Archive for the ‘soul’ Category

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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Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: The “5″ Royales – Soul & Swagger

Monday, June 16th, 2014

There are a select few acts in musical history that didn’t sell a ton of records, yet exerted influence far beyond what their chart action might suggest. Among the most celebrated examples are The Velvet Underground and Big Star. Both groups have had said about them – apocryphally or otherwise – that they sold few records, but that everyone who bought one went out and formed a band.

That short list should also include The “5” Royales (the quote marks are part of the name). Though their notoriety is largely confirmed to blues and r&b enthusiasts, the group can count among their fans no less than Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s fame, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Vaughan. The “5” Royales’ specialty was a bluesy, often gospel-infused vocal style not miles removed from The Platters, Drifters and Coasters. But in addition to some excellent, soulful close harmony work, the band had within its ranks a secret weapon: guitarist Lowman Pauling. His direct, compact and effective leads were an integral part of the group’s sound.

A new 5CD set (naturally, there are five!) collects all of The Winston-Salem NC-based group’s material, from their earliest 78s in their 1951 gospel phase (when they were known as The Royal Sons Quintet) through their later material. The group’s unique sound was a synthesis of blues, early rock’n'roll, doo-wop, rhythm and blues and what would later be known as soul.

The new set (on Rock Beat Records) titled Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951-1967 is lavishly packaged in a sturdy hardcover book roughly the size of a stack of 45rpm singles; that’s fitting, as The “5” Royales existed in an era when the single was king, when album-length releases weren’t yet the standard. A detailed and deeply researched history and discography includes details including personnel on each track, release date and matrix number.

The set is strewn with gems; The “5” Royales were so versatile and accomplished that each listener will likely have his or her own favorite tracks. The blues-based “Thirty Second Lover” (from 1957) is as good as anything that came out that year; it sounds a bit like The Dixie Hummingbirds backed by Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black. Pauling tears up the fretboard on “Say It,” and their version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” is miles away from the Mamas & the Papas version.

Some of the material features saxophone (in those days, as often as not, sax – not guitar – was the lead instrument of choice for r&b sides), and swings in a manner a few steps advanced from – but not wholly unlike – Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. A bit of gritty guitar distortion crops in from time to time, but it’s nicely balanced by the soul-stirring close harmony work of the group.

As noted above, The “5” Royales were a singles outfit. They did cut a few albums of material, but not until the CD era did any sort of thoughtful compilation of their best work appear. But now in 2014, no less than two compilations have been released. A 2CD set called The Definitive “5” Royales: Home of the Blues & Beyond is a good and thoughtful survey. But the Rock Beat set includes all of the material the group released 1951-1967, liberally sprinkled with rare, unreleased and alternate takes. And if you’re gonna dive into the work of The “5” Royales, you ought to do it right. Thanks to its comprehensive nature and the care with which is was assembled (a few early sides excepted, the sound quality is stellar), Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales is the one to buy.

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Album Review: Bobby Rush — Decisions

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

An authentic blues album is a rare thing in 2014. Maybe it’s a function of modern recording techniques; I don’t know the reason. But most attempts at capturing the blues in the context of a recording session end up feeling and sounding sterile and lifeless, rote and unimaginative.

The good news is that the current state of blues releases has the effect of shining a brighter light on those albums that truly do rise above. And that’s the case with Decisions, the new CD+DVD release from Bobby Rush. Ably backed by the seasoned party band Blinddog Smokin’ (Chicago Chuck Gullens on drums, bassist Roland Pritzker, Mo Beeks on keyboards, guitarist Robert “Chalo” Ortiz, and vocalist Carl Gustafson out front) plus assorted studio cats on additional guitars, saxophones and whatnot, Rush delivers his soulful vocals in a style that laid back enough to convey the I-got-this attitude without breaking a sweat.

Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) shares lead vocal duties with Rush on one tune, the album opener “Another Murder in New Orleans.” And while the album packaging makes a bit too much of this single-track collaboration (“Featuring the Legendary Dr. John” is emblazoned on the cover artwork, and a great photo of the duo serves as the booklet’s cover), the tune will leave listeners wanting more from these two grizzled veterans of music.

