Archive for the ‘soul’ Category

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.

Click to continue…

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Swamp Dogg: Never Too Old to Boogie

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Damn! We thought you was dead! We thought you died in…nineteen-whatever!” That’s Swamp Dogg, recounting a common reaction he gets when people meet him in person. He’s very much alive, living in Los Angeles, and as busy as ever.

In his 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken (now Senator Al Franken, D-MN) made a goal of re-popularizing the phrase “kidding on the square.” In short, as Franken describes, it means, “kidding, but also really meaning it.” The phrase – and the practice it describes – has been around for years, but one of its most skilled practitioners has long been laboring without the recognition he deserves. Since 1970, Swamp Dogg (aka Jerry Williams) has been releasing albums that combine sociopolitical commentary with music. He’s sometimes compared to Frank Zappa, but Williams’ music has always been based in a tuneful, groove-oriented approach.

Swamp Dogg got his start as a soul singer, producer and arranger using his own name; after scoring a hit (at age 24) with the 1966 single, “Baby You’re My Everything,” he landed a job as an in-house producer at Atlantic Records.

But it was in Williams’ guise of his alter ego Swamp Dogg that he began crafting his most enduring work. Songs like “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” (from his debut LP Total Destruction to Your Mind) set the tone for Swamp Dogg’s approach: lay down a catchy groove, arrange it in an almost-slick (read: commercial) way, and then put some provocative and/or controversial (but always humorous) lyrics on top of it. If you put on one of his albums – say, 1971′s Rat On, with its oft-voted Worst Album Cover Ever – and don’t listen closely, you might think you’re just hearing some really good, undiscovered 70s funk-soul-r&b. But then you pay closer attention to the words in a song such as “These Are Not My People,” and you discover – as Sly Stone, one of Swamp Dogg’s heroes, might say – there’s a riot goin’ on. (Be sure to check out his new ode to the man, “Where is Sly?”)

For his trouble, Swamp Dogg earned (and still deserves) the label “cult hero.” His efforts have rarely translated into fiscally profitable results. Still – thank goodness – he marches on, and his latest album, The White Man Made Me Do It (his 21st long player) shows that time has blunted neither his sharp wit nor his musical skills.

I first learned about Swamp Dogg in the pages of Richie Unterberger‘s Unknown Legends of Rock’n'Roll. Unterberger’s profile of Swamp Dogg gave me a good sense of the man’s pointed, intelligent wit. With his songs that tackle universal and always-topical themes such as racism and inequality, that wit comes in handy. “It’s difficult to get a person’s attention,” Swamp Dogg observes. “But then even after you get it, it’s a challenge to hold it. So doing a little parody-type lyrical thing always helps.”

While never heavy-handed, Swamp Dogg often manages to convey real content in his songs. The title track on 2014′s The White Man Made Me Do It is a good example; the song’s extended outro features Swamp Dogg listing lesser-known African-Americans who have contributed to society in notable ways. The tune is almost a history lesson. Asked why he didn’t mention Garret Morgan, credited with development of an early traffic signal, Swamp Dogg says, “I didn’t want [the listener] to feel like you went from entertainment in your living room to a schoolhouse.”

“The point is,” he continues, “there are hundreds – thousands – of legends who blacks can take as idols. They will take a football player right out of college – somebody who’s had two great years – and all of a sudden he’s deemed a role model. And he hasn’t really done anything to make him a role model. You can be a role model if you’re [still] alive, but I think you gotta have a lot of age on ya.”

Still, Swamp Dogg is no finger-waving, pull-your-pants-up sermonizer; he’s always about entertaining first, and holds on to his irreverent attitude: “George Washington Carver didn’t rape no white girl in school, or any of that bullshit,” he points out. Then he quickly adds, “And if he did, he got away with it!”

Swamp Dogg is adept and comfortable trafficking in a wide array of styles: funk, soul, blues, disco, country. He views the various genres as “different dimensions of one big thing. You’re always using something from another genre, even if it’s only five notes, or six notes, or a lick.”

