Formats: DVD; online rental via Netflix, Youtube, Amazon, etc.
Release date: June 6, 2012
A documentary claiming to encompass the history of the banjo is setting a high standard. The banjo, called “America’s quintessential instrument” by the filmmakers, developed from African stringed instruments brought over by slaves. It became part of the full American musical vernacular by the mid-1800s. When this movie isn’t trying to make vague political statements about racial politics as related to a musical instrument, it’s relatively interesting. However, its scattered focus and meandering pace results in a mediocre and incomplete telling of what should be a fascinating tale.
For instance, we’re never told or shown exactly what the precursors to the banjo looked or sounded like, or where in Africa they originated. Also left out are any details about how the banjo spread from the slave quarters to the whole of American folk music. It would also be nice to see how a banjo is put together, and what different types are used today (apparently the producers behind The Banjo Project originally conceived of a 3-part series, which unfortunately had to be distilled into one episode).
However, all is not lost. There is a huge redeeming feature to this film—plenty of great music featuring the banjo. The story is at its best when it centers on banjo players past and present (Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Carolina Chocolate Drops, etc.). Since the banjo is used in almost every form of American folk music, the film can spotlight a diverse array of players and styles. The filmmakers should have let the music and musicians do all of the talking, and they would have ended up with a more direct and powerful story. Narrator Steve Martin, who’s technically adept with a banjo but a rather dull musical entertainer, gets too much screen time.
The pros and cons are aptly illustrated in the official trailer:
If you like the sound of a well-played banjo and are curious about American folk music, then this movie is worth viewing. It premiered on PBS last year, so it might air again on your local PBS station. However, given the lax focus and sluggish pacing, plus the inappropriate attempts to score political-correctness points, it’s not recommended for purchase. One caveat: the for-sale package includes an insert listing all the old and new musical sources heard in the film, and that is worth owning by a true banjo aficionado.
Steven Roby, noted Hendrix historian and author of Becoming Jimi Hendrix (2010) and Black Gold: The Lost Archives of Jimi Hendrix (2002), now entices fans with a new volume that “assembles the most important Hendrix interviews” from print, radio and TV sources, even previously unpublished court transcripts. Over 50 interviews are included and presented in chronological order, beginning in December 1966 and concluding with “The Last Hendrix Interview” conducted in London on September 11, 1970 (a week prior to his death), by Keith Altham from the Record Mirror.
While many of these interviews, particularly those from mainstream U.S. publications, have been readily available, Roby has translated reviews from the foreign press, transcribed BBC radio interviews, and dug through counter culture newspapers in order to deliver the most significant extant sources. As editor, he also provides context for each interview, weaving together a story line that’s especially helpful for readers not as familiar with the arc of Hendrix’s career.
Roby concludes the book with a compilation of quotes by and about Hendrix, followed by an appendix with an extensive 1995 interview he conducted with Eric Burdon, who first “crossed paths with Hendrix in 1965” while Hendrix was touring with Little Richard. Burdon reminisces about Hendrix’s “psychedelic sacrifices,” their final jam session together, and events directly before and after Hendrix’ death.
For Hendrix fans as well as those studying 1960s rock music, race relations, drugs and the counter culture, this new book ties together many different threads. But most of all, Roby attempts to let Hendrix tell the story in his own words—“what was on the man’s mind and what he had to endure as one of the highest-paid rock acts of the late 1960s.” And what ultimately led to his death.
“Baby,” Lightnin’ told me, “I look out there into a sea of white cotton. Only it ain’t cotton- it’s college kids paying to hear the same sh*t I been playing down in Houston for years.”
This excerpt of a conversation with Lightnin’ Hopkins is a perfect example of why the new Buddy Guy autobiography is a great choice for any fan of the blues looking for a casual, fun and still informative read.
When I Left Home is an “as told to” style autobiography, but in this case it works well. The book reads as though you yourself have managed to get Guy to sit down over a cool drink and tell you about his life. Sometimes there are tangents about a crazy night in a Chicago nightclub or a pretty lady who ran him ragged, and sometimes it’s just a personal tour through the commercial evolution of the blues.
Starting with his earliest days living as a Southern sharecropper entranced enough with the sound of his neighbors two-string to jerry-rig his own guitars from cans and screen-door wires, and continuing through Guy’s current role as a laidback and respected elder statesmen of the blues, When I Left Home leaves you feeling as though you know the musician. The conversational tone of this book is so strong that when, on the last page, Guy invites the reader to Legends, his Chicago Club, you feel as though you could show up, slap him on the back and be instant friends.
Now with all this praise, it still must be said that this is not necessarily the clearest written book, and if you want to read a peer-reviewed educational resource on the history of Chicago blues, you probably have better options. This is an autobiography, however, and Guy seems to have made a lot of friends wherever he went, so if you want some insight into his peers, the street’s opinion on, say, Howling Wolf’s temper, Muddy Waters’ relationships with women, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ financial savvy, or a whole mess of bluesmen’s best dirty jokes, When I Left Home is the perfect choice for a light vacation read.
Ben Sandmel’s pictorial tome to Ernie K-Doe is befitting the iconic New Orleans R&B singer, which is a mighty feat given K-Doe’s grandiose self-mythologizing. The “Emperor of the Universe,” as K-Doe often referred to himself, began his reign in 1961 when “Mother-in-Law” topped black and white radio charts, and years after his passing, continues as a leading figure of New Orleans’ nightlife—a life-sized effigy of K-Doe frequents all the town’s biggest happenings, as fancifully dressed as its irascible namesake, though decidedly much quieter.
Sandmel chronicles Ernie K-Doe’s rise to fame, positions him within New Orleans’ legendary R&B scene that includes the likes of Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, Earl King, Chris Kenner, Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Guitar Slim, and recounts how K-Doe’s affable showboating and flamboyant idiosyncrasies grew even as, and especially when, his star began to fade.
The singer turned cult radio personality turned scenester nightclub owner was his own biggest publicist. “There have only been five great singers of rhythm and blues—Ernie K-Doe, James Brown, and Ernie K-Doe,” he reveled with egomaniacal zaniness. In 1962, Ernie K-Doe challenged the Godfather of Soul himself to a Battle of the Blues, and despite wide claims to the contrary, K-Doe proclaimed himself the victor. His legend was also spread with an equal measure of bad publicity, as his big personality came with many downsides like excessive drinking and spending, vainglory, opportunism, and paranoia. And yet he joked, perhaps obliviously, through many career and personal defeats.
The following tribute to Ernie K-Doe, compiled by the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, opens with a 1980s performance and closes with the K-Does dancing in the Mother-In-Law Lounge:
Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans has all the hallmarks of the best music biographies. K-Doe’s tirelessly entertaining personality offers a lot in the way of content. But Sandmel’s account improves on the tales K-Doe spun, perfectly framing the musician’s offbeat jive talk with a skillfully understated yet probing and witty literary voice, telling of New Orleans’ local treasure while casting him within universal themes. And Sandmel’s writing paints the details with a precision en par with the book’s amazing collection of archival photos. He sets the scene of K-Doe’s famous Mother-in-Law Lounge thusly:
“Close by New Orleans’s French Quarter, an elevated highway casts shadows upon north Claiborne Avenue. Old men play checkers in the gloom below, seated on milk crates and abandoned car seats. Steely-eyed teens cruise restlessly on children’s bicycles three sizes too small, their knees pumping high above the handlebars. People flinch at sudden loud noises, fearing they may be gunshots, which are not infrequent.”
Sandmel honors K-Doe’s memory without ever idealizing him and humors K-Doe without ever patronizing him. Without a doubt, Ernie K-Doe was a larger-than-life character. Sandmel gives him the story he deserves.
Conguero Poncho Sanchez is a musician who’s old-school but not old-fashioned. His sound is somewhere between the flying-hips salsa-mania of Mongo Santamaría, Ray Barretto’s Latin soul output on Fania Records and the more laid-back but technically excellent modern Latin Jazz scene. So when Sanchez and his band took the stage last summer as part of the Hollywood & Highland KKJZ Summer Concert Series, the audience got a rare treat—an exquisitely tight and talented musical unit that never failed to deliver the gut-punch excitement great Latin music requires. It’s our good luck that Sanchez’s record label, Concord Picante, captured the proceedings and, in an old-school twist, rushed the album to market just months after the live show.
Concord’s pre-release publicity material makes prominent mention of the fact that Sanchez has been with the label for 30 years and 26 albums, noting that “given all the ups and downs the music industry has experienced in the past three decades, it’s remarkable to find anyone who still retains a sense of allegiance or loyalty.” It seems fitting that a guy who plays music with Sanchez’s verve and craft would adhere to old-school values.
In concert, Sanchez pays tribute to two late mentors, jazz pianist and composer Clare Fischer and band leader extraordinaire Santamaría. Highlights of the concert are a performance of Fischer’s “Morning,” and the band’s blazing rendition of “Afro Blue,” dedicated to Santamaria. There’s also a great 12-minute medley of Sanchez’s own tunes. A final high point is a down and dirty cover of “Cross Cut Saw” featuring Sanchez’s able vocals.
Always fun, never overly analytic but clearly the work of skilled professionals, Live in Hollywood makes for a great hour of listening.
Motéma Music recently unveiled the masterpiece Dos y Mas by two renowned Cuban musicians—pianist Elio Villafranca and percussionist Arturo Stable. These world-class performers, who studied together at the Instituto Nacional de Arte in Havana and have participated actively in the jazz and world music scenes worldwide with artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Pacheco, Esperanza Spalding, and Paquito d’Rivera, started their musical collaboration nine years ago. This album is the result of their joint efforts: an experience full of musical flavors combining jazz and world music elements with amazing fluidity and self-expression, and presenting sounds not only from Cuba and Latin America, but also the Middle East, Spain, and other regions of the world.
Despite the world music elements, their embodied Cuban influence is still very strong, which becomes clear in Villafranca’s “A Las Millas,” in which he presents an upfront Cuban-jazz theme with Stable’s masterful accompaniment and solo on congas. Other tracks, however, take forms inspired in other sounds and regions, like “Vertiente,” which is Stable’s composition based on sonorities from southern Spain’s musical traditions, like bulería. The opening track, Villafranca’s “1529,” is a piece in 7/8 rhythm featuring Stable on drumkit as well as Middle Eastern udu and dumbek. Along these lines, more global musical influences take major roles on tracks such as “Shaghezi,” where piano movements follow not only these sonorities, but also avant-garde improvisational melodic and harmonic techniques.
Following is the trailer for the album:
Dos y Mas reflects its title, which translates to “two and more,” for it is an incredible piece of world music—although with a clear Latin American drive—that blends together the highly diverse musical experiences of two masterful performers, whose rich musical pathways come together on this record. More than a jazz duet record, this production allows listeners to experience the sounds of the world through the lens of jazz and contemporary music composition.
Broadway and film star Valarie Pettiford has released a collection of original lullabies which is perfect for the young children on your holiday list. Velvet Sky features songs such as “A Choo- Choo- Choo-Train” and “Mama Say, Baby Do” meant to inspire play between parents and their children, as well as the requisite softer tracks to lull babies to sleep, including “Dreamland,” “Asleep In My Arms,” and “Sleep (A New Mother’s Prayer).” Her gorgeous voice drifts over soft accompaniments, and though some of the arrangements would be at home on the stage, they’re performed in an understated manner sure to sooth.
Lee “Scratch” Perry has been quite busy for a Septuagenarian artist. End Records has released a collaboration between Perry and ambient house institution the Orb, The Orbserver in the Star House, Trojan Records has released a two-CD set of 1970s-era extended dub mixes from Perry’s legendary Black Ark studio, Disco Devil: the Jamaican Discomixes, and Pressure Sounds has a new release of obscure Perry cuts, The Sound Doctor. All are worth a listen.
The Orb maintains a fluid membership—this time out it’s comprised of mainstay Alex Paterson and frequent contributor Thomas Fehlmann. Having already collaborated with Pink Floyd alum David Gilmour and Rickie Lee Jones, Paterson and crew are used to creatively sharing their soundscapes. Jones’s sampled vocal propelled the Orb’s best known song to date, “Little Fluffy Clouds” (from the album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld); on The Orbserver in the Star House, Scratch voices a modified update, “Golden Clouds,” in which he describes the Jamaican skies in similar terms to Jones’s disquisition on the Arizona skies she remembered from her childhood there. Perry is in wonderful voice, playful and engaged, as he is on most of the album. Following is the video of “Golden Clouds” (also the name of the house in Jamaica where Ian Fleming wrote many of the James Bond novels):
“Soulman,” also released as a single, is a moody dub workout with tasty rhythmic touches and an insistent beat. It may be based on Perry’s version of “Soul Man” (from his 1974 album Double Seven), which was a recasting of the Isaac Hayes/David Porter song popularized by Sam and Dave, but any similarity here to that original is tenuous. It opens with some elemental philosophizing by Perry before sailing away on a bass groove. Perry and the Orb also present an updating of the Junior Murvin hit (co-written, produced, etc. by Perry) “Police & Thieves,” that benefits from an imaginative mix that lends it a wistful tone that still retains a good deal of the original’s 1970s punky reggae feel. The song also features an extended toast by Perry, ruminating on street politics and a new generation dealing with “police and soldier in the street … killing the children one by one.”
Composer credits for the rest of the set go to Paterson, Fehlmann, and Perry, and the compositions share familiar attributes: booming bass, on- and off-beat percussion tracks layered over the mix, inventive found sound samples, and spotless production. “Ball of Fire,” it should be noted, has absolutely no connection to Jerry Lee Lewis, but features Scratch scatting over bubbling electronica. “Man in the Moon” is another Perry-as-resident in outer space rap about things celestial, eschatological, and musical. “Ashes” has a striking, minimalist feel, its brief duration dominated by an otherworldly rap from Perry over a collection of exotic percussion lines. And “Congo” is a more amplified skank of a similar nature.
Perry has engaged in interesting collaborations throughout his career, releasing music made with Jamaican and British producers like Niney the Observer (George Boswell), King Tubby (Osbourne Ruddock), Mad Professor (Neil Fraser), and Adrian Sherwood at various times over the years. More recently he has collaborated with Moby, Ari Up, George Clinton, Keith Richards, and the Vienna-based dub act, Dubblestandart. Not all reggae fans, nor even all Perry aficionados like Perry’s later day collaborations, and this set is no exception, though this particular collaboration seems more developed than some previous ones. The interaction between Perry and the Orb seems to be fairly symbiotic, with the vocals not only making linear sense, but sounding as if they belong with the music they accompany. Individual listeners’ mileage, as they say, may vary.
The set list: Ball of Fire; H.O.O.; Man in the Moon; Soulman; Golden Clouds; Hold Me Upsetter; Go Down Evil; Thirsty; Police & Thieves; Ashes; Congo.
This is another reissue from Trojan Records, and it contains many gems from Perry’s heaviest dub period, a style he could explore much more fully in his homemade studio, the Black Ark. “Discomix” does not necessarily refer to Studio 54 style relics of the 1970s. In the Jamaican sense, they were extended 45 rpm mixes issued on 12” vinyl, which “vastly improved the dynamic bass and treble ranges” available for producers like Perry to work with. “Sound quality had always been of vital importance to Jamaican sound system operators where the bass was supposed to be felt in your chest rather than merely heard.” Scratch and his bass players like Boris Gardiner, did their best to deliver that sensation, and in the process created a sort of psychedelic reggae that fit the times well.
The set list includes some of Perry’s finest efforts: “City Too Hot” describes the deteriorating situation in Jamaica in the late ’70s as the island was beset by warring political factions, especially in Kingston. “Roots Train” and “Rasta Train” are entirely danceable and both feature notable toasting (i.e., raps) by Dillinger and Doctor Alimantado. “Open the Gate,” Watty Burnett’s song about repatriation, has ethereal effects throughout and may contain the most crash cymbal strikes of any single recording by anyone. And the title track is Perry’s notorious reworking of Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil” (a.k.a “I Chase the Devil”). The entire cut is drenched in dub effects and saturated with layers of percussion and echo. The version of Devon Irons’ “Vampire” included here is probably the longest, most relentlessly dubbed version of this frequently-recorded song. Ethereal horns flow through the mix and Perry stops and starts instrumental parts, once again playing his mixing board as if it were a musical instrument as Irons sings about collaborating with the Biblical prophet Obediah in capturing and burning the vampires that beset the righteous Rastas in Babylon. As Doctor Alimantado observes near the end of his rap, “You’ve got to be clean / To rally ’round the red, gold, and green.” A truly majestic cut.
Still, there is a downside to this package. While many of these songs aren’t available elsewhere in precisely these versions, Trojan has issued many of them on previous Perry collections like Open the Gate and Arkology. By and large the versions presented here are the longest, most complete versions, but there are further Scratch rarities out there that Trojan might consider for future releases. However, issuing important songs in multiple packages is just another characteristic of the reggae biz.
The set list:
Disc 1: Norman / Max Romeo & the Upsetters; Bad Weed / Junior Murvin; I Forgot to Be Your Lover (a.k.a. To Be a Lover) / George Faith; Know Love / Twin Roots; Rainy Night in Portland / Watty Burnett; Disco Devil / Lee Perry & the Full Experience; City Too Hot / Lee Perry; Words / Sangie Davis & Lee Perry; Roots Train / Junior Murvin & Dillinger.
Disc 2: Open the Gate / Watty Burnett; Neckodeemus / the Congos; Rasta Train / Raphael Green & Doctor Alimantado; (Ketch) Vampire / Devon Irons & Doctor Alimantado; History (of Civilization) / Carlton Jackson; Sons of Slaves / Junior Delgado; Party Time / the Heptones; Free Up the Prisoners / Lee Perry; Garden of Life / Leroy Sibbles.
Pressure Sounds has issued another collection of truly rare Perry cuts, most of which have only appeared on vinyl—and in Jamaica for the most part—before now. Like previous Perry packages Sound System Scratch and The Return of Sound System Scratch, the sound of these early recordings has been greatly improved by modern technology, but still, in this case, there are a few places where unpleasant noises not intended by the tricky producer intrude. But all in all, this is a highly listenable set with some intriguing stuff, though probably best-suited for intense Perry fans.
The set list:
Oppression / Delroy Butler; Army of Love / Junior Byles (previously unreleased); Wam-Pam-Pa-Do / Dillinger; Sound Doctor / Bobby Floyd; Doctor Skank / Young Dellinger; Horny Train / The Upsetters (exclusive dub plate mix); Do Good / Al Maytone; Different Experience / Brother Roy; Smiling Faces / Tinga Stewart; Smiling version / Hux Brown Group; Be Prepared / Keith Poppin; 006 / U Roy; Key Card / Lee & Jimmy; Domino Game / The Upsetters; Message to the Nation / Tony Fearon; Dub Message / The Upsetters; Water Your Garden / The Flames; Standing on the Hill / Chenley Duffus; Start Over / The Gatherers; Its Impossible / The Ethiopians; Grandfather Land / Jah T; King of Kings / Pat Francis; King of Kings Version / Upsetters; To Hell and Back / Count Stocky & The Upsetters.
Format: 2 2-CD sets (issued separately as Vol. 1 and Vol. 2)
Release date: May 29, 2012
Rhythm and Blues Records’ 4-disc compilation New Orleans Rhythm & Blues does more than tell of the city’s musical heritage: it packages together the early sounds of American popular music. That music just happens to be from the Crescent City, where R&B, funk, and rock ’n’ roll were birthed following the storied birth of jazz. From ragging rhythms to grindhouse rockers, this compilation shares the lesser-known brilliance of New Orleans’ rich nightlife.
Volume 1, which includes recordings from 1921–1949, represents the wildly different vernacular traditions found in New Orleans’ widespread corners. “Root Hog or Die” by Harlem Hamfats is a minor-key gypsy blues number that has all the booze-cured grit and melancholy that Tom Waits has been channeling throughout his noire-jazz career. Edmond Hall’s “Besame Mucho” and The Creole Serenaders’ “Mo Pas Lemme Ca” draw the dark and stormy rhumba rhythms that floated up to New Orleans from its Caribbean neighbors. Meanwhile, Cajun fiddles dance atop silvery steel guitar licks on “Hackberry Hop” by Harry Choates and the Rayne-Bo Ramblers.
Volume 2’s songs from 1947-1953 represent a short but momentous time in New Orleans music history: when Creole musicians got pompadours and started playing proto-rock. While Little Richard and Ray Charles got their start recording at Cosima Matassa’s French Quarter studio, countless natives were pioneering rock’s fevered rhythms—Fats Domino, Earl Palmer, Smiley Lewis, Dave Bartholomew, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair, Guitar Slim, and many lesser-knowns. “Still My Angel Child” by Alan Mondy and “Hey Little Girl” by Paul Gayten reveal for once and all that Bo Diddley wasn’t rock’s first rattle-swagger guitarist. And James Wayne’s “Junco Partner” and Papa Lightfoot’s “Jumpin’ with Jarvis” have the sexual bravado and fury that Muddy Waters used to set Chicago afire with his electric blues.
Dishing out a big serving of down-home sounds with all the curious flavors of New Orleans’ musical cuisine (NOTE the names of the featured artists: Fats Domino, Chubby Newsome, Fat Man Matthew, and Sugar Boy Crawford), New Orleans Rhythm & Blues is a welcome indulgence for the holiday season.
What does bottled dynamite sound like when the top is popped? Listen to this double-album length CD and find out. The 1971 version of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, recorded at the incongruously formal Carnegie Hall, was a crossover soul/rock machine hitting on all cylinders. The well-drilled band kept the music tight and fast but incredibly soulful, and Tina Turner, aided and abetted by the Ikettes background singers, was a sex-soaked vocal tornado.
The title comes from an offhand remark Tina makes after a particularly raunchy interlude of sonic simulated sex during the band’s cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long.” Suffice to say, what comes before and after is equally un-tame, although it may seem quaint to some modern ears, especially those attuned to the nastier side of hip hop and what’s called R&B these days. Trust me, in 1971 in Carnegie Hall, this was intense and risqué.
According to the good liner notes by John O’Regan, the original 2-LP album (with a tri-fold cover, he notes) came about on the heels of the Turners most successful U.S. album, Workin’ Together, which featured a sizzling cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” The studio recording included the same spoken intro as Ike and Tina used live, along the lines of “you might wanna hear something nice and easy. But we don’t do ANYTHING nice and easy. We do it nice and rough …”
While hearing the disc, keep in mind that Tina was likely wearing a form-fitting mini-dress and high heels, and doing her manic dance moves, coordinated with the Ikettes, running over to the mic for her vocal parts, and hitting all her notes. The numerous YouTube videos from this tour show how wrung out everyone got as the show progressed and the tempo increased to fever pitch (for example, “Proud Mary” and “Ooh Poh Pah Doo”).
As good as Tina was, Ike and the band match her lick for lick. The super-tight bass and drums, plus the flawless horns, are a sound to behold. Ike’s big, smokey guitar riffs reverberate grandly in Carnegie Hall, the big acoustic space complementing the large tour band Ike had assembled. An added bonus is a good recording job, especially for a loud live event in the early ‘70s, and an excellent remastering job for CD.
It’s fitting that this album sees the light of day from a UK-based reissue company. Ike and Tina had greater chart success across the pond, and indeed their career was given a huge boost by their being one of the warm-up acts for the Rolling Stones’ epic 1969 tour. The Turners’ 1969 Madison Square Garden set is included on the deluxe reissue of the Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, and it is superb (keep in mind that Ike and Tina followed B.B. King and came before the Stones, no pressure there!). However, they were even better at Carnegie Hall two years later—more intense, more focused and clearly comfortable being the lead act instead of the warm-up.
This album has it all, as both a recorded documentation of a live performance and as a musical performance. It’s great to have it in print again, and in high-quality sonics with a well-written booklet to boot. Get this CD, put it in the player, crank up the volume, and just try to sit still.
Now-Again Records has been synonymous with discovering those rare, hard-to-find sounds from past decades and bringing them back in all their glory. Loving on the Flipside, a CD and extensive booklet combo, is no exception. With famous record hunter/crate digger Eothen Alapatt providing in-depth detail, and the support of many of the bands giving their own personal insights, Loving on the Flipside is most definitely a must-have for lovers of rare sweet funk and ballads.
The amount of information on each track is truly surprising. Furthermore, Alapatt has been able “to present this music in good conscience, with the full participation of every one but the most obscure names contained within.” Many photos of the records and artists themselves are contained within the eighty-page booklet, such as Rhythm Machine’s 7 inch for “Whatcha Gonna Do,” as well as pictures of the Indianapolis-based funk group in all their extravagant glory. For each track, Alapatt provides as much history of the band as possible, from their beginnings to their eventual breakup and what they’re up to now.
Artists on the compilation include: Disciples of Soul (Virginia), Little Janice (California), Symphonic Four (Missouri), Rhythm Machine (Indiana), Hunts Determination Band (Michigan), Black Conspirators (Indiana), Primitive (South Carolina), Darling Dears (New York), Black Exotics (Georgia), Conspiracy (Ohio), Eddie Finley and the Cincinnati Show Band (Ohio), Thomas East (Arkansas), Jazzie Cazzie and the Eight Sounds (Indiana), Ed Nelson (California), The Equatics (Ohio), Hot Chocolate (Ohio), Lee Bonds (South Carolina), Eunice Collins (Illinois), and Black Velvet (New Jersey).
An extensive amount of work went into this wonderful project and it certainly paid off as Loving on the Flipside provides a unique, in-depth look into a series of black groups that were somehow overlooked during their glory days.
In the 1930s Zora Neal Hurston, Stetson Kennedy and many others were hired by the Florida Writers Project to document local cultures. They produced a series of field recordings, now housed at the American Folklife Center, that are still viewed as exemplary examples of ethnographic research. In the late 1970s, the newly created Florida Folklife Program set out to revisit the communities documented in that previous project and produce new ethnographic recordings of the musical cultures that were still existent. The resulting two-LP set, titled Drop on Down in Florida: Recent Field Recordings of Afro-American Tradition Music (1981), was a labor of love, with a small run and a fairly small audience.
Dust-to-Digital’s expanded and revised two-CD set, which includes the original recordings plus 28 bonus tracks housed in a beautifully designed book of annotations and essays, seeks to rewrite that history by offering a contextualized and more widely available and accessible version of the 1981 edition. The book contains introductions from the project editors, Dwight DeVane and Blaine Waide, a reprint of the original liner notes, essays from participating field recordists, and biographical essays about each performer and the songs they chose. Drop on Down is written in a style that is both scholarly and easily accessible to laypersons, and is illustrated throughout with rare, incredibly engaging black and white images of the performers and the communities they lived in.
All the essays in the world would mean nothing, of course, if the music wasn’t worth writing about. Luckily, there is no doubting the value, both entertainment and academic, of the 53 tracks on these two discs, one of secular recordings and the other of sacred.
The first disc, the secular, includes a wealth of crystal-clear remasters of enchanting country blues. The character and individuality of each of the performers stands in contrast to the others. Richard Williams, of Jonesville, FL, sings in a soft, careful voice but picks his acoustic guitar with a strong hand that seems to provide a venue for expressing the feelings he can’t communicate with his voice alone, while Emmett Murray sings “She’s a Fool, She Ain’t Got No Sense” in an authoritative voice with sparse but warm accompaniment from his amplified guitar. Some of the most intriguing songs on the first disc come from Moses Williams, a man who didn’t play the guitar at all. His self-made traditional instrument, created by nailing a broom wire to a flat surface, like a door, and then plucking or sliding to produce sounds, is very distinctive but still feels like an obvious companion to the other recordings on this disc.
The following video features Moses Williams (courtesy of Dust-to-Digital) and provides a taste of the music included in this project:
The second disc is divided into two sections, the first focusing on solo and family-based sacred music traditions, and the second on styles of congregational singing. Johnny Brown’s solo singing of sacred songs, accompanied by a borrowed steel-bodied National guitar, sound quite similar to the country blues of some of the performers on the first disc, but the lyrics tell quite different stories. The songs from the Williams Family demonstrate the appeal of field recordings, as you hear the daughter asking her father if he remembers “Trial in Judgment” and then hear him really pick it up once he seems to catch her melody. The congregation singing section focuses on two unique traditions: the Primitive Baptists and the African American shape-note singers. The Primitive Baptists were recorded during a church service, and the lengthy tracks include multiple songs and spoken sections, accompanied by the moans and affirmations of the congregation and a wide range of instruments. The shape-note recordings are an amazing look into a musical culture that has continued for generations. Shape-note singing is widely associated with white American traditions, but the recordings from the Florida-Alabama Progressive Seven-Shape-Note Singing Convention have an entirely different feel, from the accents of the singers to their improvised harmonies and rhythmic foot-tapping. The sense of recordings sounding different and yet familiar is a thread that ties this collection together and makes it a wonderful edition to the music collection of anyone interested in African American musical traditions.
Formats: CD in hardcover book (45 p.); eBook (without CD)
Release date: September 4, 2012
Recorded African American sacred music was beautiful, inspiring, and sometimes fairly lively before 1926, but in that year Arizona Dranes (1889-1963) injected Holy Ghost Pentecostal excitement into a series of amazing and wonderful records made for the Okeh label and helped lay the groundwork for what has since become known as gospel music. She was the first to record what the late Horace C. Boyer describes as “the gospel beat” on piano. The sixteen sides (two unreleased at the time) she recorded between 1926 and 1928 prominently feature Dranes’ driving piano, her mezzo-soprano (and sometimes piercing) vocals, plus back-up voices of a small congregation and the occasional sharp bluesy accompaniment of a mandolin.
That Dranes was a Pentecostal is relevant to her musical achievement. Starting with the Azusa Street Revival, Pentecostal praise services were notable for their musical and vocal fervor. Unlike the sedate mainline churches of the time, Pentecostal churches encouraged the use of instruments during worship services and enthusiastically combined traditional Protestant hymns and Negro spirituals with secular influences such as jazz and the blues. Religious scholar Harvey Cox flatly states that music has been the principal medium of the spread of Pentecostalism. Dranes, who spent thirty years as a Church of God in Christ missionary, convincingly conveys the sheer excitement and beauty characteristic of a lively Pentecostal worship service when “the anointing” of the Holy Spirit descends on the congregation.
The piano work heard on these recordings is a unique blend of ragtime, barrelhouse, Protestant hymn, and early boogie woogie. Dranes uses her clear and sometimes sharp voice in a percussive manner, in effect, bouncing it off her piano playing to deliver a message of salvation. The back-up voices help create the feel of a live Pentecostal service. “John Said He Saw a Number” and “My Soul Is a Witness for the Lord,” both from her first recording session, perfectly demonstrate this. Both songs feature Dranes backed up by a male and a female singer responding to her call while she lays down a rollicking beat on the piano. The first song features an amazing lightning-fast boogie woogie run up and down the keyboard while the extended piano solo heard on the second features a fiercely pounded right hand that foreshadows the type of piano performed by early rock ‘n’ roll artists such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis a generation later. Several of her 1928 recordings feature the sharp, bluesy accompaniment of a mandolin and are particularly exciting. Prime examples include “God’s Got a Crown” and “Just Look.”
Vocally, Dranes’ influence can be heard in the singing of early female gospel singers such as Jessie Mae Hill and Laura Henton, and later singers including the famous Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe’s sometimes high and piercing vocals bounce off her hot fleet-fingered guitar playing much as did Dranes’s off her pounding piano. Madame Ernestine Washington’s sharp nasal vocals in her 1940’s and 1950’s recordings are an almost uncanny clone of Dranes’s vocal style. Echoes of Dranes’s vocal technique can sometimes be heard in more contemporary gospel singers such as LaShun Pace.
Music researcher and former newspaper reporter Michael Corcoran has done the world a major service by uncovering important aspects of the life of this otherwise biographically-elusive figure. Although long stretches of her life are still a mystery, Corcoran has produced the most complete and informative biographical account of her life so far, with concrete information concerning her early musical education at the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths of the State of Texas, her eventual conversion to Pentecostalism after a brief but surprising career as an actress/musician, her brief but crucial tenure as a recording artist for the Okeh label, her long career as a COGIC missionary, and her unremarked at the time death in Los Angeles in 1963. The well-illustrated book includes scans of historic documents from the Arizona Dranes Collection at the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University.
He Is My Story is enthusiastically recommended to anyone with an interest in the history of African American gospel music. Thomas A. Dorsey is rightly known as “the father of gospel music,” but Arizona Dranes must be acknowledged as one of the true pioneers of the music as well.
If you have a Bill Withers fan on your holiday shopping list, you will feel quite foolish if you waste a single moment more wondering what to get them. Legacy’s Bill Withers: The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums is a fantastically remastered, compiled, notated and packaged box set, the latest installment in Legacy’s ongoing Complete Album Collections series.
Tracing Withers career from his 1971 debut Just As I Am (produced by Booker T. Jones) to his final 1985 studio album Watching You, Watching Me (and the seven albums in between), this collection is a boon for die-hard fans hoping to replace their old vinyl editions. The packaging is equally befitting of that goal, with each CD in a paper case designed to be a perfect miniature of the original record sleeve, right down to the pull-out gatefold on Still Bill. All the memories of the original records are brought back to life by this clever packaging decision. If those memories need any filling in, the lengthy booklet is full of information on each record, vintage photos, and the chart positions of his biggest hits.
What really makes this box set great, however, is the music. The nine albums, completely remastered from the original analog tapes, are full of Withers’ most well-loved hits, making this not only a great choice for long-time fans, but also a fantastic introduction. Songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lean On Me,” “Use Me,” and, literally, albums more, waft out of the stereo with that classic Withers smoothness. Listening to these albums is a reminder of what it is to hear an amazing songwriter, a truly soothing singer and, as is especially apparent on Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall, a fantastic performer. Some box sets end up feeling like a wash as their comprehensive nature ends up including a lot of duds, but it seems like each album in this collection is equally as engaging, enjoyable and gem-filled as the rest.
Following is a 1972 performance of Withers’ first hit song, “Ain’t No Sunshine” (from BBC TV):
The nine albums in the set include: Still Bill (1972), Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall (1973), +’Justments (1974), Making Music (1975), Just as I Am (1976), Naked & Warm (1976), Menagerie (1977), ‘Bout Love (1979), Watching You Watching Me (1985).
Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was rightly crowned “The Empress of the Blues.” She possessed a massive voice, described this way in the box set booklet: “Her contralto voice, with its horn-like quality, was ideally suited to overcome the inferior acoustic (recording) technology” of the early 1920’s. The result was a string of hits, including “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold 780,000 copies in the six months after its 1923 release, and likely sold 1 million copies within a year. This kind of success was unprecedented for a black female singer in those days. Smith’s sales far surpassed those of her mentor, Ma Rainey.
Smith had a prolific recording career at Columbia. This box set is a budget reissue of the five 2-CD sets Sony Legacy put out in the 1990s. The booklet includes most of the discographical information of the 1990s albums, but booklet text about Smith and her music is limited to a short essay by Ken Romanowski, which includes a suggestion to read Chris Albertson’s 1972 biography of Smith. Indeed, most of the final disc in the set is an interview with Albertson.
Smith’s music is presented chronologically, with master takes recorded between Feb. 16, 1923 and Nov. 24, 1933 spanning disc 1 through the first part of disc 9. The remainder of disc 9 is comprised of unissued takes from 1925 and 1927, plus the 14-minute soundtrack to the short film “St. Louis Blues,” made in 1929.
Potential buyers and listeners should keep in mind that the tracks on discs 1-4 and about half of disc 5 were recorded in the pre-electric (acoustic) era, which means that sound was captured by a recording horn driving a mechanical cutting stylus (this video demonstrates how Bessie Smith sounded on a Victrola during the acoustic era). Low-fidelity doesn’t describe the result adequately, but these restorations are well done and Smith’s voice combined with sparse accompaniment makes the music quite audible. This probably explains Smith’s success as a recording artist, along with her ability to take pedestrian stage songs and make them seem more than they were. Her delivery is tough and forthright, but there is a sexiness and vulnerability when it’s needed, and she had a fantastic sense of timing and drama. These are all ingredients of a successful recording artist in the “race” field in the 1920s.
After Columbia started recording Smith with then-new electronic equipment, from mid-1926 onward, backing arrangements grew more complex, with more musicians involved, and the qualities of her recorded voice expanded. By the late 1920s, the sound quality of her recordings is such that the microphone captured the full range of her wonderful voice (this video captures the sound of a nice late-era Smith recording).
Backing Smith on some of these recordings are future superstars Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. Indeed, the Armstrong-backed sides are all superb, especially “St. Louis Blues,” and the Hawkins backing comes along with Fletcher Henderson’s group. Henderson accompanied Smith on many of these sides, sometimes by himself on piano, sometimes with other musicians. Smith’s most frequent accompanist, pianist Clarence Williams, is not the most dynamic player, but, especially in the early recordings, he provides a perfect counterpoint in a very limited recording environment, allowing Smith’s voice to shine through.
Anyone interested in a rather large dose of Bessie Smith, the time is right. This box set is priced at a discount from the individual 2-CD sets of the 1990s and includes every bit of the music. And for an extra treat, check out Smith’s only film, the 1929 St. Louis Blues (available on Youtube in Part 1 and Part 2).
Legacy’s new retrospective box set of the legendary Preservation Jazz Hall Band has all the mystery of a newly discovered treasure as well as all the appeal of an exhaustively documented music history. While most of the band members from the French Quarter club are legendary figures of New Orleans jazz, their music hasn’t gone much further than Preservation Hall’s unfinished walls (which enclose a space no bigger than most kitchens). And while the low profile of the band’s amazingly talented cast is what gives the music and the place its local charm, these newly released recordings allow listeners to experience the clubs’ effluvium of brass-flavored delicacies anytime and anywhere.
By way of this box set, Preservation Hall is celebrating its 50th anniversary by giving the public a dig through its music vaults. Founded in the early ’60s by the Jaffe family, Preservation Hall has been giving visitors, locals and world-trotting tourists alike, a concentrated dose of traditional New Orleans jazz and its parade of flavors: funeral second lines, military brass band marches, ragtime rhythms, gospel blues, and Dixieland banjo solos, all with the effervescent carnival spirit of the Crescent City.
The compilation well represents the diverse repertoire of Preservation Hall’s esteemed house band, who play everything from early Dixieland jazz (“Bourbon Street Parade”), country (“That Bucket’s Got a Hole In It), gospel standards (“His Eye is On the Sparrow”), Louisiana local favorites (“Eh La Bas”), Caribbean flavored classics (“El Manicero”) and even rock & roll (“Complicated Life” by Ray Davies of the Kinks). And while making a gumbo of all the various musical flavors that combined to form early jazz, the Preservation Hall band offers a sound that is balanced, unique, and distinctly local. As an added bonus, the fourth CD finds the Preservation Hall jazz band teaming up with Americana icons like the Del McCoury Band and Tom Waits (“Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing”).
In addition to 4 CDs of music, the box set comes with a 60-page booklet that details the story of New Orleans jazz and Preservation Hall’s role in it. Historian Bruce Boyd Raeburn’s liner notes set against a backdrop of rare archival photos make this box set a time capsule into some of jazz’s finest moments.
Here is a mini-documentary celebrating Preservation Hall’s 50 years of music history:
John Tefteller’s annual Classic Blues calendar for 2013 features more amazing artwork from the 1920s, some of which rivals R. Crumb in originality. Each month of the calendar is also illustrated with rare photographs of blues musicians, birth and death dates, brief biographies, and sample song lyrics.
The accompanying CD includes the songs that are featured in the January to December artwork, plus 7 bonus tracks. Personal favorites include Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was The Ground,” Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues,” and Hi Henry Brown’s “Titanic Blues.” All of the selections on the CD were transferred from the original 78 rpm records and remastered by Richard Nevins. Between the calendar and the CD, you have two products that will satisfy any blues fan on your holiday shopping list.
Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920’s, Vol. 10 is available at select music and book stores, from Blues Images, or Amazon.
Beginning with the sacred, James Fortune offers his own unique contemporary Christian sound on Grace Gift, his first holiday-oriented album. Fortune and his wife Cheryl, both gifted songwriters, penned several original songs for the album that breathe new life into a market oversaturated with standards: the joyful uptempo “Christmas Time” featuring the full FIYA choir, the inspirational ballad “Worship The King,” and “Mary’s Song,” a solo vehicle for Cheryl. That’s not to say that classics are neglected. Longtime FIYA member D’Shondra Rideout shines on “First Noel” and Isaac Carree and Minon Bolton put a soulful spin on “This Christmas,” while the rousing medley “Go Tell It/Wonderful Child” with Lisa Knowles and Shawn McLemore will have everyone dancing.
Christmas with Earnest Pugh & Friends is a blend of gospel, contemporary Christian and R&B with interludes that keeps the album fresh throughout the 14 tracks. Much of the focus is on soloists, with rising star Crystal Rucker featured on “Do You Hear What I Hear,” Vincent Tharpe showing off a remarkable range on “Go Tell It,” Quadrius Salters ushering in a contemporary styled “Silent Night,” and Lisa Knowles in a more traditional gospel version of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” One of the stand-out tracks is the soulful “Ring Dem Bells,” a stellar R&B arrangement showcasing Pugh’s powerful vocals over a jazzy rhythm section. The intro, two interludes and outro feature humorous sketches and carols with children. While cute, they do break up the flow, so unless you’re enjoying this album with your family you might want to skip over these tracks.
Now on to the secular offerings. Cee Lo’s Magic Moment is far and above the most entertaining album of the lot, featuring high energy, excellent up tempo arrangements and a bevy of notable guests. In other words, just what you’d expect from the Voice coach. Cee Lo’s fellow coach on the show, Christina Aguilera, joins him for a duet on the classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” while Rod Stewart and Trombone Shorty join in on “Merry Christmas, Baby.” For the most part, though, Cee Lo carries the album, showing off his vocal chops on songs such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” the soul drenched “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” featuring a Motownesque trio of back-up singers, and the rocking “Run, Rudolph, Run:”
Cee Lo also throws in some a couple of songs to please the kids, with the Muppets jiving along on “All I Need Is Love” and the a cappella group Straight No Chaser providing back-up vocals on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” I’m guessing that many of these tracks will be permeating the malls, and a holiday TV special is rumored.
If you’re in the mood for a less frenetic pace, What Christmas Means, from Detroit R&B singer Kem, presents jazzy, soulful ballads in the adult contemporary vein. Kem ensures a fresh approach by including no less than five original songs with sacred as well as romantic overtones, ranging from the opening “Glorify the King” to the closing a capella “Doo Wop Christmas.” The highlight of the album is the duet with Ledisi “Be Mine for Christmas,” in an arrangement that deftly incorporates elements of Gamble and Huff’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Rounding out the album are jazz arrangements of more traditional songs such as “Merry Christmas Baby,” Christmas Time is Here” and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.” This is the perfect album to sooth your frazzled nerves after a day of shopping, or to set the stage for a romantic evening at home.
Now on to the more irreverent offerings. If you’re looking for something less traditional, then check out the second installment of Santa’s Got Mojo from Toronto-based blues label Electro-Fi. The album kicks off with the slow and sexy burner “Be My Santa Claus” by Shakura S’Aida, and features two tracks by the Canadian blues rock band Fathead, including “Santa’s Drunk.” Other highlights include Paul Oscher’s “Christmas Blues,” Fruteland Jackson’s rollicking “Fat Santa,” Johnny Laws’ “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” and my personal favorite, Julian Fauth’s “Hallelujah in the Mall.” You get the picture―an entertaining set of blues covers and original songs perfect for parties.
Though I haven’t been able to lay hands on a copy and the MP3 samples only became available last week, the first holiday album from Gary U.S. Bonds must be included on the short list. True to form, Bonds kicks off with a houserocker: the title track “Christmas Is ON!” is meant to get the party started with a fierce boogie woogie piano accompaniment. Bonds wrote seven more original songs for the album, including “It’s Christmas in Nu Awlins” that harkens back to his first big hit (“New Orleans” released in 1961), “Christmas Is a Phone Call Away” which is a great old-fashioned rhythm and blues romp with a honking sax solo, the tongue-in-cheek “Shopping for Clothes” done Bo Diddley style, and the grooving “Santa Bring My Baby Home to Me” over a lilting reggae beat. A few standards are also given the Bonds treatment, including a terrific doo wop version of “White Christmas” and the rocking “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” So if you’re looking for some old-school music for the holidays, you can’t miss with Gary U.S. Bonds’ Christmas Is ON!
Welcome to the December 2012 holiday issue of Black Grooves, sponsored by the Archives of African American Music and Culture. This month we’re featuring box sets, books and DVDs that any Black Grooves fan would be delighted to receive, plus several additional new releases.
For reggae fans there are reviews of three new Lee “Scratch” Perry releases: the 2-CD compilation Disco Devil featuring 1970s-era extended dub mixes from Perry’s legendary Black Ark studio; a collaboration between Perry and ambient house institution the Orb titled The Orbserver in the Star House; and The Sound Doctor featuring obscure Perry cuts.
For the babies and young children on your holiday list we recommend Velvet Sky, an album of lullabies by Broadway and film star Valarie Pettiford. Blues fans will likely enjoy the new Buddy Guy autobiography Then I Left Home: My Story, while any fan of New Orleans music and culture would be thrilled to receive the lavishly illustrated book Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. And joining the steady stream of posthumous Jimi Hendrix releases is the new volume Hendrix on Hendrix, a compilation of the 50 most significant interviews with the guitarist.
Wrapping up this issue are reviews of the documentary Give Me the Banjo and two recent Latin jazz releases: Dos y MasbyElio Villafranca and Arturo Stable, and Live in Hollywood by Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band.