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.

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

  1. Got your link from Nancy Egan, with whom I share a love of country music. I also listen to classical, R&B and jazz, with a focus on current signers covering the Great America Songbook (do you know Lisa Ekdahl and of Rhiannan Giddins?). You have opened doors to some great new music. Many of my 8,000 songs go into playlists like “Mama Songs”, “Guilty Pleasures”, and the current Summer Music Theme: “California Cool – All Genres all Eras”. We just spent a week in France with Nancy and Jeff, where Nancy added nicely to the summer music theme. Now The California Honeydrops are headed right there.Thank you.

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    • I’m quite familiar with Rhiannon Giddins, who is from my home state of North Carolina. My brother saw her in concert this spring and was ecstatic in praising her performance. I’ll have to check out Lisa Ekdahl. I too love to put together playlists as a way of mining my collection. You have some intriguing creative titles. Would love to see a sampling of some of the tunes in the ones you mention.

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  2. Enjoying the blog, Bruce. It can be a challenge for music lovers of our generation to find good new artists, and it’s easy for many to just give up and lament that there’s really no great music being made anymore. But that’s simply not true. It’s just harder to find, and you have to figure out where to look. Thanks for providing another inspiring source to keep my CD collection away from stagnation.

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