Archive for April, 2010

Welcome to the April 2010 Issue

This month we’re featuring the “new” Jimi Hendrix album Valley of Neptune, Raheen DeVaughn’s The Love and War Masterpeace, plus Dee Dee Bridgewater’s tribute to Billie Holiday and Chicago blues singer Tail Dragger’s latest release on the Delmark label. Among the historical compilations are sets devoted to Christine Kittrell (Bear Family), Mance Lipscomb (Arhoolie), and Classic Appalachian Blues from Smithsonian Folkways, along with Next Stop . . . Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga (Strut).  Also featured is the two-CD deluxe reissue of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves. Wrapping up this issue is Soul of the Church, the first DVD release of classic episodes of TV Gospel Time from the early 1960s, and two books from University of Illinois Press—a history of Cincinnati’s King Records, and the biography of Chicago deejay Richard E. Stamz.

View review April 1st, 2010

Valleys of Neptune

Title:  Valleys of Neptune

Artist:  Jimi Hendrix

Label:  Sony Legacy/Experience Hendrix LLC

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: March 9, 2010

Jimi Hendrix’s Valleys of Neptune is bound to have something of a polarizing effect amongst potential buyers and listeners.  Claiming to be a collection of previously unreleased material, it will obviously pique the interest of Hendrix fans.  Even a glance at the contents, however, would raise suspicions in those same fans’ minds.  This brand new Hendrix album opens with “Stone Free?”  “Fire?”  “Red House?”  Haven’t we heard these before?  As it turns out, we only think we have, but this is new music that deserves to be appreciated on its own merit, and “Valleys of Neptune” is a truly meaningful addition to the sprawling Hendrix discography.  It does not redefine Jimi Hendrix, nor does it shine a clear light on future aspirations or musical developments.  It is not a magical, missing piece to the puzzle.  It is, however, a thoroughly vibrant, captivating collection of Hendrix’s later studio recordings, and it presents with beautiful clarity a level of musicianship that justifies his legendary status.

With the release of Valleys of Neptune, fans of Jimi Hendrix are presented compelling interpretations of familiar songs as well as genuinely new lyrics, song structures, rhythmic flows, and ensemble playing dynamics.  New material, such as the title track, “Valleys of Neptune,” and “Ships Passing Through the Night,” move through a variety of tones and textures, switching back and forth between reflective interludes and charging rock cadences.  Considering the numbers of bootlegs, box set retrospectives, “best-of” collections, and sketchy import discs that are on my shelves, to say nothing of the classic studio albums released during Hendrix’s lifetime, I was surprised to hear how much of the present album sounded fresh to me.  And, despite the centrality of Hendrix’s widely recognizable, signature guitar playing, this is not an album that melts into a caricature of itself after the first couple tracks.  I found that through its effective sequencing, inclusion of a few strong instrumental numbers, and casting of Jimi’s vocals in a variety of sonic settings, the album actively asserts itself and commands attention as a complete, multi-faceted whole.

Following is the official trailer for the album (© 2010 Sony Legacy/Experience Hendrix LLC):

Of course, a handful of tracks are trusty blues warhorses that Hendrix had performed and/or recorded countless times in his short career.  But, just like painting a self-portrait, Jimi Hendrix uses the familiar territory of the blues to reveal his supreme expressive abilities, and consequently to reveal his ongoing creativity and musical development.  A highlight on the album is “Hear My Train A Comin,’” which showcases Hendrix’s unmatched ability to fuse his vocals and guitar playing into a seamless outpouring of emotion.  Elmore James’ old “Bleeding Heart” is substantially altered with a new feel and structure, and the new “Crying Blue Rain” extends the blues format while exploring a wide range of guitar tones.  Throughout the album, Hendrix re-confirms an organic relationship with his guitar that seems so intimate and complete that his subtlest thoughts – including stutters, Freudian slips, memories, anxieties – are channeled unfiltered through his amplifier.  I can think of no other guitarist whose connection to the instrument is so eerily alive, and this album offers more raw evidence of that connection than most.

Close reading of the liner notes reveals instances of more recent overdubbing and editing conducted long after Hendrix’s death.  And, some of the tracks are little more than new efforts at mixing raw tracks that have already been released in some form or another as part of earlier projects.  The involvement of Eddie Kramer as the engineer largely voids any criticisms, though, as he is singularly qualified to do this work with confidence and authority.  To Kramer’s credit, the sound quality of the album is terrific, and there is a vitality to these tracks which presents an intimate and immediate experience of Hendrix’s music forty years after his death.

