Nineteen Sixty Six

Title: Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions
Artist: Little Willie John
Label: Kent
Catalog No.: CDKEND 305
Release Date: November 4, 2008

“The best album I ever produced that nobody’s ever heard”—David Axelrod.

William Edgar John, better known as Little Willie John due to his short stature, was born in Arkansas in 1937 and spent his formative years in Detroit with his sister, Dr. Mable John, a former member of Ray Charles’ Raelettes and the first female artist signed by Berry Gordy.  Something of a prodigy, Willie began touring with Paul Williams & His Orchestra when he was just 16.  Two years later he landed a recording contract with King Records in Cincinnati where he produced a long string of hit records including “Fever,” which climbed to #1 on the R&B charts in 1956 and was later covered by Peggy Lee and Elvis Presley. His 1955 recording of “I Need Your Love So Bad” has been cited as one of the first soul songs, along with Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” recorded by Atlantic the previous year.

In 1964, at a time when Willie’s career was beginning to lag, he stabbed a man during a bar brawl and was sent to prison. Two years later, while out on appeal, Capitol Records organized a recording session for him, produced by the legendary team of H.B. Barnum and David Axelrod and backed by their regular session musicians, including bassist Carole Kaye, drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Clifford Scott, and guitarist Les Buie (who occasionally worked with James Brown).  The result was this previously unreleased “lost album,” which has been sitting in Capitol’s vaults for years due to contractual issues (Willie was still under contract to King at the time of the session).

Nineteen Sixty Six: The David Axelrod & HB Barnum Sessions kicks off with three tracks drawn from the first recording session held on the evening of February 19, 1966, two of which feature songs previously recorded by Willie. An updated version of “Country Girl” (a.k.a. “Home at Last”), originally released in 1955 by King, opens the set. Following are two  blues songs subjected to Willie’s special soul-infused treatment-“Suffering With The Blues,” which he originally recorded for King in 1956, and  “I Had A Dream” (a.k.a. “Just a Dream”).

The session scheduled five days later took a ninety degree turn. Instead of the R&B/ jump blues combo, the horns were replaced with a ten piece string section, and back-up vocalists were added, including Barnum’s sister Billie.  The producers’ imprint is all over this jazz and pop-oriented session, which bears a closer resemblance to Barnum’s 1960s productions with Frank Sinatra and Axelrod’s early work with Lou Rawls, not to mention some of Willie’s early ‘60s tracks for King, such as “Loving Care.”   The session begins with a great soul cover of Johnny Ace’s 1954 classic “Never Let Me Go.”  Following is perhaps the most incongruous track from this session, a truly inspired soulful rendition of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” from the musical Carousel, which I didn’t immediately recognize, but now have played multiple times for family and friends (as in “see if you recognize this!”). No doubt the producers hoped to piggyback on the success of Nat King Cole Sings My Fair Lady, released by Capitol two years earlier. Other tracks from this session include the ballad “(I Need) Someone” and a bluesy version of “Welcome to the Club,” which was also popularized by Nat King Cole in a jazz arrangement recorded in 1958. Though this string session sounds oddly retro for a 1966 era R&B/soul singer, it is still very enjoyable and showcases a distinctly different side of Willie as a pop-oriented balladeer.

Later that afternoon the strings were sent home and the band gets its groove back with the smoking blues standard “Early in the Morning,” followed by one of the best tracks on the CD, “In The Dark,” which aptly demonstrates Willies vocal range and flexibility. Willie’s only original song on the album, “Crying in the Dark,” returns again to the blues idiom, and features some great solos by the band.  The session concludes with “You Are My Sunshine,” which once again shows Willie’s ability to completely transform a standard into a powerful demonstration of gospel-tinged soul. The remaining nine bonus tracks include alternate takes and stereo mixes.

