Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – Close But No Cigar

organ trio
Title: Close But No Cigar

Artist: Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio

Label: Colemine

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: March 2, 2018

 

 

Early March brought a strong debut album by Seattle’s Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, featuring guitarist Jimmy James, drummer David McGraw, and of course Lamarr on B-3. This group performs standard organ trio fare, and has obviously honed its own approach by careful listening to masters of the format.

There are two sides to the organ trio format, one represented by bebop-heavy shredders like Joey Defrancesco and another more gospel-inflected soulful camp, influenced by players like Jimmy McGriff. Lamarr’s group decidedly falls into the latter, a detail that would be noticeable from a passing glance at Close But No Cigar’s tracklist. Tunes include “Little Booker T” and “Memphis,” both reminiscent of the legendary soul organist Booker T Jones’s work for the Stax label, as well as “Al Greenery,” a number that approximates the gospel sound of the titular Rev. Green. Here’s a studio performance of the title track:

Lamarr and company are very good at imitating the grooves of famous musicians, but the group has more than imitative works up its collective sleeves. Each tune on this record is drenched in hot buttered soul, as culinary-themed groovers like “Between the Mayo and the Mustard” and “Raymond Brings the Greens” would suggest. These tracks are riff-based organ jams that feature not only Lamarr’s skillful mastery of the percussive qualities of his instrument, but also skillful manipulation of two chord vamps by James and McGraw and some downright delicious soloing by James (including what sounds like a quote from David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” on the latter).

Organ trios are all about timbre, combining three instruments with myriad layers of overtones, and this group features great tones all around.  It’s impossible to beat the rich sound of Lamarr’s B3 contrasting James’s biting guitar tone over McGraw’s colorful palate on the drum kit. No player appears to aim for virtuosic soloing. Rather, the group simmers its grooves, entering and exiting smoothly—the solos end but the jams go on.

The record concludes with a retro-soul rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” that sounds like it could have been recorded by the legendary Stax studio band itself.  All in all, the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio doesn’t make any radical changes to the organ trio format, but Close But No Cigar is a worthy entry in this always listenable genre.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Reggie Young – Young Street

Young
Title: Young Street

Artist: Reggie Young

Label: RGY

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: July 11, 2017

 

 

I must come clean—next to trumpet, the bass is my second favorite instrument. So I also must admit, I was unfamiliar with Reggie Young. When I think of bass players, I think of Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, Will Lee, Sir Paul McCartney. Reggie Young, where have you been hiding, my man?

Hailing from New York, Young is a Grammy Award winning session bassist who has performed with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Paul Shaffer, Stevie Wonder, Will.I.Am, and Reuben Studdard. His latest project, Young Street, is funk with a touch of jazz, rock, soul and even Bazilian bossa nova.

Young Street opens with the title cut featuring Young on bass, Garnett Walters on the B3, and Bill Hollerman on horns. I’m certain this track made the cut on urban jazz radio. I personally enjoy when an artist can step out of their comfort zone and throw a curve ball at you. The track “Naima” is just that—a composition by John Coltrane that would intimidate some. Not Reggie Young. He goes in on it, not to one up the great Trane, but more to show that he’s not a one trick pony. Speaking of which, you can find Young singing over his bass riffs on the funky “Alright With Me” and the lush strings on “Magic.”

Reggie Young has accomplished great deal even if he’s not a household name. No more hiding Reggie, I know where to find you now.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

History of Baltimore R&B Explored on The Ru-Jac Records Story

Within the rather crowded field of reissue labels, some are truly dedicated to producing well-curated, expertly remastered, authoritatively annotated and handsomely packaged sets that bring to light long out-of-print recordings. One of these labels is Omnivore Recordings, a relative newcomer whose projects been featured on our pages before. Founded in Los Angeles in 2010 by four industry veterans, the group is led by former Rhino executive and producer Cheryl Pawelski, who has a long track record producing and supervising reissues and box sets. True to the company’s name, Omnivore has been avidly releasing projects across multiple music genres. One of their latest acquisitions is the master catalog of Ru-Jac Records.

Though soul music fans in the Washington, D.C. corridor are likely familiar with Baltimore’s Ru-Jac label, it is not so well known outside the region. Founded in 1963 by local promoter Rufus Mitchell and investor Jack Bennett, Ru-Jac was a singles-only label, releasing music from regional soul/R&B artists until 1980. Omnivore has already spun off a couple of albums featuring the label’s biggest artists—Winfield Parker (Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac) and the duo Gene & Eddie on True Enough (previously reviewed in Black Grooves). Now Omnivore is offering The Ru-Jac Records Story: a four volume compilation produced by Pawelski and Baltimore soul historian Kevin Coombe, with additional assistance from Ru-Jac’s Winfield Parker. All selections have been meticulously restored by Michael Graves from original master tapes or, where masters were missing, from the cleanest copies of 45s available. Previously unreleased material discovered on session tapes and lacquer discs is also included. Following are brief reviews of each volume produced by this fantastic team.

