Blues Bytes

September 2005

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Paul OscherNot much electricity was used, an occasional electric guitar, one of the basses and maybe some amplified harmonica on Paul Oscher's Down In The Delta (Blues Fidelity). Many tracks are simply solo performances, and Oscher is uniformly strong throughout. This release comes across as ultra-human. Oscher played harmonica for Muddy Waters from ‘67 to ‘71, backed John Lee Hooker, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Magic Sam and T-Bone Walker. He then formed a band under the name “Brooklyn Slim,” was out of music in the ‘80s, and has since been turning out albums under his own name.

This disc’s entire impression cries out being a labor of love, assembled from obviously different, but all intimate, sessions. It’s not clear exactly where recorded, but they appear on the Blues Fidelity label of Santa Monica, far from the Mississippi River Delta of the music’s inspiration. The side musicians are impressive and sympathetic: Dave Maxwell (piano), Calvin Jones (bass), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Levon Helm or Richard Innes (drums), among a couple others. The CD is lifelike also in its graphic presentation of photos (taken in Mississippi) and liner notes. They point out that Oscher plays guitar, neck-racked harmonica, piano, (the probably obsolete) melodica, and together recorded “the old school way-no overdubs.” Vocally especially he’s at ease, never over-doing it or “trying to sound black.”

Very evident is the artist’s intense acoustic slide guitar, a clear Muddy Waters influence. Many of the duo/trio selections hearken back to the sound of those early Muddy records with just acoustic bass and unamplified harmonica backing. Sometimes the sound is crystal clear, other times “anti-digital,” but always warm. “St. Louis Blues” is done partially in 12-bar form, unlike its original. The band recordings also sound like those of Muddy’s, as in Otis Spann-type piano. Of the 14 tracks, four are Oscher originals. Interpretation of a Robert Johnson song may be the only instance where individuality falls short, because Leroy Carr’s music immediately following gets us back in the groove. John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy # 1), Robert Jr. Lockwood and Duke Ellington tunes are also played without stigma.

I detect a chromatic harmonica in one place because of fullness. (Are they ever played “neck-racked”)? In one place I hear “acoustic folk” with a strong foot-stomp foundation (that could be taken as John Lee Hooker), a slightly hyper Jimmy Reed comes across elsewhere. Drummers Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Levon Helm are especially effective, both coming from the Delta. The latter, best known for his affiliation with The Band, has almost become the exact player that Smith seems to have always been, especially as Muddy Waters’ last drummer. Something about that “greasy,” pulled-back feel.

The only two instrumentals close the disc. A solo acoustic guitar of “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” is delightful enough to keep running positively thru my mind, whereas the standard “Georgia On My Mind” is genuine, sincere, and heartfelt. These are the attributes of Paul Oscher who is clearly himself all thru the album. Everything is as it should be: the Delta’s influence and theme, relaxed and experienced performance, and help from the current generation of Delta-born blues men.

---Tom Coulson
Radio broadcaster/musician
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A stand-up vocalist and songwriter, Jimmy “T99” Nelson self-produced The Legend on the Nettie Marie label. The music is urban, not rural, with a west-coast feel despite the majority of players being New England-based. They are Roomful Of Blues band alumni, including the great Duke Robillard plus last-minute guest Sugar Ray Norcia on harp. That makes a good-sized band featuring horn arrangements. Roomful has backed “T99” in the past and the match is good.

Jimmy "T99" Nelson is one of the founding fathers of the the “West Oakland 7th Street Blues.” He toured with Joe Liggins (The Honey Dripper), then made his way to the Apollo Theater in New York City. Somewhere in the early ‘50s, "T99" went to a Joe Turner dance over the bank in West Oakland. He thought “that did it,” seeing and hearing Joe shout the blues. He knew then his life would change dramatically. He and Joe became running pals.

“T99” first recorded in 1948 and became known as a big blues singer with the poet’s gift for turning a phrase. His writings charted in ‘51 and ‘52. One title was “T99 Blues” which earned him his name. Today he lives up to his status as a “legend,” improvising new lyrics over timeless song structures, paying tribute to influences, and debuting new masterpieces.

This is the third CD since ‘99 of a “T99” comeback. The initial notable quality is the timbre of the front-man’s voice, a tangy, appealing vibrato down in the baritone range which well-iterates the topics of his lyrics. It’s not Louie Armstrong’s or Louis Jordan’s voice, both of whom he pays tribute to on the disc, but in each case “T99’s” own voice conveys both their personalities. And he makes you feel you’re in, for the Armstrong example, New Orleans.

His writing cuts to the chase. A quick sampling of a few of his verses indicates he specializes in relationships: “Stuck in low gear? We’ll cut the wedding cake early this year.” “We’ll act like movie stars up on the big screen, do hot close-ups and a big love scene.” “You can throw my money out in the city street, you may be crazy I don’t care you’re so sexy and sweet.”

Some of these lyrics are delivered over well-known chords like “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” or he’ll right-out do “Help Me.” Duke Robillard’s presence this time is not as producer (which he does for many), but perhaps as musical ensemble director as well as guitarist. It was recorded in Robillard’s studio, with excellent results. Horn solos are good, especially baritone sax. Lazy but steady shuffles are appealing. Hard-grooving are the medium-tempos, soulful and heartfelt the ballads, except at very slow tempos the veteran vocalist sounds a bit uncomfortable in phrasing. Medium and jump tempos, with tricky lyrical breaks, twists, and turns seem to be his strong points.