Some people may think that every one of Jackson Pollock’s infamous “drip” paintings looks basically the same.  Some may think each of Michael Jordan’s slam-dunks was more or less the same.  Some people will think that Valleys of Neptune is just one more hour of distorted Stratocaster riffing and redundant blues songs.  Sadly, they will miss the fascinating details and nuances that flow from genuine masters of creativity, performance, and artistry, even when executing the most rudimentary or familiar tasks.  Valleys of Neptune should do nothing but revalidate Jimi Hendrix’s legacy as one of those rare masters, and the tracks on the new album could likely prove as memorable as others that have a forty-year head start.

Editor’s Note: Legacy Recordings have also recently issued deluxe CD+DVD editions of the three studio albums released during Hendrix’s lifetime—Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland—as well as the posthumous album First Rays of the New Rising Sun. The bonus DVDs are newly created “making of the album” documentaries featuring interviews with Experience members Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, original producer Chas Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer.

Reviewed by Rich Walter

View review April 1st, 2010

Best of Mance Lipscomb

Title: The Best of Mance Lipscomb

Arist: Mance Lipscomb

Label: Arhoolie

Catalog No.:  CD 537

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: December 15, 2009

For the first 65 years of his life, Mance Lipscomb spent his weekdays sharecropping or mowing roadsides in rural Texas, near Houston. On the weekends, he would entertain black and white audiences (whites on Friday and Sunday evenings, blacks on Saturday nights) with his guitar and voice. He called himself a “songster,” and could play anything from country blues to waltzes, two-steps and polkas. He never made recordings and was unknown beyond his corner of the wide expanse of Texas.

Then in 1960, a high school teacher named Chris Strachwitz traveled to Houston with a tape recorder and microphone looking to record Lightnin’ Hopkins, but Hopkins had left town to perform in California.  So Strachwitz headed out into the country around Houston looking for “any good guitar pickers in these parts,” he wrote in the liner notes to this CD.  He soon found Mance Lipscomb.  They recorded 23 songs that first evening, and both a recording career and record label were started.  Mance Lipscomb, 65-year-old country songster, was the first artist on Arhoolie Records, and that session led to the label’s first LP (#1001), Texas Sharecropper and Songster.

Over the last 15 years of his life, Lipscomb performed throughout the U.S. and recorded many times for Arhoolie.  This CD collects what the booklet describes as “the best of what Chris (Strachwitz) was able to capture on tape during his fifteen-year friendship with this generous, charming and talented man.”

The selections range from straight country blues to folk-tinged tales of adventure, misdeeds and love.  There are two electric-blues numbers, not the high points on the disc. The rest of the 22-song anthology is just Mance Lipscomb, his acoustic guitar and his voice. And that’s plenty.

Sound quality varies from “good field recording” to “passable live recording.” Most of the recordings are monophonic and none of this is what could be termed audiophile quality. But, the songs and the singer stand up well without great sound. The songs hold the listener’s attention because they are compelling and well-played. Lipscomb’s guitar playing, self-taught, is at times astounding and always tasteful.

Strongly recommended.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review April 1st, 2010

Love&War MasterPeace

Title: The Love & War MasterPeace

Artist:  Raheem DeVaughn

Label:  Jive/Zomba

Catalog No.:  55959

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date:  March 2, 2010

For the last five years, neo-soulful D.C. native Raheem DeVaughn’s R&B gems have run under the radar. His 2005 debut, The Love Experience, included the Earth, Wind & Fire-sampled “Guess Who Loves You More,” but was regulated to BET’s then-popular R&B program Midnight Love. Next up was his Grammy-nominated Love Behind the Melody, which spawned “Woman,” an honest tribute to the opposite sex, and the popular hit “Customer.” For his third installment, DeVaughn has retreated to a sound that is unique and familiar at the same time.

The Love&War MasterPeace is a work constructed with respect to the socially-conscious love epics from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the intro and interludes by Dr. Cornel West, who serves as a guide through the mind of an artist who remembers when music was a pilot for action, instead of just a sponge for reactions.

DeVaughn begins his 16-track opus with a bold social stance on the single “Bulletproof.”  In true Curtis style, DeVaughn adds his perspective on society’s corrupt status in a strong falsetto.  Ludacris aids him on this hauntingly good track which foreshadows a world where the individual is more important than the masses. The strength of his social awareness is taken to higher ground with two other beautiful collaborations. The majestic “Nobody Wins A War” features fellow neo-soulmates  Jill Scott, Bilal and Anthony Hamilton in deconstructing the politics of war to the raw truth: people die. The second is the powerful “Revelations 2010” with Damian Marley. Set on top of Isaac Hayes’s “The Look of Love,” DeVaughn ends the album where he began.

