-inflected vocals were the perfect fit for me.  I began following his career when he was with Hightone, followed him over to his major label debut (Strong Persuader), and kept up with him pretty closely until the early 2000's, where I sort of lost track of his particular reason for it, I just sort of drifted away for awhile.  In fact, I didn't actually return until his last CD a few years ago, where the Hi Rhythm Section backed him.  After hearing that one, I got back on the Robert Cray bandwagon once again.

A few years ago, Cray began a collaboration with drummer/producer Steve Jordan, who had produced the last couple of albums of Cray's I'd listened to, 1999's Take Off Your Shoes and 2001’s Take Off Your Shoes.  Jordan has also produced Cray's last three releases, 2014's In My Soul, 2017's Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm, and this year's That's What I Heard (Nozzle Records).  Since the mid 90's, Cray has slowly moved toward the soul side of the blues, particularly the southern soul side, and with Jordan behind the controls, definitely on the Memphis side of southern soul.  That's What I Heard is smooth, greasy Memphis-based soul and blues, a mix of covers and originals (five written by Cray).  If you're familiar with Cray's work, you know what to expect.  Vocally, he's never sounded better and his guitar work is as compelling and concise as ever.  It's obvious that Jordan brings out the best in him when they work together.  It's hard to pick a favorite track, but I'm torn between the mournful "Promises You Can't Keep," the gospel-flavored "Burying Ground," and the appropriately-titled "Hot."  Some 40 years in, Robert Cray is still making mighty fine music.

The first time I ever heard Sonny Landreth was while he served as guitarist on John Hiatt's Slow Turning album in 1988.  Landreth also toured with Hiatt as part of his road band, the Goners, and I got to see them perform in Memphis in the spring of '89, when they opened for.........ta daaaa.......the Robert Cray Band.  In the mid 90's, I stumbled across Landreth's South of I-10 album, which remains one of my favorite albums with its mix of blues, zydeco, Cajun, rock, and New Orleans-styled R&B.  Landreth is one of the finest slide guitarists on the planet and 99% of the folks who have ever heard him (he's a regular on Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival.....the shows themselves, and the accompanying DVDs) would agree wholeheartedly.  He is just awesome to hear and to watch perform.

Landreth's latest album, Blacktop Run (Provogue Records), finds him reuniting with R.S. Field, who produced South of I-10 and several of Landreth's other releases from that time period.  This new album features the same diversity that's present on Landreth's other albums......he's always had a restless musical spirit, but he's always blends a variety of styles together seemingly effortlessly....there's blues, swamp rock, Latin, jazz, zydeco, and Cajun music throughout this set, and sometimes most of the styles are mixed into the same tune.  It's wonderful stuff.  Landreth is a slide guitar marvel and a powerful vocalist.  and all ten songs are originals, from the energetic blues of the title track, to the instrumental "Beyond Borders," which combines rock, blues, and Latin rhythms, to the Cajun blues of "Mule" and "Lover Dance With Me" to the jazz-inflected "Groovy Goddess."  If you're unfamiliar with Sonny Landreth's music, Blacktop Run is a great place to get on board.  You will want to hear more, though

Friday, April 10, 2020

What We've Been Reading

When I'm not doing my day job from home these days (and being amazingly phone ringing, for starters), I've been busily working on CD reviews for the April issue of Blues Bytes, which will be out next week (if I ever turn in my reviews).  I've also found a fair amount of time to do some reading, thanks to this current quarantine and my time over the past year dealing with various family health issues (some of my own included).  I'll be telling you about some of those books today.

A few years ago, I picked up a whole bunch of books via Amazon.  Unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of time to read during that time, so they sat next to my recliner for a couple of years.  When I had spinal fusion surgery last spring, suddenly I had a little bit of time to read at night because the pain meds kept me awake at night.  Looking back, I was pretty productive over a short amount of time.

Over the years, I've read several books that covered the history of Memphis' Stax Records, the best of which were Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music (which basically started me down the road of listening to 50's/60's soul music and later the blues) and Jonathan Gould's excellent Otis Redding:  An Unfinished Life.  Robert Gordon's Respect Yourself:  Stax Records and the Soul Explosion expands on both by concentrating completely on the label, focusing not only on Redding, but many of the label's other stars.....Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Booker T. Jones (who's new autobiography is on my must-read list), and many others who worked behind the scenes in the offices and in the studios.  It's a great story of a record label who fought and scrapped their way to success (even after the tragic death of Redding in 1967), but sadly things didn't end well.  Gordon covers all the bases in this book, leaving very few (if any) stones unturned.  If you're into this brand of music, which sounds as timeless today as it did some fifty-plus years ago, this is where to get the story.

