Of all the genres I cover in this blog, traditional soul seems to offer the most opportunities to discover or in some cases re-discover really solid performances. Here are three that I’ve pulled from the digital version of the old bargain bin at your favorite record store. One is a re-discovery from 1969. One is a R&B diva, who never really broke beyond her strong regional following in Memphis in the nineties and early 2000’s. And one is an old master, albeit largely unknown to the general music consumer, who cranked out a gem of a soul/funk/blues album near the end of his long, productive life. Interestingly, all three have a musical connection to Memphis. Use the comments link, and let me know what you think about them.
Delaney & Bonnie – Home
Many people my age claim to remember Delaney & Bonnie, especially if they were fans of the Allman Brothers, other southern rock bands, or Eric Clapton. For awhile they billed themselves as Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, the latter of which included the likes of Clapton, Duane Allman, George Harrison, Leon Russell and others. The fact is, however, they only had a couple of hit singles, none of which hit the top ten, and a couple of albums that charted none of which reached the top 20.
Having said that, this album Home, which was their first in 1969, never even made the Top 200. It’s a shame because this is a really good soul album. In fact, most of it it was recorded in Memphis by Stax and features Booker T and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns, with tunes by the likes of Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes and David Porter. A few tracks were recorded in LA where Leon Russel and Carl Radle led the rhythm section. Somehow it all got lost in the shuffle as Stax released some 27 albums at about the same time. Or maybe soul music fans like me couldn’t picture a couple of hippie looking singers making like Otis and Carla or Marvin and Tammi. Having said all that, I’m inclined to classify this gem as a discovery. I know I never heard it, but if you did let me know.
And what fun it is to hear this music. While their later, better known albums edged a little closer to rock, this one is predominantly a soul revue.
Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett came by their musical bona fides honestly. By the time they signed with Stax, they were prepared to perform to the label’s soul stirring standards, and for the most part they do. As originally released, the album contained ten tracks. The Bonus Track Version on iTunes released in 2006 has sixteen which may be a couple too many. Regardless, the album has more than it’s share of highlights. For me these include two tunes by Cropper and Eddie Floyd, “We Can Love” and “Things Get Better” and another by Cropper and Bettye Crutcher, “Just Plain Beautiful,” all of which have a good Stax groove and tasty horns. Then there’s Booker T Jones’ beautiful, soul ballad “Everybody Loves A Winner” featuring a marvelous tenor sax by, I believe, Andrew Love. The most pleasant surprise perhaps is Bonnie’s take on Erma Franklin’s “Piece Of My Heart.” Although not as intense as Janis Joplin’s nearly out of control version released a few months before, it is still a darn fine rendition.
Stax’s own web site notes that even with all the label firepower employed in the recording, “the record went virtually unnoticed.” Thanks to the internet and digital outlets like iTunes, that need no longer be the case. Take a moment to notice – and enjoy – this really fine record.
Ruby Wilson – Ruby Wilson and A Song For You
I’m often asked where I find the more obscure artists I feature. Sadly, I found Ruby Wilson when her obituary in the New York Times caught my eye a few weeks ago. She was a Texas born blues and R&B singer who spent a big chunk of career from the 1980’s until her recent death delighting both locals and tourists as the Queen of Beale Street in Memphis. Intrigued, I searched for her albums and found two you might like.
The self titled first one was released in 1981. The first three songs are uptempo in the disco style arrangements popular at the time. While I prefer the soul grooves of Muscle Shoals, a couple of these do nicely showcase a strong, assured talent. The tempo shifts with the fourth cut, a classic-style soul ballad, “Bluer Than Blue,” which is as strong a performance as you’ll find short of Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight. The tunes that follow are similar in style and quality. The woman can flat out sing.
A Song For You, released in 2009 bookends her career. Firmly established by this time as a blues and R&B belter with regular gigs at Memphis clubs like B.B. king’s, Wilson strikes a different note with this covers collection of jazz influenced ballads. Her vocals are soulful but more graceful and nuanced than soaring. It’s cocktail hour with classics like “At Last,” “Fever,” “What A Difference A Day Makes,” and maybe my new favorite version of the title track. Good stuff.
Who knows why some artists make it big and others with equal or better talent don’t? Is it management, poor record company promotion, failure to find that signature hit, some of all three or dozens of other reasons. I don’t know. I do know I’m thankful to find artists like Ruby Wilson. I just wish it had been in a club in Memphis rather an obit in the Times.
Calvin Owens – That’s Your Booty
My search through Ruby Wilson’s discography led me to Calvin Owens and this album apparently released after his death in 2008. Wilson is one of a strong contingent of singers, including the likes of Otis Clay and Archie Bell, whose vocals add power to Owens’ big band tour de force through soul, funk, blues and jazz. The presence of a couple of strong ballads notwithstanding, this is a “turn it up and boogie” joy ride.
Born in 1928, Owens grew up literally and musically in Houston in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Like many Houston musicians of that era, he’s always blurred the distinctions between blues and jazz. He met B.B. King and joined his band as trumpet soloist through the middle of the decade. Years later he rejoined King as his bandleader and trumpeter from 1978 – 1984, playing a key role on King’s Grammy winning album Blues and Jazz in 1983. In between and after his tenures with King, he played behind a long list of luminaries and led his own smokin’ bug band.
The cut “On My Feet Again” with Wilson in full blues belting mode could easily have been a vehicle for B.B. On the other hand, Owens stretches his boundaries with the funk of “The Dog ” and the jazzy “Trumpet Blues”
Owens obviously had a taste of the big time touring and recording with King. Similarly, Ruby Wilson played with several big names and also had roles in several movies. Although Delaney and Bonnie never had a top ten hit single or album, they certainly enjoyed high profile exposure touring with Eric Clapton, not to mention raves from Hall of Fame level stars testifying to their talent and influence. Still, none of these albums made a ripple much less a splash on the charts. Give them a listen. I bet you’ll agree this is music that deserves to be recovered from the cracks in the market, and most importantly, heard and enjoyed.
What the heck…
Here’s one more that may have slipped through the cracks for you: the talented Tasha Taylor singing her dad’s, the great Johnny Taylor, greatest hit, “Who’s Making Love?”