That special time of year has come around again, filling everyone with holiday cheer. But nothing has the ability to spread Christmas spirit quite like music does. Following are brief reviews of what we believe to be the best holiday albums so far this year, featuring releases from Keb’ Mo’, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The McCrary Sisters, Elijah Blake, Jonathan Butler, and Mariah Carey. We hope these selections provide the perfect soundtrack for everyone’s holiday season. Continue reading
From the first glance at the photograph on the 2020 calendar and booklet of the accompanying CD, our staff at the AAAMC was taken in by Blues Images’ 17th volume of classic blues songs and art. In the photograph, a youthful B.B. King stands at a WDIA station microphone in front of a wall advertisement for 51 Beer. With extensive black radio materials in the AAAMC’s special collections, we couldn’t help but get excited about this connection to our collections and our online exhibit about the Golden Age of Black Radio (including some great content focusing on WDIA). Continue reading
Title: Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection
Formats: 4 CD Box Set
Release date: August 9, 2019
Produced by Earwig Music Company’s Michael Robert Frank, Cadillac Baby’s Bea & Baby Records: The Definitive Collection is hands down one of the best box sets of the year. The beautifully produced hard cover book includes four CDs inserted into the front and back covers, while the lavishly illustrated inner pages tell the story of the Chicago based independent record company owned by Narvel Eatmon, a colorful character better known on the South Side as “Cadillac Baby.” Frank began this labor of love in 2006 when he purchased the entire catalog and archive of the Bea & Baby label, with the goal of sharing Cadillac Baby’s musical legacy with the rest of the world. The result is this comprehensive anthology which includes all released and unreleased tracks (with a couple of exceptions), ranging from urban and country blues, gospel, doo-wop, soul, and comedy, to rap. Along the way, Cadillac narrates his own story through six spoken word tracks interspersed throughout the collection. Other “expert witnesses” from Chicago include Jim O’Neal (Living Blues magazine), Bill Dahl, and Robert M. Marovich (Journal of Gospel Music), who all contributed to the informative liner notes. Continue reading
Title: Down In Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records
Formats: Limited Edition Box Set, Digital
Release date: October 25, 2019
Reggae fans will appreciate the new limited edition box set, Down in Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records, which “tells the story of a continually owned and operated family business at the heart of the global growth of reggae, dancehall, and Caribbean music.” Founded by Vincent and Patricia Chin, VP Records was started as Randy’s Record Mart, a record store in Kingston, Jamaica, and over the years grew into the world’s largest reggae music company. This 94-track anthology focuses on singles released by the esteemed label and its more obscure sublabels, offering many rare gems that have long been out of print. In addition to well-known musicians on the VP roster who are still active such as Barrington Levy, Yellowman, Shaggy, and Beenie Man, there are many tracks from earlier artists such as “Gi Mi Di Weed” by Jigsy King, “Lots of Signs” by Tenor Saw, and “Roots Natty Congo” by Johnny Clarke. This bountiful package includes a 24-page booklet that tells the history of the label, as well as four 7-inch singles, four 12-inch singles, and four CDs. If you want an overview of reggae and dancehall music from the 1980s to present, this is an excellent place to begin, but act fast because only 2000 copies have been published. Continue reading
Title: Brutal Africa: The Heavy Metal Cowboys of Botswana
Formats: CD, Vinyl
Release Date: August 30, 2019
From Finnish label Svart Records comes Brutal Africa: The Heavy Metal Cowboys of Botswana. This compilation of six bands from across Botswana explores the thriving, yet often unrecognized heavy metal scene of the country. The name Brutal Africa is likely inspired by brutal metal, a sub-section of metal music that is played by some of the bands on this recording. Continue reading
Title: The Warrior Women of Afro-Peruvian Music
Label: Just Play
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Since its founding in 2014 by executive producer and bassist Matt Geraghty, Just Play has highlighted artists in New Orleans, Havana, and San Juan in an attempt to capture cross-cultural musical collaborations. The Warrior Women of Afro-Peruvian Music is the first release in the label’s exploration of the Peruvian music scene. For this venture, the producers brought a group of talented, yet often underappreciated, Afro-Peruvian singers and percussionists into the studio to perform together for the first time. Continue reading
Title: Black Swans
Release date: August 23, 2019