In fact, the Gustafson-penned “Another Murder in New Orleans” fits smoothly into the sonic space of the album overall. Rush composed five of the album’s ten tracks, including the smoky title song. And he has a sympathetic foil in Gustafson, the writer (either solo or with others) of Decisions‘ other tracks. Gustafson included two numbers written to be autobiographical (sic) tunes, and their titles make clear their subjects: “Bobby Rush’s Bus” purports to tell the story of “nineteen years on the road” with Rush, and an announcer lets us know who’s taking each of the four solos. And the wry and comical “Dr. Rush” casts Bobby as a radio call-in advice resource.

In fact, nearly all of the tracks on Decisions aim for a slice-of Bobby’s-life vibe, and those slices are upbeat and grin-inducing. “Too Much Weekend” tells the story of the Monday-morning effects of a weekend of over-stimulation. Full of stabbing horn chart work, “Funky Old Man” implores the listener to do a new dance called the “Fred Sanford.”

Elsewhere, “Love of a Woman” mines well-worn lyrical territory familiar to any blues fan, and “If That’s the Way You Like It I Like It” is sung in the voice of a man who will seemingly put up with anything to keep his woman. And “Stand Back” folds in some Cuban salsa elements, answering the unasked question: What would Santana‘s “Smooth” sound like with Bobby Rush out front instead of that Matchbox 20 guy?

The included DVD features a video for “Another Murder in New Orleans” featuring Rush onstage with the band at One Eyed Jack’s, with Dr. John on piano and vocal. Some clever, highly stylized animation and handheld street-scenes camera work, adds interest, though the black-and-white narrative sections are perhaps a bit too literal. But overall, it’s an exceedingly well done clip. A brief interview of sorts with Dr. John is interesting, but the intercut footage of Rush sitting on a stool in the studio doing some solo blues with only his voice and harmonic is worth seeing.

Rush’s previous album — 2013′s Down in Louisiana – earned a Blues Music Award for “Soul Blues Album of the Year,” and since Decisions is every bit as good, it will be worth watching to see if this new album gets similar notices.

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Capsule Reviews: Still More from Real Gone Music

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Wrapping up the series (for now, at least), here’s the last of four entries presenting short looks at recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.


Vanilla Fudge – The Complete ATCO Singles
Most rock fans with any sort of memory are familiar with Vanilla Fudge, and they know the band’s deceptively simple approach to interpreting the songs of others: up the melodrama quotient, and in equal measure, slow down the tempo. Sometimes it worked very well on both commercial and creative levels: the band’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is a stone classic (and there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about it). The approach generally lent itself best to longer workouts, like “Shotgun,” where ideas (such as they existed) had a chance to unfold. Within the context of the much briefer single, sometimes the power was lost (as far as subtlety, there was precious little of that to lose). As a result, the single edit of the Supremes cover is very good, but not great like the longer edit.

Other times, the approach feels overwrought, even within the confines of a (two-sided, two-part) single, such as the “Fudge-ized” (their term; I prefer “Fudge-ified”) reading of Donovan‘s “Season of the Witch.” Some gems do exist on this collection of all the band’s 45s: while it doesn’t best the original Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duet/weirdathon, “Some Velvet Morning” is suitably over the top. A couple tracks from the band’s 80s reformation try to update the Fudge sound for the MTV era. Hint: it didn’t work. Verdict: good, but listeners are better served by picking up the first album.


Eddie Kendricks – Love Keys
It must be said that reissuing this album is a curious move. Though Eddie Kendricks achieved great fame as a lead vocalist in The Temptations, and enjoyed some hits during his string of nine solo LPs on Motown, once he left Berry Gordy‘s label, he stopped having hits. More troubling was the fact that his voice was largely shot, thanks to a lifelong chain smoking habit that would eventually result in the lung cancer that would end his life. Love Keys was the sole album Kendricks cut for Atlantic, and it neither charted nor yielded a hit single. Moreover, it’s a significant departure from the style of his earlier efforts.

But it does remain the final full-length from the man who gave us so many hits, so for that reason alone it deserves a hearing. This Muscle Shoals-flavored album heads in a southern soul direction, but the arrangement and production scream “1981,” and from where I’m sitting, that’s rarely a good thing. Still, any Kendricks is worthwhile, so if you can listen past the cheesy synth lines and discofied beats that crisscross perfectly good Muscle Shoals horn charts, Love Keys is…okay.


The Ohio Express – Beg, Borrow & Steal: The Complete Cameo Recordings
When most people hear this band’s name, they immediately think of the whole Kasenetz/Katz bubblegum scene. But this here is an actual album, not a collection of singles. And it’s from the period when The Ohio Express aimed for what we’d nowadays term a garage rock sound, not a bubblegum one. Once the railway sound effects subside, the title track – a tune that shamelessly rips off at least three other songs I can think of offhand – sets the tone for most of the rest of the disc. To call the album faceless is unfair, but the fact that two completely different bands (with only slight personnel overlap) contributed to it isn’t all that sonically obvious.

Nearly every song on Beg, Borrow and Steal sounds like another song: “Had to Be Me” is a ringer for The Choir‘s “It’s Cold Outside,” and “Let Go” is a thin rewrite of “Hi Ho Silver.” This all leads one to wonder snarkily if the record’s title doesn’t identify it as some sort of concept album. Still, originality wasn’t the goal; fun and commercial success was. Overall, though, the long-out-of-print Beg, Borrow & Steal documents the band’s early guise(s), and is a worthwhile purchase for fans of the genre.

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Capsule Reviews: And Yet Three More from Real Gone Music

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Here’s the third of four collections of brief reviews of recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Dr. John, The Night Tripper – GRIS-gris
Dr. John (aka Mac Rebbenack) was a well-known fixture on the New Orleans music scene long before he cut this, his debut album in 1968. And while he’d later enjoy commercial success with his 1973 single, “Right Place Wrong Time,” this album makes no concessions to the marketplace. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes mention, Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun is reputed to have asked, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” It’s a weird, spooky gumbo of cajun, voodoo, jazz and funk styles, all filtered through a thick, (hard-) druggy haze. The audio quality on some tracks – notably “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” makes it sound as if the mics were all in the next room over from the musicians (who sound as if they’re dancing over a cauldron while playing).

Definitely weird stuff and not for the faint of heart, GRIS-gris is nonetheless a historically important musical document. For a bit of fun, compare Dr. John’s reading of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (sic) with the one cut live by Humble Pie. If you’re open to the sonic equivalent of a bad trip sprinkled liberally with Louisiana hot sauce, this is the ticket.

Irma Thomas – Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album
Speaking of New Orleans, here’s a previously unreleased cache of recordings from the vocalist known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Irma Thomas had cut a pair of albums for Imperial in the mid 1960s, and even earlier (1960) enjoyed a brief chart presence with “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man.” And in the early part of the 70s, she was signed to Atlantic associated label Cotillion, for whom she cut fifteen songs. Only two were released: “Full Time Woman” and its b-side, “She’s Taken My Part.” For reasons that seemed to have to do with changing popular tastes, none of the other material was ever released.

But once again, Real Gone Music comes to rescue, and the results are quality stuff, very much in line with what Aretha Franklin was doing in those days. David Nathan‘s liner notes tell the story in rich detail.

Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles – The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus
If you like your r&b female vocal a little gritter and soulful than The Supremes, then if you don’t already know about Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, you owe it to yourself to check out this comprehensive set. Acts like The Bluebelles were always focused more on singles than album-length releases, so with this collection – forty tracks including all the single releases the group had on Atlantic, plus some other scattered gems including several previously-unreleased cuts – listeners get a good overview of what they were all about.

Despite their efforts, not a single one of these tunes (other than “All Or Nothing” b/w “Over the Rainbow”) dented the pop charts. Of course once they’d altered their approach and shortened their name to Labelle, they’d hit it big with 1974′s “Lady Marmalade.” But these earlier sides – dating 1965 to 1969 – are quite good and have sadly been long overlooked.

Still more on the way.

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