 

Ru-Jac vol. 1
Title: Something Got a Hold on Me: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 1, 1963-1964

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

As the story of Ru-Jac Records unfolds, Rufus Mitchell owns a tailoring/dry cleaning establishment, but also enjoys a more entertaining pastime hustling gigs as a concert promoter. Spurred by the success of his younger brother, jazz trumpeter Richard “Blue” Mitchell, Rufus sees opportunity in the growing number of area musicians seeking publishers and record labels. After establishing Ace Booking & Promotions, he starts booking Washington, D.C. area talent, and soon he’s also handling regional distribution and arranging radio airplay for artists signed to the local Start label. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell is motivated to build his own record label, and starts churning out the singles.

Volume 1 opens with the smoking hot instrumental “Fatback,” an unissued, undated take by the Lamont Esquires, one of the early bands signed to Ace. Nine additional previously unissued tracks are also featured on Volume 1, including two by unidentified groups (the title track convincingly sung by a male vocalist and the rhythm and blues instrumental “Trash Can”); five by lesser known artists (the best of these are Flattop Bobby & The Soul Twisters’ “Cross Track” and Jeanne Dee’s “Every Day I Have the Blues); plus two from Baltimore’s more established artists—Winfield Parker (“One of These Mornings”) and the Jolly Jax trio (“Joe”). Other highlights on this disc include the slow ballads “I Love You So” by Jessie Crawford and the Kay Keys Band, and “When I’m Alone” by Winfield Parker. The vocal styles of Brenda Jones are nicely revealed through the jazzy “That’s All You Have to Do” and the teen-oriented “Let’s Go Back to School,” an R&B dance song written by Baltimore icon Ethel Ennis. Ru-Jac’s sole gospel single by the Fruitful Harmonizers features the songs “Take Care of Me” and “My Father Watches Over Me.” Last but not least, there’s Marie Allen backed by The Teardrops Band on the gritty rock and roll song “Crying Won’t Help You,” plus Little Sonny Daye and The Shyndells Band (featuring a great guitarist) performing “I’m Through With You.”

 

Ru-Jac vol. 2
Title: Get Right: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 2, 1964-1966

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 19, 2018

 

Volume 2 of the Ru-Jac Records story opens with four more tracks from Brenda Jones, including the single “It Must Be Love” as well as the unissued backing track for that song. Winfield Parker returns with an unissued demo of “I Love You Just the Same,” followed by a more fleshed out, uptempo version of the same accompanied by The Shyndells Band.

A side story explored in this volume is Mitchell’s relationship with talent agent Lillian Claiborne, who operated another important regional label, DC Records. Around 1965, Ru-Jac began pressing singles for some of Claiborne’s artists. Singles by two of her groups are included here. The Mask Man & the Cap-Tans “Love Can Do Wonders” calls to mind several of today’s retro soul groups, while “Chicken Wings” is a hard bopping dance number grounded by the Hammond B3. “Come On Over” by the Neltones is a scorching soul ballad, while the flip side “C’est La Vie” is more light hearted with tight vocal harmonies by the back-up singers.

Organist “Butch” Randolph, Jr. (who later backed Stanley Turrentine) can be heard in Butch Cornell’s Trio. These jazzier sides feature Cornell on the Hammond B3 in “Goose Pimples,” which gained popularity on local radio station WWIN. Two versions are included here, and it’s the unissued alternate take that captures attention with its complex textures and prominent organ.

Shirley Grant of The Soul Sisters & Brother (guitarist Clarence Grant) released just one single for Ru-Jac of gospel-inflected soul: “What More? (Can Anyone Wait)” and “You Don’t Really Care.” The latter showcases Clarence’s guitar perhaps a bit too much, as it sometimes distracts from the vocals.

Arthur Lee Conley, who migrated to Baltimore from rural Georgia as a teenager, was one of the most successful singer-songwriters on the Ru-Jac roster due to his relationship with Otis Redding, who mentored the young singer. To make a long story short, after Redding tried to sign Conley to his own label, there was a falling out with Ru-Jac. Now, decades later, two of Conley’s unissued demos have been unearthed. “Whole Lotta Woman” (not the 1958 rockabilly version) and “Hiding Out in the Blue Shadows” are interesting selections (especially the former) that add to Conley’s story.