Speaking of Peter Guralnick and Memphis, when Guralnick was working on his two-volume bio of Elvis Presley in the early/mid 90's (I implore to read these volumes....if you're not an Elvis fan before you read them, you will be afterward), he interviewed Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame extensively.  He decided at that time that he wanted to do a book with Phillips.  Unfortunately, Guralnick began work on a Sam Cooke bio (also recommended) and Phillips passed away before he was able to begin the book.  Guralnick completed the book, Sam Phillips:  The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll, as a biography/autobiography hybrid of sorts, and it's an amazing read.  Phillips was a fascinating could see that in the Presley books, or if you ever read an interview with him (or saw his bizarre appearance on David Letterman's show in the late 80's.....I've never seen Dave so flummoxed) and that comes out in this book.  Guralnick was probably as close to Phillips as anyone could be, but he doesn't let that color his writing.  You get the full meal deal with Sam Phillips, warts and all.  Besides that, there are TONS of stories about the musical acts that Phillips discovered and recorded.......Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, James Cotton, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and yes, Elvis Presley.  Even after the sun set on Sun Records, Phillips remained a force of nature, people still sought him out to oversee their recordings (John Prine, for one).  Phillips was about as enigmatic as they come while he was with us, but Guralnick comes about as close to capturing his essence in this book.

Slowhand:  The Life and Music of Eric Clapton is a biography of the guitar legend from author Philip Norman.  It was not quite what I was expecting.  In the mid 80's, I had read a biography, Clapton, from Ray Coleman, that really got me interested in Clapton's music.  It was an authorized biography, even including pages from Clapton's diary.  With Slowhand, Norman works around Clapton, the guitarist didn't talk to him directly, but he didn't stop anyone else from doing so either.  There's much more of Clapton's "Life" here than his "Music."  The main focus is on Clapton's often chaotic personal life with drugs, women, betrayal of friends, etc.....  The music takes a back seat, pretty much glossed over, so if you weren't aware of the impact of his body of work before, you won't know much more afterward.  Clapton has turned his life around in the last couple of decades and seems to have his act together now, so there is evidence that he has learned from the past (which may be why he didn't stop others from talking.......maybe it was therapeutic, I don't know).  I preferred Clapton from a music standpoint, but it's some 30+ years old, and there's always Clapton's own autobiography out there as well (which I haven't read).  If you want to know more about the man than the music, albeit from outside sources, then you may enjoy this one.  It did have some interesting moments.

I had a good idea of what to expect from Texas Flood:  The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan because I'd read Alan Paul's similar account of The Allman Brothers (One Way Out) a few years ago.  This book is an oral history of SRV, told not only from his viewpoint (taken from various interviews compiled by other sources during his life), but also from his brother Jimmie, other family members, band mates over the years, fellow musicians, and his closest friends.  I really enjoyed this format in the Allman book and it works really well here.  I was on board with SRV as soon as I heard a cut from his first album in a record store back in the early 80's, so I was there when a lot of the great music first happened, but I wasn't aware of a lot of what was going on behind the scenes during those years, though I was alert enough to know that Live Alive was a hot mess at the time.  It was so great to see him get back on his feet again with In Step and his later collaboration with his brother (released posthumously), then absolutely crushing to see it all stopped in its tracks at Alpine Valley.  It was pretty sad to relive all of that through the eyes of those who were there in this book, but in the end, this is about as full a picture as we have of SRV, the man and the musician, or probably will ever have.  I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who's a fan.

Well, the weather is warming up, so it's about time for me to reinstall my swamp blues/Cajun/zydeco collection on my iPod.  In further preparation, I decided to finally read South To Louisiana, John Broven's indispensable book on the music of south Louisiana.  I'm only about a third of the way through it, but I realize that I will be writing about this book in a future post, and picking up a few more albums in the near future.  In the meantime, I suggest any of the above books as a good way to occupy yourselves during these wild and crazy days, which hopefully will be in our rear view mirror soon.

Friday, April 3, 2020

What We're Listening To (Early April, 2020 Edition)

Your humble correspondent, staying at home
Greetings, fellow blues lovers.  Hope you're keeping safe right now.  Thanks for stopping by.  As you're probably aware, the blog has been mostly suspended for some time now, due to some serious family-related issues.  Well, things are still happening, but the whole world has slowed down considerably due to circumstances beyond our control.  Presently, I am working from home, and count myself fortunate that I am able to do so......lots of folks don't have that luxury, so when I'm not working, I have been trying to get caught up on several things, including writing album reviews for Blues Bytes......I am currently about six months behind based on the stack of CDs in my room.  That was one of the reasons, but not the only reason, that I suspended the blog.

The other day, when I was driving with my youngest daughter, we were listening to some new blues and she asked me if I was still blogging.  I told her that I was not, and she asked me why.  To my surprise, I really couldn't tell her why.  Several of the issues that were previously factors are no longer factors at this moment, and I figured why not start it back up, maybe just at a more relaxed, less involved pace.....fewer longer posts, slipping in a few little capsule reviews of blues albums new and old, and the occasional random thought......sort of like I had intended to do in the beginning.

So, the plan right now is to plug a couple of new releases each week.....maybe reminding you of some that might have slipped through the cracks previously while we're at it......just something to maybe provide you with a few minutes' pleasant diversion from the current madness that we're going through right now.  Hopefully, it will help pass the time for you blues fans, and maybe you can get hooked up with some sounds you might have missed otherwise.  Here goes......

Tad Robinson - Real Street (Severn Records):  I've been a fan of Robinson's since his debut for Delmark quite a few years ago (1994).  He mixes soul and the blues seamlessly with his incredibly soulful tenor and his underrated skills on harmonica.  He found a home with the Severn label, and this is his fifth release for the label.  Severn has a great "house" band that appears on many of their recordings, but for this release, Robinson traveled to Memphis with Severn keyboardist Kevin Anker and enlisted a few living legends (the Hi Rhythm Section (drummer Howard Grimes, bassist Leroy Hodges, and organist extraordinaire Rev. Charles Hodges) and a few modern legends in the making (Bo-Keys guitarist Joe Restivo, sax man Kirk Smothers, trumpeter Marc Franklin, and backing vocalist Devin Thompson).  If you are a fan of vintage Memphis soul, you know exactly what to expect from the music on this set, and Mr. Robinson is more than up to the challenge.  This is my favorite release of his, mainly because of the Memphis vibe, but also for his impressive vocals.  If you dug Boz Scaggs' Memphis release from several years ago, this one will blow you away.  There's not a bad song in the set, but my favorites are the opening shuffle, "Changes," the title track, and two really amazing covers, George Jackson's "Search Your Heart" and a dynamite reworking of Roy Orbison's final hit, "You Got It" that completely transforms the tune.

Another treat that I was able to enjoy around the first of the year was a fantastic set of piano blues from a young college student from Cincinnati named Ben Levin, who displays some jaw-dropping skills on Before Me (VizzTone).  There just aren't enough piano blues albums these days and even if there were, this stellar set would stand out as one of the best.  He's joined by guitarist Bob Margolin and harmonica master Bob Corritore on several songs, as well as his dad, guitarist Aron Levin.  The whole disc is just a marvel, with a dozen tracks steeped deep in the blues, half covers and half originals.  A couple of the songs have a New Orleans feel, while others have a cool after-hours vibe, and Levin's taste in covers is diverse, with tunes from Big Bill Broonzy, Freddie King, James Cotton, Big Jay McShann, and the Griffin Brothers.  There are also a couple of great instrumentals teaming Levin with Margolin and Corritore that you wish would go on forever.  In addition to his piano playing, Levin is also an engaging vocalist.  I am really excited for this young man's future and once you give Before Me a listen, you will be, too.

I've also had the opportunity to catch up on my reading the past few months.  A couple of years ago, my oldest daughter (what can I kids are hip!!) found me a copy of Grady Gaines' autobiography, I've Been Out There:  On the Road with Legends of Rock 'n' Roll (Texas A&M University Press), and I finally got the chance to read it.  When I started listening to the blues, one of my favorite record labels was New Orleans' Black Top Records ("Paving The Way To Your Soul").  Their recordings introduced, or re-introduced, many blues fans to some of the great blues and R&B artists who hit their peak in the 50's and 60's, some of which enjoyed a resurgence in their fortunes, thanks to Black Top's efforts.  Grady Gaines was one of those artists......he cut three dynamite albums for the label that not only showcased his thunderous tenor sax, but also other great artists who had faded into obscurity.  Gaines enjoyed a marvelous career, playing with Little Richard and Sam Cooke, among others, and leading his own band for many years, still going strong today.  This book is only about 190 pages, but it's packed with great stories.  Gaines is not the only one sharing stories either.....there's also input from his guitarist brother Roy, guitarist Milton Hopkins, members of Gaines' bands past and present, and other family members and friends.  Gaines tells a good story (with help from collaborator Rod Evans, who does a fine job) and is not afraid to shoulder the blame for issues when necessary, but this is an upbeat, entertaining story from a relatively unheralded music maker who's been making audiences smile for years.  Check the book out and track down some of Grady Gaines' music when you're done.  You'll be glad you did!!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday Blues Fix's Top 20 Blues Albums of 2019

Maybe you've noticed that there have been no posts here at FBF in over six months.  I apologize for that, but things have been hectic for most of the year around the old household.  During the Christmas holiday, I decided that I needed to step away from reviewing CDs at Blues Bytes (I will be reviewing the ones that I've already received over the next year, so will still be contributing off and on for several months) and will probably be stepping away from posting here as well (not that I have been that much anyway), maybe doing a tribute post to those blues movers and shakers that passed away in 2019 in a few weeks.  The next few months are going to be pretty full of family and work responsibilities, but hopefully, in a few months things will return to normal.

I am going to post my 20 favorite blues releases for the past year.  I hope some of them were yours as they are in no particular order.

Friday Blues Fix's Top 20 Blues Albums of 2019

Big Creek Slim & Rodrigo Mantovani – First Born (Chico Blues):  This is a superb set of traditional blues from Danish blues man Slim and Brazilian bass player Mantovani. Nice mix of original songs that blend well with their choice of cover tunes.

Bloodest Saxophone – Texas Queens 5 (Dialtone/Vizztone):  This Japanese jump blues unit is always cooking, but this time around, they get to back some of the Lone Star State’s finest female blues singers who deserve to be heard.

Willie Buck – Willie Buck Way (Delmark):  Buck sings Chicago blues the way they used to do it back in the Windy City’s glory days of the 1950’s.  So glad he's finally getting some much-deserved recognition.

Mary Lane – Travelin’ Woman (Women of the Blues):  A marvelous set of blues from the Chicago blues legend that will make listeners wish she’d get to the studio more often, and hope she will do it again soon.

Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith & The House Bumpers – Drop The Hammer (Vizztone):  Drummer Smith turns in a strong set of blues that will please traditional and contemporary blues fans, backed by a great group of fellow second-generation blues men.

Bob Corritore & Friends – DoThe Hip-Shake Baby! (Vizztone):  This set is what blues fans have come to expect with a Bob Corritore release….an entertaining set of blues (with hints of old school rock n’ roll, R&B, and gospel) from the harp master and an all-star cast of the best in blues.

Grady Champion – Steppin’ In:  A Tribute To Z.Z. Hill (Malaco):  A fine tribute to a soul-blues legend, from Malaco's early days, Champion does a marvelous job with these classic tunes.

Zac Harmon – Mississippi BarBQ (Catfood):  My favorite Harmon release to date…..a fine mix of blues and soul from one of the most dependable current record labels for either genre and one of the most consistent blues artists of the past twenty years.

Delbert McClinton & Self-Made Men + Dana – Tall, Dark & Handsome (Hot Shot):  The Texas roadhouse legend turns in a rollicking set that captures his reckless musical spirit as well as anything he’s ever released.

Various Artists – Battle of the Blues:  Chicago Vs. Oakland (Delta Roots):  A great anthology set that features blues artists from both cities…..some you know, some you don’t know, but all of whom deserve to be heard.

Junior Watson (featuring Alabama Mike) – Nothin’ To It But To Do It (Little Village Foundation):  I love just about everything that comes out of Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios, but this was one of the best of the lot this year, with the legendary guitarist Watson at the top of his game (with superb vocal support from Alabama Mike and Anderson’s wife Lisa Leuschner-Andersen).

Billy Price – Dog Eat Dog (Gulf Coast):  Stellar soul and blues set from one of the finest singers currently practicing.

Ghost Town Blues Band – Shine:  A potent mix of blues, rock, and soul from the Memphis-based blues rockers.  These guys blow me away every time I listen, and each album improves upon its predecessor.  

Johnny Rawls – I Miss Otis Clay (Third Street Cigar):  So do I, Mr. Rawls, but I’m mighty glad that you are here to carry on his legacy with this powerful set.

The Sensational Barnes Brothers – Nobody’s Fault But Mine (Bible and Tire):  This disc sounds like a gospel session at Stax Records…..absolutely breathtaking.  They are still making mighty music in Memphis!

Toronzo Cannon – The Preacher, The Politician, Or The Pimp (Alligator):  As much as I like Cannon’s tough guitar work and vocals, I really enjoy his songwriting.  It makes me laugh, cry, and think.  It’s been great watching him develop his style over the past few years.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – Kingfish (Alligator):  I’ve been reading about and listening to this young man since he was 12 or 13.  That said, this is one of the best debut releases I’ve heard in my 30+years of listening to the blues.  A strong, diverse, and confident set that shows the future of the blues is in good hands.

North Mississippi Allstars – Up And Rolling (New West):  A typically strong set from the group….a deft combination of traditional and contemporary Mississippi Hill Country blues, loaded with guest stars (Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, Cedric Burnside, Duane Betts).

Jimmy Johnson – Every Day of Your Life (Delmark):  Great set from one of the first blues artists I ever heard way back in the 80's.  Johnson just turned 91(!) and he sounds like he’s not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, thank goodness! 

The Reverend Shawn Amos – Kitchen Table Blues (Vol. 1 & 2):  Two EP’s count as one album in my book.  These songs taken from Amos’ series (with assorted guest stars) are a lot of fun and show Amos’ love for the music.  Blues fans are advised to check out the whole YouTube series when you have a chance.