Swan Silvertones – Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection

Swan Silvertones Amen Amen Amen the Essential collection._SX355_

Title: Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection

Artist: Swan Silvertones

Label: S’more Entertainment/Rockbeat Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 23, 2015

Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection is an inspired re-issue by the Swan Silvertones—once referred to by guitarist Al Kooper as the “Beatles of gospel”—whose voices and arrangements raise this collection to heavenly heights. The recordings on this collection were first issued on Specialty and Vee-Jay Records between 1950 and 1963, and now reissued on S’more Entertainment/Rock Beat Records.

Leading the Swan Silvertones during this period was Claude Jeter, an anointed tenor born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1914. While the group’s line-up changed in 1956 and 1959, Claude Jeter’s leadership remained steadfast during the thirteen years highlighted on Amen, Amen, Amen. Thus, these recordings become a spotlight of Jeter’s artistic contribution to the Swan Silvertones and allow listeners to hear the evolution of his voice, as well as his ensemble.

“The Day Will Surely Come,” the “A side” of the group’s first single on Specialty in 1952, demonstrates Jeter’s smooth lead tenor and songwriting abilities. Jeter’s genius—his sweet vocal falsetto—is heard in the brilliant rendition of “I’m Coming Home,” recorded just a year later. Jeter’s soaring falsetto—as well as the musical excellence of the Swan Silvertones—is perhaps best exemplified through “Mary Don’t You Weep,” released by Vee-Jay in 1959 and selected for induction into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2014. Throughout these recordings, the accompanying singers and instrumentalists in the Swan Silvertones provide a foundation, both swinging and solid, for the lead voices of Jeter, Soloman Womack, Rev. Robert Crenshaw, and Paul Owens, to praise the Lord.

Despite the quality of these recordings, the packaging of Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection leaves the reader wanting more. A glaring omission is the presence of captions on the included photographs, leaving readers puzzled as to the date of the images and individuals pictured. This is especially puzzling as the album’s producer, Michael Ochs, is a noted photographic archivist specializing in music photography. Strengthening this collection are Mark Humphrey’s liner notes, which provide a focused overview of the Swan Silvertones during the time of these recordings.

Claude Jeter is cited as an influence by a number of iconic American musicians such as Al Green and Paul Simon—the latter of whom credits Jeter with inspiring the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection serves a timely reminder that Claude Jeter’s falsetto, as well as the musicians in the Swan Silvertones, cannot be overlooked in histories of sacred, and secular, American popular music.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach


Roberto Fonseca – Yo


Title: Yo

Artist: Roberto Fonseca

Label: Concord Jazz

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: August 27, 2013 (U.S.)



Dedicated to innovation in the jazz idiom even in his cover art, Cuban born pianist Roberto Fonseca reminds us that, “for musicians it is important to take many risks in many ways”. Growth is a necessary component of self-actualization and one cannot grow without taking on challenge. Recorded in Paris in one week, Fonseca’s Yo exemplifies a musician venturing beyond the margins of jazz by fusing Afro-acoustic instrumentation with shades of electronic music and spoken word.

In each of his albums, Fonseca seems to be in a state of experimental reformation.  This latest record takes his audience on yet another departure from his roles alongside Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and in the Buena Vista Social Club. Yo inspires us to seek inspiration in humanity and assert our connections to others through self-reflection.  Like any thorough Caribbeanist with Cuban roots, Fonseca’s fascination with African antecedents continues to serve him well. In this new album, Fonseca and his Cuban counterparts combine their traditional Afro Cuban jazz rhythm section (percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo, drummer Ramsés Rodríguez and double bassist Felipe Cabrera) with superior talents from the African continent.  Malian female vocal star Fatoumata Diawara is stunning on the track “Bibisa.”  Installations of Sekou Kouyate on kora, Baba Sissoko (percussion), bassist Etienne M’Bappe, and guitarist Munir Hossni provide veteran poise on the album as Fonseca leads his ensemble in musical curiosity and energy.  Not to be overlooked is the appearance of the great Senegalese vocalist Assane Mboup as lead in “Quien Soy Yo.”  In this piece the use of the Brazilian cavaquinho is playful and the vocal timbre and harmonies wax Cuban rumba and Uruguayan murga.  One could interpret the mix of these elements as a bridge, linking musical elements from the Americas to Africa.

Fonseca’s minimalist take on improvisation is refreshing and a welcome change from the usual note-heavy montunos that we are accustomed to hearing from Afro-Cuban piano players.  His background in percussion compliments the harmonic breadth of the piano and his gift for being able to develop elegant melodies from a single rhythmic and harmonic cell is quite fascinating.

Roberto Fonseca is an eclectic, multicultural pianist and this listener is still stumped as to how to categorize his music: Afro-Pop? Latin Jazz? Acid-Afro-Cuban Jazz? Fonseca’s style is one that has never been easy to describe, but in this new album one gets sense that he is fearless in his search to express inner emotion using the vast endowments of his diverse musical universe.

For more on Roberto Fonseca’s Yo take a look at this one minute interview by Montuno Producciones y Eventos:

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Fonseca is touring the U.S. this fall and will be making an appearance at the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.

Reviewed by Madelyn Shackelford Washington



Charles Bradley – Victim of Love


Title: Victim of Love

Artist: Charles Bradley

Label:  Dunham / Daptone

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  April 2, 2013



Charles Bradley, Daptone’s “screaming eagle of soul,” continues to impress with his latest album, Victim of Love.  We first covered Bradley back in 2011 upon the release of No Time For Dreaming, and indeed the now-64-year-old former James Brown impersonator has been maintaining a fast-paced schedule that likely leaves little time for sleeping, either. In addition to his new album, Bradley is featured in the documentary Soul of America (now available for on-demand streaming on Amazon and Netflix), and he will be touring Europe and North America throughout the remainder of 2013.

