If Black Top Records mavens Hammond and Nauman Scott had been prospectors in California during the mid 1800s, the name Scott would be synonymous in American financial history with that of Rockefeller. The Brothers Scott have an uncanny knack for unearthing the most precious gems overlooked by others in their field. But instead of finding gold, the Black Top owners have repeatedly struck the mother lode of previously-lost musical treasures like Robert Ward and James "Thunderbird" Davis, as well as bringing new life to the recording careers of blues icons Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, Grady Gaines, Dave Myers and more.
Soul singers Earl Gaines and Roscoe Shelton were part of a stable of Nashville warblers who recorded for Excello Records in the 1950s. Gaines recorded the oft-covered classic "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)" for Excello as a member of the Hi-Toppers, and later cut a few sides for the Champion and King labels. When the evil disco craze put a lot of R&B singers out of business in the '70s, Gaines took a fulltime job as a truck driver. Shelton's career followed a similar path after his late '50s/early 60s hits for Excello, and he too left the music business for a regular day job.
In all fairness, Nashville producer/guitarist Fred James also deserves some of the credit for bringing Gaines and Shelton back into the limelight, tracking down both artists in 1994 and getting them back into the studio. After each recorded discs for several small European labels, the Scotts contacted James about bringing Gaines and Shelton into the Black Top family. The result is two beautiful soul/blues albums.
There's a remarkable similarity to the vocal styles of the singers, both resembling the late James "Thunderbird" Davis, who recorded the excellent Check Out Time for Black Top ten years ago. James' band provides the backing on both sessions, so there's a bit of sameness to the discs. But that's OK, because they're both great.
Gaines' CD, Everything's Gonna Be Alright, starts off with a fine remake of the uptempo blues "Every Night in the Week." This tune has been recorded many times over the years, but seldom as nice as this version.
His voice is absolutely at its best on the slow soul ballad "The Same Thing." James contributes a strong guitar solo in the middle of this number. Then your tears will turn to smiles on the very next cut, when Gaines turns it loose on the ribald "Your Butt's Too Big."
Shelton's album, Let It Shine, shows a singer with a little more range and grit in his voice. This guy's going to move up quickly on my list of favorite soul crooners. Pianist Jay Spell kicks off the first cut, "Lady (Your Man's Runnin' 'Round)," with a ferocious piano intro, then Shelton comes in with his voice blasting away. Shelton really demonstrates his vocal prowess on the slow blues "Easy Going Fellow," giving away the fact that he began his career as a gospel singer. The title cut also is a feelgood soul number that contains equal parts Saturday night and Sunday morning, while the slow number "Save Me" sounds like it was freshly imported from the choir loft.
In addition to being a great singer, Shelton is also an extremely talented composer, having penned 11 of the 12 songs on Let It Shine. It doesn't matter whether he's doing soul or the blues --- Shelton straddles the line quite capably.
If I had to choose which of these excellent CDs I like the best, the winner would be Shelton's Let It Shine by a nose in a photo finish. But you'll believe you hit the jackpot when you dig up both discs.
- Bill Mitchell
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