Unlike many r&b artists – especially ones who recorded in the 60s and 70s – Swamp Dogg has worked hard to regain control over his back catalog. Nearly all of his albums are available in authorized versions – in one format or another – via his website, swampdogg.net. Swamp Dogg mentions his experience many years ago with the people at Louis Drozen‘s Laff Records, a label that primarily released raw-and-raunchy comedy albums (by artists such as Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page) squarely aimed at a black audience. “They made a cover for the self-titled album. It was a picture of me. In a swamp. With a dog. With a dog! It was awful! I said that I wanted to make my own cover, and my wife said to me, ‘Look at the covers you make! They’re no better!’”

Several Swamp Dogg albums (but not the Laff Records one from 1982) are available on physical CD, on the Alive Natural Sound label. The different formats sometimes feature different material: the CD version of The White Man Made Me Do It includes a bonus disc of songs featuring production, arranging, and/or writing by Swamp Dogg; tracks include sides by Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, Swamp Dogg himself, and more. Swamp Dogg notes that another format of the album doesn’t include those tracks, instead featuring “an excerpt from my autobiography, which is called Kiss My Ass.”

“People can buy it when I finish it,” he says, and then his voice trails off, slightly perplexed: “Richie Unterberger is supposed to be writin’ it with me. It’s either him or Ben Greenman. I’ve been so busy.”

Swamp Dogg continues, “I’m trying to do like they did in the old days – though ain’t nobody want to bring back the old days – put my stuff out through two different distributors.” Red Eye and Burnside (the latter “my distributor for the last twelve years or so,” Swamp Dogg says) handle distribution of his physical product. “And what I love about them is, not only do they work, but they pay ya! Motherfuckers’ll send you a check every month. I don’t care if it’s only $37. They’ll send you a check for $37 or $37,000; they don’t care. As soon as they get paid, they pay you. And if they don’t get it, you don’t get it.” He believes that if record companies did business in the past like the companies he works with do now, “the business would not have gotten as fucked up as it is.”

Asked about any plans for upcoming live dates, Swamp Dogg mumbles vaguely about some efforts his “acting manager-at-large” is making, and then stops, brightens, and laughs. “In answer to your question, no, we don’t have any work!” But he fully expects that to change. “We’ve gotten rave reviews everywhere we’ve gone,” he says. “We haven’t been booed offstage yet.”

As a matter of fact, thanks both to the availability of his music, and to its timeless themes, Swamp Dogg is gaining new fans. “I’m acquiring a new audience. I done fucked around and outlived my [older] audience,” laughs the 72-year-old. “Them motherfuckers are dropped dead. But luckily, some of the kids heard my shit bein’ played around the house.” Swamp Dogg says his current audiences are “young, and they aren’t afraid of people who speak out.” And they’re open to the themes found in songs like “Prejudice is Alive and Well” on his latest album.

Swamp Dogg is refreshingly modest about his work. “I ain’t never told nobody that what I was sayin’ is total truth,” he insists. “It’s what I feel. Just what I feel.” And he’s sincerely happy to sit down for conversations with writers like myself. “You’re helpin’ keep me alive,” he says. “I mean it: people think I’m dead!”

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Album Review: Various Artists — Right Now

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

I’ve observed before that Fantastic Voyage makes full advantage of the unique copyright/licensing laws as they exist in the UK; in the United States, putting together a package such as Right Now would be prohibitively expensive, and also certainly a money-losing proposition.

As it is, once again we have Fantastic Voyage to than for compiling a peerless set of music, classic recordings that have long gone unheard by all but the most fanatical crate diggers. The mighty Atlantic label – along with its Atco subsidiary label – was home to some of the best rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, and blues artists. And while the most well-known cuts are easily found in myriad places, there are countless “deep cuts” that are rarely heard. Many are excellent songs, and quite a few are of great historical import. And on this new 3CD set, 86 of them are collected in best-available sound quality.

