Friday, June 22, 2018

The June Blues

June is usually a good month for me, as far as the blues's my birthday month and it's also Father's Day, both of which usually give me the opportunity to take in some new music and reading.  I'm pretty hard to buy for, so everyone usually gets me gift cards, and that's what happened this year, so I seized the day and picked up some splendid new music to listen to and share with my fellow blues fans. I picked up a brand new ones that I had been wanting to hear and a few that I had been meaning to pick up for a couple of years or more.

I was in a soul frame of mind this month......does everyone else do that at times?  While you might prefer a particular genre much of the time (in my case, blues.....DUH), sometimes you like to take a little break and wade off into another genre.  For me, I usually drift toward jazz in the wintertime....not sure why.....and usually soul music in the summertime.  This year, I decided to pick up a couple of highly-praised recent soul releases and I found out that those praises were much deserved.

While most blues fans may not be familiar with Don Bryant, they've definitely heard some of his songs.  Bryant was one of the principal songwriters for Hi Records.  Starting out as a performer with the Four Kings and as a solo artist, he eventually found his biggest success as a writer, penning several tunes for his future wife Ann Peebles, including "99 Pounds" and "I Can't Stand The Rain," and also songs for Hi's Mount Rushmore of soul singers - Al Green, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, and Otis Clay.  Bryant eventually retired from the music scene, returning later with a focus on gospel music in the 80's and 90's.  When Peebles restarted her career in the early 90's, Bryant was there to give her a hand, but largely limited his own performances to the church.

A couple of years ago, Bryant was invited to participate as a vocalist with the Memphis group The Bo-Keys on their wonderful Heartaches By The Number album.  The reception to his return to soul music inspired Bryant to return to the studio for his own album, which was released by Fat Possum Records last year.  Don't Give Up On Love featured Bryant backed by The Bo-Keys and several other Memphis luminaries.  It's a great mix of Bryant's early tunes and some very good new material which touches on soul, blues, and gospel.  Bryant sounds fantastic and so does this incredible band in support.  Any music fan who digs southern soul music, especially in a Memphis vein, simply has to have this in their collection.  Soul music is alive and well, thank you very much.

Keeping things in Memphis, William Bell also released a great soul music album in the past couple of years.  2016's This Is Where I Live was a Grammy winner for Best Americana Album and one of the most deserving in the show's history.  Bell was one of the first performers for Stax Records in Memphis, joining the staff as a writer originally, but he ended up having a huge hit in 1961 with the self-penned "You Don't Miss Your Water," which was one of Stax's first big hits.  Unfortunately, he was drafted soon afterward and his career stalled until 1967 when he was able to release his own album, The Soul of a Bell, and Albert King recorded his song (maybe you've heard it), "Bone Under a Bad Sign."

William Bell at MSU Riley Center 6/14/18
Bell continued to record, having a few more hits, the biggest being the 1977 R&B smash "Trying To Love Two," which is where I first heard Bell and became a big fan.    Though he's continued to record over the years, on his own label, Wilbe Records, he hasn't had a lot of chart success, but has continued to perform.  When Stax reactivated a few years ago, he joined up with the label to release This Is Where I Live, which consists of mostly Bell originals, including a cool remake of "Born Under a Bad Sign."  Bell's songs have always taken a thoughtful, mature approach to the familiar themes of soul and blues music and this new batch of songs is tremendous.  Bell hasn't lost an inch off his fast ball as a singer either and the band is more than up to the challenge of backing this great singer.

I got to see William Bell last week at the MSU Riley Center in Meridian, MS.  The show was billed as "William Bell's Tribute To Memphis Soul Revue" and featured Bell with several of the artists on his Wilbe label, all of whom performed songs from the Memphis soul catalog from Ann Peebles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Carla Thomas.  Bell opened and closed the show and gave a masterful performance.  His voice was amazing as he went through several of his classic songs.  I would have loved to have heard more from Bell, but it was a very good show all around and hopefully will help bring some attention to the other artists on his label as well.

Another longtime favorite is Walter "Wolfman" Washington, the subject of an FBF post a few years ago (I apologize for the audio issues.....several years ago, Divshare went on hiatus and then shut down, causing me to lose about 400 songs I had placed on their site).  Washington has been away from the studio for several years and his latest, My Future Is My Past (Anti Records), is quite a change from his usual mix of roof-rattling blues, funk, and soul.  The Wolfman's latest is a sterling set of after-hours blues tunes, a very low-key set.  Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of great guitar work here, but it's a decidedly different style of blues that what fans will be used to.

The focus this time around is Washington's vocals, which have long been his secret weapon....he worked for years with the great New Orleans vocalist Johnny Adams and certainly picked up a few of both will notice some similarities in phrasing and, like the Tan Canary, he's equally well-versed in blues, soul, and jazz.  The band's presence is pretty low-key, which helps the vocals stand out even more.  One of my favorite tracks is a duet with Irma Thomas, performing David Egan's "Even Now," a song that Adams also did on his last album in the late 90's.  This isn't really a set to play at your next party, but it's a great one to play when you're trying to chill out afterward.

I also picked up what is considered by many to be one of the best blues albums of the 80's, New Orleans pianist James Booker's Classified, albeit in the recently remixed, expanded edition that was issued around 2013.  Shortly after I started listening to the blues, I discovered Professor Longhair, who with Dr. John was my first exposure to the great New Orleans piano tradition.  When I discovered Booker a couple of years later, my mind was blown.  Booker's story is one of the most amazing, and tragic, stories in New Orleans music lore.  He could not only play the blues, R&B and soul, gospel, and boogie woogie, he was also trained as a classical pianist as a youngster.  He was a huge influence on many of the Crescent City's R&B artists of the 50's and 60's, but he battled a severe drug and alcohol addiction for most of his life, so his career was maddeningly erratic.

Speaking of maddening, the 1982 recording session for Classified was quite an experience, according to the liner notes by producer Scott Billington.  After several days of erratic recordings with Booker and bassist James Singleton, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, and the legendary tenor sax player Alvin "Red" Tyler, the pianist really came alive and blasted through a tremendous set of solo piano performances, most of which are being heard for the first time on this release.  Where the original release of Classified captured the depth and breadth of Booker's piano mastery pretty completely, the expanded set shows even more of his creativity and imagination.  Sadly, Classified serves as a closing statement for Booker, as he died just over a year later, only 43 years old.  Everything Booker recorded was worth listening to, though there's not much available, but Classified is the definitive James Booker album.

Last month, Bill Mitchell, publisher of Blues Bytes, reviewed If It's All Night, It's All Right, the 1989 album released by the Silent Partners on Antones Records.  The Silent Partners were guitarist Mel Brown, bassist Russell Jackson, and drummer Tony Coleman, all of whom had backed up a host of legendary blues artists from B.B. King to Bobby "Blue" Bland to Otis Clay.  The trio had actually teamed up to back Katie Webster and decided the combo was too good not to make their own album.  The album has been out of print for a number of years, but reading Bill's review last month was enough to encourage me to seek it would be a good choice for one of my Five Discs You Might Have Missed posts......and I found it relatively easily from a seller on Amazon for a great price.

All of the trio do a fine job vocally and the track list is pretty cool, too.  The line-up of backing artists is a formidable one.......guitarists Derek O'Brien and David Gonzalez (of The Paladins) and sax man Kaz Kazanoff, among them.  I've got to say that I was a longtime fan of Mel Brown's guitar work, but I wasn't as familiar with Jackson or Coleman.  I came away impressed with both of them.  This is a very nice album that I just never was able to track down back in the day.  Plugging it in gave me a nice sense of nostalgia....actually it made me a little sad about those bygone days when I was a young blues fan whose eyes and ears were constantly being amazed by the new sounds I was hearing.  While you might not get that feeling when you hear it yourselves, you'll still get to hear a set of blues well done.

I picked up a few more items, and will save them for a later time.......but before we go, I have to acknowledge the passing of Matt "Guitar" Murphy earlier this week.  FBF once  posted (sorry, again, for the audio issues) about Murphy's long musical partnership with the great Memphis Slim, but we actually first heard Murphy as part of the Blues Brothers.  I can remember seeing his smiling face when the Blues Brothers debuted on Saturday Night Live some forty years ago, thinking he was one of the coolest dudes I'd ever seen.  Not only that, but I loved the way he played guitar, and was able to track down some of his performances with Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, and James Cotton.  I was really excited a few years later when I saw that Antones had released a Matt "Guitar" Murphy album, Way Down South.  I snatched it up without a second thought on cassette, and repurchased it on CD fifteen years later.  Murphy suffered a serious stroke in 2002, but managed to recover and return to playing a few years later and was still fairly active until his death on June 15th at age 88.  Let's sign off today with a little Matt "Guitar" Murphy, one of the all time greats......

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