Backed once again by Brooklyn’s Menahan Street Band (the house band for Dunham Studio), Bradley burns through a set list of eleven songs dripping with nostalgia, the majority co-written with members of the band.  The album kicks off with “Strictly Reserved For You” and, though rather repetitive, Bradley’s raspy crooning over the back-up singers’ Motownesque harmonies sets the proper mood:

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Following is the uptempo “You Put the Flame On It” featuring a punchy horn arrangement, the slow burner “Let Love Stand a Chance” with Bradley showing off his best JB “It’s A Man’s World” style vocals, and the more introspective title track backed by acoustic guitar. One of the best tracks, “Love Bug Blues,” harkens straight back to the Blaxploitation era. The band is given an opportunity to get down on the equally cinematic, reverb heavy instrumental “Dusty Blue,” then turns up the psychedelic effects and B3 on “Confusion,” and brings in the funk on “Hurricane.”

While not all of the songwriting and arrangements rate an A+, there are certainly more hits than misses, and this soul brother deserves his time in the spotlight.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Charles Walker & The Dynamites – Love Is Only Everything


Title: Love Is Only Everything

Artist: Charles Walker & The Dynamites

Label: Gemco

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 30, 2013



Charles Walker is yet another old-school soul singer who was recently rediscovered and given a second chance at stardom. Walker, who began his career in the ‘60s group Little Charles and the Sidewinders, performed at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame as part of the celebrated 2004-05 exhibit “Night Train To Nashville: Music City Rhythm and Blues 1945-1970,” where he was noticed by guitarist/producer/arranger Leo Black (aka Bill Elder). Not long after, Black invited Walker to front his group The Dynamites and they released their debut album Kaboom! in 2007 followed by Burn It Down in 2009. Now they’re back with their most soulful album yet, Love Is Only Everything.

Whereas Charles Bradley’s gravelly timbre reeks of smoky juke joints, Charles Walker maintains a surprising agile voice that can still soar into the upper register. And instead of a band of New York hipsters, Nashville’s Dynamites are well-schooled in southern soul. Add Leo Black’s inventive songs and arrangements, and you’ve got a stellar combination. The songs draw heavily from ‘60s soul and pop, but still sound remarkably fresh as demonstrated in the first video single “Still Can’t Get You Out Of My Heart”:

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The album opens with the uptempo, hard driving “So Much More To Do,” which might well be Walker’s theme song, followed by the slow burner “Wakie, Wakie,” accentuated by a tight horn section and Black’s guitar.  “I Just Want to Know” is an all-out funk fest, with lively syncopations, Tyrone Dickerson’s B3 riffs, and growling horns in the chorus. One of the album’s highlights is the ballad “Yours and Mine,” a duet with Detroit soul veteran Bettye LaVette, who has also enjoyed a 21st century comeback. LaVette and Walker shared the stage at the Harlem club Small’s Paradise back in the ‘60s, and they clearly revel in this reunion. On the title track, “Love Is Only Everything,” Walker and the band demonstrate their synergy, a perfect blend of soul funk grooves. Other songs include the duet with Lucy Woodward “Keep Close,” the retro “Serendipity” which showcases Walker’s falsetto, and the closing track “Please Open the Door,” a cover of the Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams/Larry Harrison song that Walker recorded in 1968 with the Sidewinders. Amazing that 45 years later, Walker sounds better than ever!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound – Howl


Title: Howl

Artist: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound

Label: Bloodshot

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: May 21, 2013



Chicago’s preeminent post-punk soul band, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, are riding the waves of two highly successful releases—their 2009 debut Beat of Our Own Drum and Want More, released in 2011. Keeping pace with a release every two years, the band’s new album is right on schedule, delivering more of their signature guitar-driven rockin’ soul.

On Howl, the band explores love and relationships which, as the title suggests, leaves plenty of room for tortured soul that dials up the beat generation hipster quotient. And they really bring it—not just in Brooks’ vocals, but lyrically and sonically as well, forging a more aggressive contemporary sound that sets them apart from mere revivalists. Much of the showmanship that’s delighted audiences also comes through on the songs, especially on the title track, which begs for a venue large enough to contain the sonic force of the final “howl.”

Brooks expresses a newlywed’s jealousy and angst over churchy organ riffs in “Married For a Week,” then ventures into falsetto territory on “Rouse Yourself” and “Security.” On “Ordinary,” Billy Bungeroth’s anxiety-ridden guitar shredding punctuates the vocal—acted out in the official video by “air guitar” champion Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard, with Traeveon Howard posing as a young Brooks:

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Other highlights include the slow burner “River” that’s a baptism in the waters of gospel blues, and the closing track “These Things,” a song of redemption that arises from heavenly strings, then reaches into the deepest level of the soul. Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Latasha Lee & the BlackTies


Title: Latasha Lee & the BlackTies

Artist:  Latasha Lee & the BlackTies

Label: Self-released

Formats: CD-R, MP3

Release date:  April 23, 2013



Texas native Latasha Lee started out in the male dominated world of hip hop after receiving encouragement from Salih and Tomar Williams, the highly successful producers behind Austin’s Carnival Beats.  Seeking to carve her own niche, Salih helped Lee craft a new soulful sound which took her to the top 50 spot on X-Factor in 2012. Now sporting a tongue-in-cheek updo, Lee fronts the up and coming vintage soul band The BlackTies. Tracks from their self-titled debut album were premiered at SXSW, and they’ve slowly been gaining national attention, but certainly deserve much more.

Inspired by Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight, Lee effectively channels the style of early Motown girl groups on the songs “Pledging My Love,” “Crazy,” and “So Blind,” then ramps up a more contemporary groove on “Win Her Heart,” the lilting “Walk Away,” and my personal favorite,“Watch Me Now”:

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Definitely a band to watch, Latasha Lee & the BlackTies will appeal to fans of gritty Southern-fried soul with an attitude.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Myron & E with the Soul Investigators – Broadway


Title: Broadway

Artist: Myron & E with the Soul Investigators

Label: Stones Throw

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: July 2, 2013



Myron Glasper, a former back-up singer for Blackalicious, and Newark-born deejay Eric “E da Boss” Cooke were members of Northern Cali’s hip hop scene who “bonded over a love of classic soul music.” While on tour in Finland a few years ago, Cooke chanced upon a jam session with members of The Soul Investigators (the neo-soul backing band for Nicole Willis). One thing led to another, and before long Cooke and Glasper were teaming up to write songs and lay down vocals on Soul Investigators tracks. Thus began a transnational collaboration that has come to fruition in their debut album Broadway.

What sets the album apart from other vintage soul revivalists is the decidedly laid-back northern soul vocal stylings—Myron & E never break a sweat, never plumb the depths of their emotions. It took a couple of listens to fully appreciate the hip hop/sampling aesthetic that creeps into the mix, lending a deliciously atmospheric, almost psychedelic vibe by layering off-kilter harmonies over the instrumental tracks. This is especially evident on the opening track “Turn Back,” something of a left turn before the album settles into a more soulful, mid-tempo groove on “If I Gave You My Love”: YouTube Preview Image

Other highlights include the uptempo “Cold Game” that cries out for some Cholly Atkins choreography, “Do It Do It Disco” with its prominent bass line, and the reverb heavy “Back N Forth.”  Vocally, Glasper and Cooke are hardly the second coming of Marvin Gaye, but that’s not the focal point of the album—it’s all in the mix.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss


Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label


Title: Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label

Artist: Various

Label: Numero Group

Formats: CD, 2-LP set, MP3

Release date: March 12, 2013



Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label, a recent offering in Numero Group’s invaluable Eccentric Soul series, chronicles the trajectory of a tiny San Antonio, Texas-based record label and its owner, Abe Epstein.  Epstein was a local real-estate mogul and self-described recording addict who founded nine Teaxs-based labels in the sixties and early seventies, all of which struggled, largely unsuccessfully, to make waves on the national music scene.

Dynamic 101 was a thoroughly inauspicious beginning, credited to Little Jr. Jesse and The Tear Drops and, along with the group’s other cut presented here, entirely forgettable.  But things improved greatly with the release of “I Gotta Know’” sung by The Tonettes, a quartet of high-school girls from Lubbock.  This chunky groover, along with the medium-tempo “My Heart Can Feel the Pain,” reveals a surprisingly accomplished vocal group with an adept lead singer and sweet background harmonies.

Dynamic’s best and most well-known act was The Commands, a polished and talented vocal quartet hailing primarily from nearby Randolph Air Force Base.  Their 1966 single, consisting of “No Time For You” (pilfered from another local group) and “Hey It’s Love,” drew widespread airplay across Texas, and gave Dynamic its first hits.  “No Time For You” was covered by The O’Jays shortly after release, prompting Epstein to bring The Commands back into the studio for “Don’t Be Afraid To Love Me” and “Must Be Alright,” the latter an especially energetic cut featuring the lead tenor of composer Dan Henderson.  Two years later, the group also recorded Dynamic’s last single, with “I’ve Got Love For My Baby” the standout that led to their signing with RCA Victor, only to see the group disband soon after.

The Webs, a Galvaston-based band with the soaring, Sam Cooke-influenced lead singer Willie Cooper, also features prominently in this overview of Dynamic history.  Their first releases on the label were actually reissues of earlier recordings for Whiz Records, and they are the best of a so-so lot.  Two later cuts, recorded specifically for Dynamic, are serviceable enough but, like the earlier ones, suffer from some extremely sour horns.

Four tracks are devoted to Doc & Sal, yet another group with its origins in the Air Force.  This time the principals—singers Richard “Doc” Davilla, a San Antonio native, and Salvatore “Sal” Sabino—were seamen aboard the USS Saratoga, then stationed in the Mediterranean.  After their stint in the service, they teamed up to record “Laughing To Keep From Crying,” with Epstein the engineer on the date.  He signed them to Dynamic, where they cut two singles with the Royal Jesters as backing band and a member of the San Antonio Symphony to add some string sweetening.  While the recordings fared well locally, none of them caught on nationally, and that was pretty much it for Doc & Sal.

The disc is rounded out with one track by Bobby Blackmon, a showy guitarist who’s wildman image graces the cover of this reissue, and who ups the funk quotient considerably with “She’s Gotta Have Soul.”  Blackmon managed a brief career as a sideman, backing Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, among others, before leaving the music business for a career in the pharmaceutical industry.  After retiring from his day job, he resurfaced in the early 2000s as bluesman “Beautiful” Bobby Blackmon.

Like other Eccentric Soul releases, this is a fine survey of a niche territory during the formative years of soul music, when labels across the country were looking to jump on the bandwagon and, just maybe, catch lightening in a bottle with a national hit.  Also consistent with previous Eccentric Soul entries, the accompanying notes are informative and thorough, marred only by a somewhat scattershot organization and some frequently elliptical writing.  But despite these minor flaws, soul music aficionados will surely want to snap up this incredibly rare music, and we can all look forward to Numero’s promised continuation of their survey of Abe Epstein’s enormous legacy of Texas pop music.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins

Sly and the Family Stone – Higher!


Title: Higher!

Artist: Sly and the Family Stone

Label: Legacy

Formats: 4-CD box set, 5-CD Amazon exclusive edition, 8-LP +1 CD box, MP3

Release date:  August 27, 2013


Six years ago Legacy celebrated the 40th anniversary of Sly’s signing to Epic Records by finally reissuing digitally remastered and expanded editions of Sly & The Family Stone’s seven albums (also issued together in The Collection box set). Two years later they released The Woodstock Experience featuring the band’s full festival performance. Now they’ve combed the vault for yet another set which should please fans.

Thankfully, the 77 tracks on Higher! don’t entirely duplicate these previous sets. Though the band’s classic hits from each album are included in stereo, the remainder of the set is filled with mono single mixes, live recordings from the band’s performances at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, and studio outtakes and instrumentals including 17 previously unreleased tracks (with 6 more included on the Amazon exclusive set). Fans will also be happy to note that “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody is a Star,” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which were omitted from The Collection, are included as well.

Among the most interesting tracks are the gems from Sly’s pre-Family Stone period, including his 1964 singles on the Autumn Records label—“I Just Learned How to Swim,” “Scat Swim,” and “Buttermilk (part one),” featuring Sly on vocals, organ, guitar and bass. After Sly left Autumn he formed the Family Stone and the band recorded their first studio demo, “I Ain’t Go Nobody (For Real)” and the flip side “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” which are also included (both were previously issued on Loadstone and later by Ace Records).  The experimental studio outtakes scattered throughout the set are equally fascinating and much more revelatory than the usual alternate takes, shedding light on the creative process. Sly and the band dabble in jazz, gospel, R&B, funk, rock and country while experimenting with different backing tracks.

One of the best features of the set is the 104-page 10×10 book with an introduction by Sly biographer Jeff Kaliss and hundreds of fabulous full-color photos. The extensive track by track details by Edwin and Arno Konings feature quotes from various musicians along with images of the original labels and a band timeline (some of which is apparently excerpted from their forthcoming biography of the band). This book alone makes the set a worthwhile purchase.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Welcome to the May issue

This month we’re featuring Holy hip hop, also known as Christian rap or gospel rap, which blends the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop with overtly Christian lyrics. To learn more about this subgenre of hip hop, be sure to check out the post “Holy Hip Hop 101,” as well as reviews of new CDs by Holy hip hop artists Sha Baraka, FLAME, Phanatak, and shai linne. The Sound of Philadelphia is explored in reviews of two new Legacy releases: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, and a compilation of Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits. A big “thumbs up” is given to Palmystery, the new solo CD by bass player Victor Wooten, perhaps best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Though we gave Miles Davis’s The Complete on the Corner Sessions a brief mention in our “Best of 2007” line-up, we’re running a complete review in this issue. Also featured is The Great Debaters Soundtrack, with contributions by the Carolina Chocolate Drops; The Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 performance by Rev. Gary Davis; and John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, which sheds new light on the field recordings made by the Fisk University professor.

Holy Hip Hop 101

Holy hip hop (also known as Christian rap or Gospel rap) is a type of music resulting from artists using the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop but including overt lyrics professing their Christian faith. The genre developed mainly within the larger framework of Gospel music in the 1980s as artists such as Stephen Wiley, dc Talk, and S.F.C. (Soldiers for Christ) began writing rap music with Christian lyrics. These early Christian rap albums were released by Gospel music labels such as ForeFront Records (now a part of EMI Christian Music Group).

In the 1990s, the genre spread as artists such as The Cross Movement and the Gospel Gangstaz expanded the audience. The Cross Movement, based out of Philadelphia, understands their Christian rap music to be yet another subgenre of the larger hip hop culture. The Gospel Gangstaz, comprised of ex-gang members, represent a number of holy hip hop artists who retain their cultural style, preference, and aesthetics for music making after a marked point of conversion in their spiritual lives. For example, artists such as Bushwick Bill (Geto Boys) and Christopher “Play” Martin (Kid ‘N Play) have transitioned from other subgenres of hip hop to Christian rap in recent years.

Currently, almost all of the major record labels for Christian music release albums that could be considered holy hip hop, but only a few specialize in this genre exclusively. The largest of these is the result of The Cross Movement establishing their own Christian rap label: Cross Movement Records. A number of African American and white American male artists make up the performers of this genre while there are very few female artists in this market. As with most subgenres of Christian popular music, there are many mixed reactions to this style of music from both the church and larger society. Finally, an important aspect of this genre is that a number of internet forums such as www.rapzilla.com, www.holyhiphop.com, and www.hhhdb.com (the holy hip hop data-base), and individual artists’ MySpace pages serve as networks for fans.

The four Holy Hip Hop releases reviewed in this issue represent the products of three independent record labels specializing in HHH from two geographical regions: two from Philadelphia (Cross Movement Records and Lamp Mode Recordings) and one from Dallas (Reach Records). These four albums offer only a small sampling of HHH but shed light on some salient issues and stylistic features of the genre. While the production techniques of HHH appear to have caught up with mainstream abilities, albums in this genre vary in style between albums and from track to track in many individual albums. The lyrical content is expressly Biblically-centered, offering countless vernacular metaphors, specific citations, and general thematic material related to the Christian faith. Within this overt Christian apology, artists’ personal faith tradition and perspectives come to the fore. These HHH artists interact with both the church and their “secular” counterparts by offering general (and sometimes harsh) critiques of actions viewed as ungodly with their favorite target being materialism. Overall, these four albums are well-produced and lyrically interesting examples of a continually emerging musical genre that interacts with both the secular and ecclesial world.

Posted by Mike Lee

John Work III: Recording Black Culture

Title: John Work, III: Recording Black Culture

Artists: Various

Label: Spring Fed Records

Catalog No.: SFR 104

Date: 2007

In 1993 Alan Lomax published his book The Land Where the Blues Began, to great popular and critical acclaim. The book told the story of his collecting adventures in the Mississippi Delta fifty years earlier, “discovering” and recording artists such as Son House, Muddy Waters, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. In their co-edited book Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov detail the larger picture of the same collecting trips made by Lomax in the early 1940s by including the equally large contributions of Fisk University scholars (a collaboration which was almost completely obfuscated in The Land Where the Blues Began) and paying particular attention to the work of John Wesley Work, III. With the release of the CD John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, we now have the music to match the text of Lost Delta Found (through it’s not a companion piece), along with greater evidence of the variety of black musical culture in the early part of the twentieth century.

Recording Black Culture separates its14 tracks into six categories: Social Songs (fiddle and banjo tunes), The Quartets, Work Song, Congregational Singing, Blues, and Colored Sacred Harp (shape note congregational singing). On display here are both secular and sacred musics, though the liner notes indicate Work was mostly interested in secular “folk” musics. The wide range of music that is offered was almost entirely recorded before Work and his Fisk colleagues joined forces with Lomax and the Library of Congress for the trip to the delta. Work’s recordings were done in and around Nashville Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Many of the recordings have poor fidelity (even for historical recordings) and lend some insight as to why Fisk may have contacted the Library of Congress about a joint venture into the Delta: they wanted the more sophisticated equipment used by Lomax. In this regard Work was right, the tracks that surfaced later in Lomax’s collections are much higher in fidelity (e.g., The Land Where the Blues Began Rounder CD) and Work’s recordings are surely more interesting to a scholar than to most casual listeners.

Of the highest fidelity and given five tracks on the compilation are songs of The Quartets, including, with an egalitarian sprite, the Holloway High School Quartet, The Fairfield Four, The Heavenly Gate Quartet (a group of Work’s friends who sang together), and two unnamed groups. Here we have vocal harmony groups singing religious music in jubilee style with tight vocal parts and pulsating rhythms. The intimate sound of the quartets, specifically on the two tracks of the Heavenly Gate Quartet, provide great examples of vernacular presentations of popular stylings of the day, including “If I Had My Way.” Other tracks on the album, such as the congregational version of “Amazing Grace,” are harder to hear and are best left for academic scrutiny rather than pleasure listening. Many of these recordings are of particular interest because of their rarity; for example, the only known recording of blues street musician Joe Holmes singing “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’,” as well as the ulta-rare recordings of fiddle and banjo players Ned Frazier and Frank Patterson that lead off the compilation.

The CD is packaged with comprehensive liner notes written by Bruce Nemerov and aided by archival photos of the people, places, equipment, and songbooks used during this era. Though the recording quality lacks the fidelity of other field collections of the time, and the repertoire is perhaps too wide ranging for some tastes, the packaging and release of this material (a joint effort between local, state, and federal arts agencies) offers further proof of what many musicians have known for years, that rural black music is not, and was never solely the blues.

Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson

Gospel at Christmastime

“Glory, Glory to the New Born King”: Gospel at Christmastime


Today, nearly every popular gospel artist has a Christmas project in his or her catalog. The Mississippi Mass Choir, Luther Barnes, and Yolanda Adams are among those releasing Christmas albums this season. But when did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of “Silent Night,” but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia’s disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years.

The Elkins Mixed Quartette, also known as the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers, is the first known African American sacred group to record a Christmas carol. In 1926, the quartet, organized by William C. Elkins, sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” for Paramount Records. Two years later, the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers of All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago released their only record, a Christmas-themed disc for Vocalion: “Pleading for Me” and “There Was No Room in the Hotel.” The lyrics of the latter no doubt resonated with African Americans living in Jim Crow America, as it described the Holy Family’s futile search for available lodging.[1]

More than a decade later, in 1941, the stalwart Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded the Yuletide spiritual “When Was Jesus Born” for Bluebird. The Middle Georgia Singers sang this same spiritual for the Fort Valley Music Festival in 1943. Captured on tape, the Middle Georgia Singers’ version can be heard for free on the Library of Congress American Memory website.

Although the Soul Stirrers, featuring the classic tenor voice of R.H. Harris, recorded “Silent Night” for Aladdin in 1948, it was the guitar-toting, Pentecostal-bred Sister Rosetta Tharpe who demonstrated the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, Tharpe, accompanied by her new background group, the Rosettes (formerly the Angelic Queens), recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for Decca. The two-sider was a smash hit, hitting #8 on Billboard‘s R&B Hit Singles chart and earning Tharpe and the Rosettes a coveted spot on CBS Television’s Supper Club with Perry Como on January 1, 1950.[2]

While Sister Tharpe’s record took the country by storm, it also took her gospel contemporaries and their record labels by surprise. Autumn 1950 witnessed a flood of Christmas singles by popular gospel singers and quartets. This is when Mahalia Jackson released her timeless arrangement of “Silent Night,” coupled with another Christmas chestnut, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” on Apollo. These were the first of dozens of Christmas recordings Mahalia would make during her career. Not to be outdone, the Ward Singers released their version of “Silent Night” in 1950 (Savoy).

Also in 1950, Philadelphia’s Gotham Records released eight odes to the season by its top gospel sellers, namely Brother Rodney, the Davis Sisters, the Harmonizing Four, and the Angelic Gospel Singers. The Angelics’ “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” became an instant classic. Thereafter, no Christmas program in the African American community would be complete without a performance of “Glory, Glory to the New Born King.” A couple of years later, the Angelics released another Christmas single, “A Child is Born.” The song’s similarity to “Glory, Glory” in melody and arrangement was no coincidence: back then, record companies deliberately created sound-alike versions of hits, hoping that they could strike gold twice.

Eventually, Gotham had sufficient holiday product from its gospel lineup to produce a various artists LP, most likely the first gospel Christmas LP. The album, Gotham X-1, is impossibly rare. Constellation reissued it in the early 1960s as The Christmas Story (SS-106). The album is part of Constellation’s “The Scripture in Song Series,” a seven-album collection of gospel from Gotham’s vaults. Thankfully, the reissue is much easier to find.

Nineteen fifty-one witnessed new Christmas product from Savoy, including the Patterson Singers’ “Jesus, the Light of the World” and “Christmas Morn” by Charles Watkins. Watkins’ gentle crooning of “Christmas Morn” is not as well remembered today as it should be. Truth be told, had race relations been better back then, Watkins’ version would have climbed the pop charts, it’s just that good. Charles Watkins was that good. He later became a Bishop in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

That same year, Sister Tharpe’s protégé Marie Knight delivered a double-sided Christmas single of her own for Decca (“Adeste Fideles”/”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”). In 1953, the Pilgrim Travelers gave Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” an uncharacteristically morose treatment. While Bing’s original articulated the wistful yearnings of World War II soldiers, the Travelers’ version suggested a darker and less optimistic mood surrounding the Korean Conflict. Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith heralded the coming of a new decade by releasing a beautiful Christmas LP on Savoy in 1959. Marion’s “O Holy Night” in particular enchanted many a music critic.

Christmas gospel-style reached its apex in 1962 when Vee Jay Records issued the original soundtrack album of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. The Christmas musical starring the Alex Bradford Singers, the aforementioned Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart was a sensation: it toured Europe and continues to be presented the world over. Another full-length ode to Christmas released in 1962 came from a group that formerly recorded for Vee Jay. The Staple Singers’ marvelous The Twenty-Fifth Day of December was released on the group’s new label, Riverside, with Vee Jay-era accompanists Maceo Woods and Al Duncan on organ and drums, respectively. In Cincinnati, the Galatian Singers crafted a Yuletide LP of their own for King Records.

In 1963, Vee Jay released a various artists album called A Treasury of Golden Christmas Songs, featuring holiday fare by gospel artists under contract to the label, such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, Caravans, and Charles Taylor. One lone track by the Gospel Clefs, the frenetic “Mary’s Boy Child,” has long confused collectors, since the Clefs were not Vee Jay recording artists. A review of Vee Jay internal documents, however, suggests that the company considered signing the Savoy artists at the time the Christmas LP was compiled, but the deal was never consummated.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson released Christmas Carols and Good Gospels for Peacock in 1967, an album that included a chilling version of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” In 1968, Checker Records released singles and an album of classic and new Christmas songs from its stable of artists, including the Soul Stirrers, Meditation Singers, and Salem Travelers, the latter two neatly folding anti-war sentiments into their holiday lyrics. Meanwhile, Brother Joe May, James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and countless other artists contributed singles and LPs to the gospel Christmas catalog throughout the 1960s.[3]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a stream of Christmas releases by artists such as Singing Sammy Lewis, the Gospel Keynotes, and various artists collections from Peacock, Malaco, and New Jersey-based Glori Records. Even Chicago’s venerable First Church of Deliverance choir contributed an EP of Christmas cheer. Among the Clark Sisters’ early LPs for the Sound of Gospel label was a Christmas album, New Dimensions of Christmas Carols, although it does not represent their finest work. In 1985, Edwin Hawkins released The Edwin Hawkins Family Christmas for Birthright, a project that featured Richard Smallwood’s “Follow the Star.” This breathtaking piece presaged the majestic beauty of Smallwood’s later compositions, such as “I Love the Lord” and “Total Praise.”

Sadly, the Hawkins album, like so many others mentioned in this essay, remains out of print and was never reissued. Still, each Christmas recording extended the tradition begun by the Elkins Mixed Quartette 81 years ago.

Posted by Bob Marovich (Copyright 2007 by Robert M. Marovich)

[1] Dixon, Robert M.W., Godrich, John, and Rye, Howard W. Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943. 1964, 1969, 1982, 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.[2] Wald, Gayle F. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.[3] Hayes, Cedric J. and Laughton, Robert. The Gospel Discography, 1943-1970. Vancouver: Eyeball Productions, 2007 (this was reviewed in the July 2007 issue of Black Grooves). Editor’s note: see also Bob Marovich’s contribution to the December 2006 issue of Black Grooves, titled The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas.

Art of Love and War

angie.jpgTitle: The Art of Love and War
Artist: Angie Stone
Label: Stax
Catalog No.: 30146
Date: 2007

In every genre of music there are those artists who never really break through to super stardom, but their consistent presence and artistry makes them a reliable source of good music. Angie Stone is one of those artists. I remember first hearing her sultry, yet definitely church-trained voice as a part of the group Vertical Hold. Although the group was short-lived, their moderate hit “Seems to Much to Busy” introduced R&B fans to Angie’s distinctive and skillful vocal style.

Throughout her career Angie has continued to find success with her solo work as well as through collaboratiions with artists like D’Angelo, Rapahel Saadiq, Lenny Kravitz, Omar, and Joss Stone. If you go back and listen to D’Angelo’s two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, you can hear Angie-esque intricate vocal arrangements throughout both projects. Seemingly always available to work with others, the quality of her music has rarely suffered. She has steadily created music that is reminiscent of an R&B era where the vocals and lyrics were the central appeal of the songs.

Her latest release The Art of Love & War is a collection of fourteen songs that deal with the convoluted emotions that often accompany love and relationships. But generally, Angie sounds pretty upbeat about love and her tone on most of the tracks reflects that type of positivity. Yet some versatility is displayed on the album. Ballads like “Sit Down” and “Pop Pop” show a tender and introspective side of Angie Stone while the song”Baby,” featuring the legendary Betty Wright, is a sassy retrospective of an ended love affair. The album even has a racially uplifting duet, “My People,” featuring James Ingram.

Here’s the “Baby” video featuring Angie Stone & Betty Wright (Courtesy of Stax)

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The thing about an Angie Stone is that if you’ve listened to her before, you’ll always know what you’re getting. That type of consistency is both good and bad because I, as a listener, am rarely disappointed but also rarely surprised. But after listening to The Art of Love and War, I do come away with a seamless listening experience, and the really great vocal and instrumental arrangements remind me of why I own every Angie Stone record. In the end, Angie Stone fans will really like The Art of Love and War, and those who have never checked her out before will hear what they’ve been missing.

Posted by fredara mareva

Songs About Girls

will.jpgTitle: Songs About Girls
Artist: will.i.am
Label: Interscope Records
Catalog No.: 602517468245 (UPC)
Date: 2007

Who is will.i.am? While he is arguably one of the most talented young producers around, legions of fans know him as the quirky and hyper frontman for the Black Eyed Peas (BEP). Well, my fan relationship with will.i.am is a little longer and more complicated that that. I became a fan of BEP when they debuted in 1998 with Behind the Front. The Los Angeles based group’s funkier sound on singles like “That’s the Joint” reminded me of earlier L.A. beatnik hip hop groups like the Pharcyde. So of course I stayed with them when they released Bridging the Gap in 1998 and I took advantage of opportunities to see them perform live. As soon as I saw them in concert, it became obvious that will.i.am was the soul of the group. That didn’t change when they brought in the singer Fergie in 2003. But that artistic shift from a more hip hop-centered sound to a more hip hop pop sound was probably my point of departure with BEP.

Despite the musical changes BEP made, I always kept an ear out for what production work will.i.am was doing because he has always had interesting musical ideas. I knew he was a great keyboardist and organist and I was a fan of his first full-length production album Lost Change. His production credits show a rare musical diversity. Just a sample of his projects includes: John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” Busta Rhymes’ “I Love My Chick,” Justin Timberlake’s “Damn Girl,” The Game’s “Compton,” and Common’s “I Want You,” as well as Santana’s “I Am Somebody” and Sergio Mendes’ “Timeless.” On top of that impressive resume he’s rumored to be working on both Whitney Houston’s and Michael Jackson’s comeback projects. Good choice.

But its 2007 and he’s released his much anticipated solo album, Songs About Girls– a really good hip hop pop album with some interesting songs mixed in. It’s not as innovative or obtuse as Lost Change (2001), and most of the songs are not quite as good as those he has produced for other artists. But listening to this album gives you a taste of the many musical sides of will.i.am. “Impatient” shows will.i.am’s electro-funk side, reminiscient of Jamiroquai during A Funk Odyssey, while “I Got it From My Mama” reminds me of some of the later BEP songs. will.i.am didn’t do all the work on the album- he collaborated with current hitmaking producer Polow da Don on “She’s A Star” and “Aint it Pretty” and with Fernando Garibay on “Donque Song” and “One More Chance.” The presence of both producers compliments what is going on during the rest of the album.

Songs About Girls has an intangible quality that unites a very diverse group of songs. Its hard to say which songs are better than others, because each one seems to conjure a different mood. But maybe that’s part of what has made will.i.am such a successful producer-he’s able to evoke many moods through the music he makes. In the end, Songs About Girls is a kaleidoscope showing different facets of what will.i.am is able to offer, and for a longtime fan like me, somehow will.i.am has made it all come together.

Posted by fredara mareva

Messin’ Around Blues

blythe.jpgTitle: Messin’ Around Blues
Artist: Jimmy Blythe
Label: Delmark
Catalog No.: DE 792
Date: 2007

Delmark has just released a CD of “enhanced pianola rolls” recorded in Chicago in the late 1920s by Jimmy Blythe (one of the first boogie woogie pianists) for the Capitol Music Roll Company’s Nickelodeon series. Around 1970, Paul Affeldt, publisher of Jazz Report magazine, decided to release this material for the first time on LP as part of his Euphonic Sound label (named after his favorite Scott Joplin rag). Working with collector Bill Burkhardt of Grand Rapids, Michigan (who loaned the four rare Nickelodeon rolls) and using a restored player piano, Affeldt and fellow piano roll enthusiast Ed Sprankle meticulously recorded the rolls and released them as part of a two LP set also featuring Clarence Johnson. Delmark acquired the Euphonic master tapes from Affeldt (who passed away in 2003), and has been reissuing the digitally remastered material on CDs (though several of these reissues are clearly labeled “Euphonic series” in the Delmark catalog, Messin’ Around Blues is not labeled as such- at least not on the CD).

Jimmy Blythe was born in Kentucky in 1901 and moved to Chicago as a teenager (sometime between 1915-1918), where he studied with Clarence Jones. By the early 1920s he was well established in the South Side clubs as a ragtime and boogie woogie pianist. Library of Congress copyright records show that he also composed at least 40 compositions between 1922 and 1930, including five works featured on this CD: “Steppin’ On the Gas” (1925), “Forty Blues” (1926), “My Baby” (1927), “I Won’t Give You None” (1929), and “The Folks Down-Stairs” (1930). In addition, Blythe was also extremely active as a recording artist for the Paramount, Vocalion, and Gennett labels, performing both solos and duets, and backing up musicians ranging from Ma Rainey and Blind Blake to Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds. His song, “Chicago Stomp,” recorded for Paramount in 1924, is generally considered to be the first recorded example of boogie woogie (according to the liner notes, though earlier examples have been cited elsewhere; see John Tennison’s excellent website on the history of boogie woogie piano). Apparently Blythe made even more piano rolls than 78s- at least 200 for Capitol and its subsidiary labels alone- and these include some of his hottest solo performances.

For those not familiar with piano rolls, there are two types: those which were arranged (i.e., punched by hand by a talented arranger), and those which were played by a pianist sitting at a special recording piano, which faithfully transferred the notes, in tempo, onto a roll. The latter technique, developed around 1915, was employed for all of the Blythe piano rolls, essentially capturing a “live” performance (though some note correcting and doctoring could still be done after the fact). These piano rolls complement Blythe’s solo recordings released on 78s (most were reissued by RST on Chronological Order Piano Solos, 1924-1931), and allow for a much broader study of the artist.

Delmark has done a superb job of remastering the tapes; in fact, its hard to believe that these are not modern recordings (hats off to Frank Himpsl, the restoration engineer). Notable tracks include “Sugar Dew Blues” (a12-bar blues solo with a walking bass), “Function Blues” (a piano duet, though the second artist was never identified), and “Black Gal Make it Thunder,” a great South Side boogie woogie number. I must point out that much of this information comes from the original LP liner notes by Ed Sprankle (sent to me by Delmark along with the CD), which are a treasure trove of information about piano rolls and early Chicago jazz. Its regrettable that Delmark didn’t reprint the notes in their entirety; the extremely brief notes by Bob Koester only paraphrase portions of Sprankle’s original text. Regardless, Messin’ Around Blues is essential for anyone interested in early ragtime and boogie woogie piano. If you purchase the CD, just try to get your hands on a copy of the original notes!

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Afro Strut

Title: Afro Strut
Artist: Amp Fiddler
Label: Play It Again Sam (U.S. Edition)
Catalog No.: 32
Date: 2007

Combining elements of both hip hop and techno, along with funky groove lines and soulful, intelligent lyrics, Amp Fiddler‘s second album, Afro Strut, will not disappoint. With this new album, Amp Fiddler delivers an outstanding follow-up to his first solo project, Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, which was released in 2004. Though he has only recently pursued a career as a solo artist, he’s been in the music business for more than twenty years, and this experience is demonstrated throughout his first two albums.

Joseph “Amp” Fiddler is a keyboard player, singer, songwriter and producer from Detroit. He learned piano as a child, studied music at Oakland and Wayne State Universities, and toured with George Clinton as keyboardist for more than ten years. Fiddler references his Detroit origin in his use of soul, funk and techno-all genres which are part of Detroit’s musical heritage. This combination of musical genres also shows the influence of the artists he has worked with throughout his career, including Prince, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jamiroquai, Carl Craig and Moodyman, as well as George Clinton.

This CD is actually the U.S. edition of the original Afro Strut album. Though Amp Fiddler is based in the U.S., he had been without a domestic record deal for some time, so the album was first released in the U.K. in 2006 (on the Genuine label), arriving in the U.S. about a year later. The U.S. edition of Afro Strut is not simply a re-release of the UK version, but features several changes, including five new tracks not found anywhere else. Three songs from the UK version are also replaced on the US version. One of the featured new tracks is a duet with Grammy nominated artist Corinne Bailey-Rae, titled “If I Don’t”, and showcases a jazzy, 1930s influence. This track originally appeared on the UK version as a solo, but was re-recorded with Bailey-Rae for the US release. The first track on the album, “Faith”, is an ode to spirituality featuring Fiddler in a duet with Raphael Saadiq. All tracks on the album, except for track 8, were written by Amp Fiddler, sometimes in collaboration with other artists. Fiddler also performed ‘vocals and keys’ on each track on the album.

At the 2007 Detroit Music Awards, Amp Fiddler won in three categories: Outstanding Electronic/Dance Artist, Outstanding Electronic/Dance Producer and Outstanding Urban/Funk/Hip Hop Recording for Afro Strut. Watch for more great music from Amp Fiddler, as I believe he will continue to produce amazing albums.

Posted by Meaghan Reef

Editor’s note: a representative sample of Amp Fiddler’s music videos are available on YouTube, including “Right Where You Are” (the first single released from Afro Strut), “If I Don’t” (the duet with Corinne Bailey-Rae), and “Ridin‘” (laid over a great compilation of old movie clips). Unfortunately there’s no clip yet of “Hey Joe,” his killer reworking of the Jimi Hendrix song.