Most of the Atlantic r&b greats are represented here: Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and The Isley Brothers are just some of the artists found on this set. But it’s the lesser-known cuts that surprise and delight the most. So while Joe Turner‘s seminal rock’n'roller “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” is here in all its influential glory, so is the amazing “Right Now” by – of all people – Mel Tormé. Electric piano and combo organ are out front in a Cuban-flavored tune that – like so many of the tunes here – sounds like the missing link between rock’n'roll and pretty much any other earlier style you’d care to name.

Jimmy Ricks & The Raves‘ “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” features an out-front baritone vocal and a swaggering, vaguely sinister air. Also here is Richie Barrett‘s “Some Other Guy,” a relatively obscure tune that influenced a Hamburg, Germany bar band called the Beatles (a decade later, John Lennon nicked the song’s intro for his own “Instant Karma”).

The lyrical themes here are pretty much the usual stuff: love, betrayal, sex. The Coasters‘ “I’m a Hog For You” is a random and delightful example. Making things more interesting than they might otherwise be, Right Now compiles well-known artists doing lesser-known versions of of well-known tunes: so we have The Top Notes (instead of The Isley Brothers) doing “Twist and Shout,” and Stick McGhee & His Buddies‘ 1950 recording of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (instead of any of the successful cover versions). Joe Turner makes Lead Belly‘s tune absolutely swing with “Midnight Special Train.”

Lois Wilson‘s detailed liner notes provide the context so often missing in lesser compilations: every tune is noted with its Atlantic or Atco matrix number, release date and composer. Wilson also presents brief, concise background (when available) on the artists and songs included.

Right Now focuses primarily on the 1949-1962 period, in part because of (once again) the UK’s approach to copyright of older material; in practical terms, this might mean that a decade from now – if we’re very lucky – Fantastic Voyage might put together some amazing compilations of Atlantic material from the Muscle Shoals/Stax era.

Fantastic Voyage has released a raft of worthy historical compilations, but Right Now may well be the very best from among them.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The third set of five reviews covers various-artist compilations in various genres: rockabilly, blues and soul.


Delmark: 60 Years of Blues
This venerable record label – the nation’s oldest dealing in blues and jazz, in fact – has been responsible for some of the most important blues releases of the 1960s and beyond. This collection draws from old and new material: some of it has been released before to great acclaim; some of the cuts (Big Joe Williams‘ private tape of “44 Blues,” for example) are previously unreleased. As an introduction to the deep Delmark catalog, it’s an excellent sampler. I haven’t heard its companion volume (60 Years of Jazz) but there’s every reason to expect the same level of quality.


Eccentric Soul: The Way Out Label
The folks at Numero Group pride themselves on their eclectic taste, on their ability to sniff out and dig up hopelessly obscure music that deserves a hearing. Their Eccentric Soul series continues with this collection of tunes from the tiny Way Out Recording Company, based in Cleveland, Ohio. Aficionados of deep-cut Northern Soul will find a lot to like in the digital groove of this 2CD set. For an obscure label featuring unknown artists, there’s a bracingly high level of production and arrangement polish to be found on these tracks. Countless shoulda-been-hit numbers lurk among the forty cuts found here.


Eccentric Soul: Capitol City Soul
The story of how Numero ended up with tapes from Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul label is as interesting (and unlikely) as any of their crate-digging, historical endeavors. But thank goodness it happened. This single disc set of obscurities collects twenty numbers – again, songs you haven’t heard, by groups you’re unlikely to recognize – from the period 1969-1973. It’s sobering to think that were it not for Numero, music such as this might have been lost forever. It deserves better, and the loving care with which Numero compiles it (including peerless liner notes) is a gift to all of us listeners.


Soul City New Orleans: Big Easy Gems from the Dawn of Soul Music
What with music licensing rules being different than in the US – and thus more conducive to the creation of retrospective compilations – British label Fantastic Voyage has the ability to pull together long-forgotten sides from America’s musical past. One of the latest in this ongoing project is this. This 2CD set presents sixty tunes featuring some of the leading lights of New Orleans music, including Huey Smith and the Clowns, Smith’s on-again/off-again associate Bobby Marchan, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe and Eddie Bo. Clive Richardson‘s excellent liner notes (and loads of color photos) make it even better. Essential.


Hoosier Daddy: Mar-Vel’ and the Birth of Indiana Rockabilly
Let’s forgive Fantastic Voyage for employing a horrible pun in the title of this set; instead let’s appreciate their efforts in shining a light on a narrow (yet important) slice of American music. The tiny Mar-Vel’ (that’s how it’s spelled) label specialized in what would come to be known as rockabilly. Across three CDs and more than one hundred tracks, this set chronicles the music out of the Indiana label, circa 1953-1962. Fantastic Voyage must have somehow gotten hold of the masters; these crystal clear recordings surely don’t sound like “needle drops.” A treasure trove for pedal steel enthusiasts indeed.

10 more capsule reviews to come.

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Album Review: Caleb Hawley

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

While it might come off a bit melodramatic to say so, sometimes I experience some emotional rollercoasterism when receiving new music in my mailbox. Case in point: not long ago I went outside to collect the mail, only to find a box leaned up against my front door (it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox). The familiar cardboard dimensions – a bit over 12” x 12” – made all but certain that it was vinyl.

I love vinyl.

The return address indicated that said package was shipped to me from a publicist in whom I trust, one with whom I share similar musical tastes; further, she”gets” my specific likes and dislikes, and tends to steer toward me music that is likely to get a fair listen. She turned me on to The Explorers Club, in fact. In short, a professional.

I took the package inside and opened it. What I found was a record with cover art as you see above. A guy who looks a bit like Noah Wyle, the actor who rose to fame on ER. My first thought was, “Oh. A singer songwriter.”

My heart sank.

But knowing the publicist as I do, I was more than willing to give the record a spin. How bad could it be? So I removed the shrink wrap and put the vinyl platter on the turntable. The first track, “Would You Even Try,” blasted out of the speakers.

I was thrilled.

And so it goes. One can’t always judge an LP by its cover. The self-titled debut from Minneapolis-born Caleb Hawley has much more in common with, say, Mayer Hawthorne – another white guy who creates authentic, heartfelt soul music – than any navel-gazing, overly precious singer-songwriter.

“Would You Even Try” has slinky, soulful guitar riffs and thundering bass as its foundation, but Hawley’s strong voice – supported by hot Latin-flavored percussion, bright horn charts and subtle Motown-styled strings – is the focus here. It’s undeniably retro, and it’s also exciting as hell.

“Sometimes a Good Feeling (Just Can’t Last)” is another pop delight. It’s as strong as any soul/r&b 45 from the early 70s. The sax work and female vocal chorus are standout elements, but it’s a deftly executed tune all around.

Hawley slows things waaay down for “I Just Want You,” heading for a gospel-flavored Wilson Pickett style. The thrill quotient is lower, but that’s clearly by design. Hawley’s neo-soul approach here is reminiscent of James Morrison‘s debut (let’s hope Hawley can maintain the quality of his music, a feat Morrison hasn’t quite been able to master).

While “When My Baby’s Gone” is a fine tune, here Hawley oversteps the boundaries just a bit: the tune is a too-direct lift of The Supremes‘ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The not-exactly-original lyric “just my imagination running wild” doesn’t help things, either. Still, let’s give Hawley a one-time pass on this one: Mayer Hawthrone gave us a similar product with A Strange Arrangement‘s “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” and he’s done okay for himself since.

Some tasty Memphis-styled guitar funk forms the basis of “Crying Wolf.” On “Let a Little Love In,” Hawley and his players build the song around some lovely piano work; the resullt feels like Tapestry-era Carole King, and that’s never, ever a bad thing.

The vocal chorus fades slowly in on “My Hell,” a tune much more upbeat than its title might suggest. Hawley’s impassioned delivery is heightened by massed handclaps moving the tune along. The drum corps intro of “Little Miss Sunshine” is fascinating, and it leads into a slinky dim-the-lights-baby jam.

“Bada Boom, Bada Bling” puts the focus more on the instrumentation. Wahwah guitars and a super-funky beat make the tune; the melody isn’t as strong as most of what’s on Caleb Hawley, but perhaps as a dance floor number it works.