I have only two minor criticisms of this disc. The final two selections are both way down in tempo, ending almost without resolve, a let-down. The other (and it’s just a personal thing with me) is that I listen too closely to Robillard’s guitar work since he’s so equally excellent at lead and rhythm playing. The leads are fine, but he’s insincere with his rhythm backing in places, kind of “noodling” around, as if a rehearsal. He’s such an expert at rhythm guitar harmony and meter that I wish he’d given “T99” the same support he gave Jimmy Witherspoon on the latter’s final recording. Robillard has also achieved great rhythm guitar results re-creating the Count Basie feel on different recordings. Why not here?

---Tom Coulson
Radio broadcaster/musician
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Rusty ZinnRusty Zinn was mentored as a young blues guitarist by Luther Tucker. He later gained experience with Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Now he has produced his own album (under an executive producer), Zinfidelity, Vol. 1, on the Bad Daddy label out of Newport Beach, CA (not far from his birthplace of Long Beach but away from his current residence of the Bay area). It’s not his first as a solo artist, but is his first for the label, and possibly the first for calling the shots.

Rusty’s reputation precedes him. The expectation of this latest CD might be a spotlight on natural guitar solo ability, I also imagined a west coast jump sound with thumping acoustic bass and all. Wrong. Instead we have a soul-tinged variety, horn arrangements (partially by himself) not unlike the Memphis sound. Attracting admirably are the solid electric bassist and Hammond B3 organist. A brass synth sound is used very sparingly. And his voice, peculiar at first, grows on you and seems to be the real center of the CD, rather than guitar prowess. The album is rich with backup vocals which conspire well with the horns.

Half the 12 selections are Zinn originals, the balance by unrecognizable names, no covers. Lyrics are to-the-point almost exclusively about relationships, one on life experience. You know, stuff blues is made of. Moods are mixtures of good rockin’, medium-slow, funky to Jamaican “ska” in one instance, a good old blues shuffle in another. There’s up-tempo ‘60s pop-soul stuff and a country-twang potential too. There’s the title “Lucille” which is neither Little Richard’s or B.B. King’s (unless you consider the latter’s guitar tone influence). “Zin Bootyism” grabs attention first with a Sam And Dave feel; then a recitation, “speaking vocals” as the liners call it, of a bar pick-up scene, all the players taking their places. The cut has audio sampling and splicing, ending up a bit superficial overall, the deliberate over-acting appreciated nonetheless. The last statement is notable with street corner a cappella voices and fingersnaps, if not totally convincing.

Things wash out a little formulaic, as songwriting structure takes precedence over spontaneity. It’s more serious than “party” fun. The studio fades many of the tracks. It’s clear a lot of action went into the project as a whole. The only solos (except for one brief electric piano interlude) are from the leader’s guitar and are economic. They are biting, sometimes lean with wah-wah pedal or slightly processed, other times like B.B. King’s richer style. Wes Montgomery’s double octave guitar sound pops up in one place.

I haven’t had the luxury of comparing his other solo releases to this. Based on his previously recorded guitar solos however, this album is not as solid as I expected. It doesn’t seem to measure up to the caliber of his musicianship. But how does one grow? By tackling new frontiers, of course. I detect this album as a different direction for Rusty Zinn’s music and as such I commend and encourage him for his continued evolution and hard work.

---Tom Coulson
Radio broadcaster/musician
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Alvin Youngblood HartDuring summer festivals, I come across artists with whom I wasn’t entirely familiar who blow me away. This year the artists were Duwayne Burnside, Detroit Women and Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges. Rarely, does a CD stimulate as much as an energizing live performance. However, Motivational Speaker (ToneCool/Artemis) has got me hooked on Alvin Youngblood Hart. With similarities to Cream, The Cult, and Thin Lizzy, the music is heavy. It contains psychedelic and north Mississippi tones and rhythms. To no surprise, the core group is a power trio featuring Hart (guitar, vocals, and tambourine), Gary Rasmussen (bass), and Edward R. Michaels (drums). Hart penned seven songs and selected six choice covers including a rare Free B-side. Via an ultra modern mix of rock and blues, Hart pays homage to his personal motivators on his fifth disc. They include Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Leadbelly.  

“Shoot Me A Grin” is so cathartic; Hart would be wise to begin his concerts with it. “Big Mama’s Door (Might Return)” is reprised from Hart’s first CD. It combines North Mississippi All-Stars noise with the immortal slide of Duane Allman. Here, it’s Audley Freed (Cry of Love, Black Crowes) who plays slide. Hart’s echoing vocals hearken back to the early days of ZZ Top. With heavy Led Zeppelin overtones, a screeching guitar solo accentuates the garage rock of the title song.

New life is given to the old spiritual “In My Time Of Dying.” It hypnotizes to the extent of altering your state of mind. The words aren’t always distinguishable, yet Hart’s voice is calming. While Hart switches to slide guitar, Freed works wonders on electric guitar. Power guitars attack the rhythm of “My World Is Round.” It reveals Hart’s “Reaction to everything that didn't go right with the Start With The Soul record.” Memphis soul, courtesy of propelling horns and Otis Redding, meet CCR during “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” With field hollers, Howlin’ Wolf-like vocals, and a rebel yell, “When Can I Change My Clothes” combines the past with the future.

The Allman Brothers Band will be envious their name is not associated with the daring southern rock instrumental “Shootout On I-55.” Here, Luther Dickinson snipes yet produces both guitarists to soar with masterful tone. In 2003, Hart was a member of JoB Cain, a hard rocking side project he put together with Audley Freed. The grunge-textured “Stomp Dance” is the only studio recording of the band. Two country and western songs seem out of place. Namely, they are Doug Sahm’s “Lawd I’m Just A Country Boy In This Great Big Freaky City,” which is similar to Hart’s own life experiences, and Johnny Paycheck’s “The Meanest Jukebox In Town.” They prove that Hart, a devout maverick, can play any style of music extremely well.  

This certainly isn’t a blues record, but Hart considers it his “Baddest monkey zippa.” If you can’t think outside of the blues box, then you won’t enjoy the CD. Sure the heavy rhythms become repetitive, yet kids and baby boomers will love this hard rocking Americana. Hart’s youthful rage, abundant energy, advanced musicianship, expert production, and absence of musical complacency will have you yearning for more. While others ponder how to cross over, Hart continues to do so.

Another review of Hart's CD can be found elsewhere on this page.

--- Tim Holek

Ron SpencerHaving performed for more than 20 years, smooth guitarist Ron Spencer is no stranger to the Central New York (CNY) blues scene. During that time, he has been a member of several leading bands from that area. Spencer released his first CD in 1998 and formed Jumpstart in 2001. They backed Jimmy Cavallo on his The Houserocker! CD, and Spencer has been a guest on numerous Blue Wave releases. His initial concept for Jumpstart, “Was a ’50s R&B style revue. I’d use some of my favorite front men from CNY and back them up with a big band. We’d do some great songs from the golden era of the ’50s and ’60s, R&B, New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll, Kansas City jump. Kinda like Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker jamming together.”      

The four originals and the seven covers on his new release, Livin' Low (Blue Wave), from the likes of Junior Wells, Little Milton, and Little Walter, mesh nicely. What’s even more impressive is although Spencer recorded the songs over a period of four years with 17 musicians, they sound like they were pulled from the same single recording session. Those familiar with the CNY blues scene will recognize notable guests such as Blues For Comfort’s Matt Tarbell and The Kingsnakes’ Pete McMahon. Cavello adds vocals on one song and sax on two others. “Castle Rock” is an instrumental with marvelous horns.

Spencer’s big fat guitar jumps out on the big band-sounding “Have Your Cake”. Although only two saxophones are present on the cut, they sound like an entire orchestra. Later, on “I Didn’t Know,” Spencer churns out ’50s style Chicago Blues guitar. The boppy “I Ain’t Mad At You” is loaded with big, big fun. You will sing along and clap along to it. The title track sounds like it was removed from the repertoire of Little Charlie and The Nightcats. It features scuffling drums and a piano that rolls without barrel housing. “Nothing Takes The Place Of You” transports you to the mid-’50s. Hearing the song makes you imagine a greasy-haired, leather jacketed rocker, singing to a swarm of teenage girls who ooh and awe. Think of the Frankie Avalon scene from Grease and you’ll get the picture.

Sure, some of the five singers have more pitch and depth, but all songs have depth, the horns are sailing, and overall, it’s a revitalizing break from blaring guitar-based blues. Spencer is here to enlighten and entice your perception of the swing genre. His friendly, happy rhythms make your toes tap and your ears enliven. These guys will have you believing swing is the thing. This is one of Blue Wave’s better releases in a couple years. Tired of the same old blues? Let Ron Spencer jumpstart a cure.

--- Tim Holek

John MayallJohn Mayall has been living on his past merits for years. Although he has resided in the States for half his life, he will always be acknowledged as the Godfather of British Blues. Mayall is known best as a blues-rock pioneer, who turned on new generations to the blues. It is quite something that he is still going strong after all these years. Road Dogs (Eagle Records) adds to a legacy which will be more remembered than the majority of his recordings. Like so many of his idols, Mayall proves he too can be a force while in his senior years. On his 55th album, Mayall performs snazzy piano, melodic harmonica, and earthy guitar on 15 songs. He authored 13 of them. His dauntless, all American Bluesbreakers include Joe Yuele (drums), Buddy Whittington (guitar), and Hank Van Sickle (bass). Throughout, Tom Canning assists on organ.  

His songs’ lyrics have value, but Mayall’s unsubstantial vocals, as always, lack depth. The songs are about paying tribute to blues greats, searching for answers, and depicting a grim but accurate view of our world. The glitzy high life of rock stars is denounced on the title track. Here, the more favored modest bluesman life is described. The song’s heavy rhythm collides with Whittington’s sparkling slide. “Short Wave Radio” answers the oft asked questions regarding Mayall’s start in the blues.

The melancholic and thought-provoking “To Heal The Pain” gets philosophical. Here, Dale Morris Jr. contributes poignant violin. “Burned Bridges” has a rudimentary beat and strong scruples. A fabricated flute (courtesy of Mayall) resides at the island paradise known as “Kona Village.” Natural disasters abound on “Beyond Control” which features a synthesized brass section and Whittington’s rhythmic power chorded rock guitar. He takes over the vocals on “Awestruck & Spellbound.” Like so many previous Mayall guitarists, the song proves Whittington may be ready to fly solo – at an altitude above the mediocre masses. “Chaos In The Neighborhood” identifies a serious problem in our society. Proving that not all kids are rotten, Mayall assigns the song’s lead guitar duties to 14-year-old sensation Eric Steckel.

When your embryonic stage involves Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor (just to name a few), further development can be a challenge. While Mayall’s consistent brand of brisk rock and reverent blues may not appease blues diehards and purists, it has enough kick and potential to maintain his loyal audience.

--- Tim Holek 

Howard GlazerHoward Glazer is from Detroit, Michigan. Most will recall him as Harmonica Shah’s guitarist. On his solo debut, Brown Paper Bag (Random Chance), Glazer’s average songs and street-wise guitar work are better than his substandard vocals. The El 34s (named after an amplifier’s vacuum tube) include Bob Goodwin (bass) and Charles Stuart (drums). All three backed Shah on 2003’s Tell It To Your Landlord. This trio could benefit from the fills of a keyboard or rhythm guitarist, but in doing so may distract from their aggressive, grunge-like urban blues. 

13 original songs feature industrial strength rhythms and blue collar blues guitar. Loud as thunder drums and a gritty groove kick things off on the title track. This rockin’ boogie features attacking guitar in the vein of Johnny Winter and George Thorogood. "Cold, Sad and Lonely" is deep-in-the-basement, while the slow blues of "Sad Situation" and "The Dogs They Bark At Midnight" drag on too long.

"Going To Chicago" is a wah wah filled journey to the Windy City and back to Motown where Glazer’s muscular guitar solo sounds like he is performing a rock concert. The song details Glazer’s brief relocation to Chicago where he sharpened his blues skills. "Radioactive Woman" displays a black sense of humor (“She has 14 fingers / equally as many toes / man you ought to see her glow”).

Overdubbed rhythm guitar rounds out the racket on "Don’t Love You No More," which sounds like 1970s Rolling Stones. A couple acoustic songs feature Glazer on guitar and vocals only with nothing to distract from the blunt singing. By comparison, the backing vocals of Maggie McCabe and Stephanie Johnson are a delight. The ladies should have been given additional duties. Glazer’s forte are boogie woogie rock ‘n’ roll songs like "Mean Hearted Woman" and "Smokin’ and Drinkin’." Both come laced in shop floor grease.

Glazer has created a coarse sound by omitting polish and wax from his production. Like fine scotch, you may not acquire a taste for Glazer’s vocals, but his back alley blues are worth discovering. Overall, the music lacks a consistent punch and uniqueness, but the guitar work is reliably cutting and grimy.

--- Tim Holek


One never knows in which direction Alvin Youngblood Hart’s muse will take him next, or for that matter, which record label he will record for next. Hart’s latest release, Motivational Speaker, is his fifth release for his fifth label (Tone-Cool. Fortunately, the quality of Hart’s music has never suffered from all the travel between labels. If anything, it has improved with each new release, and Motivational Speaker is no exception.

Though Hart is probably best known to most for his forays into acoustic blues, he’s comfortable in several different styles. He certainly can plug in and grind out a nasty blues groove, as on the opener, a reprise of the title cut of his debut album, Big Mama’s Door, titled “Big Mama’s Door (Might Return),” that rocks and rocks hard, and the smoking title cut, which mixes a funky backbeat with some heavy duty guitar work. 

Actually, the intensity of this disc rarely decreases, as the following track, “Stomp Dance” features some incredible guitar as well. “In My Time of Dying” features one of Hart’s best vocals of the disc. A couple of tracks, Doug Sahm’s “Lawd I’m Just A Country Boy In This Great Big Freaky City” and Johnny Paycheck’s “The Meanest Jukebox In Town,” dip into country and western territory with satisfying results. 

A pleasant surprise, however, is Hart’s soulful cover of Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” featuring a punchy Stax-like horn section and another great vocal by Hart. Like most of Hart’s albums, there’s more than a nod to the bluesmen of the prewar era, but this time around there’s as much tribute paid to bands like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Jimi Hendrix, and others who listened and were influenced by the earlier greats (and who probably steered most of us fans their way as well. 

Most of Motivational Speaker was recorded as a trio, with Hart, Gary Rasmussen on bass, and Ed Michaels on drums, but Jim and Luther Dickinson, Audley Freed (whose scorching slide lifts “Big Mama‘s Door“), and a host of others make solid contributions as well. Alvin Youngblood Hart continues to impress and amaze with each subsequent release.  He’s clearly one of the most creative voices in the Blues today.

--- Graham Clarke

Mark Lemhouse proves the sophomore jinx theory is just that --- a theory --- with his second release for Yellow Dog Records. The Great American Yard Sale is a breathtaking journey through a multitude of American roots music styles. While Lemhouse’s debut recording, the acclaimed Big Lonesome Radio, focused primarily on the blues, or his unique interpretation of several classic songs, Yard Sale features not only blues, but it branches out into other slices of Americana, with Lemhouse adding lap steel and banjo to his already formidable repertoire. Lemhouse also wrote 10 of the 12 tracks here, several of which reveal a dry sense of humor (“The Unofficial Ballad of Story Musgrave,” “The Queen of Easy Street,” and the hilarious closer, “You’re A Bastard”).

It‘s not all fun and laughs, however. “Paper Sack” is a harrowing tale of addiction and you can feel the desperation and despair in “Salem.” The bleak “Never Me” features Lemhouse performing solo on banjo, and is a highlight of the disc, just one of many. While Lemhouse’s guitar work and his vocal talents are strong and would carry the disc alone, he really emerges here as a great songwriter. The closest thing I can compare his songs to is the work by the late Mississippi author Larry Brown (in fact, I listened to this disc while reading one of Brown‘s collections of stories). 

This disc, with all its pathos, edginess, and occasional humor, plays like a soundtrack to one of Brown’s stories. You’ll be hearing a lot more about The Great American Yard Sale, and Mark Lemhouse, in the near future.

--- Graham Clarke

Bobby PurifyBen Moore is not a name that comes to mind when you think of soul singers from the ’60s and ’70s, but he was a definite member of the fraternity. At one time a member of the Tams and Jimmy Tig and the Rounders, Moore also was part of Ben & Spence, who were part of the Muscle Shoals scene and recorded for Atlantic in the ’60s. He later served as the third “Bobby Purify” as part of James and Bobby Purify, who recorded several soul classics of the ’60s, including “I’m Your Puppet” and “Shake a Tail Feather.”  The duo parted ways in the mid ’70s after James Purify was beset by legal problems, but Moore continued to perform as Bobby Purify on the R&B circuit and under his own name as a gospel singer, earning a Grammy nomination in 1982. 

In 1998, he lost his sight after a four-year struggle with glaucoma and left the music world, depressed and despondent, until an encouraging phone call from Ray Charles steered him back to performing again. At a party, Purify happened to cross paths with songwriter Bucky Lindsey, who after hearing him sing, contacted his writing partner, Dan Penn, who was wanting to cut a pure soul album on the heels of his 2002 collaboration with Solomon Burke on his recent Fat Possum release, but was in need of a pure soul singer, a rarity these days. With Purify, he finally had his man and after gathering some of the legendary musicians that lent music to numerous soul classics of the ’60s (Jimmie Johnson - rhythm guitar, Spooner Oldham - keyboards, Reggie Young - lead guitar, Carson Whitsett - keyboards/composer, Wayne Jackson - trumpet, David Hood - bass), the finished product was Better To Have It (Proper Records). 

Better To Have It consists of 13 sides of pure unadulterated soul music, 12 of which were written by Penn, Lindsey, and Whitsett (Purify wrote one song, “What’s Old To You”). Purify has a warm, smooth tenor that is rich not only in soul, blues, and gospel, but even has a touch of the down-home country sound in it as well, in the tradition of other great soul singers like Otis Redding, James Carr, and Arthur Alexander. Highlights include the title cut, “Things Happen,” “My Life To Live Over,” “Nobody’s Home,” “Hate To See You Go,” and “Testimony of a Fool.” 

Penn’s production is first-rate, as is the songwriting, and the band makes you feel like it’s 1965 all over again. At the beginning of the session, Penn told Purify, “Let’s try to go from like ’64 or ’65 to Al Green, and let’s don’t do anything else – just straight-ahead R&B.”  Let’s say that Penn’s goal was met.  Fans of Southern Soul will want to add this to their collection.

--- Graham Clarke

For several years now, Ellis Hooks has been making a lot of noise on the music scene with his exciting mix of blues, funk, and soul. A native of Alabama, Hooks had to go to Europe to be recorded, in a sadly familiar tradition, but now he’s finally being heard on domestic releases, the latest being on Evidence Records. Godson of Soul will please fans of the great soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s. Hooks’ fiercely passionate vocals will throw you back feet-first into the Stax era, and his songs, while dealing with familiar topics, all seem to have that catchy hook that will leave you humming along long after the song has played. 

There are some real standout tracks on Godson of Soul, including the simmering “Black Night, Blue Moon,” the punchy “Litta Bitta Lovin‘,” “Was It Something I Said?” (with as appearance by Memphis guitar legend Steve Cropper and singer Bobby Womack on answering machine), and the inspirational “If God Brought You To It.”  Hooks also does a duet (“Chainsaw”) on the country side with Nashville recording artist Marty Brown. Wayne Jackson, of the Memphis Horns, also does yeoman work on trumpet and trombone throughout the disc. 

Producer/songwriter Jon Tiven (who also played most of the instruments on Godson of Soul and has worked with Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, B. B. King, among others) seems to have found the voice for his vision and managed to craft the nearest thing to a modern soul classic we have these days. If you’re starved for some more of that great soul music of the late ’60s and early ’70s (I know I am) and you don’t have this disc, you’re missing out big time.