As many readers are no doubt aware, Black Swan was the first major record label in the country to be owned and run by African Americans for the exclusive promotion of Black artists. Founded in 1921 during the Harlem Renaissance by publisher Harry Pace, the company also involved other luminaries: a young Fletcher Henderson served as recording director and de facto accompanist, William Grant Still was hired as composer/arranger, and W.E.B. DuBois was an early investor. At a time when white-owned labels were developing “race” series and limiting Black artists to recording blues, jazz, and gospel music, Black Swan expanded its catalog to include classical singers and instrumentalists, documenting the performance practices of a phenomenal group of concert artists. Now, almost 100 years later, Black Swan classical 78s are very rare and most have never been reissued! This groundbreaking new compilation, Black Swans, includes the first recordings of black classical artists from the label’s short-lived 7100 operatic series, in addition to other rarities. Continue reading
Title: Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs Oakland
Label: Delta Roots
Format: CD, Digital
Release Date: August 2, 2019
Drummer, songwriter, and producer Twist Turner has worked for nearly six years on his latest project, Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs Oakland. Not only did this certified blues man write 11 original tracks and play the drums for the album, but he also mixed and produced it for his own label, Delta Roots Records. According to Turner, the project was originally inspired by his desire to “produce a recording of the unknown and underappreciated blues men and women of the Bay Area.” Oakland, an often-overlooked focal point of the West Coast blues and jazz scenes, was Turner’s home for six years. After relocating to Chicago, however, Turner expanded the project to also highlight seasoned blues artists from both of his home cities. Continue reading
Title: Putumayo Presents World Peace
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Putumayo World Music
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Putumayo World Music, the record label known for its joyful compilations of international music, has released its newest project, World Peace. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s historic “peace speech” of 1963 that eased Cold War tensions, World Peace draws upon the speech’s themes of ending excessive militarism and “making the world safe for diversity.” Continue reading
Title: Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: May 10, 2019
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s new box set, Jazz Fest, is a grand 50th anniversary celebration. Curated by Jazz Fest and Smithsonian Folkways, this compilation includes 50 tracks culled from live performances—one song for each year of the festival’s existence—as well as announcements intermixed throughout the collection. The set features prominent New Orleans artists like Allen Toussaint, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, Stanley Joseph Dural Jr. (a.k.a Buckwheat Zydeco), The Zion Harmonizers, Big Freedia, and The Neville Brothers, and many others, all while exploring the Fair Grounds as a space where music genres such as traditional New Orleans jazz, blues, zydeco, Cajun, and bounce music converge to create a unique and rich experience. Continue reading
Title: On the Corner Live! The Music of Miles Davis
Label: Ear Up
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 1, 2019
Recorded live in Nashville in 2015, On the Corner Live!: The Music of Miles Davis features five top artists reimagining the music of Davis, sans trumpet. Rather than duplicating the tracks on Davis’s 1972 jazz fusion album On the Corner, the musicians have selected various tunes from the Miles Davis catalog. The mastermind behind this project is saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who brought in Dave Leibman, soprano and tenor saxophonist on the original album and a member of Davis’s band from 1970–1974. Joining Coffin and Leibman is Nashville session musician James DaSilva on guitar, the amazing Victor Wooten on electric bass, Chris Walters on keyboards, and Chester Thompson (Weather Report, Genesis) on drums. As one might expect, this band displays some crazy synergy. Continue reading
Title: A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper
Formats: CD, LP, Vinyl
Release date: November 30, 2018
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in the summer of 1967, was an experimental concept album that fused elements of psychedelia, vaudeville, avant-garde, and Western and Indian classical music into an art rock masterpiece. Verve’s new compilation, A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper, calls upon some of today’s hottest young jazz musicians to reinterpret all 13 tracks of the groundbreaking album. Continue reading
Title: Live at Little Gem Saloon
Label: Basin Street Records
Formats: CD, Digital
Release Date: November 23, 2018