Also included are two jazzier tracks by Bobby Sax & His Housekeepers: the uptempo sax workout “Get Right,” and “Soul at Last,” a slow burner with a trumpet solo very reminiscent of Etta James’ signature song “At Last.” The set concludes with two outstanding tracks by Harold Holt, including the scorching soul ballad “I’m a Stranger.”

 

Ru-Jac vol. 3
Title: Finally Together: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 3, 1966-1967

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

As Volume 3 opens, Rufus Mitchell’s other commitments begin to interfere with the label, slowing the stream of releases to a trickle. These 1966 sides include the more sophisticated vocal stylings of Baltimore’s Rita Doryse, including an unissued version of “Born To Be Loved” that harkens back to an earlier ‘60s R&B sound, plus the jazzy, uptempo “Goodie Goodie.” As business picks up again in 1967, a promising single is released by Kitty Lane, who started her career as the Ace/Ru-Jac office manager and later sang back-up for Otis Redding. Lane’s “It’s Love I Need” has a delightful finger-snapping hard-grooving intro, while “Sweetheart” showcases her soulful side. She switches styles again on “The Feeling Is Gone,” a bluesy unissued take with a standout guitarist—this track should have seen the light of day.

Leon Gibson, a soul shouter from Georgia, spent nearly a decade in Charm City exploring different ventures.  He cut one single for Ru-Jac with “Do The Roller,” an uptempo dance tune that mimics James Brown’s “The Popcorn” but with a lot more cowbell. The duo Gene & Eddie might not be equivalent to Stax artists Sam & Dave, but their slow ballad, “I Would Cry,” is persuasively sung and complimented by an excellent horn section. Sir Joe, aka songwriter/arranger Joe Quarterman, is featured on “Nobody Beats My Love,” which features terrific trumpet playing throughout (possibly by Joe?).

Winfield Parker returns with three previously unreleased tracks, including two fairly rough demos, and the standout single “Sweet Little Girl” backed by The Shyndells Band. We’re given a further glimpse of The Shyndells’ talents on two unissued instrumentals, including the blazing fast dance track “Lightning (Part 1).” Other unissued tracks with unidentified singers are included, the best of which is “Searching”—a rocking, gospel-infused song by a female soul singer that really blows. The disc concludes with the sole single by The Caressors, a vocal harmony group about which little is known, and the unremarkable sides don’t inspire further research.

 

Ru-Jac vol. 4
Title: Changes: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume 4, 1967-1980

Artist: Various

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: February 2, 2018

 

Volume 4 encompasses a decade roiled by social, economic and political change. On the musical side, there is change as well: rhythm and blues gets a whole lot funkier. But this doesn’t happen overnight. As the set opens in the late ‘60s, the Winfield Parker and Gene & Eddie tracks include just a few James Brown-style grunts, while Sir Joe’s “Every Day (I’ll Be Needing You)” features a funkier backing band, and the Fred Martin Revue brings a little more heat and a lot of B3 to “I Know It’s Going To Happen” (1970) and “Contagious.” The latter is an instrumental bearing a Booker T influence with a dash of rock guitar.

The rock influences continue on “Changes Part 1” by the band Saturday, which also drips with Southern soul, and on “Sugar” by Fred Martin Jr. which retains an R&B horn section. More changes are brought by the Dynamic Corvettes, who offer a very funky pair of sides. “Keep Off the Grass” has a B3 groove and Curtis Mayfield vibe while “It’s A Trap” has a definite Blacksploitation influence (“no one can escape from the man”).

The song “Days May Come, Days May Go” is covered by two artists: a smooth R&B rendition by Francine Long and a funkier instrumental track by Utopian Concept. This volume closes with a pair of singles featuring gritty soul singer Willie Mason with the Fred Martin Revue, and the jazzier vocalist Johnny Dotson.


 

Anyone interested in the regional music scene surrounding Baltimore, Maryland, will enjoy The Ru-Jac Records Story four volume set. At times the music may be a bit raw and under-produced; however, these 45 sides a provide a marvelous overview of unheralded as well as better known artists from the Charm City.  Consequently, they should be relished for their local flavor, right alongside those Maryland crab cakes.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

 

 

 

David Murray feat. Saul Williams – Blues for Memo

David Murray
Title: Blues for Memo

Artist: David Murray feat. Saul Williams

Label: Motema Music

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: February 2, 2018

 

 

Released just in time for Black History Month, Blues for Memo is a new album by saxophonist David Murray and poet Saul Williams.  Williams and Murray met in 2014 at the funeral of the revolutionary poet Amiri Baraka, at which Williams performed a poem and Murray (who worked with Baraka in the past) was in attendance. The chance encounter led to a collaboration between the two artists, with Williams sending Murray a collection of poems to set to music.

Like Baraka, Williams is a challenging poet. He is socially and politically engaged and consistently employs images that are a gut punch to listeners. The tracks on Blues for Memo feature Williams doing what he does best, stringing together images that address topics ranging from politics to the nature of consciousness. On “Cycles and Seasons,” Williams thrives on juxtaposition of large concepts, such as dietary tradition and health to capitalism and forced labor.  “Deep in Me” takes on cosmic themes, with lyrics that consider volcanic, geologic and cosmic time in relationship to individuals’ perception of the universe.

 

On the track “Obe,” Murray and his outstanding band match dissonant bebop with lyrics that take on what Williams critiques as a cultural self-obsession, asking whether a variety of pursuits are “self-actualization or self-image actualization.” “Red Summer” is a gospel-inflected ballad about racially-influenced killings of African Americans, from the Mother Emanuel Baptist Church massacre to the wave of police killings of unarmed Black men and boys that sparked a national conversation about continuing systemic racism in American society.

Murray’s task is a difficult one—to compose an appropriate soundtrack to the complex, emotionally-charged themes that Williams adeptly addresses throughout the course of this album. Murray achieves this goal handily — even the instrumental numbers on this album are delivered with the perfect tone. For instance, the heartfelt “Blues for Memo,” a tribute to Istanbul’s jazz legend Mehmet “Memo” Ulug, is solemn and joyous simultaneously, incorporating sounds that “Memo” likely would have appreciated, including elements from blues as well as Turkish music. The latter is provided by Aytac Dogan on kanun, a middle-eastern zither.

Williams and Murray are joined by an overall outstanding cast of musicians, including Dogan, Orrin Evans (piano), Nasheet Waits (drums), Jaribu Shahid (bass), Craig Harris (trombone), Pervis Evans (Vocals), Jason Moran (Fender Rhodes), and Mingus Murray (guitar). Overall, Blues for Memo is both musically beautiful and conceptually challenging, an album best explored gradually and one which holds enough details for listeners to continually return for something as yet unheard.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Stax 60th Anniversary Releases

Stax

Just in time for Black Music Month, Concord Music Group announces its Stax Records 60th Anniversary celebration.  The year long celebration will include new hits compiliations as well as remastered vinyl offerings and brand new box sets with rare deep cuts from the Stax catalog.  Great tracks from artists like Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, The Staple Singer, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & The MGs and of course Otis Redding will be revisited during the year.

For those of us who are well steeped in the most popular output of the record label, Stax 60th also promises some surprises: a re-release of the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song which features music by Earth, Wind & Fire in their pre-That’s The Way Of the World orientation; a box set spanning Isaac Hayes’ catalog from 1962-1976; and a new fourth volume of their acclaimed Complete Stax Singles box sets. This new box set will include lots of music from Stax’s subsidiary labels like Volt, Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and others.  While much of this music is being kept alive and well in Memphis at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy, it’s a great time to make sure the whole world remembers what made the music from Stax Records so special. We’ll be reviewing these new releases in the near future.

Levon Williams

Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration

Mavis
Title: Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration

Artist: Various

Label: Blackbird Presents

Formats: CD, MP3, DVD

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

This exciting release is a star-studded celebration of Mavis Staples, honoring her 75th birthday and the soul music that shaped her career. Presented on both video and audio formats, this concert performance was recorded live at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on November 19, 2014. Each song features a line-up of special guest musicians performing with Mavis and her All-Star Band directed by Grammy Award-winner Don Was. Accomplished country, soul, and R&B musicians such as the late Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo, Emmylou Harris, and Aaron Neville take the stage alongside up-and-coming generations of rock, folk, and soul musicians like Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, Grace Potter, and Glen Hansard.

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The live concert exhibits high energy in every song and is certainly worth viewing for an all-consuming soulful experience. The show opens as Joan Osborne steps out on stage performing “You’re Driving Me (To The Arms of a Stranger)” followed by Keb’ Mo’ on “Heavy Makes You Happy.” A camera occasionally sets its focus off-stage on Mavis Staples’ joyful smile as she sings and dances along with the music.

From Buddy Miller’s “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” to Taj Mahal’s “Wade In The Water,” each performance adopts Christian themes and engages with gospel influences. Many of the songs featured in this concert, such as Michael McDonald’s “Freedom Highway” and Eric Church’s “Eyes On The Prize,” reflect Mavis’s dedication to the Civil Rights Movement when she sang with the Staple Singers. Aaron Neville’s gentle voice sweetly complements while sharply contrasts Mavis’ unrivaled iconic vocals on “Respect Yourself.”

