Archive for December, 2008

Classic Blues 2009 Calendar/CD

Title: Classic Blues Artwork/Songs from the 1920s, Vol. 6
Artists: Various
Publisher: Blues Images
Format: Calendar with accompanying CD
Date: 2008

If you’ve never come across the annual Classic Blues calendars produced by collector, dealer, and blues expert John Tefteller, you’ve been missing out on some of the best blues iconography in existence. Each month when you flip over the page you’ll be thrilled with the beautifully reproduced (and often hysterically funny) graphics from the 1920s and ‘30s that were used to promote early jazz and blues records. And that’s not all- the calendars come packaged with an accompanying CD featuring pre-war blues rarities aplenty, including the 12 songs/artists featured in the calendar, plus 6 additional bonus tracks.

This year Tefteller has really outdone himself. The CD features two newly discovered songs by Blind Blake, “Night & Day Blues” and “Sun to Sun,” plus two more by Ben Curry, “The Laffing Rag” and “Hot Dog”- all recorded in 1932 by Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin. The two songs by guitarist Blind Blake were from Paramount 13123, recorded at Blake’s penultimate session for Paramount in January 1932. Shortly thereafter, Blake literally vanished without a trace, Paramount folded, and no copy of the record has ever been found- until last summer.

The story behind these newly discovered Blind Blake disc is the stuff of dreams for record collectors: “Like a time capsule, this small steamer trunk sat unopened for nearly four decades in a trailer park on the east side of Raleigh, North Carolina. Its contents, about one hundred 78 rpm records, still in their original paper sleeves, represent some of the greatest blues artists active during the Great Depression. . . The records were bought new in the 1930s by an African-American couple living in Granville County, NC, adjacent to Durham County, the epicenter of blues activity in the Carolinas. A telephone tip and subsequent negotiations led to the acquisition of the collection by Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records.” The whole “Trunk Full o’ Blues” story, along with illustrations and sound clips, can be found on the Old Hat website. Similarly, the previously unknown Curry disc was discovered last February in a pile of old 78s in Missouri. Several other previously unreleased test pressings round out the bonus tracks.

Other selections on the CD that are represented in the calendar include Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues,” Charley Patton’s masterpiece “Shake It and Break It” (recorded in 1929 in Richmond, Indiana), “Nightmare” (featured on the cover) by Elgar’s Creole Orchestra, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe’s “Cherry Ball Blues,” and two sermons- “The Death of Blind Lemon [Jefferson]” by Rev. Emmett Dickenson, and “Death May Be Your Christmas Present” by Rev. A.W. Nix, who sold thousands of records with his hellfire and brimstone preaching. As Tefteller describes the latter sermon, “One can only imagine the Christmas happiness that was wiped out in a single three minute listening of this amazing record! By the time you get to the end, you won’t want to celebrate Christmas . . . or any other holiday. Talk about having the BLUES at Christmas!”

We predict that you, too, will have the blues at Christmas if you miss out on an opportunity to purchase this amazing package.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 12th, 2008

Pay Me No Mind

Title: Pay Me No Mind

Artist: Homemade Jamz Blues Band

Label: Northern Blues

Catalog No.: NBM0048

Date:  2008

The first thing anyone will mention about this band is the age of its members.  The Homemade Jamz Blues Band are kids, literally. Guitar player and lead vocalist Ryan is 16, bass player Kyle is 14, and the drummer Taya is 10.  They are also siblings.  So what we’ve got here is an astonishing amount of talent for their age, with the added novelty that they’re all family. The band began when Ryan, age 9, picked up his fathers’ worn Stratocaster knock-off that he’d gotten in Korea while serving in the military. Under the tutelage and guidance of their parents, the three siblings have broken into a tradition that is usually reserved for musicians twice their age. A discussion of the instruments was also featured in a recent NPR interview.

Recorded in their hometown, Tupelo, Miss., Pay Me No Mind is an energetic debut of fresh and up and coming talent. All songs were written by their father, Renaud Perry, except for the last track, a fired up version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” Renaud also makes an appearance on four songs, blowing a very “proud papa” harmonica. The album is reminiscent of sixties electric blues with bright tones from the leads, a strong walking bass, and a simple back beat keeping time. Sixteen-year-old Ryan’s voice has a rich and full quality that cuts and growls and will only blossom as he gets older.

One of the most interesting things about Homemade Jamz is their instruments.  Ryan plays what appears to be a muffler, welded and wired into an electric guitar, while Kyle plays “Thunder,” a six string bass that has been fashioned out of what looks like a Ford muffler. Both instruments were handmade by Renaud, and speak to a “homemade aesthetic” that connects the band to a greater blues tradition. Renaud cites that he had intended to re-build a car with his son but when the muffler came in, he took one look at thought it was just the right size for a guitar. He was even more satisfied with the sound it produced.

The Perry family band has been hard at work with a grueling tour schedule of festivals and club dates that have landed them third place at the 3rd Annual MS Delta Blues Society of Indianola’s Blues Challenge in 2006, second place at the 2007 International Blues Challenge, and they were recently voted Best New Artist of the year at the 2008 West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. More than just a gimmick, these kids have talent, and with nods of encouragement from the likes of legendary bluesman B.B. King, this passing of the torch ensures that a new generation will carry on in the blues tradition.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson and Heather O’Sullivan

View review December 12th, 2008

Best of Chess: Original Versions of Songs in Cadillac Records

Title: Best of Chess: Original Versions of Songs in Cadillac Records
Artists: Various
Label: Chess/MCA/UMe
Catalog No.: 001241802
Release Date: Dec. 2, 2008

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see Cadillac Records, the new biopic about Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, but I’ve already read numerous stories about the many liberties which were taken with the story, as one might expect from a major Hollywood feature film. Nevertheless, I plan to make a pilgrimage to the local theater the minute the movie opens, and I can’t wait to see Beyoncé’s portrayal of Etta James. Here is the official trailer:

A soundtrack from Cadillac Records was released last month, but if you want to hear the original hits in their full glory, check out the new compilation- The Best of Chess Records: The Original Versions of Songs in the Film “Cadillac Records.” This would be a great way to introduce your kids (or students) to blues, R&B, soul, and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, all in one package. If you have a teenager that’s anything like mine, and they turn their noses up at music that’s not “contemporary,” i.e. familiar, maybe the movie tie-in will peak their interest.  

The CD includes 15 classic Chess tracks, recorded between 1948-1967, that are covered in the movie by Beyoncé (as Etta James), Jeffrey Wright (as Muddy Waters), Eamonn Walker (as Howlin’ Wolf), Cedric the Entertainer (as Willie Dixon), Columbus Short (as Little Walter), and Mos Def (as Chuck Berry).  The bulk of the CD is devoted to Chuck Berry and Etta James, with four tracks each. Berry’s “Maybellene” is certainly one of the highlights- this was his first big hit for Chess in 1955, and is considered one of the seminal early rock ‘n’ roll singles- it quickly topped the rhythm and blues charts, and then crossed over to the pop charts. Muddy Waters and Little Walter are each represented on three tracks, while the great Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf only get one track each.

The complete track listing follows:

1. “No Particular Place to Go” – Chuck Berry
2. “At Last” – Etta James
3. “My Babe” – Little Walter
4. “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” – Muddy Waters
5. “I’d Rather Go Blind” – Etta James
6. “I’m a Man” – Bo Diddley
7. “Smokestack Lightnin” – Howlin’ Wolf
8. “Forty Days and Forty Nights” – Muddy Waters
9. “Juke” – Little Walter
10. “All I Could Do Is Cry” – Etta James
11. “Maybellene” – Chuck Berry
12. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” – Muddy Waters
13. “Last Night” – Little Walter
14. “Nadine” – Chuck Berry
15. “Trust in Me” – Etta James
16. “Promised Land” – Chuck Berry

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 12th, 2008

The Standard

Title: The Standard
Artist: Take 6
Label: Heads Up
Catalog No.: 3142
Release date: September 30, 2008

Since the 1980s, Take 6 has aimed for new heights in a cappella singing and they’ve rarely missed the mark.  For the group’s followers, who have come to expect outstanding harmonies and musicianship, great individual vocal talent and arrangements, The Standard will not disappoint.  Through various personal incarnations over the years, Take 6 has performed a mixture of gospel, R&B, popular music, and jazz.  The Standard follows this format but features five jazz standards along with the usual eclectic mix of musical genres and a host of exceptional guest performances to boot.

The core six members of the group are featured on six (mostly gospel) selections, performing in their characteristic tight harmonies and with almost unfathomable musical meticulousness.  The vocal arrangements by lead singer, Mark Kibble are an important part of the group’s successful sound, blending colors and rhythm. In particular, Quincy Jones’s “Grace” (recorded twice in a “pre-prise” and an extended version) stands out for its distinctive smooth and soulful appeal.

Guest artists include George Benson on “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” Aaron Neville on “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,” Brian McKnight on “What’s Going On,” and Shelea Frazier is introduced on “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  A sampling of Ella Fitzgerald tops off the guest list with a swingin’ and sweet new a cappella arrangement of “A Tisket a Tasket.”

The addition of Ms. Frazier (who is assisted by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove) in particular is a great discovery. Frazier’s voice squeezes every bit of emotion out of her feature number and then some, rendering the song anew.  This may be the singer’s premier to the mainstream but it certainly won’t be her final hurrah.

Whether you favor jazz, gospel, R&B or just good music, The Standard is a performance not to be missed.

Editor’s note: As you may have heard, The Standard was recently nominated for 3 Grammy Awards: Best Gospel Performance for “Shall We Gather At The River;” Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for “Grace” (arranged by Take 6′s Cendric Dent); and Best Jazz Instrumental Solo for “Seven Steps To Heaven.”  Want to know Cedric Dent’s favorite Christmas albums? Check out his latest blog entry here.

Posted by Karen Faye Taborn

View review December 12th, 2008

The Gospel at Colonus

Title: The Gospel at Colonus
Composer: Bob Telson
Director: Lee Breuer
Publisher: New Video
Format: DVD, NTSC  (90 mins.)
Date: 2008, 1985

The 1985 Philadelphia performance of The Gospel at Colonus, which originally aired on the PBS series Great Performances, is now available for the first time on DVD and it is both entertaining and enlightening. The stage play is directed by Lee Breuer and based on an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus in the version by Robert Fitzgerald. It also incorporates passages from both Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone in the versions by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, which are published as the Oedipus Cycle of Sophocles.  Morgan Freeman, Clarence Fountain, Jevetta Steele and Isabell Monk are among the talented cast that frames the Oedipus saga within the African American religious and performance traditions.

A quote by a Village Voice reviewer on the DVD cover describes the performance as “…Europe meets Africa; Classic meets Contemporary; Pagan meets Christian.” The first two attributes are evident within the work’s title. The final characteristic, “pagan meets Christian,” is manifested in various ways.  For instance, presenting the story of Oedipus by using a religious art form, gospel music, extrinsically merges the sacred and secular.  However, Bob Telson, Colonus’ music composer and arranger, uses traditional and contemporary (as of 1985) gospel music styles, thus creating an internal profane and religious fluidity that mixes gospel, blues, R&B, and soul.  This lack of demarcation has always characterized Black artistic expression. The call and response, demonstrative behavior, innuendos, vamps, switch leads, hand clapping, foot stomping, hollers and shouts of the soloists and choir are not only exemplary of elements within such expression, but they also reflect an aesthetic continuum between Africa and African American culture.

While the actors-Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly and Isabell Monk, among others- present a persuasive tragedy, the music of this performance is the real star.  Clarence Fountain’s raspy voice takes the audience on a journey that explores a range of textures and moods. J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers create a logical contrast to the Five Blind Boys, as the former group expands the parameters of the quartet tradition by incorporating a wider range of vocal qualities and styles. In addition, the J.D. Steele Singers demonstrate a blended sound that is reminiscent of timeless R&B/soul ballads of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The choir, which represents the people of Colonus, is dressed in colorful and flashy attire while the quartet groups are clothed in matching suits denoting respective ensembles.

The DVD’s picture quality is very clear.  In addition, the video frames create a broad and varied view of the stage, focusing on the soloists, individual groups, choir and the instrumentalists.  Capturing the stage in this manner allows the audience (in this case the DVD viewer) to experience a sense of “being there” at the time and space of the performance.  Such framing was obviously assisted by Breuer’s stage setting, which is an integrated structure that positions actors, instrumentalists and singers on the stage simultaneously. As a result, all involved become a vital part of the drama.

For those interested in the exploration of an alternative staging of a classical tragedy, or those who seek to experience an artistic manifestation of the core Black aesthetic in the arts-or if you simply like great stage plays, this performance is a must see.  The Gospel At Colonus will make a significant contribution to your Christmas stocking!

Posted by Tyron Cooper

View review December 12th, 2008

I Got The Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s

Title: I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ’60s
Director: David Leaf
Format: 3 DVD set
Publisher: WGBH/Shout! Factory
Catalog No.: Shout! DVD 826663-10879
Release date: 5 August 2008

Those who tuned in to Boston’s public television station WGBH on April 5, 1968 planning to watch Sir Laurence Olivier in a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya were probably shocked to hear “Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his band” introduced instead. Vanya, Astrov, and Yelena were booted from that evening’s programming in favor of a live broadcast of James Brown’s concert at Boston Garden, which occurred only twenty-four hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The concert had been planned for months, but in the wake of King’s tragic demise, it was repackaged as a “memorial concert” and shown live on WGBH, with rebroadcasts throughout the night. James Brown and this concert are often credited with keeping the peace in Boston that night, as it was one of the few major American cities not torn apart by reactionary violence, riots, and vandalism. Dozens died and hundreds were injured in cities throughout the United States, but according to Tom Atkins, Boston’s only black councilperson in 1968, “The city was quieter than it would have been on an ordinary Friday night.” Whether Brown actually did save Boston is up to the individual to decide, preferably after having watched The Night James Brown Saved Boston and James Brown Live at Boston Garden.

Watch the trailer here

James Brown’s musical and political roles in the aftermath of King’s assassination are chronicled in this three-disc collection from director David Leaf. Disc one, The Night James Brown Saved Boston, documents the events surrounding the concert. Incorporating footage from the concert, news clips from riots at the time, and commentary from Dr. Cornel West, Rev. Al Sharpton, Jr., Dr. Robert Hall, Brown’s manager Charles Bobbit, and several others, this disc provides an overview of what happened in the country and how Boston, with James Brown’s help, prevented itself from going up in flames that night. The second disc in the collection is James Brown Live at the Boston Garden, the actual WGBH broadcast from that night, complete with questionable sound quality, occasionally jumpy camera-handling, and one of the most electrifying James Brown concerts ever caught on tape. Finally, disc three is entitled James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68, and it is a compilation of various Brown performances at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in March of 1968. While the three-disc collection is entitled I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s, nearly all the footage is from 1968.

The Night James Brown Saved Boston chronicles the trials and tribulations leading up to and including the April 5, 1968 concert. Originally, Mayor Kevin White wanted to cancel the concert because to bring “as many as fifteen or twenty thousand black people … particularly young people” into the city “would be a problem,” but White eventually came around when Councilperson Atkins warned him that to cancel the concert in the wake of King’s assassination would cause “all hell to break loose.” The show went on as planned, with the added tag of “memorial concert” for Dr. King. Tensions were palpable: most commentators in the documentary mention various elements of fear, anger, and revenge, and Leaf blends those interviews into the narrative along with news reports of ravaged cities, pleas from President Lyndon Johnson to “reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by non-violence,” and an interview given by White the afternoon of the concert, in which he said, “I’m hoping it [the concert] is one valve that will let off some steam.” The rage came to a head toward the end of the actual concert, when several people jumped onstage and Brown dismissed the police in order to handle the situation himself. He told the interlopers, “You’re not being fair to yourselves and me either, or your race. Now I asked the police to step back because I thought I could get some respect from my own people. Don’t make sense. Now we together or we ain’t.” Apparently they were together, because the fans left the stage peacefully, and Brown finished the concert without further disruption. This is the most powerful moment of the entire concert, but it is rendered less so in The Night James Brown Saved Boston because it is constantly interrupted by commentary from the various informants. (Seen in its entirety in James Brown Live at Boston Garden, however, it is a positively nail-biting few minutes.) Brown may or may not have saved Boston that night, but the way in which he disarmed a potential riot certainly saved many necks and a lot of pride at Boston Garden.

The Night James Brown Saved Boston also addresses the unfortunate financial ramifications of the concert, its live broadcast, and the refunds offered to ticketholders. White had okayed the broadcast without first asking Brown, and Brown was livid about the money he stood to lose, particularly because not only would the concert be televised, but the Garden was also offering refunds to ticketholders. Bobbit, Brown’s manager, estimates that they lost about sixty thousand dollars, even after the city provided about ten thousand dollars for the expenses. White’s response is smug: “He was worth the sixty [thousand]. I don’t know about the music, but for the city, he was,” and Bobbit said that Brown ultimately shrugged off the loss and said it was good for the people. Even though White refers to both Brown and himself as “two arrogant people,” the fact that Leaf does not linger over the financial losses allows both White and Brown to save face. While Brown’s financial losses are an integral part of the story, the appropriate amount of attention is paid and the majority of the emphasis remains on the concert, not the money.

The dramatic structure of The Night James Brown Saved Boston is relatively straightforward. Little information is given about either Brown or Dr. King prior to April of 1968 and instead, the story limits itself to the 48-hour period surrounding King’s assassination and the Brown concert. (For those in need of biographical background, Rickey Vincent’s liner notes summarize Brown’s childhood and rise to stardom.) Throughout the documentary, the music and politics are interwoven without seeming preachy or overtly sentimental: “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” underscores a speech given by King on April 3, 1968, lending King’s extended syllables (“I’ve seen the promised land,” “we as a people”) a sense of musicality; at another point, footage from the concert shares the screen with a news report about the violence in other parts of the country, juxtaposing the peace in Boston with the violence in other cities. Otherwise, Leaf sticks to bouncing back and forth between the commentators and still images or concert footage, rather than inundating the viewer with too much information. The final fifteen minutes, which are devoted to Brown’s activities and activism after that night, including “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” drag and feel like a frantic attempt for an effective closing.

James Brown Live at Boston Garden, which resurrects the footage that had previously been abandoned in the WGBH archives, presents the concert exactly as it appeared on television that night. It opens with Atkins introducing Brown, a brief speech by White, and then, there is nobody but James Brown. The sound quality is less than stellar, but as Russ Morash, the director at WGBH, explains on disc one, the poor sound quality resulted from the incongruous equipment (the audio department usually handled “fine,” classical sounds) and the fact that “they substituted the most expendable mics that they could, fearing the worst, that they would be thrown to the floor and stamped on.” Regardless, the performance is outstanding: Brown does not need pyrotechnics, elaborate stage machinery, or his own personal lighting director – when his hair shakes itself loose from the pompadour, the sweat courses down his face, and his limbs seem to move without regard to his bones, any concerns about the sound quality are forgotten. The performance of “I Got a Feeling” last over ten minutes, and it is arguably the most outstanding number in the concert. The solos by tenor saxophonist Maceo Parker and drummer Clyde Stubblefield in “Cold Sweat” are also show-stoppers. Following is a brief clip of “I Feel Good” from the Boston Garden concert:

James Brown Live at the Apollo ’68 rounds out the triumvirate of discs in this collection, and it is the least exciting of the three but still a worthwhile viewing experience. The color video often just includes head shots or images of Brown from the chest up; such a field of vision erases his dancing and the unstoppable energy that seems to radiate from every cell in his body. Distance shots are almost too far away to capture the frenetic movement in Brown’s dance breaks, and there are too many visual distractions, such as heads in the audience and light refracting from band members’ instruments, to capture the full effect of Brown in motion. Of course, the deficiencies are not the responsibility of those who reissued this performance, and this series, broadcast on television as James Brown: Man to Man, is one of the few lengthy live performances recorded prior to Brown’s 1968 Boston concert. The middle of the program features footage of Brown in Harlem and Watts, discussing the state of blacks in the United States and remarking, “My fight is for the Black American [to] become America.” The bonus features on the disc include three other live performances, including “Out of Sight” from the 1964 concert film The T.A.M.I Show, and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and  “I Got You (I Feel Good),” both performed at L’Olympia in Paris in 1967 and 1968, respectively.

This collection addresses an exquisite moment in American history in which music and politics reflected the best and worst parts of the human spirit. The music is incomparable, and it is no hyperbole to say that the energy in Brown’s performance transcends time, whether viewed on a black-and-white TV set in 1968 or on a 2008 digital flat-screen. Ultimately, what these discs are missing is Brown’s own (speaking) voice. West, Atkins, White, and Sharpton relate statements Brown made to them, but these secondary reflections are no substitute for hearing the Godfather of Soul himself speaking. While James Brown’s speech certainly lacked the elegance and polish of Dr. King’s, the documentary would be that much  more effective if even one sentence about the concert from Brown himself was included. Alas, the music is his only statement. And what a statement it is.

Posted by Amanda Sewell

View review December 12th, 2008

Delmark 55th Anniversary CDs

Title: Delmark: 55 Years of Blues
Artists: Various
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.:  (CD + DVD)
Release date: 2008

Title: Delmark: 55 Years of Jazz
Artists: Various
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.:  (CD + DVD)
Release date:  2008

Bob Koester may have been selling records since the early 1950s, but the Chicagoan truly could be called one of America’s finest music archivists. Not simply content to sell records, initially out of his dorm room at St. Louis University and later out of storefronts, he began to seek out blues and jazz musicians from decades before to record them. His Delmar Records later became Delmark and his Jazz Record Mart is a mecca for all music lovers.

While others, including his protégé Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, sought to take the blues to wider commercial exposure, Koester remains the person who takes listeners- and more recently DVD viewers- into storied haunts such as Rosa’s, B.L.U.E.S., the Velvet Lounge and the Green Mill, simply because it’s where the music still lives.

These two anthologies, which also feature live recorded performances on DVD, showcase the support that Koester has had for underappreciated performers such as Curtis Fuller (who was featured on John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” nearly 40 years ago), tenorist Ari Brown, and singing blues bassist Willie Kent. Country bluesman Big Joe Williams was a major part of Delmark’s history as one of its first recording artists. His “Coffeehouse Blues” is included here.

Sometimes, these recordings were not as slick as those produced by the major labels. Instead, Koester saw value in releasing performances that importantly provide a window into the development of artists such as the West Side soul man Magic Sam, pianist Roosevelt Sykes, and guitarist Otis Rush. Again, they often take listeners into the same, sometimes gritty clubs Koester famously has explored most Saturday nights.

Without Koester, we perhaps may have never known Junior Wells, whose “Hoodoo Man Blues” remains one of the label’s biggest sellers. 55 Years of Blues features Wells’s 1975 live radio recording of “Little By Little” in Theresa’s Lounge. Today, Koester supports artists such as James Yancy “Tail Dragger” Jones and Francine Griffin, who may not have recorded decades earlier, but still are part of the musical legacy.

Koester and Delmark are also renowned for unearthing old master recordings and long lost vinyl, including those featured in these collections from Coleman Hawkins, J.B. Hutto, Sun Ra and Art Hodes. Commercial viability wasn’t the first concern. It was simply important to rescue and release recordings that otherwise would have gone silent.

Many grateful fans have Koester to thank for sharing his love for the music.

Posted by George Vlahakis

View review December 12th, 2008

Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story

Title: Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story, 1961-1977
Artists: Various
Label: Ace/Kent
Catalog No.: Kentbox 10
Date: 2008

Take Me to the River is the best soul music box set of 2008, with a selection of 75 songs on 3 CDs, packaged with a lavishly illustrated and annotated 72 p. hardcover booklet. The goal of the compilers, Tony Rounce and Dean Rutland, was to set out in chronological order a selection of some of the best Southern soul music, noted for its “rich blend of blues and gospel, with a dash of soulful country added to the mix.”  Included are chart topping hits, such as “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge and Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” (the previously unreleased first take), interspersed with “hideously obscure 45s that often didn’t get far beyond the limits of the cities in which they were recorded.”

In terms of defining Southern soul, the compilers set strict guidelines- “recordings made below the Mason-Dixon Line and, mostly, in the studios whose names are synonymous with the sound: Broadway Sound/Quinvy, Royal, Stax, Muscle Shoals Sound, Criteria, Fame, etc.” That is, studios located in Tennessee (Nashville, Memphis), Alabama (Muscle Shoals), Florida, Louisiana (Shreveport, but NOT New Orleans), Mississippi, and Georgia. Furthermore, they limited their selections to artists who either hailed from the South, or who recorded some of their most significant work there. Using the latter criteria, they were able to slip in Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which were both recorded at Muscle Shoals in order to inject an “authentic” southern soul sound.

The three CDs each bear their own title. Disc One, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” begins with William Bell’s 1961 version of that song and takes us through Oscar Toney Jr.’s “Without Love (There Is Nothing),” recorded in 1967. Other featured artists include Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Jarvis Jackson, Eddie Floyd, Charlie Rich, Toussaint McCall, June Edwards, Laura Lee, and Etta James. Disc Two, “The Rainbow Road” (as sung by Bill Brandon on track 3), begins in 1968 with Maurice & Mac’s “You Left the Water Running” and concludes with Gwen McCrae’s “You Lead Me On” (1970). Along the way are selections by Don Bryant, Shirley Walton, Ollie & the Nightingales, William Bell, Spencer Wiggins, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Joe Tex, Doris Duke, ZZ Hill, and Johnnie Taylor, among others. Disc Three, “The River,” sets off in 1971 with Marcell Strong’s “Mumble in My Ear” and concludes in 1976 with Geater Davis’s “I’ll Play the Blues for You.” This 1970s compilation also features Denise LaSalle, King Floyd, Al Green, Sam Dees, Ann Peebles, Bobby Womack, Millie Jackson, the Soul Children, Chet Davenport, Luther Ingram, and more.

