A few weeks ago I decided to take a break from combing through new album releases, so I put my personal collection on random play. Three cuts from three great late 1990’s albums by three great veterans of R&B oriented music came up in succession. I had not heard these tunes in quite some time, so I did a deeper dive into these albums. It was a pleasure that made me remember just how much I love these superlative performances.
One singer is from Texas, one is from Ireland, and the other is from Boston. Thus they come at R&B from different perspectives. They do share the same love for the genre’s roots. I decided to write about them in case they had slipped below your radar.
Delbert McClinton – One Of The Fortunate Few
Delbert McClinton is one of my all time favorite singers, and One Of The Fortunate Few is one of my favorite of Delbert’s albums. Released in 1997, it was his biggest selling album in well over a decade. (He must have loved the title; he cut a fabulous song with the same name on a later album.) It reached number two on the US Blues charts and paved the way for four number one’s over the next few years. If you missed it, or if it’s been buried in your collection for awhile, I highly recommend you jump all over it.
Delbert first burst on the scene as the harmonica player on Bruce Channel’s huge and enduring hit “Hey Baby” in 1961. Legend has it that on their subsequent tour of Great Britain, he met John Lennon and taught him the harmonica riff he used on the Beatles breakout hit in England, “Love Me Do.” I saw Delbert in Rhode Island around the time this album was released, and I can attest he packed his band with ace players, and his horn section was as tight as any I’ve ever heard.
The album is chock full of solid Blues/R&B beginning with “Old Weakness Coming On Strong.” Having said that, there are a handful of cuts that lift it above most albums. “Leap of Faith” is set to a classic blues shuffle groove. The band and Delbert are really cooking, and then you hear B.B. King on guitar and Bekka Bramlett on harmony vocals push everything to an even higher level. I dare you to sit still while this one plays.
Almost as good is the spiritual tinged “Sending Me Angels,” helped along by Lee Roy Parnell on slide guitar and Vince Gill on harmony, and a classic blue lament “(I Didn’t Lose You) You Were Never Mind.” For a bit of humor, the unlikely duo of Lyle Lovett and John Prine join in the fray for a rollicking “Too Much Stuff.” Scattered about the album in supporting roles are such talents as Mavis Staples, Pam Tillis and Reese Wynans, all in the service of the rhythm and the blues. And then there is the classic put down line, “If you can’t lie no better than that, you might as well tell the truth,” which just makes the point that the west Texas born McClinton delivers his brand of Blues/R&B unvarnished and with plenty of punch. As Delbert sings in the closer, “oh baby, you’re ‘bout to get the best of me.” The best of Delbert is ‘bout as good as it gets.
Van Morrison – Back On Top
Delbert McClinton may be a first tier talent, but he’s been the type of second tier star who could easily slip through the cracks for all but hard core fans. On the other hand Van Morrison has been a Hall of Fame top tier international star for decades. Yet even guys like that can have albums that slip through the cracks, or at least slip through my cracks. I was a big fan back in the late sixties and most of the seventies with terrific albums like Moondance and hits like “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Crazy Love” and “Jackie Wilson Sang.” Byy the nineties, however, I had stopped following him. Most of his albums during that decade were either compilations or live in-concert performances of his classic catalog. Thus when a night of following my nose through iTunes led me to Back On Top, I felt almost like I had reconnected with an old friend via an album that had slipped right by me when it was released in 1998. Bottom line, this is a really good R&B album. It’s straight ahead grooves overlaid by horns and inspired, intelligible singing. I say intelligible because I frankly had a hard time understanding much of what Van was trying to say in many of his eighties albums, which for a lyric lover is annoying.
The album jumps right out with a twelve bar blues “Goin’ Down Geneva.” Melodically and rhythmically, it could have been written in Mississippi in the forties or fifties. The giveaway is the story’s settings. When he sings Paris, he means France.
Morrison varies the tempos as the album goes along but not the soul vibe with one exception. He includes one pop style ballad, “When The Leaves Come Falling Down.” The song is so gorgeous that, rather than break the mood, it acts as a kind of interlude allowing the listener to very pleasurably catch his or her breath before taking off again with the harmonica led “High Summer.” This is one of those albums you can put on in your car, roll the window down, stick your arm outside and tap time on the door with your fingers. Pretty soon you’ll be singing along.
Peter Wolf – Fool’s Parade
Peter Wolf – A Cure For Loneliness
In case the name is only vaguely familiar, Peter Wolf first achieved stardom as the front man vocalist for the J Geils Band in the seventies and early eighties. He left the band when he felt they were veering from their R&B/Soul roots, released a couple of solo hits in the mid to late eighties and then went into a hiatus for several years. He began his comeback in 1996 with an album called Long Line, but he really hit his stride with Fool’s Parade, released like Morrison’s Back On Top in 1998. Wolf returned to soulful ground not too unlike that toiled by Boz Scaggs in his most recent release, A Fool To Care, which I wrote about last summer. That is to say his music is heavily imbued with R&B/Soul influences but not slavishly so. There are tastes of rock, blues and country woven throughout. His voice has traces of Dylan and Jagger, but it’s his own, and it’s an instrument he uses with consummate skill. While he sings sometimes with resigned regret and other times with bravado, the overriding theme is of a man looking back on his life. I would describe many of the songs as being a cousin, albeit a distant one stylistically, to Frank Sinatra’s hit, “It Was A Very Good Year.”
The album begins strongly with the cooly mid-tempo “It’s A Long Way Back Again,” which announces the themes I’ve mentioned. “Turnin’ Pages” continues the look back, but this time with a rousing rave-up sing-along. It should have been a top ten hit!
While the album varies tempos and rhythms from there, it never loses momentum. Aside from Wolf’s spot on match of vocals to material, the strength of it all is the quality of his songs. A majority are co-written with Grammy and Academy Award winner Will Jennings, and the craftsmanship is evident throughout. The album is also graced by an A list of instrumentalists and back-up singers. Wolf’s singing, the songs and his fellow singers and musicians sound better every time I play the album. Although Fool’s Parade had limited if any chart success, it was named one of the “essential recordings of the 90’s” by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner.
No sooner did I start work on this blog about three albums from 1997-98, when Wolf up and put out a new one, A Cure For Loneliness. I gave it a listen, and damn if it isn’t every bit as strong as Fool’s Parade. While my intent with this post was to mine the vaults and ignore the hot, new releases – as I stated in my opening sentence – I decided to abandon adherence to an arbitrary idea and recommend this one to you as well. I do quibble with the opening number – it’s minor key is too much of a downer to be a starter for my tastes. Still, the album as a whole is marvelous.
The songs range from an old country classic, “It Was Always So Easy To Find An Unhappy Woman,” (co-written by one of my favorites, Sanger D. “Whitey” Shafer) to a cover of the Fleetwood’s 1961 hit, “Tragedy.” (Kind of a weird coincidence as he has an original tune also called “Tragedy” on another album.) As on Fool’s Parade, there are several songs Wolf co-wrote with Will Jennings and other strongwriters. Surely one of the highlights is a slow soul shuffle, “It’s Raining,” co-written with R&B legend Don Covay. Wolf intended to record it as a duet with Bobby Womack, who unfortunately died before they could get into the studio together. Like most of the other songs on the album, it just sort of sweeps you up in it’s beauty, groove and sentiment.
One of the best tunes continues the “looking back” theme of Wolf’s last several albums as he reminisces about the escapades of his youth, yet with no illusions of returning:
“Winking that wicked eye,
Drinking that river dry,
Thinking we’d never die,
It was fun for awhile…
Nothing could stop us then,
No one could top us then,
Don’t want to go back again,
But it was fun for awhile.”
Albums like these by pros like Delbert McClinton, Van Morrison and Peter Wolf are not only “Fun For Awhile,” they’re pleasures we will want to go back to again – and again and again.