Sadly, Little Willie John’s court appeal was overturned shortly after these recording sessions concluded, and he returned to prison. Two years later he died in the Washington state penitentiary in Walla Walla, just five months after a fatal plane crash claimed the life of soul superstar Otis Redding.  Though during his lifetime Willie achieved wide acclaim, he is seldom mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries—Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown, among others—who were also instrumental in transforming gospel and rhythm and blues music into soul.  However, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Willie’s career, leading to several good retrospective CD compilations as well as an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. At least one biography is also in progress, and Kent may have another project in the works. Perhaps Little Willie John will finally take his rightful place as one of the first soul singers.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss


honeydripper.jpgTitle: Honeydripper (feature film)
Writer, Director: John Sayles
Producer: Maggie Renzi

December traditionally brings a wave of new releases at the box office, and this year is no exception. One that I am particularly anxious to see is Honeydripper, a new film by John Sayles that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and is scheduled for limited release on December 28. Here’s the official synopsis:

“Iconoclastic filmmaker John Sayles, in his 16th feature film, continues his extraordinary examination of the complexities and shifting identities of American sub-cultures in the new film Honeydripper. With his usual understated intelligence, Sayles uses the rhythms of the citizens of Harmony, Alabama to immerse the audience into the world of the Jim Crow south. It’s a fable about the birth of rock n’ roll- a quintessentially American subject, but with a fidelity to time and temperament that is unusual in an American director.

It’s 1950 and it’s a make or break weekend for Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge. Deep in debt, Tyrone is desperate to bring back the crowds that used to come to his place. He decides to lay off his long-time blues singer Bertha Mae, and announces that he’s hired a famous guitar player, Guitar Sam, for a one night only gig in order to save the club.

Into town drifts Sonny Blake, a young man with nothing to his name but big dreams and the guitar case in his hand. Rejected by Tyrone when he applies to play at the Honeydripper, he is intercepted by the corrupt local Sheriff, arrested for vagrancy and rented out as an unpaid cotton picker to the highest bidder. But when Tyrone’s ace-in-the-hole fails to materialize at the train station, his desperation leads him back to Sonny and the strange, wire-dangling object in his guitar case. The Honeydripper lounge is all set to play its part in rock n’ roll history.”

Sayles’ has a fascination with the genesis of rock ‘n roll, and wanted to find a way to capture this pivital event in his film. “There was no single moment when R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, and country all came together to create this thing called rock ‘n roll,” he said, “but a big change came with the advent of the electric guitar. Before that, the piano ruledit produced a lot more sound than a little acoustic guitar. Suddenly, a poor boy like Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) could travel around with a portable, cheap, high-volume electric guitar and peel the paint off the walls.”

Here’s the trailer:YouTube Preview Image

If this isn’t enough to entice you, then check out the all-star cast. Taking on the role of Sonny Blake in his movie debut is singer/guitarist and Texas native Gary Clark Jr. The incredibly talented Clark has been playing professionally since the age of fourteen (which I gather was not more then 7-8 years ago), was recently named Best Blues Artist at the Austin Music Awards, and has opened for the likes of Gatemouth Brown, Jimmie Vaughan, Bobby Bland and Joe Ely. Over the summer he’s been touring with the Honeydripper All-Star Band, and a clip of their 6/19/07 NYC performance was recently mounted on YouTube:YouTube Preview Image

In the juicy role of Bertha Mae Spivey is none other than Dr. Mable John, the former Stax recording artist and onetime leader of the Raelettes (Ray Charles’ back-up group). Metalmouth Sims is played by Mississippi born harmonica player Arthur Lee Williams, who cut his teeth in Chicago and went on to play with Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Eddie Taylor. Blues guitarist Keb Mo, whose 2006 album Suitcase was a break out hit, also makes his film debut in the role of Possum. Tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who has performed with Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, also has a cameo role as Time Trenier.

Sayles also made good use of local talent, including members of the New Beginnings Ministry Choir in Greenville, Alabama. According to producer Maggie Renzi, “We asked New Beginnings to give us their best singers, and Wow! We couldn’t have duplicated that sound. The local people have the right accents, the looksI had a crowd of extras, and after they got through with wardrobe and styling, I asked them to raise their hands if they looked just like old photos of their parents and grandparents. Every hand went up.”

WOW, indeed! I must remember to call the local theater and push to get this gem in the queue a.s.a.p. For more information, visit the film’s official website. As for Gary Clark Jr., his latest release, Tribute, is apparently only available via his website and CD Baby. I predict that will change mighty fast. A fourth CD is said to be in the works and will presumably be picked up by a major label.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss