Archive for the ‘r&b’ Category

Matthew E. White’s Calibrated Subtlety

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

Matthew E. White has been musically active for many years, including collaborations with Megafaun and the Mountain Goats and three albums with avant-jazz group Fight the Big Bull. But as an artist recording and touring under his own name, he’s a relative newcomer.

The story making the rounds is that White’s debut – 2012′s Big Inner – wasn’t really intended as an album at all. White recorded the collection of songs to demonstrate the capabilities of the Spacebomb House Band and his record label of the same name. That record caught on with critics and listeners alike, and effectively launched White’s career as a name artist. “I think that story has gotten lost in translation a little bit,” says White. “By no means is Big Inner a ‘demo’ in the sense that we didn’t work as hard on it as we might a normal album.” White makes it clear that the album is intended as “a purposeful and intentional personal artistic statement.”

The success of Big Inner did attract some high-caliber artists to the Spacebomb label, most notably singer/songwriter Natalie Prass. “I try to be successful both personally and with the Spacebomb team,” White says. “And I work pretty hard on both of those things.”

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, White grew up listening to pop music. “I listened to Chuck Berry and Beach Boys as a little kid, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in middle school, and all kinds of stuff in high school: good and bad,” he recalls. He discovered jazz while in college, and subsequently “really went back, started at the beginning, and connected it all.” The result of his talent filtered through those influences is music that’s tough to describe. “If I have to say one thing, I say ‘soul’ or maybe ‘r&b.’ But I know that’s not quite right. Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say ‘gentleman’s psychedelia from the New World.’” I suggest that to my ears, he’s sort of a cross between Isaac Hayes and Berlin-era Lou Reed. He smiles and says, “I’m just going to start saying that. Perfect.”

 

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

On the just-released Fresh Blood, White builds upon the sonic foundation established by his debut. He concedes that he didn’t want to repeat himself musically. “But at the same time, I don’t believe in just changing variables and setting a completely different course. There’s a vocabulary that I’m working on, and I want it to develop.” On Fresh Blood, White sought to create an album that “contain[s] bits and pieces of old vocabulary as well as pushing the language farther into something new.”

On both records, there’s a lush, dense and richly layered texture, in part the result of the sonic effect of the large Spacebomb House Band. But White’s touring band is four musicians, including himself. “Obviously we have to adapt [arrangements] a little bit,” he concedes. “But to me, the songs are the centerpiece of the record. And in the live show it’s the same.” He prefers not to think of studio work and live performance as connected. “They are such different mediums that interact with people, budgets, administrative details and cultural context so differently. To make decisions on one based on the other limits both,” White believes.

Matthew E. White’s records feature strong hooks and melody, yet one word that comes to mind when hearing them is subtlety. “Well,” White chuckles, “the live show with the band isn’t so subtle, that’s for sure. It’s much more direct than the album is.” He goes on to say that the records’ subtlety is “less purposeful than it seems, actually. There are a lot of times when I think I’m being pretty direct and it’s taken as being much more subtle than I think it is. I think I’m just calibrated a little differently in that way.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in Mountain Xpress Magazine.

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Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 6

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Last week I presented 25 capsule reviews; 100 words each, these were quick critical looks at new CD (and vinyl) releases. This week, I dive into the pile of reissue/compilation CDs that have been crowding my office. Don’t mistake my relative brevity for mild praise; all of the discs reviewed deserve attention.

Chuck Berry – The Complete Chess Singles As & Bs
Thanks to the different (read: less restrictive) laws in the UK concerning licensing and royalties, compilations like this are cost-effective efforts on the part of reissue labels. This fifty-track 2CD set collects all of the 45rpm A- and B-sides from Chuck Berry’s tenure on Chess Records. I’m not going to waste space explaining the musical/historical importance of this set. Nicely packaged, expertly annotated, and featuring an informative essay from Paul Watts, it contains exactly what the title indicates, and seems to be truer soundwise to the originals than the controversially “cleaned up” Chess Box released stateside in the late 1980s.

Various – Beale Street Saturday Night
Omnivore Recordings is at the vanguard of interesting, intelligent reissues. And here’s another one. The Memphis Development Foundation was founded in 1977 to support the rescue/renewal of the historic city so important in the history of American music (blues, country, rock’n'roll, jazz…you name it). Originally issued in 1979as an unbanded LP, this album is described as “a hi-fi recording of a lo-fi sound.” It deftly mixes music and spoken word, and features Memphis legends Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Grandma Dixie Davis, and others. Conceptually related to the Alabama State Troupers album, it’s a pop culture lesson with great music.

Various – Apollo Saturday Night / Saturday Night at the Uptown
In 1961, the now-legendary Atlantic Records entered into a fruitful relationship with Memphis-based Stax Records; Ahmet Ertegun and his team knew a good thing when they saw and heard it. These two LPs were released in 1964, and documented live showcases featuring great and less-known acts at their best. Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Barbara Lynn and other leading lights are captured live onstage at the height of their powers. These all-killer-no-filler LPs haven’t been paired before, and they fit together nicely. Kudos to the folks at Real Gone Music for thinking of it. Great liner notes, too.

Various – All About Elvis: A Tribute to the King
Sam Phillips is often remembered by his quote, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Of course he did find such a man in Elvis Presley, but the billion dollars part didn’t quote work out. Still, in the wake of Elvis, countless artists (and their management) sought to grab their own piece of that pie. This 3CD collection brings together nearly 100 artists – some well-known, others exceedingly obscure – all of whom pay tribute to (read: rip off) Elvis’ style. Many do quite well.

Jerry Williams – Gone
Pop music history is littered with stories of near-misses and shoulda-beens. This 1979 LP from Texas-born Williams (not to be confused with the man born with the same name but known as Swamp Dogg) was (until this Real Gone Music reissue) a fairly rare item. Imagine JJ Cale with a horn section and some shuffle/disco influences (or early Boz Scaggs with the dance-oriented feel of, well, mid-period Boz Scaggs), and you’ll have a rough idea of what this sounds like. Williams is better known for the tunes he’s written for others, but he acquits himself well on this, his third LP.

More to come.

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Album Review: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time!

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

For American readers and listeners, this new compilation from Fantastic Voyage requires a bit of background; when I first laid eyes on it, I had no clue as to either its contents or its overall theme. But thanks to the set’s excellent liner notes (courtesy of Phil Etgart), It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! Jamaican Sound System Classics 1941-1962 makes all kinds of sense.

Though it’s situated about six hundred miles south of Miami (off Cuba’s southern coast) The Caribbean island country of Jamaica is a Commonwealth realm of the United Kingdom. As a result, its cultural ties to Great Britain are strong and deep. That explains the relevance of a Jamaican-themed album to a London-based record label. But is the music on this set from Jamaica?

Well, yes and no. And mostly no. That’s the part that needs explaining. And while Etgart does so in a clear and concise manner, I’ll try to do so in even fewer words.

In the 1950s, American rhythm and blues – especially the pre-rock’n'roll style we know know as jump blues or shuffle blues – was a huge sensation. But record imports to Jamaica were nearly nonexistent. To fill the need, a class of disc jockeys rose up on the streets of Kingston and other Jamaican cities. With lorries (in the USA we call ‘em trucks) fully kitted out with massive loudspeaker systems – the likes of which would still impress today – the deejays’ mobile sound systems provided the soundtrack for outdoor dance parties. Dancing in the street, indeed. These enterprising deejays engendered fierce rivalries, with each vying for the biggest, best system and – more importantly – the best new music.

So these businessmen/entertainers established contacts within the USA to provide a steady stream of new product, of new and exciting music. But that’s not all they did: they went to great lengths to make sure nobody else could horn in on their territory. They achieved this through several methods of varying degrees of shadiness. First, they’d scratch off the labels of the discs, so if anyone caught a look at them, they wouldn’t know who the artist was or what the name of tune was. They’d go on to re-title the song when announcing it. And if all that weren’t enough, if a particular song really caught on, they’d go to a local pressing plant in Jamaica and have a stack of pirated versions – with new title and perhaps even new (nonexistent) artist noted on its label (if any) – which they’d go on to sell to hungry music fans.

It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! collects the best-loved songs from that era in Jamaica, and presents them with proper annotation and credits. So eighty-four songs across three discs cover American r&b, but through the sensibility of a Jamaican listener. Got it? Okay. Now, if you like, forget all of that and focus instead on the music without that Jamaica-centered context.

What you have is a superb three-disc set of American jump blues and r&b covering the early 1940s through the era right before the British Invasion began. Early sides from Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Memphis Slim, Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris make up a good bit of the first disc. The second disc covers the first half of the 1950s and features Jimmy McCracklin, The “5” Royales, The Penguins, Johnny Ace, Smiley Lewis and more. And the third disc (covering 1955-1962) focuses on “the big three” American labels, with artists like Fats Domino, Lowell Fulson, Ernie K. Doe, Huey (“Piano” Smith) & Jerry, and Bill Black’s Combo. It’s safe to say that there are no weak tracks among the seven dozen cuts on the set.

The sound quality is generally superb, though there are a few scratchy tracks, likely “needle drops” from rare 78rpm discs. The historical value of those tracks – not to mention their musical appeal – make those flaws worth overlooking. And for those who discover the delights within, there’s further good news: It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! is the fourth in a series from Fantastic Voyage, the other collections again focusing on tunes popular in Jamaica between the mid 1940s and the pre-Beatles era.

Staying with the Jamaican connection for a moment, if you will. The American music on this set, heard as it was by a generation and more of Jamaican listeners, greatly influenced their indigenous music. While American listeners weaned on such greats as Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins would go on to develop what we call rock’n'roll, the Jamaican perspective on the music led to bluebeat, which as Etgart reminds us, led to ska and then inevitably to reggae. So while reggae might still sound alien to American ears – or at least unconnected to our rock tradition – in fact its roots come from some very similar places. For that reason alone, It’s Jamaica Jump Blues Time! is relevant and important. But however you approach it, it’s an essential collection of music.

(Note: there’s also an abbreviated 2LP set of the same name; it collects 28 of the best tunes from the 3CD version.)

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 2)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Continued from Part One...

The early Moody Blues certainly deserved better success than they found. Their lack of chart action was certainly a factor in Denny Laine‘s departure. But during his time with the group, The Moody Blues recorded enough material for another album in a pair of sessions (one day in July 1964 and then a string of dates between April and September 1966, with Denny Cordell in the producer’s chair). Those previously unreleased sessions form half of the new The Magnificent Moodies set’s second disc.

An almost painfully slow reading of “Go Now” serves to point how right a decision it was to record and release the faster version we all know. The bits of studio chatter are fun for those (like myself) who enjoy studio outtakes and such, and remind listeners that in those days, a band tended to play their live set, live in the studio, for recording sessions with minimal overdub.

A quite bizarre reading of the 23rd Psalm is one of this new box set’s great finds. Arranged by the entire group, the song finds Ray Thomas singing in a vaguely Elvis balladeer style while the band provides vocal accompaniment and some vaguely Merseybeat musical backing. Then the song lurches unexpectedly into an upbeat “negro spiritual” arrangement, replete with handclapping. Talk about stylistic left-turns; it’s easy to understand why this track was left in the can for decades, but it’s an interesting curio to be sure.

The BBC Saturday Club tracks remind listeners yet again that The Moody Blues were a tight, impeccably rehearsed outfit; the BBC versions differ little from their official counterparts. Clearly they were given little time in the studio for either situation (Decca or BBC), but their songs and arrangements didn’t seem to require more time or effort than was given/spent. “From the Bottom of My Heart” showcases Mike Pinder‘s piano and Thomas’ flute. While enjoyable, the group’s reading of Rufus Thomas‘ “Jump Back” is perhaps the least-convincing of their r&b excursions; likely part of their live set, no Decca studio version of the tune exists.

A pair of tries at Tim Hardin‘s waltzing “How Can We Hang on to a Dream” again lead (in context) to the later Moody Blues sound. And while neither “Jago & Jilly” nor “We’re Broken” rank as a lost classic, they do feature the closest thing to guitar riffage as one is likely to find in the early Moody Blues catalog. Those two tracks are also much closer to the rock-leaning side of later Moodies, having almost completely shed any rhythm and blues trappings.

Pinder’s barrelhouse piano is the centerpiece of his “I Really Haven’t Got the Time,” a chirpy number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the crowded UK charts of early 1967. “Red Wine” suggests what The Who might have sounded by had they been led by a pianist instead of a guitarist.

The set’s third version of “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” is the best, both in terms of recording (it’s in stereo) and performance, and it wraps up the 2CD The Magnificent Moodies in style. The entire set is housed in an attractive, study and colorful box; both CDs are packaged in LP facsimile sleeves with color artwork. A 24-page booklet is stuffed with discographical information, informative essays and great photo memorabilia. A handful of reproduced fan club handbills and a large, foldout full-color poster will remind music fans of a certain age of rock’s golden days when every album seemed to come stuffed full of relevant (if extramusical) goodies. Taken as a whole, The Magnificent Moodies is an essential purchase for fans of British sixties pop, as well as for those who love the Days of Future Passed-and-onward lineup of the group but remain interested in from whence the group came.

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Album Review: The Moody Blues — The Magnificent Moodies (Part 1)

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Not long ago I interviewed Moody Blues founding member/flautist/vocalist Ray Thomas; much of our conversation centered around a new box set documenting the group’s pre-Days of Future Passed material. That music originally took the form of a UK album called The Magnificent Moodies (issued around the same time stateside as Go Now: The Moody Blues #1). The group also issued a number of non-album singles during that time, and – as was standard practice, especially for a group with the relatively high profile they enjoyed – they appeared on a number of radio programs in the UK.

There have been several reissues of The Magnificent Moodies, but none has approached the level at which the term “comprehensive” is an accurate description. Until now, that is: the new Esoteric Recordings release of The Magnificent Moodies collects the original July 1965 Decca album, adds fourteen non-album cuts from the era, and also adds an earlier, unreleased take of “Go Now!”

And that’s only the first disc. A second CD features seven additional studio outtakes (including, as Ray Thomas mentioned, material he doesn’t even recall having recorded), a dozen songs from various Saturday Club radio sessions, a mid-60s interview (also from Saturday Club) with Thomas and co-founder/drummer Graeme Edge (here’s my 2010 interview with him), a Coca-Cola radio spot, and an entire additional seven-song session the band cut with producer Denny Cordell. Pretty much the only audio missing from this set is the French radio appearances the Moody Blues did in the 1960s, but as Thomas told me, they couldn’t come to financial terms with the French (he used another word) that would secure rights to the recordings.

Taken as a whole, the new The Magnificent Moodies set paints a picture of a group very different from the one that would go on to worldwide success as a Mellotron-centric band fronted by vocalists Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass). The early lineup included neither of them. Instead, the early Moody Blues featured Denny Laine (later of Wings) on lead vocal and guitar, plus bassist Clint Warwick. Keyboardist Mike Pinder (here’s my interview with him) was the remaining member, another co-founder and one of three (with Thomas and Edge) who would go on to the “new” Moody Blues, much as the rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would form the basis of the old and “new” versions of another British group of the era(s), Fleetwood Mac.

Those early Moody Blues sides show a band very much in a American r&b vocal vein, the kind of group one would expect to see and hear in a club in a period-piece film like The Who‘s Quadrophenia, or perhaps on an episode of the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour. Their torrid run-through of James Brown‘s “I’ll Go Crazy” doesn’t attempt to ape the original, but it’s more soulful than The Blues Magoos‘ version from 1967. And though it was their biggest early hit, “Go Now” is a cover, too; the original was cut shortly before by Bessie Banks (wife of the song’s composer) in the USA.

It’s only on Side Two of that original album that one finds any group-penned tunes, making clear the fact that – at least in those early days – The Moody Blues métier was the interpretation of rhythm and blues classics and obscurities. And that they did quite convincingly.

That second side introduces the Laine/Pinder writing team, and tracks like “Let Me Go” display a softer, more refined sound that presages the later lineup’s sound in some subtly yet important ways. The layered vocals of Pinder and Thomas are shown to more nuanced effect, and Ray Thomas’ flute playing is showcased. The songwriting is solid, but nothing of the sort that would give Lennon/McCartney a run for their money; “Thank You Baby” is not unlike the kind of thing Graham Gouldman was writing for The Mockingbirds at the time.

The singles (A’s and B’s) that fill out the first disc of the new expanded The Magnificent Moodies are quality as well, and none would have been out of place on the album proper. They’re mostly covers as well, but the highlight among these is an original, “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)”. Soulful tracks like “Steal Your Heart Away” stay safely in that modified r&b style in which the band traded. The band cut a credible reading of a song first recorded a year earlier by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. That b-side, “Time is on My Side,” was of course a hit for another better-known British band (albeit eight months later).

By 1965, however, The Moody Blues singles released would consist only of original compositions, all from the Laine/Pinder writing team. These songs reflect a more mature songwriting style, one that seems to attempt to continue the r&b flavor of the group’s earlier material while moving past it in some ways. Production values increase, and while tunes like “Boulevard de la Madeleine” may have seemed a stylistic left-turn in January 1967, viewed in the context of the group’s later material, they make perfect sense. In fact, those songs suggest that had somehow the original lineup (or at least Denny Laine) continued as the Moody Blues, they might have made music not altogether unlike what the Hayward/Lodge-led group did. (A listen to the post-Moodies Denny Laine String Band provides further evidence supporting this idea.)

Meanwhile, the melancholy yet somehow goodtiming “This is My House (But Nobody Calls)” sounds very much like the kind of thing that would have scored on the charts in ’67 London. (It’s a bit reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Another Girl” from their Help! soundtrack.) Alas, neither it nor the group’s three subsequent singles did much (“House” did scrape the bottom of US charts, briefly reaching #119 in 1967).

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 5

Friday, March 6th, 2015

For the final entry in this run of hundred-word reviews, I take quick looks at some rare and/or reissued music. I think it’s all worth your time.

TV Eyes – TV Eyes
TV Eyes was a 90s alternapop supergroup. Jason Falkner has a stunningly high quality catalog of his own. Roger Manning was a prime mover in Jellyfish, one of the 1990s’ best, least-appreciated bands. And Brian Reitzell is renowned for his work with Air and Moog Cookbook. The bad news is that the group’s sole (2006) album was Japan-only. Until now, that is. Its dance-friendly sound weds guitar pop to an electroclash underpinning; it will appeal to Gary Numan fans. TV Eyes also helps explain what Beck saw in Falkner and Manning (both toured as part of his band in 2014).

Ron Nagle – Bad Rice
I find it endlessly fascinating just how many truly creative artists are lurking right around the fringes of rock’s universe. Nagle was a member of The Mystery Trend, a band who were historically important (if largely unknown) in the 60s San Francisco scene. And as co-leader of Dūrocs, he created some skewed (and again underheard) pop music. And there’s his solo album, done in the interregnum between those projects. It’s even less known, originally released on the cult-friendly Warner Brothers label (see also: Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, etc.). It’s more mainstream than its pedigree suggests, and it’s funny, too.

Linda Jones – The Complete Atco, Loma, & Warner Brothers Recordings
Jones’ 1967 single (R&B #4) “Hypnotized” may well be where the malpropism “hyp-mo-tized” originated. Regardless, that and many of her other singles of the era are fine examples of gospel-flavored soulful R&B. When she passed away prematurely in 1972 (as the result of a diabetic coma) at age 27, she left behind an impressive if under-appreciated body of work. Her expressive voice and breathtaking range are showcased in her music. Real Gone Music once again does yeoman’s work in rescuing these 21 sides from obscurity, and working through the knotty licensing to bring them all together on a single disc.

The 5 Stairsteps – Our Family Portrait / Stairsteps
A family band in the Jackson 5ive style (though the Burke family recorded before the Jacksons), The Five Stairsteps are sometimes characterized as bubblegum (or “bubblesoul”). True, there’s an undeniable family-friendly vibe to their music, but that shouldn’t diminish their work in the ears of music lovers. From the doo-wop-meets-TV-variety-show music of “A Million to One” to their smash “O-o-h Child,” there are pleasures to be found throughout their catalog. But their first two albums (now compiled on CD with bonus tracks) are their best. Their covers (“The Look of Love” and studio-era Beatles album cuts) are often quite impressive.

The Unforgiven – The Unforgiven (Expanded Edition)
Imagine if The Alarm were from Los Angeles instead of Wales, and you’ll have an idea of what this six-piece sounded like. Very dated 80s production flourishes (gunshot drum sounds, roaring arena-styled guitar) wedded to the odd c&w flourish (an occasional dab of pedal steel) and a perhaps ill-advised preoccupation with their look (cowboy dusters before every lame country band started wearing ‘em) are the three legs of The Unforgiven‘s musical stool. Every song swings for the fences, wanting to be an anthem, and it’s all a bit too earnest. Worth a listen but in no way a lost classic.

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Album Review: Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas – Secret Evil

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

It’s easy – too easy, in fact – to note that on Secret Evil, Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas sound a good bit like Amy Winehouse. Yes, there are similarities in both vocal style and instrumentation. But the comparison underestimates the strength and originality of Hernandez and her music.

The Detroit-based vocalist paid some serious dues to bring Secret Evil to the musical marketplace; originally signed to Blue Note, she recorded an album that ended up in the musical equivalent of what the film industry calls “turnaround.” Put simply, it never came out on Blue Note. Eventually she freed herself from the contract, released a EP, and now we have the first full-length from Hernandez and her band.

“No Place Left to Hide” has hints of KT Tunstall‘s early style, albeit with soulful backing from a full band. It’s a strong opening track for an album, but it’s eclipsed by the classic-to-be, “Sorry I Stole Your Man.” Equal parts trash-talking swagger and coyly knowing giggle, the song has everything a hit ought to have: great vocals with memorable “Ah-ooo” lines, solid musical backing with plenty of hooks, some subtle acrobatics from the players (check the descending organ line in the chorus) and a punchy mix.

Hernandez is equally effective turning out torchy, romantic numbers like the contemplative “Cry Cry Cry,” in which the singer shows off her precise vocal control. And she does it without the all-over-the-scale showoffy melismas so common to female pop singers. When Hernandez reaches for the upper register, she makes it sound like the most effortless thing in the world. She sings like most of us talk.

“Dead Brains” weds an effects-laden electric guitar figure to a pop-centric arrangement. The upbeat melody is almost bubblegum, but The Deltas’ arrangement gives it a harder edge, providing an effective backdrop for the lyrics-heavy track.

The band is strong and assured throughout the disc’s eleven cuts, and The Deltas manage to sound like a cohesive band rather than a group of musicians backing a singer. Hernandez’s vocals augment the instruments, and vice versa. The bridge of “Tired Oak” evokes a carnival carousel, but does so in an understated way. The track’s dynamics are emblematic of a group that sounds like they’ve been together for ages.

In “organic” styles of music, synthesizers must be used judiciously; otherwise the tunes can end up with a sterile, assembly-line feel. The synths (or treated guitars; it’s tough to tell which) on “Over” enhance the melody without overwhelming it.

On “Caught Up,” The Deltas open with a familiar drum pattern that gives way to a rocker. For those who fell in love with “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” this track may well be your second-favorite track on Secret Evil. It’s cut from similar musical cloth but isn’t a “Sorry” rewrite. The shifts in dynamics – and the great guitar solo – are thrilling, and a bit reminiscent of fellow Detroiters Dirtbombs.

“Neck Tattoo” – a rumination on romance and regret – affects a musical arrangement that feels film-noir-ish, and it curiously evokes some of John Lennon‘s better mid 1970s work. “Run Run Run” has an odd ambience that seems to combine a gypsy jazz feel with elements of techno, though it really doesn’t sound like either of those things.

Some clever horn charts enliven “Downtown Man,” a track in which Hernandez continues to demonstrate her skill at jumping vocally around the scale without distracting from her lyrics.

Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas choose a melancholy, low-key number to close out Secret Evil. “Lovers First” has a late-night, low-lights vibe. Restrained musical accompaniment from The Deltas showcases a vocal that’s both subtle and dazzling.

As a whole, Secret Evil is as impressive a debut long-player as I’ve heard from a vocalist (and her band) in some time. Recommended.

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Three

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Listening now, “More Than Enough Rain” isn’t even the best track on First Peace. Lance’s soulful vocal work, supported by The Sweet Inspirations, is a highlight of the album. There’s not a trace of Lance’s Brooklyn roots in his singing; he sounds like an authentic son of the South, and he insists that it came naturally when he sang. Because most of the songs were Lance/Robins compositions originally intended for various other acts on Atlantic, the record is a showcase of varying styles. The gospel strains of Lance’s Southern-flavored blue-eyed soul come to the fore on “Brother’s Keeper,” and it’s easy to imagine Aretha Franklin covering “One Turn You’re In One Turn You’re Out.”

Overall, the First Peace sessions cost a good bit of money. But because Motown was poised to share in any profits First Peace made, the decision was made at the highest levels within Atlantic not to promote the record. So despite the strong songs and performances, First Peace didn’t make a ripple on the album charts; the LP would quickly go out of print. The label gave the record only a perfunctory push, releasing a pair of singles to radio stations: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Shake Down Blues” were both promo-only 45rpm discs, featuring monaural mixes (for AM radio play) on the A-side, and stereo (for FM stations) on the B side.

In late summer 1971, Lance got a pair of rare, if brief, mentions in Billboard Magazine’s “Signings” column, noting that he had recently signed a new management contract with SAS, Inc., the artist management firm run by Sidney Seidenberg, B.B. King‘s longtime manager. While his musical career was bearing creative fruit, behind the scenes, his career was a mess, with SAS, Motown and Atlantic all involved to varying (and confusing) degrees.

Still, by 1972, Lance was once again in the studio, there to cut his follow-up LP. And in line with his goals as an artist, he sought to make an album that reflected his individual creative persona. Now billing himself only as B. Lance, he was recording for release on the higher-profile Atlantic label. Rollin’ Man would bear the credit, “Arranged and Produced by Bob Lance,” though engineer Geoff Haslam – in demand thanks to his production work on a successful string of albums by Atlantic label mates Cactus – played a significant role. Recording in the company’s New York City studios, Lance had chosen not to use the Muscle Shoals session players for the album. Instead he auditioned and assembled a proper band, and the members – coming from Alabama, Chicago and New York City – had convened in New York for several weeks of pre-recording rehearsals.

Gone, too, were King Curtis and his horns, The Sweet Inspirations, and Edwards’ string arrangements. Nor was Lance’s sister Fran Robins involved: all nine tunes of Rollin’ Man are Lance solo compositions.

Alabama-born guitarist Kenny Mims handled all lead guitar duties on the album; it was his first professional gig ever, but his lean and assured lines – like the double-tracked leads on “Bar Room Sally” – sound like the work of a seasoned pro. And though his background was in jazz, keyboardist Mitch Kerper played in a rollicking, R&B style; the instrumental dialogue between Kerper and Mims throughout the album – most notably on the eight-minute-plus “Hot Wood and Coal” – is one Rollin’ Man‘s most enduring features. “She Made Me a Man” is a soulful ballad in a style similar to Lance’s fellow New Yorker, Laura Nyro. The call-and-response vocals of “John the Rollin’ Man” – all overdubbed by Lance – capture the rhythm and blues vibe. The rhythm section of Dick Bunn (bass) and drummer Jimmy Evans cooks on “You’ve Got to Rock Your Own.” And with its mix of Mississippi delta acoustic blues guitar and gospel-inflected piano, “He Played the Reals” features a lyric that explores Lance’s deep feeling for the music he loves. And the brief “Tribute to a Woman” closes the album with a message to the woman Lance loved.

The Rollin’ Man LP came housed in a gatefold sleeve that featured Lance’s lyrics alongside a photo collage. Like its predecessor, and again without marketing support from Atlantic, Rollin’ Man did not chart; most copies of the semi-rare LP found today are cut-outs (remaindered, non-returnable stock). No one seems to know how many copies Atlantic pressed. The label did release a legitimate (as in, not simply a promotional disc) single, “Rock Your Own” b/w an edit of “Hot Wood and Coal” from Rollin’ Man, but it, too, failed to chart.

In the meantime, as part of his contract, Lance continued with other duties for the label. He handled vocal arrangement duties for King Curtis’ “Ridin’ Thumb” on Curtis’ 1971 Atco LP Everybody’s Talkin’, and penned “If a Dream Goes By,” a non-charting 1972 Garland Green soul side on Cotillion.

Lance’s sister Fran continued her songwriting career on her own, penning a number of songs for a wide variety of acts including Tony Orlando. She also began doing public readings of her poetry, mostly in the town of New Bern NC, were she and husband Norm lived. In her later years she was reportedly working on a musical. Fran Robins passed away in May 2014.

By the end of 1972, with the terms of his Atlantic contract fulfilled, Lance found himself without a record deal. Since neither First Peace nor Rollin’ Man had scored any chart activity, there was little demand for a follow-up record. The Rollin’ Man lineup landed a few live dates in and around New York City, but nothing high profile came of their efforts.

Lance soon left the business and settled in Tarrytown, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City. He eventually enrolled in college, earning a pair of Bachelor’s Degrees: one in Biology and one in Music. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Education. Lance developed an interest in literacy through music, eventually combining his musical background with teaching. For nearly twenty years now he has been teaching students in a school environment. He still writes songs and plays music.

Thanks to Norm Robins, Kenny Mims, and Bob Lance for their help in researching this story.

You can purchase Bobby Lance’s First Peace/Rollin’ Man here.

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The Bobby Lance Story, Part Two

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Continued from Part One

The Lance/Robins songwriting team had come to the attention of George Goldner, head of the Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-founded Red Bird Records. In particular, Goldner recognized Bobby’s talent, and believed he could go far in the business. He asked the teen where he’d like to get a job, and Lance quickly named the label that was home to many of his rhythm and blues heroes: Atlantic Records.

Goldner lined up a meeting for Bobby Lance with Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic. Auditioning his songs in Wexler’s office in front of the record mogul and Atlantic stars Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, Lance impressed everyone enough to be invited back the next day. On his return, Lance was signed as an in-house songwriter and arranger; his contract included a provision allowing him to release two albums.

Now established at Atlantic (an organization that included “house” labels Atco and Cotillion), Lance and sister Fran had composed another R&B tune, written expressly for Aretha Franklin. But when the 1968 composition “The House That Jack Built” wasn’t cut for Aretha’s then-current album, a miffed Lance brought the song to Barry Records and Thelma Jones. In fact, both that tune and its flip, “Give it To Me Straight” were written by the Lance/Robins team. On its release, Jones’ recording, using Bobby’s arrangement, started making appearances on local and regional record charts.

However, the next time Lance was at Atlantic, he was called into the studio. They had a surprise for him. They played a new record that Aretha had just recorded: “The House That Jack Built.” Her version used much the same arrangement as the Jones single, and once released, it quickly pushed Thelma Jones’ version right off the charts and into musical footnote status.

In his 1999 book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, renowned critic Dave Marsh ranks Aretha’s “The House That Jack Built” as #704. The tune reached #6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B charts. It dated from the period during which Atlantic Records made extensive use of the excellence of Muscle Shoals, Alabama session musicians, including Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass guitar), Barry Beckett (keyboards), and drummer Roger Hawkins.

Lance and Robins soon placed another of their tunes, the strutting soul number “One Night is All I Need,” on Arthur Conley‘s final Atco LP, 1969′s More Sweet Soul. That album featured backing by the Muscle Shoals studio cats, plus a young session guitarist named Duane Allman. Meanwhile and on her own, Fran Robins penned “Sweep Around Your Own Back Door,” a Lulu B-side on Atco, also recorded in Muscle Shoals. She also placed a tune on Lulu’s Melody Fair LP, yet another album featuring Duane Allman’s guitar work.

Meanwhile, Lance was beginning to chafe within the songwriting partnership he had with his older sister. Their lives were deeply entwined: Fran had acted as a surrogate mother to Bobby for many years; and the two had been writing songs together for a decade. As Lance began to grow toward manhood, he felt a growing need to express himself more independently. To that end, he began thinking about writing songs on his own and/or with other partners. His naïve pursuit of that goal took the form of signing another contract, this time with Motown. The plan was that he would be an in-house songwriter for the Detroit label, and he might also do some session arranging work. That there might be a serious conflict of interest didn’t occur to the young songwriter.

Once the executives at Atlantic realized what had happened, they began efforts to extricate Lance from his ill-advised deal with Motown. The legal wrangling would drag on for some time, and the agreement that was finally hammered out ceded to Motown a stake in any financial success that Lance’s Atlantic albums might enjoy.

In 1971, Lance’s debut album First Peace was released on Atlantic’s Cotillion imprint. Cut in late July 1970 in sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and at Atlantic’s NYC studios, the eleven-track LP featured all original tunes written by the Lance/Robins team.

Beckett, Hood and Hawkins provided most of the musical backing on First Peace, while Lance sang and played guitar. A King Curtis-led six-man horn section provided beefy charts for several of First Peace‘s numbers. A string section conducted by Leo Edwards graced several tracks. Famed session man Eddie Hinton handled the lead and slide guitar on all but one cut. And though he’s not credited anywhere on the original LP, for First Peace‘s “More Than Enough Rain,” Duane Allman provided some stinging electric slide guitar.

Though it has been the subject of speculation for decades, Lance vigorously confirms Allman’s presence on “More Than Enough Rain.” The chronology of Allman’s involvement goes like this: Bobby had self-produced the sessions for First Peace, but remained dissatisfied with the completed mixes for a few of the album’s tracks. Ace producer Tom Dowd offered to remix those tracks, so Lance traveled to Dowd’s Miami, FL Criteria Recording Studio (also known as Atlantic Records South), bringing along the multi-track master tapes. Under Dowd’s supervision, Lance overdubbed some vocal tracks, and left the tapes with Dowd. Soon thereafter – October ’70 – Allman was at Criteria for the sessions that would produce Ronnie Hawkins‘ self-titled 1970 LP. In a spare moment during those sessions, Dowd asked the guitarist to lay down some licks to improve Lance’s track; the resulting mix of “More Than Enough Rain” features musical sparring between King Curtis’ horn lines and Duane Allman’s impromptu yet fluid slide guitar work (the track also appears on Rounder’s 2013 box set, Skydog: the Duane Allman Retrospective).

To be continued…

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The Bobby Lance Story

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Late in 2014, I was contacted by the music reissue label Real Gone Music. Label head Gordon Anderson asked me if I’d be interested in writing the liner notes for an upcoming release. I had already done a number of projects for RGM, including a Brotherhood CD reissue, a Cannonball Adderley title, and a Rick Wakeman project. But with regard to this potential assignment, I wasn’t at all familiar with the name Bobby Lance, the artist whose pair of early 1970s albums were released on Atlantic and Cotillion (an associated subsidiary label). Both LPs went out of print forty-plus years ago. But a quick visit to YouTube convinced me that his music – very much in the Muscle Shoals/Stax blue-eyed soul mold – was right up my alley.

The thing was, there was very little in the way of hard information on Lance or his albums. Gordon gave me a bit of decade-old info on Lance’s last-known-location, and pointed me to another blogger’s brief essay (from a few years ago) in which the writer asserts a possible Duane Allman connection.

Even though I had little to go on – and a deadline – I was hooked.

Fast-forward to a few weeks later; by that time I had found and spoken to a number of people connected to Lance, a highly-regarded musician who had played on the album, and Bob Lance himself. You really need to hear the music, but the back story is nearly as important. Here it is, in three parts. – bk


The musical story of Bobby Lance starts years before The Beatles scored their first hit in America, and reaches its peak in the early 1970s with the release of two solo albums for a major record label. Lance’s career arc includes close associations with some of music’s most legendary names, though Lance never achieved the high profile that they enjoyed.

Orphaned at a young age, Brooklyn-born Lance was for many years effectively raised by his sister Fran, seventeen years his elder. Fran married Norm Robins (née Rabinowitz) in the late 1950s, and Norm took a great interest in the musical pursuits of his wife and brother-in-law. In fact it was Norm Robins who picked up the tab for a very young Bobby Lance to cut a single for Square Records, a local label. The pre-teen Lance cut a song of his own composition, “Baby I’m Gone.” Very much in the Bobby Vee teen idol mode, the song reflected the popular style of that time, but very few copies were pressed. Robins, lacking connections in the music business, wasn’t able to get the song onto radio or into widespread distribution. But the experience did whet the appetites of everyone involved to keep trying.

Bobby and Fran had already begun writing songs together: though a classically trained pianist, Fran stuck to writing lyrics, while brother Bobby composed the music. Though both were white Jews from Brooklyn, their songs’ lyrics reflected common, universal themes, and their music displayed their deep interest in African-American rhythm and blues.

Back around 1957, teenager and fellow Brooklynite Richard Perry had formed a vocal group with two of his friends; they called themselves The Escorts. By 1962 and the time of their third single, they had replaced their lead vocalist with female singer Goldie Zelkowitz; that lineup released “I Can’t Be Free” on Coral. The song was written by the now very active team of Francine “Fran” Robins (often misspelled on credits as Robbins) and Bobby. When Zelkowitz (later known as Genya Ravan) left The Escorts in early 1963, Bobby came in as lead vocalist; he sang on their last two sides.

Elsewhere in 1963, a Brooklyn doo-wop group called The Monorays released the red vinyl 45rpm single, “Face in the Crowd” b/w “Step Right Up” on Pittsburgh’s tiny Astra label. Both sides came from the pen of the Lance/Robins team. The siblings remained busy, writing tunes for Maxine Brown, The Sidekicks, The Ravenettes, and Zelkowitz’s new group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads.

A 1965 Lance/Robins composition (with Richard Perry, now in the dual role of co-composer and session producer) performed by The Young Generation yielded a genre minor-classic in “The Hideaway.” The Young Generation was notable for its lineup: three twelve-year-old girls, one of whom, Janis Siegel, would go onto fame as a member of Manhattan Transfer. (“The Hideaway” is included on Real Gone Music’s 2011 compilation, The Red Bird Girls). Around that time – with both doo-wop and girl-group styles well past their sell-by date – Bobby Lance and Fran Robins began writing songs that displayed a more R&B-inflected style.

By 1967, Lance and Robins connected with gospel-turned-R&B singer Thelma Jones; she would cut a number of singles for Barry Records, the small label run by colorful and notorious music industry figure Hy Weiss (and named after Weiss’ son). The b-side of her 1967 single, “Oh, Oh, Here Comes the Heartbreak” b/w “Gotta Find a Way” was arranged by Lance. Though the single didn’t do much chartwise, it established a working relationship between Jones and the young arranger/composer.

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