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. 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 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!