Following is the official promo video for “Bulletproof” featuring Ludacris ((C) 2009 RCA/JIVE Label Group, a unit of Sony Music Entertainment):

DeVaughn balances the message-heavy tracks with equally pleasant ballads and mid-tempo treats. His second single, “I Don’t Care,” is a jubilant ode to a love no one understands but him and his woman. Right after that is the heartfelt “Black & Blue” that defines love as never laying a hand on your mate. DeVaughn tackles the slow jams with as much bravado as the ballads. The somewhat obnoxious “B.O.B” declares how he can provide a better experience than the average “battery operated boyfriend,” and the slithering “Microphone” resembles “Customer” with its metaphors.  But for romance, DeVaughn channels old school grandeur in the six-minute-plus “Garden of Love,” a definite grown and sexy offering.

DeVaughn’s material is a good fit for generations both past and present as love, and unfortunately hate, are two entities that never seem to cease. Hopefully, the former holds true to the popular saying, and will righteously conquer all.

Note:   The Love & War MasterPeace (Deluxe 2 CD) is an extended version of the album featuring 11 additional songs.

Reviewed by Lorin Williams

View review April 1st, 2010

Soul of the Church

Title:  Black History Collection: Soul of the Church

Label:  Infinity Entertainment/Hollywood Select Video

Format:  2 DVD set

Catalog No.:  IEG2187

Release date:  January 19, 2010

Every fan and performer of gospel music will want to rush out and buy this new DVD set, which features 8 hours and 16 minutes of unadulterated performances from TV Gospel Time. The half hour Chicago-based syndicated show aired on NBC Sunday mornings from 1962-1965, the forerunner of the more famous Chicago gospel series, Jubilee Showcase. Hosted by various big-name gospel artists, the shows focused entirely on the music and were devoid of any overt religious messages or sermons. Consequently, they introduced black gospel music to a much broader audience during the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement.   Of the more than 60 shows broadcast in the early ‘60s, 16 extant programs have been selected for this set.  Transferred from kinescopes, the picture is often poor and the sound quality only fair (as one might expect), but the rousing performances more than compensate for any flaws.

According to the very scant notes on the box, the guests were usually filmed on location to save on travel costs (specific locations are not indicated, though are occasionally mentioned by program hosts).  Consequently, guests include a mix of recording artists and regional talent, with back-up choirs drawn from local congregations such as the Golden Leaf Baptist Choir of Memphis and the combined Gospel Light and Glory Gospel Choruses of Charlotte, North Carolina.  Song choices are Golden Age classics, such as “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” (sung by Marie Knight), “Nobody Knows” (Highway QCs), “I’m Goin’ Home on the Morning Train” (Ruth Brown), and “There’s Not a Friend Like Jesus” (Ernestine Washington).  This is down home gospel, straight from the church to the screen, without any hint of commercialization (other than the commercials for laxatives and skin lightening creams).

Of the eight shows included on Disc 1, three are hosted by James Cleveland (with the St. Pauls Disciple Choir, Rising Echoes, and Georgia Lewis), two by Marie Knight (with the Pentecostal Temple Choir and Golden Leaf Baptist Choir of Memphis, the Highway QCs, and the Caravans with Albertina Walker), and one each by Tommy Brown (with the Gospel Seekers), Ruth Brown (with the Highway QCs and New Shiloh Choir of Baltimore), and Ernestine Washington (with the Cornerstone Baptist Church of Baltimore and Three Professors of Gospel).  Pressing the boundaries a bit further towards contemporary gospel is a performance of  “Amazing Grace” by the Harmonizing Four, utilizing spoken shouts over electric guitar riffs, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy led by Joe Ligon in an electrified version of their first hit single, “Steal Away.”

Following is a sample clip featuring the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi with the Barrett Sisters singing “Come On Up To Bright Glory”:

Disc 2 follows with eight additional shows, hosted by Goldia Haynes (backed by The Harmonizing Four with the combined Gospel Light/Glory Gospel Choruses), Sister Jessie Mae Renfro (with the Mighty Clouds of Joy), The Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi (in a fabulous performance with Chicago’s Barrett Sisters accompanied by Roberta Martin on piano and the Thompson Community Singers), Archie Dennis Jr. (with Ethel Davenport, the Olivette Inspirational Choir, and the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers), Larry Fuller (with Vee-Jay recording artist Princess Stewart,  backed by the Bethel Baptist Church Choir of Brooklyn and the Herman Stevens Singers), Frank Davis (featuring The Dixie Hummingbirds legendary performance of “Prayer for Peace” about the assassination of JFK, plus Chicago’s Myrtle Jackson and the Bibleway Joy Bell Singers), Francis Cole (with the Alex Bradford Singers, Sally Martin, and the youthful C.O.G.I.C. Refreshing Spring Choir from Washington, DC), and Betty Johnson (with the Harmonizing Four, Columbus Smith, the Jewel Gospel Singers, and two talented youth choirs from Richmond, VA that steal the show).

Each disc concludes with bonus tracks featuring four minute segments of Mahalia Jackson Sings, filmed in 1961 to use as filler material for other programs.  Here the sound and picture quality is quite good, with Jackson front and center in all her splendid glory (beware of some extremely long pauses between segments). The individual songs are not indexed, but include renditions of “Walk On,” “Lord Don’t Move the Mountain,” “Highway to Heaven,”  “Lord’s Prayer,”  and  “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” among others (it appears that Infinity will be releasing all of the segments next month on the compilation A Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings).

Overall, Soul of the Church indeed documents the gospel roots of soul, offering up “Golden Age” standards alongside transitional performances.  Too bad the producers didn’t spend a little extra money to provide liner notes and a table of contents, since no doubt many educators will want to use this material in the classroom.  Let’s hope that more shows will be released in the near future, including those featuring the incomparable Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Soul Stirrers, as well as episodes from Jubilee Showcase.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 1st, 2010

Call Her Name

Title: Call Her Name: The Complete Recordings 1951-1965

Arist: Christine Kittrell

Label: Bear Family

Catalog No.:  BCD 16942

Format: CD

Release Date: February 23, 2010

Christine Kittrell’s name is probably not the first that rolls off the tongue today when one is listing their favorite lady R&B singers, but hopefully this new Bear Family compilation will raise her profile to long-time acquaintances and introduce her to a new generation of fans.

Kittrell’s recording career spanned from the early 50’s to the late 60’s, plus some regional work in the Columbus Ohio area in her last years. She jumped from chitlin circuit soul to gospel and back again several times, and retired from performing and recording in 1969 after suffering a shrapnel wound during a USO performance in Vietnam.  Kittrell was then a social worker in Ohio and later returned to occasional performing and recording in the Columbus area before her death in 2001.

This long-format CD, which includes superb biographical and music notes plus a detailed discography, covers Kittrell’s soul and R&B output on a variety of labels from 1951 through 1965.  She tasted success early, performing and penning the 1952 regional hit “Sittin’ Here Drinking,” which sold over 100,000 copies according to Martin Hawkins’ booklet notes.  That hit, on the tiny Nashville-based Tennessee/Republic label, launched a series of tours and extended bookings which eventually took Kittrell to Chicago.  By 1961, she was on the Vee-Jay label, described by Hawkins as “the most successful black-owned label until Motown.”

Although most of the songs in this collection are from the Tennessee/Republic sessions, Kittrell really shines on the Vee-Jay sides and on a later King/Federal session that closes the CD.  Backed by better musicians in higher-grade studios, she creates an intense but soulful sound.  She cut a second version of “Sittin’ Here Drinking” for Vee-Jay.  Hawkins laments “the fact that Federal did not manage to turn … into a hit” the 1965 single of “Call His Name”/”Ain’t Never See So Much Rain Before.”  He’s right!  The songs are soul gold, and Kittrell’s delivery was never more on-the-mark.

Following is the official promo video (courtesy of Bear Family Records):

The earlier Tennessee/Republic material chronicles Kittrell’s growth in the recording venue and also showcases the range of what she could sing successfully.  She was not just a soul queen, she could sing to a rhumba beat (“I Ain’t Nothin’ But A Fool,” the B-side to “Sittin’ Here Drinking”) and laid down plenty of straight blues.  In her live performances, she also mixed in gospel and jazz standards.

One minor quibble— Bear Family’s marketing material describes Kittrell as “a forgotten R&B legend” who is now “reborn” with the release of this new compilation.  A simple Google search indicates Kittrell’s work is well known, and someone maintains her MySpace page.  So she is not exactly “forgotten.”

That said, this compilation is highly recommended.  In its usual thorough fashion, Bear Family has included five unissued alternate takes from the Tennessee/Republic sessions and one unissued Vee-Jay song.  There’s also a little bit of studio chatter here and there, but none of it detracts from the power of the master takes and released singles.  Kittrell left a fine musical legacy and Bear Family has done her fans, old and new, a service by gathering all that music in one place with some really nice documentation to put it all in perspective.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review April 1st, 2010

Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959)

Title: Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie with Love from Dee Dee

Artist:  Dee Dee Bridgewater

Label:  DDB Records/EmArcy (Universal)

Catalog No.:  2724155

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date:  March 2, 2010

The latest musical tribute to jazz icon Billie Holiday is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee. I must admit, I was not very excited to see another tribute to Holiday; however, I am happily surprised to say I was impressed with Ms. Bridgewater’s adaptation.

I was introduced to jazz at the age of 13 and began to seek out jazz instrumentalists, since my novice self only identified jazz with instrumentalists.  It wasn’t until I saw the film Lady Sings the Blues that I realized jazz singers were an integral and necessary segment of jazz.  I then sought out Billie Holiday’s massive catalog so I could hear the real thing, but soon learned that I had been duped.  Though Diana Ross rightly deserved an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Holiday, I discovered that the story line was more fiction than fact, and vocally Ross is not in the same ball park as Holiday.

I also learned why Holiday is loved by many, hence the numerous tributes that have included covers of her work:  Chet Baker (1965), Tony Bennett (1997), Rosemary Clooney (1978), Carmen McRae (1962) and Miki Howard (1994). All of these artists expressed their adoration and respect musically, while a well -received and reviewed literary homage is the book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery by Farah Jasmine Griffin.

The new offering by Dee Dee Bridgewater is not her first tribute album to a jazz icon—she won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal performance for Dear Ella in 1998.  But how do you rightly do justice by covering an icon like Billie Holiday? One, you don’t try to imitate her. Two, bring new life to the music, and that is what Bridgewater has accomplished. She states, “This album is my way of paying my respect to a vocalist who made it possible for singers like me to carve out a career for ourselves. I wanted Eleanora Fagan to be something different; more modern and a celebration, not a [recording] that goes dark and sullen and maudlin. I wanted the album to be joyful.”  Bridgewater’s approach speaks volumes as to why this tribute works.  Her intentions were to celebrate and not mimic Holiday, and to use her own talent to create something that is fresh , modern and new.

Using various genres for inspiration, pianist Edsel Gomez (Bridgewater’s longtime band mate) wrote new arrangements for the 12 songs on the album. Included is an African polyrhythmic-charged interpretation of “Lady Sings the Blues,” re-harmonized versions of “All Of Me” and the gospel-tinged “God Bless the Child,” and a very well-scatted version of “All of Me.”  Bridgewater sings distinctly in songs such as “Good Morning Heartache,” “Lover Man,” and “Fine and Mellow,” with an allure and appeal that is both sexy and beguiling. Her ability to generate such emotion and remain true to her musical self is much more difficult than she lets on, demonstrating her talent to truly make these tunes her own.

Perhaps the true testament to Bridgewater’s panache is her rendition of the poignant and heartbreaking “Strange Fruit,” which is wisely positioned as the finale. Bridgewater can be heard choking up on this recording.  She conveys a natural, authentic voice to perhaps one of the most powerful and compelling songs ever recorded—one that paints a vivid picture of the revolting and repulsive ideology of racism.

Following is an interview (in French) and clips from her current “To Billie With Love” tour (courtesy of GoBuzz TV):

Bridgewater assembled an all-star band for the recording sessions—reeds player James Carter, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. Each musician’s personality is allowed to shine in Gomez’s purposeful arrangements.  Though I would insist that the jazz novice first listen to Ms. Holiday, rather than the film Lady Sings the Blues or tribute albums, I can honestly recommend Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959) as a excellent example of how a tribute album should be done.

Reviewed by June Evans

View review April 1st, 2010

Classic Appalachian Blues

Title: Classic Appalachian Blues

Artists: Various

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Catalog No.: SFW CD 40198

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: February 16, 2010

Appalachian Blues
continues Smithsonian’s Classic series, a set of compilations designed to feature and attract attention to the Institute’s collections. As a region, the Appalachians include thirteen states (seven of which are represented here) and have been home to a variety of blues styles including vaudeville blues, piano blues, boogie, string-band dance blues, and ragtime blues, among others.

Roughly half of the CD’s 21 tracks consist of live recordings made of Appalachian blues performances at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife between 1971 and 1997, the bulk of which were recorded at the 1976 and 1977 festivals. The other half is comprised of reissues from earlier Folkways albums, the majority of which were recorded during the five-year period between 1957 and 1962, although some date back as early as 1944 and as late as 1992.

Most of the tracks feature solo performances, generally guitar instrumentals or vocals with guitar accompaniment. There are, however, two tracks performed on harmonica, a guitar duet, and two string-band selections, as well as a couple of guitar and harmonica trios performed by Sticks McGhee, Sonny Terry, and J.C. Burris. Other featured performers are Doc Watson, Brownie McGhee, Josh White, Baby Tate, and Etta Baker.

As is the case with most Folkways recordings, the CD comes with extensive, scholarly liner notes. In addition to an introduction by Jeff Place that briefly discusses the role of Moe Asch and Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in documenting Appalachian blues music, the booklet includes a general history of Appalachian blues by Barry Lee Pearson and basic information on each of the songs and performers by Place and Pearson. The general history is particularly interesting and includes information regarding the defining stylistic characteristics of Appalachian blues, the socio-historical context, and the role of recording companies and commercial records in disseminating the music throughout the Appalachian region. Also touched upon are issues of cultural borrowing and integration between white and black performers.

My only complaint about the selection of the music for the CD is that there isn’t more of it. Since the current compilation is limited to a single CD, it presents more of a sampling of styles and performers than an exhaustive regional survey. Given the widely recognized complexity and variety of Appalachian blues music, this particular genre may have warranted a double-CD set, or perhaps a second volume. This issue aside, Appalachian Blues provides an excellent introduction to the music and its history and is a worthy addition to any library or personal collection.

Reviewed by Ronda L. Sewald

View review April 1st, 2010

Police & Thieves

Title: Police & Thieves

Artist: Junior Murvin; produced by Lee Perry.

Label: Island

Catalog no.: 5321969

Format:  2 CD set (deluxe ed.)

Release date: 2009

Police and Thieves was one of the most commercially successful releases of prolific Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s long and ongoing career. Recorded in 1976 and released in 1977 (1976 for the single), it was produced at about the midpoint of Perry’s greatest period of sustained mainstream popularity and record sales, following Party Time by the Heptones and War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo. Other Perry gems of the time include Scratch the Super Ape (aka Super Ape), Heart of the Congos, and the ethereal To be a Lover. All of these titles were recorded at the Black Ark, Perry’s handmade cinder block recording studio in the garden of his residence in Kingston. They all featured the trademark Black Ark sound, replete with layer after layer of percussion, swampy mixes, and sound effects accomplished not with samplers or other digital tools, but with tape overdubs and manipulation of Perry’s dated, salvaged, and reworked studio equipment. The results were astonishing aural vistas that highlighted the mixing board as an instrument, the producer as an artist.

Sung by Junior Murvin and written by Murvin and Perry, the album and single of Police and Thieves both sold well outside Jamacia despite—or maybe because of—grim lyrics that focused on the state of life in a Jamaica with armed gangs working for the two major political parties making Kingston a very dangerous and difficult place in which to live. Murvin had taken to frequenting a ruined mansion near Port Antonio called the Folly to work on his singing in peace. Inspired, he wrote several songs over time and eventually received divine direction: “I get a vision to carry me to Lee Perry[1]” to record his work.

The album Police and Thieves has now been reissued with excellent sound quality but a disappointing dearth of discographical detail. This edition of Perry’s house band, the Upsetters, was built around Boris Gardiner’s booming and expressive bass guitar, Ernest Ranglin’s guitar, and the likes of Sly Dunbar on drums, but participation in Black Ark recording sessions was fluid, so it’s hard to be specific as to who played what on each title. Along with the title song, other notable entries include “Tedious,” “Solomon,” “False Teachin’,” and “I Was Appointed,” among which only “Tedious” attained the commercial success as a single that Perry and Murvin hoped for. This reissue’s second disc features other notable Murvin/Perry collaborations from the Police and Thieves sessions including “Bad Weed” and “Cross Over,” familiar songs to reggae fans who may have missed the original Jamaican releases, and two epic deejay dub mixes featuring Jah Lion (“Soldier” and “Police War”) and Dillinger (“Roots Train” extended mix). There are thirty-three tracks on this two-CD release, as opposed to ten on the original album.

A fan of Curtis Mayfield, Murvin emulated the Chicago singer’s soulful falsetto to good advantage, and Perry winds the vocals in and out of the mix, blending it with Perry’s signature dub effects. Notably, the extended version of “Roots Train” features a long Dillinger disquisition in rap about the benefits of Lambs Bread, a particularly potent and tasty form of Rasta sacrament and Jamaican marijuana. In fact, Murvin’s and Perry’s lyrics for all of the songs on Police and Thieves are about social and political unrest in Jamaica, and man’s relationship with God from the Rastafari perspective. And although the overall sound is digitally crisp and clean, the idiosyncratic Black Ark feel is admirably preserved: “the rhythm is heavily phased; keyboard melodies drift in and out of the mix[2]”; and percussion tracks float in and out, on and off the beat. Two radio ads for the original album are included, too, making this a real slice of island life in a time of great turmoil. The album struck a chord with the English punks of the mid-1970s (the Clash covered the title track) and introduced Perry and Murvin to a new audience. But not long after this collaboration, Perry would destroy the Black Ark by fire, leave Jamaica, and begin to portray himself as mad, an assessment with which many, but certainly not all, would come to agree.

Reviewed by Mike Tribby

[1] David Katz. People Funny Boy (Edinburgh : Payback Press, 2009), p. 259

[2] Katz, op. cit. p. 274

View review April 1st, 2010

Next Stop . . . Soweto

Title: Next Stop Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga

Artists: Various

Label: Strut

Catalog No.:  STRUT054CD

Formats: CD; MP3

Release Date: February 23, 2010

Next Stop … Soweto is the first in a series of three releases by Strut exploring underground South African music from the late 1960s and ’70s. The current album focuses on mbaqanga music released by independent artists for the local market. Arising in the South African urban nightlife scene under the apartheid, mbaqanga music (also known as “township jive”) fuses western instrumentation with South African vocal styles and is often described by scholars as a mixture of marabi and kwela street music—both genres noted for their commonalties with jazz music.

Instead of simply remastering and reissuing readily available Township music by widely recognized mbaqanga musicians, such as Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens, compilers Duncan Brooker and Francis Gooding went the extra distance to find short run 45 rpm discs by lesser known artists and bands. Although Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens are included, the vast majority of these artists failed to cross over into international market. It’s quite a coup for Strut just to provide South African pop fans and researchers with access to so many hard to come by recordings.

Brooker’s previous work includes Afro-Rock, an album which is frequently touted as one of the most influential and important compilations of ’70s Afro funk and soul ever to be released. Its popularity inspired a series of compilations and reissues of African popular music by labels such as Strut, Soundway, and Analog Africa for consumption by non-African markets. Originally released through Brooker’s Kona Records in 2002, Strut has just reissued Afro-Rock as part of its 2010 catalog.

The commercial release of Next Stop … Soweto comes packaged with extensive liner notes by historian Francis Gooding along with reproductions of archival photos, but unfortunately the booklet wasn’t included with the promo copy used for this review. Since Gooding has composed similar notes for releases such as Strut’s Calypsoul 70, his skills and expertise are undoubtedly commensurate for this task, but our readers will need to assess this for themselves.

Since many of the releases comprising the compilation are so rare and are generally by obscure performers, the lack of liner notes makes it extremely difficult to comment on the individual tracks. As is to be expected with short runs by independent labels, the amount of polish on the performances varies, but in many ways this enhances the value of the album by giving listeners snapshots of the overall mbaqanga music scene as opposed to only highlighting the superstars who have come to serve as the primary representatives of the genre over the years. This said, all of the performances are well-selected and enjoyable to listen to, making this a worthy addition for libraries and world music enthusiasts interested in expanding their collection of African popular music.

Reviewed by Ronda L. Sewald

View review April 1st, 2010

Live At Rooster’s Lounge

Title: Live At Rooster’s Lounge

Artist: Tail Dragger

Label: Delmark

Catalog No.: DE-803

Formats: CD; also released on DVD (DVD 1803) with commentary and an extra track

Release Date: November 2, 2009

Tail Dragger (a.k.a. James Yancey Jones) is one of the last links to the Delta-Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett), Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Little Walter (Walter Jacobs) and Sunny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). Born in 1940 in Altheimer, Arkansas, Tail Dragger was part of Wolf’s crowd later in the legendary bluesman’s life.  After Wolf died, his guitarist, the brilliant and eclectic Hubert Sumlin, worked extensively with Tail Dragger.

The rough lifestyle of the Chicago blues club world—plus the fact that he’s frankly not an A-team bluesman in the league of Wolf, Muddy and Walter—have probably played a part in limiting Tail Dragger’s recorded output.  Jones did 17 months prison time for killing fellow bluesman Boston Blackie (Bennie Houston) in 1993, which obviously did not help his career either.  Delmark has two live albums in print, and this is the latest offering—recorded at Rooster’s Lounge on Chicago’s West Side on March 21, 2009.

Tail Dragger strongly emulates Howlin’ Wolf in his delivery, tempo and choice of material. His “preachin’ and growlin'” between numbers (words used in Delmark’s release materials) is a bit long-winded, but once the band gets to work there’s a very strong and genuine feel to the music. It’s clear that  you’re hearing the last of a type of music.  A young aspiring bluesman would not deliver these songs this way. The end result is, this album stands out among the overly-produced “axe wizard” generic stuff that dominates the blues genre today.  This bluesman knows what a country mile is and can sing about it credibly.

Following is the official trailer for the DVD (© 2010 Delmark):

Jones is backed by “Rockin’ Johnny” Burgin on lead guitar, Martin Lang on harp, Kevin Shanahan on rhythm guitar, Todd Fackler on bass and Rob Lorenz on drums.  Fellow Delmark artist Jimmy Dawkins guests with guitar on Jones’ own tune “Wander.”  Burgin glues the music together and provides some solid solos without stealing the show.  Lang’s harp playing deserves special mention. He’s constantly throwing out tasty licks and he sits very nicely behind and between Jones and Burgin, on both slow and fast blues. The rhythm section provides a steady and peppy foundation.

The overarching feeling delivered by this album is authenticity. These guys are playing old-style Chicago electric blues in a believable way and Tail Dragger is just old enough to have gathered some mentoring and magic blues-dust from the legends but young enough to still be able to stand and deliver. Howlin’ Wolf he isn’t, but he ain’t too bad either.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review April 1st, 2010

Title: Give ‘Em Soul, Richard!: Race, Radio, and Rhythm and Blues in Chicago

Author: Richard E. Stamz with Patrick A. Roberts

Format:  Paperback (139 pages with illustrations)

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Release date: Feb. 1, 2010

“I had the ‘Crown Prince’ embossed on my luggage.  When I had to sit with white guys on airplanes, a lot of them would read that and ask, ‘What country are you from?’  I told them ‘The Country of Soul.’ ‘Where is that’ they would ask.  And I’d always say, ‘Chicago, the South Side.’”—Richard E. Stamz (quote from back cover)

Give ‘Em Soul Richard! offers an extremely engaging overview of Chicago deejay Richard E. Stamz, the self-proclaimed “Crown Prince of Soul.”  One of Chicago’s pioneering African American deejays, Stamz made history in the 1950s with his rhythm and blues radio show “Open the Door, Richard!” on WGES.  Always a colorful figure both on and off-the-air, Stamz dressed in royal garb for personal appearances and handed out “soul pills” to “squares” detected through a contraption dubbed the “soul machine.”  From his arrival in Chicago in the 1920s until his death in 2007 at the age of 101, Stamz hobnobbed with a who’s who of Chicago musicians, from Ma Rainey to Chess recording artists, eventually ending his career at WVON as a salesman reporting to Leonard Chess.

Author Patrick A. Roberts, an Associate Professor at National-Louis University in Chicago, collaborated with Stamz over a seven-year period and the resulting book is based upon interviews but also grounded in a great deal of historical research. Give ‘Em Soul Richard! will appeal to a very wide audience, from media scholars to historians, and of course to all fans of blues and rhythm and blues music.


Title: King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records

Author:  John Hartley Fox

Format: Hardcover (234 pages)

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Release date: October 12, 2009

The latest installment in the noteworthy Music in American Life series from University of Illinois Press, King of the Queen City tells the story of Syd Nathan and the founding of King Records. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, the label was home to a number of legendary artists including James Brown, Ike Turner, Freddie King, and Roy Brown.  From 1947-1954, King was noted for its rhythm and blues series, which saw the release of Wynonnie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” which is frequently cited as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records.  Over the years, the integrated company released music in many genres, from R&B to country, bluegrass, and western swing. This history of the label is long overdue and will be greatly appreciated by all record collectors and fans of American music.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 1st, 2010

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