If you already have a large soul music collection, this box set may not offer any new material. However, it is such a wonderful overview of southern soul music, thoughtfully programmed and expertly annotated, that both the novice and the soul music aficionado will reap the benefits. And, let’s face it- there just aren’t that many great compilations being produced anymore. This is a set that you’ll want to buy and hold on to for the long term.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 12th, 2008

Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia

Title: Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia
Artists: Various
Label: Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697352792 (4 CD box set)
Release date:   October 21, 2008

In the history of regionally defined black popular music, certain cities, labels, and “sounds” are represented most often.  For many, Detroit is synonymous with Motown, and indeed, Berry Gordy’s “assembly line” mode of music production and tight control over his product and workers was mirrored from the Ford factory in which he worked as a youth.   Down in Memphis, a different sort of expression of black musical identity, one that prided itself on retaining the grit and spirit that Motown polished into a smooth shine, called itself Stax.  Other major cities can lay claim to their own forms of regional musical expression as well: New York City and the rise of rap and hip-hop culture, Chicago blues and Chess Records, New Orleans jazz, and so forth.

Yet one very important locale is often eluded in these narratives: Philadelphia.  The City of Brotherly Love had a long history of localized soul music before Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff made a business out of it through a partnership with Columbia Records in 1971. That duo’s own form of elegant R&B and soul, for many, has come to stand for the city’s cultural history as much as anything.  The phrase “Philly Soul” immediately conjures wonderful and specific musical memories as much as do the guttural “Memphis Blues” or the polished gospel-pop of the “Motown Sound.” James Miller describes it as “a blend of fierce gospel, smooth jazz and gossamer pop, as irresistibly danceable as Motown, as cool and swinging as Miles and Wes Montgomery, as harmonically sophisticated as Burt Bacharach, and as politically pointed as the best songs from Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.” Miller’s quote is pulled from the extensive booklet accompanying the 4-CD set Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, which wonderfully brings together the highlights of Philadelphia International’s remarkable run through the 1970s.

The first disc of the set traces Gamble and Huff’s quick rise to national prominence.  Its first half is marked by sessions the duo produced for artists who had made their names elsewhere: Jerry Butler’s dramatic, forceful “Only the Strong Survive” was an early hit for the former Impression, reaching #4 on the pop charts in 1969, and Dusty Springfield’s “A Brand New Me” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Be Fooled by the Green Grass” reached the Top 30.  The Delfonics, due to the arrangements of hired hand Thom Bell, emerged as the first of Gamble and Huff’s own Philly brand, and “La La – Means I Love You” and especially “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” are still lush, dramatic and fragile, what Miller calls “soul concertos.” Yet few at the time could have predicted the incredible string of hits and stable of artists that Gamble, Huff and Bell were ready to unleash.  The first disc alone contains four of the 1970s most indelible soul classics, all released, amazingly enough, between June and October of 1972: Billy Paul’s ode to infidelity “Me and Mrs. Jones” (a #1 Pop hit), Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” and best of all, the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” (the latter three all crossed over, hitting #3 on the pop charts).  Philadelphia International was riding high enough that the pair was looking into collaborating with living legends like Miles Davis and Bob Marley (as detailed in the liner note essay by Russell Hall, “Give the People What They Want: A Conversation With Gamble and Huff”).

Yet this set illustrates beyond a reasonable doubt that the music was more than immaculately crafted pop.  It was also emanating from, and dialoguing with, a distinct historical era for Philadelphia.  In his essay for the booklet, Gerald Early writes that the Philly Sound “emerged from a Black Philadelphia energized by the Civil Rights movement and NAACP leader Cecil Moore as much as it was distressed by urban blight, drugs, and violence.” Lynell George notes that Gamble, who has remained in South Philly to this day, “founded the Urban Development Company to put some message behind the music.”  Likewise, the sounds from Philadelphia International reflected a notion of uplift and unbridled love-the personal allowing reflection on the political-during a very turbulent time.  The O’Jays were the most noticeable exponents of this ideology, with the socio-poetic funk of “For the Love of Money,” the late Civil Rights flair of “Give the People What They Want,” or their proto-disco, post-‘60s anthem “Love Train,” but they weren’t alone.  There was the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” house band MFSB’s “Love is the Answer,” even McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” released a bit later, in the heart of the disco boom in 1979.  Perhaps no song from the set encapsulates the desire to make the best from one’s surroundings, and to do it with style, than William DeVaughn’s sinuously funky “Be Thankful For What You Got,” in which he preaches, “you may not have a car at all, but remember brothers and sisters, you can still stand tall.”

Following is a clip of the Blue Notes performing “Wake Up Everybody,” from the upcoming PBS Special, Love Train, coming December 2008 (Courtesy of Legacy):

Listening to this box set, it becomes incredibly easy to hear the roots of many later musical styles in Gamble and Huff’s music.  Disco is the most obvious, but the late ‘70s tendency toward smooth soul, or what radio executives dubbed “Quiet Storm,” is evident through the lithe guitars and light arrangements of Lou Rawls’ “See You When I Get There” and the shimmering keyboards backing Dee Dee Sharp’s “I’m Not In Love” (a cover of the 10cc hit). Lyrically, as well as in terms of its laid-back vibe, “Be Thankful’s” legendary couplet “diggin’ the scene, with a gangster lean” effortlessly elevates the prosaic to the poetic like the best early ‘90s West Coast rap. George reminds us that even the neo-soul Philly scene nearly two decades later, featuring the Roots, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott, owes a huge debt to the path blazed by Philly International.