A few odd production choices mar “Long Life,” and the seemingly autobiographical lyrics detract from the fun a bit. Too gimmicky by half, it’s the album’s weakest track, and sticks out like a sore thumb ion an otherwise fine disc.

Hawley gets back on solid footing with the Earth, Wind & Fire-styled “Give it Away.” His command of falsetto is impressive; it’s a testament to his (or someone’s) restraint that the vocal technique isn’t splashed all over the album. Leaving ‘em wanting more is always a good strategy for a performer new to the scene. Musically, it feels not unlike something Michael Jackson might’ve done in the mid 1980s.

Caleb Hawley wraps up with “Find It,” a number that starts out understated, only to unfold halfway through as a pull-out-all-the-stops big finish. Vocals and instruments go all-in here, and “Find It” sounds to these ears like the perfect live set closer. It fulfills that role equally well on this album.

Perhaps a bit oddly, Hawley initially released an EP called Side 1; his latest short-form release is – wait for it – Side 2. The first focused on 60s styles, while the second has a more (but not too) contemporary feel. His self-titled vinyl LP includes both sides, and it’s the way to go.

In the future, when and if I receive a package indicting Caleb Hawley’s involvement, I’ll be expecting good things.

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Album Review: Bobby Patterson – I Got More Soul!

Monday, July 28th, 2014

If you happened upon a spin of I Got More Soul!, the new album from Bobby Patterson, you could be forgiven for thinking he’s the latest in young new recording artists playing an authentic 21st century brand of classic southern soul. Patterson name-checks Johnnie Taylor, BB King and other soul/blues/r&b giants in the title track, a funky groove that nails the Stax, Ardent, Muscle Shoals and Hi studio vibes of yore, and the band is in the pocket, providing for each of the ten tracks the sort of backing that fits the songs’ moods perfectly.

The thing is, Bobby Patterson is 70, and I Got More Soul! was cut a nine-hour drive southwest of Memphis, in Austin TX’s Arlyn Studios. And Patterson (who co-produced the album with Zach Ernst of The Relatives, who back Patterson) is a journeyman soulster who released a tasty string of singles in the period 1969-1976 on smallish Jetstar and Paula Records, and cut the now-impossibly-rare It’s Just a Matter of Time LP in 1972.

On I Got More Soul!, Patterson serves up songs that put his voice – an amazingly youthful instrument – right out front. On the deep funk of “Can You Feel Me?” Patterson assumes the persona of a tough-talkin’ dude, not unlike early hip hop vocalists whose tunes were often about how hip they were. And in Patterson’s capable hands and voice, the song leaves no doubt that Patterson truly is the man. Shades of Sly Stone (whose “Poet” gets a knowing reading from Patterson) and Little Willie John are shot through this collection of eight originals and two covers.

Patterson belts it out when he needs to, but he brings it way down low for semi-spoken bits, proving that a skilled and effective vocalist can command attention without having to shout. The funky “It’s Hard to Get Back In” sounds like the best blaxploitation film theme you’ve never heard, a streetwise swagger of a tune with charts that nail the Memphis Horns vibe to the wall.

The album’s no-frills production never calls attention to itself; the sound is clean but never slick, and the band’s rhythm section and the horn players do most of the musical heavy lifting; the keyboards and guitar are subtle and used more sparingly. The net effect of the arrangements is to provide sympathetic backing for the star of the show. On the smoky and alluring “The Entertainer Pt.1,” Patterson tells us he’s in the house while what sounds like the percussion setting on a 70s organ lays down the beat. The tasty electric piano backing behind Patterson’s sung/spoken vocal feels like vintage Donny Hathaway. “I don’t care if you’re on the hood or in the trunk,” Patterson tells us, “Ain’t no way you can get away from my funk.” He truly is The Entertainer. And when Patterson lights a torcher as on the Otis Redding-styled “I Know How It Feels,” you’ll believe that he really does know. And the gospel-flavored “Everybody’s Got a Little Devil in Their Soul” proves that this soul veteran knows how to testify. Open your ears to the deliciously varied I Got More Soul! and Bobby Peterson will make you a believer.

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