Between songs on the DVD release, the guest artists share their appreciation for Mavis Staples and her creative contributions to soul and R&B music. Her commitment to quality and giving her best with every performance can be seen in her energy on stage and engagement with the audience, especially on her solo song, “I’ll Take You There.” The full ensemble on “The Weight” combines the spirit of the night in one final and satisfying crowd-pleaser. This explosive collection of renowned musicians sharing the stage to honor Mavis Staples feels like the greatest birthday party you would not want to miss. Luckily, you can catch the concert when it will be aired on the cable network AXS TV on June 4th.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

JC Brooks – The Neon Jungle

JC Brooks
Title: The Neon Jungle

Artist: JC Brooks

Label: Rock Ridge Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 7, 2017

 

JC Brooks’ Neon Jungle seeks to take the listener on a journey through the nightlife. In fact, Brooks had a specific image in mind: “It’s ‘87, you’re going out on a Friday night and you’re ready to lose yourself in the city…” The album really succeeds in building on this scenario with songs like “Drive” and “Stumble in the Dark,” both of which have a very danceable feel that bubbles with the excitement of an evening where opportunity abounds.  However, the album also features more contemplative tracks like the opener “Jungle” and the ballad “Playing With Fire,” both evoking the vocal stylings of Donald Fagen of Steely Dan who Brooks cites as an influence.

While “JC Brooks” headlines, his backing band also contributes to the very cohesive feel of the record. They complement each other and Brooks on songs like the very funky “O.N.O.” Brooks takes on a Prince influenced falsetto while his band tightens up, making this one of the liveliest and most enjoyable tracks on the record.  On “One For Someone,” Brooks slows things down again for an inspired song that showcases his vocals and songwriting, with the added bonus of a great guitar solo by Alec Lehrman.

The album’s closer, “Watch Me,” blends a great story with great music. Brooks spikes the bridge with the message, “We are all currently losing this game of love / because we are searching out something brand new / when slightly used will most certainly do,” leaving those who are not too caught up in dancing to really think about what message Brooks is trying to send.

All in all, Neon Jungle succeeds in creating the feeling of a night out that’s full of both exciting and intimate moments.

Reviewed by Levon Williams

Hannah Williams & The Affirmations – Late Nights & Heartbreak

hannah
Title: Late Nights & Heartbreak

Artist: Hannah Williams & The Affirmations

Label: Record Kicks

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

 

The UK indie soul singer Hannah Williams received high praise for her 2012 debut album, A Hill of Feathers, from soul greats such as Charles Bradley and the recently deceased Sharon Jones. Williams even opened for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings once, which set her off on a European tour and newfound success. Her sophomore album, Late Nights & Heartbreak, steps it up a notch with the help of producer Malcolm Catto, the drummer for the Heliocentrics, and her new Bristol-based band The Affirmations.

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Catto (who has produced albums for artists such as Mulatu Atatke and Melvin Van Peebles) brings his psychedelic funk and jazz flavor to Williams’ work on songs such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Fighting Your Shadow.”  The addition of The Affirmations to her music and tour is new to Williams, and their tight groove really completes the album. Williams also explores the intermingling of gospel and soul in the harmonious background choruses on songs such as “Tame in the Water.” It is clear that Hannah Williams is going places, and is not afraid to adventure into new styles and collaborations while holding on to her soulful voice that has taken her so far.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

Miss Sharon Jones – Documentary and OST Album

miss-sharon-jones
Title: Miss Sharon Jones

Label: Anchor Bay

Format: DVD, Streaming

Release date: November 1, 2016

 

 

 

Title: Miss Sharon Jones, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Label: Daptone
Format: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: August 19, 2016

Of the many musical titans to have passed on in 2016, Sharon Jones was one of the best. With a one of a kind voice and an undeniable stage presence, Jones made her career as a soul singer captivating audiences all over the world. Miss Sharon Jones (2015), directed by Barbara Kopple, details both her battle with pancreatic cancer and her triumphant comeback with her backing band The Dap-Kings.  In addition to the documentary, Daptone released the original soundtrack album featuring Jones’s music, with several of the tracks coming from her landmark 2007 album with the Dap-Kings, 100 Days 100 Nights.  Other tracks include “Longer and Stronger,” from the 2010 soundtrack For Colored Girls, as well as “I’m Still Here,” an exclusive track for the documentary and also the last song released by Jones before her passing.  Overall, Miss Sharon Jones and the accompanying soundtrack album serve as a fitting send off to a musical icon.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

Will Downing – Black Pearls

will-downing
Title: Black Pearls

Artist: Will Downing

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 8, 2016

 

Why isn’t Will Downing (aka the “Prince of Sophisticated Soul”) a bigger name in music? Yes, Will has his fans, but he definitely flies under the radar and that’s a shame. If you aren’t hip to Downing, then you are missing out on perhaps one of the best vocalists in the game today.

On his latest album, Black Pearls, Downing pays homage to female vocalists who have inspired him over the years. When I read the press on this CD, I just knew one of those vocalists would be Aretha Franklin. Wrong! No Lady Soul. Like Downing, many of these female vocalists also flew under the radar when they were in their prime. Why? Who knows, but perhaps the labels never knew how to market and promote them.

Downing, who sounds a lot Luther Vandross on all ten tracks, does a “Luther job” on this album. That is, he is able to cover another artist’s song and make it sound like his own.  Like Luther, Downing is able to pull off this feat with ease—even when these ten tracks include classic R&B hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

On Angela Winbush’s 1986 hit single, “Your Smile,” Downing’s interpretation is similar to the original. Nothing fancy—just a male on vocals instead of a female, and Will representing a male point of view. The same is true with “Street Life,” famously sung by Randy Crawford with the Crusaders in 1979, at the end of the disco era. Downing’s smoothed out version is accompanied by a full horn section and features solos by saxophonist Najee and Mike Logan on keyboards. Ok, enough suspense. Just who are the other females who inspired Will? The Emotions (“Don’t Ask My Neighbors”), Chaka Khan (“Everlasting Love”), Deniece Williams (“Black Butterfly” – arranged here by Chris “Big Dog” Davis), Cherelle (“Everything I Miss at Home”), Brenda Russell/Oletta Adams (“Get Here”), the Jones Girls (“Nights Over Egypt”), and Phyllis Hyman (“Meet Me On The Moon”).

The album closes with Downing’s cover of Jean Carn’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” composed by Philly soul masters Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. Again, Will keeps the same tempo and style, right down to the glossy strings.

Black Pearls is a gem of an album that allows Downing to show just how much these ladies meant to him. Under the radar? Indeed.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

The Three Degrees – Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia)

the three degrees strateby

Title: Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia)

Artist: The Three Degrees

Label: Soul Music/Cherry Red

Format: CD

Release date: March 4, 2016

 

 

Formed in 1963, The Three Degrees claim to be the longest-running female vocal group in history (though admittedly the membership has changed over the years). A mainstay of the soul and disco era, they scored many hits on Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records label.

Now celebrating their 50th anniversary, The Three Degrees have released their first studio album in 25 years on British soul music impresario David Nathan’s label. Recorded in Atlanta with a full band and orchestra, Strategy (Our Tribute to Philadelphia) features “almost” original member Helen Scott, along with Valerie Holiday (who joined in 1967) and relative newcomer Freddie Pool, who has been with the trio since 2011. As with their last album, Out of the Past Into the Future (1993), the group revisits their roots by covering many timeless Philly soul classics, including the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and the stand out track “Don’t Leave Me This Way” which demonstrates their super tight vocal harmonies. The album closes with a new version of The Three Degrees’ iconic hit song T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia), better known as the Soul Train theme song.

These ladies may not be breaking any new ground, but they certainly embody the female vocal trio stylings of the ‘60s and ‘70s and serve as wonderful ambassadors, bringing the soulful sounds of Philadelphia to a new generation.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

The Marvelettes Forever

Title: The Marvelettes Forever: The Complete Motown Albums, Vol. 1

Artist: The Marvelettes

Label: Hip-O Select

Format:  3 CD set

Catalog No.: B0011516-02

Release Date: May 2009

Nearly fifty years after the formation of the Marvelettes, Hip-O Select has released a three disc compilation celebrating the talent of Motown’s first female pop/soul group. Most recognized for their very successful and chart topping “Please Mr. Postman” of 1961, the Marvelettes never really received the acclaim they deserved.  Plagued by health issues, disappointing song choices, and competition from Motown’s other girl groups (most notably the Supremes), the Marvelettes had only a few sporadic hits despite releasing a number of noteworthy albums. This new compilation includes their first six albums along with bonus tracks, live tracks, and even mono singles and rare sides.  Complete with a booklet of photographs, biography information, and track listings with credits, The Marvelettes Forever collection pays homage to the brief but strong presence of these gifted ladies.  Vol. 2, scheduled for release in 2010, will complete the set.

Posted by Rachel Weidner

Sweet Soul Music

Title:  Sweet Soul Music (series)

Artists: Various

Format:  CD

Label: Bear Family Records

Release Date: October 2009

Sweet Soul Music, a new series by Bear Family Records (after Peter Guralnick’s book by the same title), provides an overview of soul music spanning 10 years (1961-1970) over 10 individually issued CDs. Each volume consists of 20-30 “scorching classics” packaged in a gatefold cardboard case. The accompanying booklets, averaging 100 pages in length, are authored by soul music expert Bill Dahl, who conveniently provides the listener with an in-depth analysis of each song’s cultural and musical context within the given year. The liner notes are supplemented with rare photos, artist biographies, discographical notes, and bibliographies.   Featured artists include mainstream musicians (Marvin Gaye, The Dells, Howard Tate, Sam & Dave, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, etc.)  as well as lesser known or forgotten entertainers of yesteryear that tend to be very difficult to find.

Bear Family beautifully depicts the compelling nature of American soul music. The series will be particularly useful in classroom situations,  where  Dahl’s year-by-year analyses of black popular music could be used to supplement lectures on history and culture in the ’60s.  Finally, if you like this format, be sure to check out Bear Family’s “Blowing the Fuse” series, which covers R&B from 1945-1960, following the same year-by-year approach.

Posted by Rachel Weidner

Great American Soul Book

Title: Great American Soulbook

Artist: Tower of Power

Label: TOP Records

Format:  CD

Catalog No.: TWWZ 300205

Release date: April 7, 2009

Whenever a band is defined as having a powerfully distinctive sound there’s a lot more going on than just great individual playing.  Often such a scenario involves a combination of exceptional musicians and singers; masterful arranging and studio engineering techniques; time allotted for musicians and singers to jell and become a unified voice; and someone who provides directive oversight to steer and fine tune these elements into a cohesive unit of sound and energy.  For 40 years, Tower of Power (TOP) has managed to bring these elements together to create their own brand of soul music, unquestionably establishing the band at the top of their game.

In 1968, TOP founders Emilio Castillo (tenor saxophonist) and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone saxophonist), the steering duo behind the band’s success, took their cues from Sly & the Family Stone, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Booker T. & the MG’s and other 1960s masters of soul, funk, and pop musicians to establish their own sound.  They added their original songs, a powerful line up of musicians in the rhythm and horn sections, equally robust lead and supporting singers, and especially rock-solid horn arrangements that gave TOP its signature sound.  Regardless of the inevitable changes over the decades in the band’s membership, Castillo says “We have a definite style to the way we approach section work, we clip our notes, we get very tight. We’ve got to have this “ESP” going between the guys as far as how to interpret certain horn licks.”

For 25 years Greg Adams has defined TOP’s tight horn arrangements, inflecting a mixture of percussive and soulful linear accents above the infectious grooves of the rhythm section.  The arrangements have been esteemed by a significant number of leading pop, rock, blues and soul musicians–including Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, and Little Feat– who have hired the horn section and used the band’s arrangers to boost their own sound.

The group’s latest release, The Great American Soulbook, stays the course. The tracks are infused with TOP’s trademark powerhouse arrangements and rhythm section grooves, while also venturing into new territory with soul and funk covers originally performed by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye, among others.

Castillo produced nine songs on the CD, while four more were under the direction of L.A. funk master George Duke.  The majority of the horn arrangements are under the control of Greg Adams’ protégé, Dave Eskridge.  TOP’s current lead vocalist, Larry Braggs, delivers tremendously stirring solo performances on most of the songs. The group is also joined by four equally stellar vocal guest talents: Tom Jones sings Sam & Dave’s “I thank You;”  Joss Stone joins Braggs for duos on “It takes Two” and “Your Precious Love;” Sam Moore delivers a laid back rendition of “Mr. Pitiful;” and Huey Lewis croons Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789.”  Overall, The Great American Soulbook is a great album and the perfect start to summer.

Posted by Karen Faye Taborn

Original Soul Men

Title: The Original Soul Men
Artists: Sam & Dave
Producer/Director: Joe Lauro, Historic Films
Publisher: Hip-O/Universal
Format: DVD, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC (120 min.)
Release Date: December 9, 2008

Sam Moore was supposed to have been Sam Cooke’s replacement in the Soul Stirrers, after Cooke made his historic decision to pursue secular pop music. But then Moore saw Jackie Wilson, and everything changed. The Original Soul Men: Sam & Dave is an invaluable visual document that shows the connection between Moore and partner Dave Prater. Featuring seventeen of the duo’s fiery live performances, the DVD is also interspersed with testimonials from Stax/Volt founder Al Bell, Moore himself, bassist Duck Dunn and others, that highlight the connection of soul music to its roots in the black church.

Before we see the duo perform “Soothe Me,” Moore admits that the title was adopted from the gospel song “Save Me, Jesus, Save Me.” Bell confesses one of his marketing maneuvers for “You Don’t Know Like I Know” (which we see performed on the German Beat Beat Beat program) was to pitch it as a “holiday” song to radio DJs the day before Christmas, which worked because of its clear musical connections with the church. The DVD’s bonus features include three live performances labeled “The Roots of Sam & Dave,” which also highlight the pair’s connection to sacred music. In particular, Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May’s duet on “You’re Gonna Need Him After a While” is, by itself, worth the price of the entire DVD.