Started in 1998, New Orleans-based record label Basin Street Records has released Live at Little Gem Saloon to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Recorded at the historic French Quarter saloon on May 5, 2017, the nine-track album includes performances from an all-star lineup of local artists. Featured performers include vibraphone master Jason Marsalis who offers two originals, “Bourbon Street Ain’t Mardi Gras” and “At the House, In Da Pocket.” Clarinetist and jazz historian Dr. Michael White improvises on a swinging rendition of “Summertime” and his original “Give It Up (Gypsy Second Line),” trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield join forces on a couple of standards, and pianist/vocalist Davell Crawford brings the project to a rousing close with a bluesy rendition of Luther Dixon’s “Big Boss Man” and his original medley “Don’t Ever Be Blue/Ode to Louisiana.” Live at Little Gem Saloon captures an evening of new music and standards by jazz musicians in honor of Basin Street Records’ two decade long commitment to representing New Orleans-based jazz, blues, funk, and R&B artists. Continue reading
Title: Sissle & Blake’s Shuffle Along of 1950
Format: CD, MP3
Release date: October 19, 2018
Two of the most famous early African American composers, vaudeville stars and recording artists—Indianapolis-born Noble Sissle (1889-1974) and Baltimore native Eubie Blake (1887-1983)—began their careers during the ragtime era. Joining Lt. James Reese Europe’s famous 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band during WWI, they helped to promote an appreciation of Black popular music throughout the U.S. and Europe, especially the new genre known as “jazz.” After the war they experienced a number of successes, but none so great as their landmark musical Shuffle Along. Based on a comedy routine by their vaudeville colleagues Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who wrote the book, the musical opened in New York in 1921 with Blake leading the orchestra from the keyboard. Though not the first Black show on Broadway (Bob Cole’s minstrelsy themed A Trip to Coontown and Will Marion Cook’s more progressive Clorindy both debuted in 1898), Shuffle Along became one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the era, drawing audiences with its swinging jazz melodies and “hot rhythms.” Continue reading
Christmas just isn’t Christmas without good music to really get you in the spirit! We’re featuring brief reviews of our favorite new holiday releases from PJ Morton, John Legend, Cece Winans, Aloe Blacc, Motown Gospel, and After 7. Our specially curated Black Grooves Christmas Spotify playlist features our favorite songs from these artists and more, providing the perfect soundtrack as you get together with friends and family to celebrate the holidays. Continue reading
The 16th annual Blues Images calendar and CD reproduces classic, rare, and recently rediscovered artwork and recordings of pre and post-war blues songs from blues masters such as Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, Leola B. Wilson, William Harris, Papa George Lightfoot, and others. While a copy of Papa George Lightfoot’s debut disc on Sultan Records (“Winding Ball Mama” / “Snake Hipping Daddy”) has been rumored to exist for decades, it recently surfaced and came to the attention of John Tefteller and his Blues Images team. The disc has been remastered and is included on this compilation along with other rare tracks such as William Harris’ “I’m a Roamin’ Gambler” / “I Was Born in the Country—Raised In The Town.” Continue reading
Title: Complete Cuban Jam Sessions
Formats: 5-CD set, 5-LP set
Release date: November 16, 2018
Panart, one of the first and most successful independent record labels in Cuba, embarked upon a project in 1956 to commission and record a series of descarga, or improvised jam sessions incorporating jazz and popular forms of Cuban music. Over the next decade, the label released several volumes of these descarga under the generic title, Cuban Jam Sessions. The series sold over a million copies, becoming the first commercially successful descarga recordings and inspiring many other projects over the ensuing decades. Now, all of the descarga sessions released by Panart from 1956-1965 have been remastered and packaged together for the first time in Craft’s definitive 5-disc box set, The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions. The set was co-produced by Cuban music specialist and Panart label historian Judy Cantor-Navas, who also wrote the liner notes for the well-illustrated accompanying booklet. Continue reading
Label: MVD Visual
Release Date: January 19, 2018
In 2003, an all-star cast of traditional and contemporary gospel singers performed songs written by Bob Dylan on Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. The Grammy-nominated compilation album included 11 tracks written by Dylan during his “born again” period from 1979 to 1981, in which he produced Christian music. Three years later, the companion documentary DVD of the same name was released by Burning Rose Video, which is currently out-of-print. Thankfully, MVD has stepped into the void and reissued the video.
The DVD documents the making of the Gotta Serve Somebody album, including interviews with performers such as Regina McCrary, Terry Young, and Mona Lisa Young. Also featured is performance footage of 9 of the 11 tracks that originally appeared on the CD, such as the namesake “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Shirley Caesar, “I Believe In You” by Dottie Peoples, and “Saved” by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as bonus tracks from Arlethia Lindsay, Great Day Chorale, and Bob Dylan himself. The Gotta Serve Somebody DVD premieres 1980 footage of Dylan performing “When He Returns,” the first documented performance released from his “born again” era. The DVD certainly lives up to the fame of its companion album, winning the Gold Medal for Excellence Audience Choice for Best Music Documentary at Park City Film Music Festival.
Reviewed by Chloe McCormick
Artist: Various Artists
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: July 8, 2016
Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, and Rick James are all gone, so Stevie Wonder is pretty much all that remains from that bygone era. Enter DJ Spinna from Brooklyn, who can move butts on the dance floor, whether he’s spinning hop hop, house, funk or soul. That’s probably why promoters book him and he stays in demand. His “Wonderful” parties, devoted entirely to Stevie Wonder, offer fans a bucket list of quintessential songs from the singer/songwriter/keyboardist’s back catalog. DJ Spinna Presents The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3 is a tribute CD, though it’s not promoted as one, and is offered as an extension of the parties. Disc one flows in a continuous mix, while the tracks on the second disc are unmixed, or separated.
The John Minnis Big Bone Band’s cover of “Love’s In Need of Love Today” was right on time and well needed, with all the turmoil going on in the world right now. He pulls it off by taking an understated approach, realizing the song without trying to do too much. Tony Sherman covers “As,” another track from Songs In the Key of Life and, like Stevie, provides back-up singers that bring that old-school gospel vibe to the song. Stevie Wonder has written so much great material, some of which he gave to other artists to record, like the Quincy Jones track “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me.” Former Temptations lead singer David Ruffin covers “Make My Water Boil (Loving You Has Been So Wonderful),” while BJ Thomas covers “Happier Then The Morning Sun.” Thomas was always a good vocalist and shows what he can do with good material.
If DJ Spinna’s “Wonderful” comes to your town, check it out. You’ll hear material you probably never knew Stevie wrote or recorded. Meanwhile, this 2-CD set brings the party home. Sign, sealed and — yes — delivered.
Reviewed by Eddie Bowman
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: June 17, 2016
From 2002-2014, listeners to Chicago’s WHPK could tune in once a week and hear songs from some of the most obscure and neglected corners of the region’s soul music legacy, courtesy of an eccentric and obsessed fan and record collector, Bob Abrahamian. Not only did Abrahamian spin singles from his collection of about 35,000 platters, he also regularly interviewed the artists who performed a style of vocal-harmony music known as Chicago Sweet Soul. Unfortunately, Abrahamian’s obsessive personality and declining mental health got the best of him, and he committed suicide in 2014.
In this anthology, Numero Records drew on Abrahamian’s record collection to produce a tribute both to the man and the music he so passionately championed. The physical media (LP and CD) releases contain an outstanding booklet, with a detailed biographical essay by Numero’s Rob Sevier and brief biographies of the performers, along with transcript excerpts from Abrahamian’s interviews. Sevier and Abrahamian’s sister, Jenny, picked the 16 tunes in this collection (12 selections on the LP version).
The music and audio quality vary, but overall the playing and singing range from competent to excellent. On one hand, it’s clear why some of these artists ended up confined to minor radio play and short turns in Chicago area jukeboxes, but then again, it’s surprising how many competent to excellent soul singers and musicians were working in a single geographic area in the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The disc-to-digital transfers, by Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice at Peerless Mastering, are generally quite good, and the mastering engineers did not overuse digital restoration tools.
Abrahamian concentrated his collecting on something specific yet large-scale—acquiring all recordings by what he described as Chicagoland vocal-harmony soul groups. Judging by the size of his collection at the time of his death, it turned out to be a larger task than one would expect, or that he likely anticipated.
Stylistically, this music would be in line with 1970s mellow soul, not particularly funky and also not on the fringes of disco. It’s similar to the vocal-group output by more-mainstream artists of the time recording for Motown, Philadelphia International and Atlantic. There is an emphasis on the bass line, and strings are often used to augment the vocal harmonies.
Interestingly, Abrahamian’s radio show and interviews survive online, easily heard by any fan of Chicago Sweet Soul music (sittinginthepark.com). His legacy of loving, respecting and publicizing long-ago songs by obscure Chicagoland artists outlives him.
As is the case with most Numero anthologies, if you’re willing to tolerate a range of musical talent and performing competence, you will likely find some new favorites, and the informative booklet will teach you about the music of a place and time, and in this case the personal musical quest of an obsessive collector.
Reviewed by Tom Fine
Artist : Various Artists
Format: CD, LP
Release Date: May 27, 2016
It would be unfair to fault readers who are unfamiliar with Afrobeat. It’s not commercial music and unless you’re a regular NPR listener, the genre might have escaped your notice. Maybe you were one of the lucky ones who saw the musical Fela! –if you were, then you know this music is heavy on horns and bass. If you weren’t, then this CD provides a condensed Afrobeat education. It’s a genre pioneered in the late ’60s by Fela Kuti. Nicknamed “The Black President,” Kuti was to Nigeria what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. Kuti was not afraid to take the Nigerian government to task for corruption and lying to the people, using his music to get social and political messages across. On this two disc set, DJ Rich Medina presents Jump N Funk, a collage of Afrobeat music, titled after the parties Rich Medina helped create and where he still regularly spins Afrobeat classics. These parties never really took off in Medina’s hometown of Philadelphia, but in New York, London, and Miami there is no parking on the dancefloor.
I found it odd that Fela’s son Femi is nowhere to be found on this CD, but Fela’s youngest son, Seun, was featured on two tracks. Disc two opens with the Antibalas, who are one of the biggest Afrobeat acts going today, not counting members of the Kuti family. They open disc two with a live version of “World War IV” at Jazz Café in London, with the lead singer taking the Clinton administration and other world leaders to task. This disc also includes a remake of 1972’s “Soul Moukusa,” a track that early B-boys would use as the soundtrack for popping and locking, while hip hop DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa would cut it up in New York City parks. This remake stays true to the original. Disc one has another remake, Timmy Thomas’s 1973 cut, “Everbody Wants to Live Together,” covered by River Ocean on this set. This sentiment clearly maintains its value in the turbulent times that 2016 has brought.
Back to Seun Kuti. On “Don’t Give That Shit To Me” he says, “Don’t bullshit Africa”—a confrontational stance that shouldn’t put newbies off too much. Even though it is immanently danceable, this is angry political music at heart. Rich Medina appears on two tracks: on disc one’s “Too Much” with Martin Luther & Madlouna, and with Antibalas on “Ja Joosh.” If ever commercial radio programmers wanted to expose this music to a wider fan base in the US, this radio-friendly cut would be the track to get behind.
Afrobeat isn’t for everyone, but if you like a message in your music, I highly urge you to give Rich Medina Presents Jump ‘N’ Funk a try.
Reviewed By Eddie Bowman
Title: Henry Stone’s Miami Sound
Artist: Various Artists
Label: AOTN (Athens of the North)
Formats: CD digipak (20 tracks), LP+45 single (18 tracks, sold out), MP3/FLAC downloads
Release date: June 29, 2015 (in UK)
Miami-based record executive, producer and distributor Henry Stone (1921-2014) served as the main force in Florida’s soul and disco industry of the 1970s. As the head of T.K. Records, Stone contributed to nurturing the ‘Miami Sound’ in countless ways, encouraging the talents of local singers and musicians from in and around Miami, many of whom had little hope of becoming as big as T.K.’s top act, K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Nevertheless, in the current context there is a growing interest among listeners in second-tier soul, and Stone’s catalog represents a wellspring of it. Henry Stone’s Miami Sound pulls together between 18 and 20 tracks of varying content and quality, none of it familiar, in order to convey an overall impression of Stone’s many-faceted activity. It is a boon to those not willing or able to shell out big bucks to own original vinyl 45s of this material, and indeed it would take a fair amount of involved research just to know what they are, and where to look for them.
Although the slipcase refers to Stone as “the king of disco,” this collection is mostly made up of soul and soul-pop, with a little bit of expected T.K. disco style creeping in at the end. The content and artist pool on Henry Stone’s Miami Sound ranges very widely, yet there are some common threads. Stone’s early contact with King Records, both as an outpost producer and talent scout, included a close personal association with James Brown whose long shadow is operating through a lot of this music, such as in Raphael Munnings’ “Sleep On, Dream On” and Oceanliners’ “Cutting Room (Hot Pants).” Although the lead-off track, Little Beaver’s “Concrete Jungle,” is an exception, very little of this material shares James Brown’s, or latter-day Motown’s, interest in topical or socially conscious ideas; love and romance are the dominant themes here. A big standout is Johnny K’s screamingly funny “I Got Bills to Pay,” which provides a welcome point of departure from the lay-it-on-me-baby, you-knock-me-out prattle that typifies many of the lyrics. Miami’s natural cultural connection to Latin music—and, therefore, its position as an incubator to disco—intersects the collection occasionally, most strongly in Funky Nassau’s “Bahama Soul Stew.”
Some of Henry Stone’s Miami Sound is a little underwhelming in that it reflects its sources too closely; although the extra 45 in the vinyl version is the vaunted “Thousand Years” by Brand New—a fabulously rare single—the song itself is a too-thinly disguised knock-off of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” After a few tracks in, it becomes clear that in general the quality of singing is a bit below the level of arranging and backing musicianship, which may explain partly why some of these things didn’t catch on. Lynn Williams’[i] “It Takes Two” is largely sung off-pitch, even as the vocal conveys some measure of lazy, relaxed charm; in contrast, the backing track jams mightily. But this often yields dividends anyway; Leno Phillips’ just-okay vocal on “Confusion” is countered by an arrangement which is straight up sublime. Henry Stone’s Miami Sound summarizes a singular subgenre within American popular music without resorting to obvious choices, which is a bonus, though one misses Timmy Thomas’ incandescent “Why Can’t We Live Together.” For listeners that survived the seventies, the first pass through Henry Stone’s Miami Sound may not reveal all of its virtues, depending on how much baggage and formula one may still bear from the era, and it well may appeal better to hearers not inundated with exposure to 1970s AM radio. Stone, however, did strive for individuality and his productions are a testament to this tight-knit community of talented people; not making a fortune, but creating a lot of music mainly for the fun of making it. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get a hit out of this.
Listen on Spotify here.
Reviewed by David N. Lewis
[i] Lynn Williams is the daughter of singer Hank Ballard.