When asked if he and Gamble were competing with Motown, Huff answered specifically in terms of technology: “Motown had their era…when things were being mixed in mono…We had an orchestra…which of course, sounded much better in stereo” (as per Hall’s liner notes).  The famous “house band” for Gamble and Huff’s enterprise-Philly Soul’s own version of the MG’s and Funk Brothers-was named MFSB, short for “Mother, Father, Sister, Brother,” and their 1974 song “The Sound of Philadelphia” was familiar to many at the time as the theme to Soul Train.

Listening to the music collected on Love Train and reading the essays that situate it historically, it becomes abundantly clear that Gamble and Huff, and Philadelphia International, were hosting a family affair, one that broadcast the closeness of post-Civil Rights-era Philadelphia to the world with music that made “love” simultaneously interpersonal and lushly transcendent.  For linguistic evidence, the back of the Love Train booklet breaks down the word “Philadelphia”: “filia” is Greek for “friendship”, and “adelphios/adelphi” is Greek for “brother/sister.”

Posted by Eric Harvey

View review December 12th, 2008

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story

Title: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story
Artist: Nina Simone
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog No.: 886971100921
Release date: 9/30/2008

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story is a four disc (3 CDs + DVD) box set that chronologically covers the 36 year recording career of pianist/singer Nina Simone. Released by Legacy Recordings, the set is unique in providing a career-long profile of Simone’s music and life. A total of 51 songs comprise the compact discs. The DVD is a 23 minute audio/visual montage of 10 song and interview segments. Expansive and well researched liner notes are included with a brief overview on the artist by Ed Ward and background on the compilation provided by the set’s producer, Richard Seidel. Track by track notes are provided by David Nathan. Interspersed between the liner notes are black & white photographs of Simone from youth to middle age. Together, the CDs, video and liner notes provide valuable contextualization and position Simone as an important musical and political figure who was shaped by and played a role in shaping the social movements of her day.

The compact disc selections include 8 previously unreleased tracks and 43 reissues of songs spanning ten record labels, from Simone’s recording debut on Bethlehem in 1957 to her final major label recording on Elektra in 1993. An objective of the set (as stated by Seidel) is to highlight Simone’s distinctive conflation of eclectic musical genres or facets thereof inclusive of classical music, jazz, R&B, Broadway musicals, blues, folk songs, gospel and spirituals, rock, French songs, civil rights protest repertoire, and reggae. From a cultural research perspective, Simone’s eclectic mixture of music genres successfully counters music industry marketing strategies, at play since the 1920s, which tended to categorize Black music within rigidly constructed boundaries (e.g., “R&B” or “popular”) (see Maultsby 2006; Mahon 2004:142-175).

At the outset of her recording career, Simone was a prodigious musical talent foundationally grounded in classical music. Having experienced the harsh realities of racial discrimination and an early failed marriage, she brought a breadth of musical and personal maturity to her first recording date at the age of 24. Co-musical accompaniment on the selections ranges from jazz drums and bass instrumentation to arrangements for full orchestras. Simone’s singing voice-a later compliment to her fluid pianistic skills-is poignant, at times harsh, and almost always captivating.

The first compact disc in the set covers Simone’s career from 1957 to 1968. Twenty songs range in thematic and generic categories from Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” to a French love ballad by Jacques Brel, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” to “Four Women,” a Simone original that addresses the discriminatory social effects between four Black women of different skin color. The second compact disc includes seventeen recordings from 1968 to 1969. The opening selection is a Simone composition, “Mississippi Goddam,” written for the highly publicized 1963 murder of four black girls in Alabama. The song was recorded in a live performance within days following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Simone’s reference to the tragedy and her rebuke to her audience to “sing along with me… for God’s sake … the time is late” is sadly stirring. In stark contrast, the following song by Barry Gibb (of The Bee Gees), “In the Morning,” is an optimistic outlook on the potentialities of carefree life. The CD closes with Leonard Cohen’s poem set to music, “Suzanne.” The third compact disc spans recordings from 1969 to 1993. Simone’s deeply moving delivery of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is enhanced by background data on her life, including the recent separation from her second husband, Andrew Stroud. For the final 33 years of Simone’s life, from the early 1970s to her death in 2003, she lived outside of the United States, variously in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. The final two selections of the box set reflect the world weary life that had become Simone’s-an orchestrated reggae rendition of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” and Rod McKuen’s “A Single Woman.”

The DVD, produced by Peter Aristotle Rodis, situates an already superb CD box set over the top. One might think of Simone as an explosively, multi-generic, “black aesthetic” artist who brought much more to her performance than mere song. She infuses melody, harmony and rhythm with growls and screams from pain and joy. She rises from her pianistic posture to dance about the stage in an ecstatic trance. She interacts emphatically with the audience and the musicians on stage. In her own words from a late 1960s interview, “I’ve always thought that I was shaking people up, but now I wanna go at it more and I want to go at it deliberately. I want to go at it coldly. I want to shake people up so bad that when I leave a night club … I just want them to go to pieces. Where we’re all groovin.’ And that’s my ideal of a good performance, when I have pleased me and pleased them and everybody’s feeling alright, we’re all groovin’ now.”

Here’s Legacy’s promo video for To Be Free, featuring Simone singing the title track:

Whether you’re a novice to Nina Simone’s music or a long time fan, To Be Free, listed for sale at $49.99, is well worth the price.

Editor’s note: To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story was recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Historical Album.


Maultsby, Portia. 2005. “Marginalizing and Mainstreaming Black Popular Music: An Interpretation of Marketing Labels.” Unpublished paper presented at the 2005 Society for Ethnomusicology conference. Atlanta, Georgia.

Mahon, Maureen. 2004. Right to Rock. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Posted by Karen Faye Taborn

View review December 12th, 2008

Notable Holiday CDs

This Christmas- Aretha Franklin (DMI Records)

Fifty years into her career, the Queen of Soul has released her first dedicated Christmas album.  (An earlier collection, 2006′s Joy to the World, was merely a compilation of existing material cobbled together from various older releases.)  Released in an exclusive deal with Borders booksellers, This Christmas Aretha focuses on less commercial aspects of the holidays: faith, family, fun (of the grown-up variety), and, of course, food.  Plenty of the standard old chestnuts appear here (“Silent Night,” “Ave Maria”), but the more gospel-infused offerings (“The Lord Will Make a Way,” “One Night With the King”) make for more interesting spiritual fare.  Franklin’s earthiness and humor shine through on two tracks in particular:  the title track “This Christmas,” a soulful duet with her son Edward, in which she frets about burning her collard greens and swearing off chitlins, then teasingly interjects comments such as “Eddie, you mustn’t upstage your mama with those high notes!”; and her recitation of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” rewritten as a decidedly adult parable best listened to once the kids have been tucked away to dream of sugar plums.  The holiday standards on this album are perhaps more pedestrian and less vibrant than might be hoped from Aretha Franklin, but overall, This Christmas Aretha is a solid holiday offering with some rich and funny moments.

It’s Christmas- Ledisi (Verve Forecast)

While Aretha upheld tradition with her Christmas classics, New Orleans-born jazz and soul diva Ledisi treads new ground on her holiday album.  It’s Christmas features equal parts covers and original songs, the latter offering a welcome alternative to the glut of commercial standards heard all season long.  Of the album’s covers, only three are holiday standards, and Ledisi breathes fresh life into them:  “Children Go Where I Send Thee” becomes an earthy blues jam, while “Silent Night” is transformed into a cool jazz meditation.  The other covers are less overplayed-though still familiar-Motown and jazz classics, as well as an ecstatic cover of “What a Wonderful World.”  All in all, It’s Christmas is a fine contribution that’s even worth listening to after the tree comes down.

A Night Before Christmas- Spyro Gyra (Heads Up International)

Spyro Gyra‘s A Night Before Christmas received a Grammy nomination this week for Best Pop Instrumental Album.  Their signature light jazz-pop sound pervades this album, rendering the holiday tunes breezy, cool, and less sugar-coated than most other versions of these songs.  Not all of the album is instrumental-”Baby It’s Cold Outside” keeps to tradition with its conversational vocal duet by Bonny B and Janis Siegel, while Bonny B’s scatting and a cappella vocal fireworks pep up “The Christmas Song.”  This is the soundtrack for a holiday cocktail party-chic, sophisticated, and grownup.

This Christmas- Imani Winds (Koch International Classics)

Imani Winds lend holiday music a classical touch with their album This Christmas. While many of the arrangements are tinged with just enough jazz and Latin influence to avoid sounding staid, all of the tracks on this album are familiar chestnuts, both religious and commercial.  That said, their renditions of “Carol of the Bells” and “I Saw Three Ships” are lively and interesting, their “Jingle Bells” sounds like a grand joke, and they go heavy on the swing and blue notes in a Gershwinesque arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”  There’s not much that’s new or unexpected on this album, but it delivers classics in fine form.

Jingle All the Way- Béla Fleck & the Flecktones (Rounder)

Stiff competition for Spyro Gyra, Béla Fleck’s Jingle All the Way has also been nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.  Clocking in at a whopping seventeen tracks, this album stays true to the Flecktones‘ quirky but virtuosic jazz-bluegrass fusion style while drawing on a broader repertoire of holiday music than any of the other albums reviewed here.  Jingle takes on classical music with excerpts from Bach’s Christmas oratorio and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; Christmas carol standards such as “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”; commercial classics such as Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”; pop tunes from Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” to Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and even a nod to Jewish tradition with the Klezmer-inspired “Hanukah Waltz.”  Fleck’s arrangements are ever inventive, and occasionally plain weird, but always engaging- and the fabulous Wooten brothers (bass virtuoso Victor and percussionist Roy “Future Man”) contribute their considerable chops.  Jingle All the Way is fun enough for kids, complex enough for adults, and probably the best holiday album of the season.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

View review December 12th, 2008

Welcome to the December Issue

Welcome to the December 2008 edition of Black Grooves. This month we’re starting out with a list of notable new holiday CDs, followed by some great box sets that would make ideal gifts, including compilations devoted to Nina Simone, The Sounds of Philadelphia, Southern Soul, and Delmark Records. Featured DVDs include “I Got the Feelin’: James Brown in the ‘60s” and “The Gospel at Colonus.” Also featured is the latest release by the a cappella vocal group Take 6, which was just nominated for 3 Grammy Awards. As a tie-in to the nation-wide opening of the biopic “Cadillac Records,” we’ve included a new Chess compilation featuring the original versions of the songs used in the movie. If you’re still looking for stocking stuffers, don’t miss our overview of the 2009 Classic Blues Calendar and CD.  Wrapping up this issue is a review of the recording debut by the Homemade Jamz Blues Band- three young Mississippi siblings who are setting the blues world on fire.

View review December 12th, 2008

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