Along with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave were Stax/Volt’s standard-bearers for soul straight from the pulpit. Soul Men even features a performance of “I Take What I Want” by the duo-in matching fire truck-red suits, no less-on Redding’s own short-lived TV show called “The Beat.” Later in the film, Moore confesses to a bit of friendly competitive rivalry between the duo and Redding, based around which act could produce the most incendiary live performance. The performance of the classic “Hold On, I’m Coming” featured in the film proves beyond any doubt that the duo was able to match Redding’s own flair for the dramatic. Taking place in front of a ravenous crowd at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1967, the intense, constantly zooming and cutting cinema-verité style photography of the performance directly recalls the manner in which D. A. Pennebaker’s crew captured Redding that same year, performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” at the Monterey Pop Festival. Moore and Prater allow the Stax/Volt band to vamp for a few minutes at the end of the performance, as they dance exuberantly and allow crowd members to touch not only the hems of their garments, but also their hands.

The film pays brief homage to the duo’s backing musicians as well, an important inclusion for those who think that the MGs were the sole soul providers of the music behind the singing. Moore recalls wanting a band that could “dance and play at the same time,” which led to the formation of what he calls a “22 piece orchestra.” That group is as much a part of this film as Sam & Dave themselves, injecting as much refined energy on risers in the background as the two men testifying up front. The film includes a performance of the band alone performing “Roadrunner,” as well as a fun bonus track of the band playing a brief version of “Secret Agent Man.”

Much of the rest of the film is evidence of the popular music atmosphere during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the music was proliferating wildly, and live producers were inventing new ways to present it using available technology. From Danish television, the performances of “You Got It Made” and “I Don’t Need Nobody” feature Sam & Dave singing in the center of the screen, framed on either side by two women go-go dancing in front of polished metal backdrops, creating a dated, vaguely psychedelic tableau. The video for “You Got Me Hummin'” sees the duo in impossibly bright, nearly glowing yellow suits, backed by their band in variations of yellow and blue suits on risers behind them. Finally, the filmed promotional video for “Baby Don’t Stop Now” is evidence that, in 1970, most people still didn’t know what to do with the music video medium. The clip mostly shows Sam & Dave, dressed to the nines in fur and leather, walking around what appears to be London, peering in shop windows and trying their best not to look at the camera.

According to Bell, Sam & Dave playing on the Ed Sullivan Show “was like manna from heaven.” They certainly made the most of their appearance, and their medley of “Soul Sister Brown Sugar” and “Lucky Ol’ Sun” is the highlight of the film. Sam’s vocal on the Ray Charles-penned “Sun” is his best performance here, but that’s only the start. “Sun” expands dramatically, picking up its pace and threatening to collapse from its unreleased energy, and then segues seamlessly back into “Soul Sister,” which ends the set. The music echoes cavernously throughout Sullivan’s studio, but that only gives the performance an increased sense of bigness to match the of-the-era sense of liveness.

Later, two other high-profile performances show the group’s sense of humor and ability to stretch beyond rhythm-based soul music. Burt Bacharach jokes about shooting the pair with tranquilizer darts to calm them down, and then asks them to sing his “Make it Easy on Yourself” with, as Bacharach notes, “a whole lot of strings attached.” On the Mike Douglas Show, Douglas comments that “it wears me out just watching you guys,” and then they put him on the spot, giving him a vocal solo on “Lucky Ol’ Sun.” Needless to say, this bit is more of an enjoyable historical curio than a crucial performance.

The video’s main point of historical significance is mentioned in a brief title card after the video fades out, which tells us that, “After shooting this promotional video, Sam & Dave broke up the act.” The film picks back up in 1980, when the duo had been persuaded to appear on Saturday Night Live. Their performance of “Soul Man” showed that they were still more than capable, 13 years after the song’s original release, of investing it with their uniquely passionate approach, even when their backing band breaks down mid-song into something that sounds less like soul and more like Billy Preston-style piano-driven gospel funk. It’s fitting, of course, that performances of “Soul Man” bookend the film. Watching the two chapters back-to-back on the DVD, especially with the knowledge that Prater passed away in 1988 (in the film, his widow offers a few bits of insight about the duo), is a poignant reminder that, though they were only around for a brief time, Sam & Dave’s musical and performative legacy is one that will be remembered and re-visited for years to come.

Posted by Eric Harvey

Take Me to the River: A Southern Soul Story

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss