Friday, October 14, 2022

The Do Right Man Live!!

Dan Penn - Columbus, MS 10-8-22 (Photo by Sharon Clarke)

I read about Dan Penn before I ever heard him.  I vaguely knew a few of the songs that he was responsible for at the time, but Peter Guralnick's profile of him in Sweet Soul Music, written in the mid-80's, made me want to hear more from him (not to mention a whole bunch of other characters in the book).  In the book, he just seemed like a regular guy, sort of self-effacing and with a great, dry sense of humor.  He reminded me of a lot of people I grew up around, so I figured he had to be a pretty cool guy.  

That album I tracked down in 1987
I was able to dig a little deeper into his music via the songs he wrote that were recorded by others.  For example, James Carr's version of Penn and Chips Moman's "At The Dark End of The Street" just blew me away when I first heard it.  

For you youngsters, in 1987 I actually had to order a cassette of James Carr's music to hear it since there was no internet, no YouTube, no Spotify, no Amazon Music, etc...., and they certainly didn't play it on the local radio stations.  Back then, there wasn't an instant opportunity to hear a song after I read about it, so things are MUCH better and easier now.  From there, I checked out many of the other songs that he'd written that were recorded by others, especially a lot of Percy Sledge's songs ("It Tears Me Up" and "Out of Left Field" for starters) and Aretha Franklin's version of "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."

One of the other things Guralnick pointed out in Sweet Soul Music was that Penn's demo versions of these songs were as powerful and soulful as the finished products by other artists.  One of the quotes in the book, from Chips Moman, came during a remark about how well Carr performed "At The Dark End of The Street."  Moman said, "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 for him.  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."  Those demos were the stuff of legend in soul circles at that time.  

Penn had tried a solo career with Nobody's Fool in the early 70's, but it didn't sell well, so he went back to working behind the scenes.  In the early 90's, he gave it another shot with Do Right Man, an album produced by Guralnick that found the songwriter doing his own versions of some of his finest songs.  When I read about it, I ran to my local record store and picked it up and it still gets listened to regularly.  He began touring with fellow songwriter/keyboardist Spooner Oldham and that resulted in a live set of his songs being released in 1999 (Moments From This Theatre).  

A few years later, Penn began self-releasing albums, called his "Demo Series," which he recorded with some of his friends, a mix of old tunes and new one.  In 2020, he released Living On Mercy, one of the year's best.  Last year, he released a collection of gospel tunes (Penn was born again in the early 80's).  In between the Demo Series and Living On Mercy, the UK label Ace released those much-praised demos from the early/mid 60's as The Fame Recordings (two volumes’ worth) and they were everything that had been reported previously.

He still remains active as a writer and a performer, doing solo acoustic shows periodically.  I found out a few weeks back that Penn was going to be doing one of those solo acoustic performances about two hours from my house, in Columbus, MS at the Omnova Theatre at the Columbus Arts Council.  Well, as soon as I found this out, I snatched up a pair of tickets.  I'd never been to the Omnova Theatre, but it sounded like a great opportunity to see one of my musical heroes.

When my wife and I arrived at the Omnova Theatre, we were surprised at how small it was....maybe seating about 75.  There were probably 60 or so there.  It's on the second floor of the Arts Council building, so when we took the elevator to the second floor, Penn was nearly standing in the doorway.  He was just talking to some folks that he knew (he only lives about 30 miles away in Vernon, AL).  I would estimate that at least half of the people in attendance either were related to him (his wife and sister were there) or knew him personally.  He visited with all of them and it was just like a family reunion.

The show was just wonderful.  Penn will be 81 next month and he uses a cane to help him get around, but when he sat down in that chair onstage, it was like he was twenty years younger.  He played nearly all of his classics, "I'm Your Puppet," "You Left The Water Running," "Sweet Inspiration," "Cry Like A Baby," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "I Met Her In Church," "Dark End of the Street," "Zero Willpower,” “A Woman Left Lonely," "Out of Left Field" (requested by a cousin who traveled from New Orleans to hear him), "Nobody's Fool," "Old Folks," "Memphis Women and Chicken," and "I'm Living Good."  I know I'm leaving a couple out (he did do a singalong for "The Letter," the hit he produced for the Box Tops), but man, just look at the body of work that he covered in 90 minutes or so.

He sounds just as good as he ever has and he played and sang with fire and soul...I know he's done these songs a million times over the years, but you can tell that he LOVES what he's doing as much now as he did when he got started over sixty years ago.  He told great stories between songs…. I never knew that he provided the high “girl” background vocal during the wrap-up of “At Thr Dark End Of The Street.”  Afterward, I thought I'd walk up and at least shake his hand and tell him what a fan I have been for nearly 40 years, but he was visiting with family and friends (they also talked back and forth between really was like a family reunion of sorts) and I didn't want to butt in for my little bit, so we headed out on our drive back home.

If Dan Penn ever performs close to my area again, I will be there to see question about it.  You should do the same.  While you're waiting, there are plenty of opportunities to check out his work, either by other artists or by the man himself.  Here are a few other selections shown below, but there's more to be found that should be found.  You can thank me later.

Living On Mercy (The Last Record Company) - His latest release from 2020.  Some very good new songs mixed in with some older favorites. 

Moments From This Theatre (Proper Records) - Some of his best known songs recorded in Ireland in the late 90's with keyboardist and songwriting partner Spooner Oldham.  Comprised most of his set at Columbus last weekend.  Great stuff!

Blue Nite Lounge (Dandy Records) - Volume One of Penn's self-released "Demo Series."  I've only heard the first two (planning to get the others, plus the gospel set), but both of the ones I already have are worth hearing.

Sweet Inspiration - The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham (Ace - UK Records) - There are several of these collections on Ace Records, but this one has a lot of tunes you may be more familiar with by Penn recorded by other artists you're familiar with.  Heck, just get 'em all.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Friday Blues Picks (10/7/22)

Sorry if you stopped by last week, but there is a lot going on in the real world for us here in the Magnolia State so we weren't able to make it work.  Don't worry, because we are back this week with a couple more new must-hear albums that should be in any blues fans' collection (plus a set of old favorites).  

This week's picks are star-studded affairs.  I'm not always a fan of those types of albums, sometimes the guest stars overwhelm the main artists on these albums, but these two are quite different.  The artists releasing these albums primarily work as sidemen, supporting other musicians, so they are used to adapting to the artists they're backing and, WOW, these two recordings are top notch!  

Bob Corritore was born in Chicago, where he fell in love with the blues at the age of 12 after hearing a Muddy Waters song on the radio.  After receiving a harmonica from his younger brother, he began to teach himself how to play and, when he was old enough, he started going to see any blues concert he could find as well as going to Maxwell Street, the open-air market where blues performers often set up on weekends.  he eventually was able to join the musicians on Maxwell soon enough, becoming a regular performer.  He expanded into music production, starting his own label and recording some of the Windy City musicians.  He relocated to Phoenix in the early 80's, where he became a mainstay of the city's blues scene, performing, recording with, and producing other artists as well as hosting his own radio show ("These Lowdown Blues," since the mid 80's).  He's recorded numerous albums, all excellent, and appeared on hundreds of others as a guest artist.  

Over time, Corritore has amassed a huge archive of recordings from artists who have appeared on his radio show or performed at his music club, The Rhythm Room.  He has released several collections of these performances as Bob Corritore & Friends, the most recent being You Shocked Me (VizzTone), which features 16 tracks with a host of contributors, including John Primer, Alabama Mike (four tracks), Diunna Greenleaf, Sugaray Rayford, Willie Buck, Johnny Rawls, Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry, Oscar Wilson, Bob Stroger, Francine Reed, and Jimi "Primetime" Smith on vocals.  Also featured are guitarists Bob Margolin, Kid Ramos, L.A. Jones, Johnny Rapp, as well as Smith and Primer.  There are also over twenty other artists contributing.  Of course, Mr. Corritore is accompanying these artists on all the songs with his spot-on harmonica work, always in service of the song.  If you haven't checked out any of Corritore's collaborative archive session collections, You Shocked Me is a great place to start, but you will definitely want to hear more afterward.

The Texas Horns (Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff - sax/harmonica/vocals, John Mills - sax, Al Gomez - trumpet) recently released their third album, Everybody Let's Roll (Blue Heart Records).  These guys have appeared on numerous albums over the years....I used to hear Kazanoff regularly on most Black Top Records releases....and some of their friends return the favor on this excellent release.  The guest list includes Carolyn Wonderland, Anson Funderburgh, Jimmie Vaughan, Johnny Moeller, Mike Zito, Mike Flanigin, Marcia Ball, and Guy Forsyth.  Wonderland sings the title track, a mission statement of sorts for the Horns, with Funderburgh and Mike Keller on guitar, Vaughan plays on a couple of tracks, singing on "Too Far Gone," a hip shuffle, Moeller plays guitar on several tracks, and Forsyth sings on "Die With My Blues On" and the 70's R&B-styled "Prisoner In Paradise."  The Horns take center stage on a great set of instrumentals, the Latin-flavored "Apocalypso," a spirited reading of J.B. Lenoir's "J.B.'s Rock," and an inspired cover of the Beatles'(!) "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."  Kaz even takes vocals on "Ready For The Blues Tonight," which features Ball on piano.  Everybody Let's Roll reminds me of those great Black Top albums back in the day, where it always sounded like everyone poured their heart into every performance and had a ball doing it.  

Way back in the early 90's, I was in a music store and happened upon a cassette of Billy Boy Arnold's VeeJay recordings from the 50's on Charly Records.  Charly released a lot of older recordings at bargain prices at the time and it was a good way for a budding blues fan to catch up on some of the music's history.  Arnold's were consistently good.  He was an excellent singer with a lot of soul in his voice and he learned harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson (Version 1) as a teenager before joining Bo Diddley's band.  He recorded with Diddley on two of his biggest hits, "I'm A Man," and "Bo Diddley," and recorded a few tracks for Checker before signing with VeeJay, where several of his songs became blues standards.  

I searched in vain for a CD copy of that Charly Records collection, but when available, they were pretty high dollar, but Jasmine Records came to the rescue once again, releasing Come Back Baby, I Wish You Would late last year.  This set includes Arnold's earliest recordings with Cool Records, the Checker recordings (including his five sides with Diddley), and all of his Vee-Jay tracks.  Those Vee-Jay sides include "I Wish You Would" (which borrows that famous Bo Diddley beat), "I Ain't Got You," "Don't Stay Out All Night," and "Prisoner's Plea."  The backing musicians on these sides include guitarists Diddley, Jody Williams, and Syl Johnson, piano wizards Otis Spann and Sunnyland Slim, drummers Clifton James and Earl Phillips, and bass players Willie Dixon and Mack Thompson (brother of Syl and Jimmy Johnson).  One of the things that struck me about these recordings was that Arnold was such a confident and exuberant performer at a young age.....playing behind these stellar musicians certainly had to give him a boost.  

Arnold recently released his autobiography, The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold (co-authored by Kim Field), which I haven't read yet, but plan to.  If you've not heard his music, and he's recorded frequently over the years.....most recently with Stony Plain in 2014, you are missing out on some great Chicago blues.  This set of his earliest recordings is a great place to start.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Friday Blues Picks (9/23/22)

The Love Light Orchestra (John Nemeth at center)

Several years ago, I was listening to the Beale Street Caravan podcast for the first time.  The Caravan spotlights acts from the Memphis area, expanding to the adjacent states from time to time, capturing them in live performances.  The first podcast I ever caught was the Love Light Orchestra, a group of Memphis-area musicians who played blues and R&B like the blues legends of the Bluff City played them in the 50's and 60's....Bobby "Blue" Bland, B.B. King, and Junior Parker, to name a few.  Their live set just blew me away.  The band was phenomenal....most have been playing this brand of blues for a long time, some even serving in Bland's band in the late 80's and 90's.....and their vocalist, John Nemeth, was incredible.  

Most blues fans are probably familiar with John Nemeth.  I'd heard him on a couple of his previous releases and I really enjoyed his vocals, but he sang these songs, mostly covers of the songs of the era, like he had waited all of his life to sing them. Nemeth got his start in Boise, Idaho with the band Fat John & the 3 Slims before joining up with Junior Watson's band in 2002 while still leading his own band, the Jacks.  He later became as formidable a harmonica player as he is a vocalist, which led to him filling in for Sam Myers with Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets.  He self-released a couple of albums before relocating from Boise to San Francisco, where he released a couple of albums on Blind Pig Records and ended up recording Memphis Grease in Memphis with the Bo-Keys, Feelin' Freaky, which was produced by Luther Dickinson, and 2020's Stronger Than Strong on Nola Blue Records.  

In between his solo career, Nemeth teamed up with the Love Light Orchestra, who released an excellent self-titled live album recorded in Memphis on Blue Barrel Records in 2017.  This year, they followed up with a studio album, Leave The Light On, on Nola Blue Records.  This release features nine original tunes written by Nemeth, guitarist Joe Restivo, or trumpet player Marc Franklin, plus a splendid cover of Lowell Fulson's "Three O'Clock Blues."  The originals work well in the era the band seeks to pay homage to....Restivo's opener "Time Is Fading Fast" sets the bar pretty high, while Nemeth's "Come On Moon" really puts his talents on full display.  The Fulson cover has a Latin flair that works pretty well, and the title track is a sharp boogie shuffle, while "I Must Confess" should get feet moving and "After All" is an ideal Nemeth blues ballad.  The band is firing on all cylinders and so is Nemeth.  Leave The Light On is a perfect companion to the band's debut and if classic Memphis blues/R&B is one of your favorites, you just have to get your hands on this one!

In the spring of this year, Nemeth was diagnosed with ameloblastoma, a benign, aggressive tumor in his lower jaw which required immediate, specialized surgery, which included a bone graft to regenerate the bone in his jaw to be removed.  Basically, Nemeth had his jaw amputated in late May with this procedure and, at this point, it's uncertain if he will be able to sing or play harmonica like he used to.

Prior to the surgery, Nemeth recorded May Be The Last Time (Nola Blue Records) with guitarist Kid Andersen hosting the session at his Greaseland studios in California.  Andersen brought in legendary guitarist Elvin Bishop and his Big Fun Trio (guitarist/keyboardist Bob Welsh and drummer/percussionist Willy Jordan) and vocalist Alabama Mike to lend a hand and they recorded a set of old and new songs written by Nemeth.  The title track, a gospel standard, kicks off the disc with some lyrical modifications from Nemeth.  Bishop contributes three originals, including a new version of "Stealin' Watermelons," which he sings.  Nemeth does an excellent job on the old J.B. Lenoir tune "Feeling Good," and duets with Jordan on the Wilson Pickett (via the Falcons) classic "I Found A Love."  He blows some mean harp on the Junior Wells' blues "Come On In This House," and a raucous read of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips," before closing with the optimistic "I'll Be Glad."

In order to completely get rid of the tumor, Nemeth had to have most of his teeth removed, but he had a successful stem cell transfer to regenerate his jawbone and will get replacement teeth implants in November.  Hopefully, this won't be John Nemeth's last album, even though it's a great one, so keep him in your thoughts and prayers as he recovers from this ordeal.

During one of my recent trips to the Little Big Store in Raymond, MS, I stumbled onto a used copy of Hezekiah and the House Rockers' eponymous album, initially released on High Water and reissued in expanded form in 1998 by Hightone Records.  This is probably one of the most interesting blues bands that you'll ever hear....Hezekiah Early plays drums and harmonica (taped to a mic stand), while guitarist James Baker played guitar (mostly like a bass).  The trio is rounded out by Leon "Pee Wee" Whitaker, who sings and plays trombone.  It's an interesting combination to say the least and there's a lot of great music here that sounds unlike anything else you might have heard.  Early has a sparse catalog, a Fat Possum album with Elmo Williams and an album on Broke & Hungry with Robert Lee "Lil Poochie" Watson, but all of them are must-listening.  He's featured basically solo on a couple of tracks and it's kind of amazing to hear harmonica and drums and know the same person is playing both instruments.  They sort of branch out into an R&B/post-disco hybrid on a few tracks and those are really cool, but they really stand out on the traditional blues, too.  It's a most interesting set that a lot of blues fans may have missed the first time (or second time) around, so if you can find a copy, check it out.


Friday, September 16, 2022

Traveling Through The Delta - Summer, 2022 Edition

More CD reviews next week......this week we'll take a little side trip through the blues.  Each summer, my brother and I try to make a day trip through a section of the Land Where The Blues Began, checking out Mississippi Blues Trail markers or grave sites or other blues-related attractions.  This year, we opted to travel to Leland and work our way back home through several different towns.  

On the way to Leland, we stopped at Holly Ridge at the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, where Charley Patton was buried in 1934.  There are actually three blues men buried in this cemetery on Long Switch Road....Patton, Little Willie Foster, and Asie Payton.  All three artists made memorable contributions to the blues.      

Charley Patton, of course, is considered the "founder" of the Delta blues (his blues marker was the very first one placed) and his recordings are readily available from several different sources.  He influenced as many future blues performers with his showmanship as he did with his voice.

Willie Foster played with many of the genre's local legends.....T-Model Ford, Frank Frost, and Asie Payton, among others.  His At Airport Grocery album is essential listening for Delta blues fans.
Asie Payton recorded later in life, spending most of his life driving a tractor.......getting off just long enough to record two memorable albums released posthumously on Fat Possum Records, Worried and Just Do Me Right.

A few miles away, we found a blues marker for Jimmy Reed, located near his birthplace on Dunleith Plantation.  Reed grew up here and developed his signature sound (he had more hits on the pop charts than any other bluesman) with Eddie Taylor (see last week's post).  His songs have been covered by countless blues artists.

We found several markers in Leland....we had intended to visit the Highway 61 Museum downtown, but it was closed, and has been for quite some time....not sure why.  The markers we located were for Johnny Winter (whose dad was a native of Leland, actually served as mayor), Tyrone Davis (whose aunt and uncle ran a store where Davis' marker is located), and James "Son" Thomas.  We also traveled down to Bogue Memorial Cemetery, south of Leland to see Thomas' grave.  Sadly, the headstone had been knocked over recently.  We missed a few markers in Leland, but we'll go back through and catch those later.

Johnny Winter made his mark in the blues and rock genres, with a lengthy stint for Columbia Records in the late 60's through the late 70's, plus recordings for Alligator in the 80's, Point Blank in the 90's, and continued to record until he passed away in 2014.  He also produced Muddy Waters' final albums in the late 70's/early 80's.
Tyrone Davis was a major figure in the soul genre, recording such hits as "Turn Back The Hands Of Time," "Turning Point," and "Can I Change My Mind," all number one hits.  He made his mark on the blues and soul charts from the late 60's until shortly before his death in 2005.
James "Son" Thomas' marker is in front of the old Montgomery Hotel in Leland, where Thomas worked as a porter.  In addition to being a musician, he was also a folk sculptor and his primitive art was very popular (his son, Pat, is also a musician and sculptor in the Leland area).  He recorded several fine albums during his lifetime, including my favorite, Beefsteak Blues.
We were disappointed to find Thomas' headstone in such dire straits.  During our travels, I've found several blues markers that have been vandalized, but this was the first headstone I'd seen like this.  I'm assuming that it was just kids being kids.....Thomas' marker was the largest in the cemetery and that was probably what attracted the attention.

From Leland, we ventured south on Highway 61 to Hollandale, where we found Sam Chatmon's blues marker in the middle of town.  Chatmon played and recorded with his brothers during the 1930's....the Mississippi Sheiks, who were based in Hinds County.  He spent most of his life in Hollandale and later launched a solo career in the 1960's.  Some of his recordings can be heard on the Arhoolie collection I Have To Paint My Face.  He is also buried in Hollandale, but we didn't realize that until after we had gotten home.  
South of Hollandale on 61 is Rolling Fork, which Muddy Waters claimed as his birthplace.  If you're reading this, you don't really need to be told about Muddy Waters, do you?  Waters was influenced by many Delta artists, notably Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House, but that's really just scratching the surface.....maybe we'll explore his influences more deeply in future posts.
The town of Rolling Fork (which has some other history involving the Teddy Bear) has a nice little park dedicated to Waters, where the blues marker is located (background) and this neat little sculpture.
All in all, it was a very eventful trip and we got to see a lot of sites that we had not seen before.  Unfortunately, we didn't get to check out the Highway 61 Museum as planned and we had problems finding a good place to eat (we were either too early or too late coming through).  We're already excited about our next blues journey and we might even go earlier than planned.