--- Graham Clarke


Finally Got Over (Shout Records - UK) is an important reissue from one of deep soul's most respected artists, Don Varner. Almost unknown outside the southern soul circuit, he was surprisingly well known in the U.K. His recording of "Tear Stained Face" (included here) became a huge hit in the popular northern soul clubs and played at their all-nighters, so prevalent across England at the time, and still in demand at the few existing clubs today. During his productive years he recorded a handful of singles for the Quinivy and South Camp labels. Classic tracks such as "Home For The Summer," written and produced by the legendary Eddie Hinton, is an example of deep soul at its finest. The upbeat "Mojo Mama" and "Handshaking" are fine examples of tunes that got many more spins overseas than they got here in his own country.

As far as his popularity here in the U.S., Don liked to explain, "I was being shipped by Atlantic/Atco, South Camp's distributor alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, and the (promotion) money was going to whichever artist was being accepted by the record buying public at the time." It's a pity that an artist this gifted went virtually unnoticed in his own country. When the historians of deep and southern soul talk about that genre's finest singers, Don Varner is always amongst them.

After years on the road and after a stint of 18 months touring with The Johnny Otis Show in the mid '80s, he began working on many new projects. He was recording new material, including a gospel project, and he launched his own Retour Records to market much of his back catalog on the Internet. Unfortunately Don passed away in his home in Moreno Valley, California on October 7, 2002, the victim of an undetected heart condition. Another great voice was silenced.

It is with great admiration that I thank Shout Records and its founder Clive Richardson for compiling this essential 23-cut CD, so the world can enjoy the legacy that is Don Varner.

--- Alan Shutro

Rick LawsonWow, time flies by quickly. Sexified is the fifth release on Ecko for Rick Lawson, and this is one of his best. If you like your music contemporary (no hip-hop) yet soulful with that downhome feel, then this is the CD for you. Consisting of mainly up-tempo dance beats, there are several tracks that stand out. "Freak Cowboy" is the track getting some spins right now, as is "Just Another Juke Joint Party," and as you can tell from the titles, they are tunes that will make your dance party jump.

There's a fine cheating song, "She Was Cheatin' Better Than Me," and to somewhat answer Denise LaSalle's "I'll Be A Lady In The Streets," Rick offers "I'm Your Man In The Streets," another upbeat dance tune.

As I mentioned in an earlier Rick Lawson review, he's one of the new generation of young southern soul singers. Along with Sheba Potts-Wright and O.B. Buchana, they form the nucleus of Ecko's youthful roster. And if the lyrics to Rick's "Baby Mama Drama" are factual, and he does have five babies by three different women and two on the way, I hope this CD sells well ... real well. He'll need it.

--- Alan Shutro

David BrinstonDavid Brinston is a veteran of the chitlin' circuit since 1992, and has released several excellent CDs over the years. One of my favorite songs in 1995 was his "Hit And Run," a song that got a lot of airplay in the Memphis area. That release was on Jomar Records, and I believe he had a couple on the Suzie Q label before graduating to the Malaco/Waldoxy family. He has built up a large fan base since his beginnings in Clarksdale, Mississippi to his current home in northern Florida. It wasn't until he opened for Marvin Sease in Montgomery, Alabama at Marvin's live recording that he caught Malaco's full attention.

What followed was this excellent release of 12 southern soul songs, Rockin', all done in the Brinston way, a more mature delivery, but an album that still will get you up dancing. From the opening "Junk In The Trunk" to the "Hard Working Lady," a tune first introduced by Dr. Feelgood Potts, to the soulful ballad "Woman Enough For Me," you sit back and enjoy the smooth vocals and fine arrangements. Where Mel Waiters was trying to get you to that "Hole In The Wall" and Sir Charles Jones wanted to party cause it's '"Friday," David wants to cuddle up with a glass of wine and his lady by his side, and then perhaps a little of the title song to finish off the evening.

I loved David's version of Frank O Johnson's classic "I Don't Wanna Loose Your Love," a song first recorded by the incredible Gwen McCrae. I always thought her version was unbeatable, but David gives her a run for her money. The funky "Should Have Been Me" is another fine song with great background singers, as is "Memories," where David's pained and pleading vocals get the most out of each song.

As you can tell by this review, I really enjoyed this release and will anxiously await the next. Four deep bows to Mr. Brinston and Company.

--- Alan Shutro

Billy Ray CharlesI thought Billy Ray Charles was a talent when I listened over the years to the releases he had on Jimmy Lewis' Miss Butch label. In the past, Billy has written or played guitar for Z.Z. Hill, Bobby Bland, Sam & Dave, Al Wilson and the Temptations. He appeared on many of Peggy Scott-Adams and Jimmy Lewis CDs. Lewis passed away about a year ago and I guess that Miss Butch Records will not be releasing new material. I hope that Peggy Scott-Adams will also end up on Malaco/Waldoxy, since she is such a fine singer.

Anyway, this is a Billy Ray Charles review and I guess you can say he got called up to the big leagues now with the release of Southern Soul .. My Way (Waldoxy). Hopefully, many more people will get to hear this fine singer/guitarist.

The CD opens with the fun "Nursery Rhymes," one of three Cason songs (Charles wrote seven). I might note that Cason plays all the instruments except for guitar, which of course is played by Charles. The sound is very modern and synthesized throughout. Malaco always had great sound on their releases and this one is no exception. I read recently where a producer had said that if they used a real drummer it wouldn't get played on today's radio. The desired sound is programmed drums, horns and keyboards. I have a hard time accepting that. Give me real musicians anytime.

Charles' songwriting and singing excel on the Bobby Bland-influenced "There's A Rat Loose In My House" and his guitar playing is excellent. Many tracks are fun dance tunes such as "Southern Girls Got The Booty" and my favorite track here, the upbeat "I'm Stuck On Stupid" a great song with a great hook and fine background vocals by Zuri.

Ten tracks of pure fun. Welcome to the big leagues, Billy.

--- Alan Shutro


Billy Gibson BandThe Rum Boogie in Memphis is a venue I’m intimately familiar with and it was a pleasant treat to receive the Billy Gibson Band CD in the mail to review. The Billy Gibson Band is the house band at the Rum Boogie, and you don’t keep a gig like that for long on Beale Street unless you’ve polished your chops and earned your keep. That said, this new release on Inside Sounds is one of the tightest records I’ve heard all year, a testament to Billy and his band mates. 

For those who don’t know, Billy plays the Mississippi saxophone (harmonica) and plays it well. He is accompanied on this record by David Bowen on guitar, James Jackson on bass and Cedric Keel on drums. The majority of songs recorded on the Billy Gibson Band were either written by Billy himself or David Bowen.  

"Down Home" opens with a blistering harmonica lead that sets the tone for the entire record and encourages everyone to go down home to the Rum Boogie, the place where Billy and the boys play their blues.  "Down Home" reflects on the energy generated on any given night the boys are setting the Boogie on fire.  The band segues into "Keep Doin What Ya Doin," a testament to the good love of a woman, “you know your love is something else…I’m goin' to mess right around and hurt myself.”  Sweet, smooth Memphis soul.   

"Home at Last (a.k.a. country girl)," a song by Rudy Toombs, reflects upon the stir caused by his girl as she walks up and down Beale Street.  “Lord knows she’s a country girl…means more to me than anything else in the whole, wide world!”  Billy and the boys follow it up by asking the question, "What is Love?" with the answer being “I just don’t know, it’s something I say and do.” 

"Darlin Please Come Home," a ballad by Billy, laments the fact that he thought he didn’t care and regrets that decision. “Won’t you please come home to me?”  Billy’s harp playing is very soulful on this tune and is augmented by the wonderful keyboard work of Charlie Wood.  Another Gibson tune, "Stinging Stang," features the masterful guitar playing of David Bowen. It’s a wonderfully constructed song featuring double entendre comparisons between a Mustang automobile and Billy’s woman. Bill Ellis of the Memphis Commercial Appeal considers it the “centerpiece of the album.” 

What follows is the band finding its stride on the Willie Foster tune, "Love Everybody." Bowen, Jackson and Keel were all members at one time or another of the legendary Beale Street house band King Beez and their familiarity with each other contributes to a wonderfully soulful groove throughout. 

The album closes with "One More Time," another Bowen tune, and "Tell It Like It Is," by Mose Vinson. "One More Time" laments the loss of a love, ”I know it ain’t mine…I just wanted it one more time!” a wonderfully tongue in cheek look at love lost.  "Tell It Like It Is" laments the fact that, “my girl can’t sit still…she’s got me spinning like a wagon wheel!,” focusing on the confusion that a woman can and will generate in a man’s life. 

The musicianship of the Billy Gibson Band can’t be overstated. Their self-titled release is a tribute to their collective skills honed through many years of playing together as the house band at the Rum Boogie. Billy and his mates are some of the Bluff City’s finest musicians and you can hear their talents throughout this record. This isn’t your daddy’s blues, but it is some of the best contemporary blues that you can find in Memphis today.

--- Kyle Deibler

Ken SaydakKen Saydak’s name is one that has been appearing on a number of blues festival listings lately, so I was curious to give his new CD, It’s My Soul (Evidence Records), a spin to find out what the fuss is all about. What I was surprised to hear was a soulful record that feels like a pair of your favorite shoes; comfortable, well worn and easy on the ears.

It’s My Soul, with two exceptions, is a collection of Saydak originals that collectively showcase much of Ken’s passion for his music. He opens with the J. Hawkins tune, "My Soul," to proudly proclaim his individuality before moving on to "Half Assed Love," a song where roles are reversed and his sweetheart is the one on the town every week-end tomcatting while he stays home alone, a broken man.  

"All I Really Need" is a love song extolling the virtues of his woman, a woman who loves her man despite his faults and is always there to support him.  “…When she came come from work that night…I held her tenderly…She loves so much that just her touch is all I really need” reflects a love that can’t get much deeper. On "Darling I’ll Pray for You," he wishes an ex-love all the best knowing that things will never be the same between them. 

"Learned My Lesson" is one of the highlights of the album, a philosophical look at life’s trials, a man who’s lived through them and one who fully expects to make some of the same mistakes again. It’s an honest look at the fact that all along the way a man makes choices knowing full well the consequences of his choices. It’s counterbalanced with "Hanging By a Thread," where Ken is anxiously waiting to hear the extent of a new love’s affections. 

I find that Saydak is very good at writing “life” songs.  "Hard Work," "Two of Everything" (“I got two of everything, but just one wife”) and "Bonedance" (“when the sun sinks slowly on the steel plants…me and my honey, we’re gonna do the bonedance”) are examples of his view of everyday life for the common man.   

"Love in the Dumpster" (“You threw my love in the dumpster, and baby that was mean, who died and made you queen?”) continues his theme of love gone wrong with man as the victim, while "Rearrange" implies that the more things change, the more they stay the same ... (“All we do is rearrange!”). 

It’s My Soul closes with "Preaching to the Choir" and "The Road and the Weather," a look at life out west in a small town where the topics of conversation always include the road and the weather.  

One of the joy’s in listening to It’s My Soul is the fact that Ken Saydak’s primary instruments of choice are his piano and organ. His playing is wonderful throughout and it’s a rare treat to listen to a blues album these days that features the keyboards as much as this one does. Saydak’s band is equally talented with Fred James on guitars, Dennis Taylor on saxophone, Phil Farrell on bass, David Zehring on drums and background vocals by Mary-Ann Brandon. It’s My Soul is indeed a comfortable album, it wears well and will be easy on the ears of many years to come.

--- Kyle Deibler


Edwin HoltEdwin Holt's Second Time Around is a brand new issue on the Dallas, Texas-based TopCat Records label, and it’s a good one. 

Holt grew up surrounded by the blues, and spent time playing juke joints and bars in the Memphis area, absorbing the different styles and types of blues available there.

He stored it, mixed it with his own ideas and produced a very individual sound.

His music shows influences from Ray Charles, Johnny Taylor and Son Thomas, with some big band backing on a few of the tracks.But, for me, the blues he plays in a more simplistic manner is his strongest suit.

He’s at his absolute best on tracks like “Red Clay Back Road Mama” and “Down To The Bone,” with harmonica and slide guitar, but listen to his version of Stevie Wonder’s "Higher Ground" to get a flavour of what else he can do – this is a versatile musician. 

The album opens with “I Don’t Think I’m Going To Make It”, a track written by TNT Braggs. Starting off simply with vocal backed by slide guitar, the track then moves into a bigger sound with horns & keyboards coming in and pushing the song along from the end of the first minute to the end.

The second song is the title track of the album, “Second Time Around,” a soul/blues number that Edwin Holt wrote in conjunction with Butch Bonner, who variously plays guitar, bass and electric piano on the CD. This track has a late 60s Atlantic soul feel about it, with some very pleasant backing vocals.

Track three, “Red Clay Back Road Mama”, written by Holt, is my favourite, and I’ve been playing it over and over.

It features some excellent harmonica and tinkling piano. Holt’s harmonica really shines through here, and for me it would be nice to listen to a whole album of tracks like this! 

“You’re In For A Big Surprise” follows, mixing some good blues vocals with a big band backing. This is an old Percy Mayfield track, and it has been treated with great respect here.

All I can say about track five, “Back Line,” is that it doesn’t belong on this album. It’s an attempt to mix lightweight hip hop-style soul with blues and it doesn’t work for me at all.

It all comes back together with “Somebody’s Getting It” and runs through nicely to the end of the album via “Down To The Bone,” a track written by David Brashier. Brashier plays some lovely dobro on this track, with Holt splicing in his harmonica riffs, and it’s very well-written, too. It comes a very close second to “Red Clay Back Road Mama”.

---Terry Clear

Kelly Joe PhelpsA new album from Kelly Joe Phelps, Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind (Rykodisc), is a long-awaited live CD, and it's a good one! Portland, Oregon-based Phelps recorded this album in two locations in California, and the quality of both the music and the recording is excellent. There are just two cover tracks ("Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and "I Am The Light Of The World," penned by Skip James and the Reverend Gary Davis, respectively). All the rest are originals, and there is some good material here, even though some of it has appeared on some of Kelly's other albums. The nine minute version of Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," is a version Skip James himself would have been proud of; it's right down to the bone and full of emotion. It showcases Kelly's accomplished acoustic guitar work, and it makes you realize just what a hidden talent this man is. Once you've heard this track, you're captured for the rest of the album --- a good move making it track one!


The other cover track, the Reverend Gary Davis' "I Am The Light Of The World," has been changed subtly to give it little more pep than the original --- but only a little!
It's a lovely track, this one, and dips nicely into the original to pay tribute to the great Reverend. Of the original tracks, "Not So Far To Go" and "Waiting For Marty" (both ballads that were highlights from his last studio album, Slingshot Professionals), and the thought-provoking "Tommy" are all excellent material.


Some of the songs are a little introspective, but this doesn't deter from their quality or from the fact that they should be listened to. However, I think my favourite of the originals has to be "Gold Tooth." It seems to draw from all sorts of influences, including to my ear Bob Dylan (the writing and the execution). This is folk-blues at its very best; I can't think of many modern day folk-blues singers who can come close to this quality.

My favourite track on the album? It has to be track one --- "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues." For me, this track is worth the price of the whole CD.

 --- Terry Clear



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