Old Masters Return; New Blood Arrives, Chapter I: R&B/Soul

I thought a good way to affirm one of the purposes of this blog is to showcase examples of new work by some of the old masters juxtaposed with strong examples of newcomers working within the classic forms. I’ve broken it into three chapters with the first devoted to R&B/Soul, the second, next week, to country, and then the third to the Texan influenced gumbo of folk, rock ’n’ roll and country that spawned the term “cowjazz.”

Let’s also consider this question: If there can be the Great American Songbook of pop and jazz music from the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, why could there not also be a similar appreciation of great R&B/Soul songs from that genre’s golden age, primarily the fifties and sixties? The same question could be asked about classic Country music. I think there are records that only work with the original artist and arrangement. On the other hand, there are many that meet the key test for a standard: can it be rearranged, reinterpreted and given fresh life by other singers and musicians? We will be starting our look into this question this week and no doubt return to it from time to time in future posts.

We will start with relatively recent releases from two great and distinctive voices from yesteryear, Aaron Neville and that righteous brother Bill Medley.

Aaron Neville – My True Story

I’m hard pressed to think of an artist more qualified to pluck tunes from the repertory of soul and doo wop greats than this man who had his first gold record in 1966 and who has also been an integral part of one of the all time great singing goups, The Neville Brothers. Keith Richards and Don Was co-produced this album, which was released in 2013 when Aaron would turn 72, with surprising restraint that keeps the spotlight on the bones of the songs and Neville’s shimmering voice. Shimmer is the only word I can conjure to describe the unique way his voice slides back and forth between normal range tenor and falsetto. Don’t get me wrong, the backing musicians are superb, but placing the spotlight on Neville enables us to re-discover 12 “golden oldies.”

Although there are several uptempo numbers – “Money Honey,” “Work With Me Annie,” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” to name three – this is not a party record. I think I love it best with a cocktail at the end of the day, or while gazing into a warm fire – not quite ready for bed – nursing one last bourbon on the rocks while tapping out the rhythm on the glass. You’ll want to treat your ears to Neville’s readings of “Gypsy Woman,” “This Magic Moment/True Love,” “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Tears On My Pillow” without any extraneous distractions. And when he concludes with “Goodnight My Love,” you’ll want the party to be just for two. To say Aaron Neville “covers” these tunes is to miss the point. On this album, these are Aaron Neville’s songs. Highly recommended.

Bill Medley – Your Heart To Mine: Dedicated To The Blues

Released in 2014 when Bill Medley turned 74 years old, this collection amply illustrates the influences that propelled his brilliant turn as the lead singer with fellow Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield’s calls and response on the immortal “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” Similar to Aaron Neville, he has chosen soul classics, here by the likes of Ray Charles, Johnny Ace, Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke, the Drifters and Sam & Dave, His producer Steve Tyrell has given them spare instrumental backing that keeps the focus on Medley’s voice and the songs’ inherent emotional heft. Yet, he’s gone a bit further than Neville in altering the tempos and phrasings usually to add a bit more of a blues feeling to songs originally presented in the pop-soul vein prevalent at the time. A prime example is “Hold On, I’m Coming,” a soul rave up and sixties party anthem which here has been slowed down just a tad to be more of a grinding blues. Truth in advertising: I didn’t initially like this version all that much, but returning to it after a bit of a hiatus, I’m really warming up to the arrangement.

My favorites are still “Drown In My Own Tears,” “Your Precious Love,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Rock Me Baby” with it’s acoustic guitar and dobro, “ and “This Magic Moment,” another tune slowed down to great effect. Time and again, producer Tyrell brings in just the right piano or guitar flourish, horn burst or background vocals. In the end though, this is all about Bill Medley’s voice – and what an instrument it still is after all these years.

I’m going to throw you a curve with the video because I could not find a good example from this album. Instead, this is an amazing performance of the old Beach Boys’ tune, “In My Room.” Medley is joined by songwriter Brian Wilson and Phil Everly on this track from his recently prior album Damn Near Righteous, which I’ll no doubt write about in the future. Could there be three better collaborative singers from the sixties? I can’t wait for you to hear it! Though not on the album, it’s representative of the quality you’ll find there. Plus you can go right to the internet for a cherry picking download.

And now for some new blood.
Eli “Paperboy” Reed & the True Loves – Roll With You, and Come And Get It

Readers who attended the 2011 or 2012 editions of the Lea Brothers Western Classic & Barbecue saw “Paperboy” deliver a spine tingling performance that prompted many to ask: “how could a twenty-something white kid from Massachusetts channel Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and James Brown without singing a single cover?” He sang songs that you could swear you remember hearing back in the day, only you didn’t because “Paperboy” and his friends just wrote them in the last couple of years.

His story in short – he became enraptured by R&B when his father played a box set of Ray Charles CD’s while on a long family road trip vacation. After graduating from high school he spent a year or so soaking up all he could learn from delta bluesmen in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Poking fun at his boyish appearance, they said he looked like the paperboy. And the name, like the music, stuck. After a stint in Chicago, then back in Boston, he moved his base to Brooklyn.

I’m citing two of his albums here because I have a tough time picking between them. Roll With You probably has a few more funky tunes while Come And Get It is perhaps a little smoother rhythmically. But rest assured both are high energy, especially in contrast to the two by Neville and Medley. When “Paperboy” hits it, you simply can’t sit still. One option for you if you’re downloading from iTunes or Amazon is to cherry pick from both. Here are my personal favorites:

From Roll With You:
“Am I Wasting My Time” – reminiscent of Clarence Carter
“It’s Easier” – a ballad with the classic Muscle Shoals sound
“Take My Love With You” – wakes the ghost of Wilson Picket
“I’ll Roll With You” – time for some belly rubbin’ slow dancin’ with your baby
“She Walks” – to the dark end of the street?
“(Doin’ The) Boom Boom” – good god! gettin’ down like James Brown.

and from Come and Get It:
“Young Girl” – in the Stax summertime groove
“Come and Get It” – is that Philly soul?
“Pick A Number” – oh yeah, sweet Chicago
“I Found You Out” – more horn driven Memphis groove
“Tell Me What I Wanna Hear” – is that the Four Tops or a Junior Walker shuffle?
“Time Will Tell” – I can hear Percy Sledge
“Pick Your Battles” – smooth soul with strings a la the Chi Lites

What I like about “Paperboy” on these albums is that he’s not copying the greats I’ve mentioned, but he sure can channel their soul. Whether you get one or both albums, or you cherry pick my suggestions, you’re going to love having this music and knowing there are young artists out there who know how to shake it down. And by the way “Paperboy” is a heck of a nice guy.

Check out this You Tube clip of “Paperboy” gigging with Daryl Hall – yes that Daryl Hall – during an appearance on “Live From Daryl’s House.” Look at the grin on Daryl’s face – nobody’s having more fun, except maybe you.

The California Honeydrops – Spreadin’ Honey

“There’s a band out of the bay area where I live called The California Honeydrops…they’re getting a lot of play on my turntable lately.” Bonnie Raitt, from an interview in the Fargo Monthly June 12, 2014.

I’m certainly not going to argue with Bonnie Raitt about who’s great playing R&B, especially not in the case of this band. As these guys say on their website, “The California Honeydrops don’t just play music – they throw parties.” Their repertory is more eclectic than Paperboy’s two albums. In fact, they’re a bit of a one group case-in-point assertion that there are younger musicians working in classic forms of Delta blues and New Orleans second-line as well as R&B, a little funk and soul. Like Paperboy, however, they record very few covers.

They started as two guys playing for tips in the Oakland BART station, and as they expanded to the current lineup of five multi-instrumentalists, they have continued a heavy schedule of live performances. It shows in their cohesiveness and spontaneity on record. More important, they seem to be having way too much fun, and they want you to have great fun right along with them.

I mentioned the band’s beginnings, but the story is actually longer and stranger than that. It’s co-founder, who is lead vocalist, trumpeter and guitar player, was born in Warsaw, Poland. Lech Wierzynski grew up listening to contraband recordings of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. “Taught” to sing by the best, he continued with on the job training at Oberlin College and in clubs in Oakland. His bandmates share his energy and infectious stage presence.

“Spreadin’ Honey” is not their first nor most recent release. Rather it was my introduction to them when I clicked on one of those “if you like so and so, you’ll probably like…” links to one of their best tunes, “When It Was Wrong.” Set to a Carolina beach music beat, the song speaks to the somewhat funny truth that lovin’ may be hotter before it’s “legal,” when you and your sweetie are sneaking around to do what shouldn’t be done quite yet. It is not only a great introduction to the group, it also makes for an intriguing pairing with the down low R&B confessional, “Hell Yes, I Cheated.” Other tunes range from the Dixieland-like title song to the Delta bluesy folk “Pumpkin Pie” to traditional jazz instrumental “Cryin’ Blues” to the ebullient R&B shuffle, “Train Song,” and a few other stops in between. Throughout the album, Lech’s voice dances through the higher registers, and with help from his mates’ musicianship, pulls you in to share his joy singing and playing these songs. There’s no wonder the California Honeydrops are such a hot live act. I strongly recommend this album. Like Bonnie Raitt, you’ll find it getting a lot of play on your turntable too.

Here’s a YouTube of “When It Was Wrong.” It’s recorded live at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco, so it’s an extended version that also demonstrates the band’s interaction with the crowd. You should also visit their web site at http://www.cahoneydrops.com. It’s loaded with videos, some free music, and more fun stuff.

Notes after week #1.

First, thanks to all of you who have already signed up to follow my blog. I hope I can always make it fun for you. I also thank those of you who’ve offered comments.  (If you haven’t registered, you should find a Follow link either in the lower right hand corner of the Home screen or in the blog’s sidebar. All comments generated directly from the blog site come to me for review before posting. I resisted the temptation to post all of those who complimented my genius or writing skill, and one delightful invitation to slow dance to Chris Stapleton. I will, however, approve comments about the music or musicians, or suggestions for artists I should write about in the future. Good examples beyond those posted were emails touting new albums by James Taylor and James McMurtry. Because they were emails rather than comments via the blog site, I couldn’t post them to the comments section. Still it’s the kind of dialog I hope will develop among us music lovers.

In response to some queries, I want to clarify that I do not consider myself a music reviewer. Among other things, this means I won’t often be writing about the newest albums just released this week. Rather I consider myself a music recommender. I don’t care about an album’s release date. I search for good tunes whether they’re released this month, a few years ago or forty years ago. “New” means it’s new to me, and therefore may be new to you. Or perhaps it’s music that over time has slipped through the cracks, either my own or the publics, and somehow has been rediscovered and deemed worth discussing. My descriptions are meant to convey why I like the music, how it makes me feel and why I’m excited to tell you about it.

The blog has a “links” section in the sidebar. From time to time I’ll add links to other blogs or websites I think you might enjoy. This week I will add a link that was sent to me by Barden Winstead, no depression.com . It focuses on roots music (their term.) It has album reviews, live performance reviews and all sorts of other features. If you are looking for genuine full length album reviews, this looks like a great source for this type of music.

I also plan to add a link to a blog on jazz that I’ve followed for several years, jazzwax.com by Marc Myers. He’s an authority on jazz with special interest in the period from the late 1940’s through the 1960s. He’s quite prolific, posting every day as well as writing articles for the Wall Street Journal, books, etc. There are two reasons I really like his blog. First, he makes jazz accessible. Second, he’s open minded enough to occasionally write about artists working in other genres who somehow catch his ear. I’ve made some great finds in jazz but also country, folk and R&B from his blog.

Thanks again for your interest. If you like what you read and hear, please forward it to you music loving friends.

Welcome music lovers

I hope the reason you’re here is to find great music by artists performing in classic forms of Country, R&B/Soul, Blues, Folk and Jazz,  or the special blend of any or all of these as pioneered by Texas based so called “outlaws.” We’ll be finding, listening to and writing about musicians recording in these forms today as well as genre masters from “back in the day.” For a complete definition of CowjazzR&B and why this blog exists, please click on the link for “What is CowjazzR&B?” in the tool bar above. For now, let’s get started with my first batch of music. Hope you have fun.

B.B. King – Completely Well

We’ve already lost too many musical heroes and legends in 2015, but probably no loss was bigger than the passing in May of B.B. King. I’m privileged to have seen BB’s thrilling live show several times, and his albums and CD’s in my library have long been among the most played in my collection. Many critics praise “Live at the Regal” as his best. It’s a great one, but my favorite is “Completely Well,” which marked his move to a more mainstream audience with the debut of his biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Actually that cut is only my third or fourth favorite song on the CD. My favorite is the opener, “So Excited.” If ever a song was aptly named, this is the one. The tempo comes out charging, horns are firing, and Lucille is wailing. Then on the verses, the drummer and bassist shift to a staccato beat that, well if you can sit still, you must be dead. Another favorite is the ballad “What Happened,” a beautiful lament for love that has inexplicably died. dreamstimefree_226434Terrifically paced, the mood heats back up immediately with “Confessin’ The Blues” and “Key to the Kingdom” before steaming into a double header of “Cryin’ Won’t Help You” and “You’re Mean” which becomes an extended jam featuring fireworks between BB and his second guitarist Hugh McCracken. No description of this CD is complete without crediting the drummer Herbie Lovelle and bass player Gerald “Fingers” Jemmott. I cited their work on “So Excited.”  More to the point, their dynamic rhythms propel the entire CD. And have I mentioned that BB King has never sung better. He’s loose, strong and free. The “King of the Blues” is clearly enjoying himself, and you will too. You simply must have “Completely Well” in your music collection.

Donnie Fritts – Everybody’s Got A Song

One late night a little over a year ago, I was following my nose on iTunes, when I stumbled across this CD by songwriter Donnie Fritts released in 1997. To quote from the iTunes review, “Donnie Fritts is probably a name you don’t know unless you look for well crafted songs.” Well I didn’t know his name, but after a quick preview and a little research, I knew I had to have his music. His songs are witty one moment, poignant the next. At first listen, his voice could only be described as “adequate.” Yet something about it pulls you in, and soon enough it’s just fine. Plus he has loads of help from friends he’s made in a career spanning from Muscle Shoals to Nashville and as Kris Kristofferson’s keyboard player for several decades.

Donnie was born in Florence, Alabama, across the Tennessee River from Muscle Shoals, so it’s no surprise he was among Rick Hall’s early team at Fame Studios before moving to Nashville. Like his friends such as Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, his music can best be described as country soul because it combines the often clever lyrics of the former with the groove of the latter. As he sings in the title song, “I love my country, and that rhythm and blues, I feel it from my head to my feet.” Along with the title song, my favorite cut has to be “If You Say So.” I don’t want to spoil any of its punch lines here, but suffice to say when I played it for some compadres recently, they insisted on hearing it about a dozen times in a row. Plus every tune in the collection brings a smile to my face.  Check out the first cut on the album here – it’s a duet with John Prine.

I just love what Donnie has to say and how he says it. If you like entertaining lyrics set to engaging tunes, you must have this CD. And by the way, Donnie’s friends who helped with this project include Waylon, Willie, Lucinda Williams, Delbert McClinton, John Prine, Stephen Bruton, Mike Utley, Lee Roy Parnell, and the aforementioned WC&B 2013.229Kris, Dan and Spooner. They make you believe Donnie’s lyric from the title track “everybody’s got a dream to write a song the whole world can sing.” Donnie just makes me feel good.

Chris Stapleton – Traveller

Watching recent CMA and ACM Awards shows, you could be forgiven for thinking that Country music had been smothered to death by pop rock, bro-country and glam girl poseurs. Still, if you were paying close attention during the 2013 CMA Awards when Luke Bryan sang (I know, why would you be paying close attention then, but I digress…)  you would have heard and seen something not present on Bryan’s record, “I Drink A Beer.”  As he glides into the first chorus, one of the song’s writers joins in with an emotional harmony which transformed the performance. If you sat up and wondered who was that guy, now you know – Chris Stapleton. This spring he stepped out front himself with his stunning debut solo CD “Traveller.”

Chris’s brand of country music is descended from Hank and Merle, but it’s also flavored with R&B and Rock, not because of some studio “suit’s” production directive, but rather from something soulful deep inside Stapleton. His tenor voice has just the right rough around the edges and can wail or whisper at will. As on any album, there are a couple that I might delete after a few spins, but songs like the title cut and “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Nobody To Blame,” “More of You,” “When The Stars Come Out,” “I Might As Well Get Stoned,” and several others will be in my rotation for a long time, and I expect they’ll be tunes I love revisiting years from now.

Emotion, honesty: the best Country singers like the best Soul artists have it. Highly recommended!

Note: Here is the really good news. I’ve found an unusually high output of really good classic style Country music in the last couple of months. Of course you won’t hear too much of it on so called country radio other than Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country channel. I don’t want to flood you with too many to choose from at one time. Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” is just the first. Look for more in my next few posts.

Jerry Jeff Walker – Viva Terlingua

If I were to make assumptions, I’d assume that if you’re reading this blog, you either already own this album or you did at one time before you spilled so much beer on it that it would no longer play, or somebody stole it from you because listening to it is just too much fun. If one record truly launched and defined outlaw country, it’s “Viva Terlingua.” But I learned long ago, that assuming anything is foolhardy.  I can’t take the chance that you’re not familiar with this album, or you’ve forgotten it with the passage of time.  I just have to close this blog launch by diving deep into my vaults for this album recorded in the summer of 1973.

Jerry Jeff and his Lost Gonzo Band blended country, rock ’n roll and folk in ways never heard before then. They did it in a loose, free flowing style that makes the whole album sound like a live performance even though only part of it was recorded before an audience. It has honky tonk drinking songs, gentle ballads, infectious sing alongs and one outrageous satire. Some of the songs are legendary: “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” “London Homesick Blues,” and “Sangria Wine” to name just three. As usual, Jerry Jeff chose songs he wrote himself along with songs from other great writers like Guy Clark, Michael Martin Murphy and Gary P. Nunn. Jerry Jeff would come to “own” their songs in the same way that Frank Sinatra put his stamp on tunes in the Great American Songbook. Somehow his versions always seem to become definitive.

Jerry Jeff has recorded many of the songs on “Viva Terlingua” multiple times, so you may have them elsewhere in your musical library. Still on this CD, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. If you never owned “Viva Terlingua,” or if it slipped from your grasp somewhere over the years, buy it or download it immediately.

I’ll sign off this first post with a video clip of sort of a reunion of Jerry Jeff and the Lost Gonzo Band as they are joined on “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” by the song’s writer Ray Wylie Hubbard during an episode of the TV show “Texas Connection.” Although not as raucous and beer soaked as the performance on “Viva Terlingua,” it’s still fun to see. First I want to thank you for spending time with me. If you liked my blog, please do me two favors:

  1. Click the “follow” button in the lower right of your screen to sign up for email notifications of future posts, and

Forward the blog along to your music loving friends, so they can get in on the fun.

Until next time…