Alabama Bound

What is it about Alabama? On the one hand it’s a state too well known for hatred and violence between the races. On the other hand, its black and white musicians have found a bond that has resulted in incredible records from the turbulent fifties and sixties all the way to the vexing twenty teens. I know, the same two statements could be said of most southern states. But only Alabama has Muscle Shoals, where a core group of rural, dirt poor white musicians, songwriters and producers wrote for and played behind soul greats from Aretha Franklin to Percy Sledge to Wilson Pickett and many more. Such was their success and resulting fame that artists as big as the Rolling Stones came there to pick up on the vibe for their own recordings.

Fifty years later singers are still going to the studios there searching for the magic – the feeling and the groove that transcended differences and powered those great records. Lucky for us, some of them are good enough to find it, as you will hear in two albums in particular that have been released in the last few weeks. One is a fine farewell from a hall of famer, while the other is a bright “hello” from a newcomer so new he still has a part time day job.

Gregg Allman – Southern Blood

Normally I don’t write about stars as big as Allman because I figure even casual music fans are familiar with their work. This album caught my attention, however, despite the fact I’m not what one would call a “fan” of either Gregg solo nor the Allman Brothers Band. I respect him and believe he as a solo artist or bandleader deserves all the accolades that he and his mates received over the years. I enjoy hearing the occasional Allman song. For some reason, however, I just never liked them enough to own any of their records, although I did buy the Duane Allman Anthology album years ago. My attitude changed dramatically with Southern Blood.

Maybe it was something about an old veteran coming to grips with his own mortality and expressing that process through a collection of songs carefully chosen for the purpose. I found the same appeal in Glen Campbell’s farewell release Adios, which I wrote about a few months ago.

From various articles, I understand that Allman originally planned to write all new songs for the album, but his declining health and dwindling time led him to settle for just one original to kick it off. With help from his producer Don Was, he chose covers to fill out the album that fit the flow and mood perfectly.  With a couple of exceptions that provide a bit of punch, this album doesn’t rock. Yet the controlled passion of the performances belies the notion that it’s mellow. A bit melancholy in some places, reflective in others – no doubt. It’s a man looking back on a life lived on his own terms while savoring songs that have meant something to him along the way.

 

There’s a story behind each selection that I won’t go into here. If you’re interested, go to his interview in Garden and Gun  magazine here: http://gardenandgun.com/feature/gregg-allman-says-goodbye/.

There’s also an excellent article from NPR which you can find if you “google” Gregg Allman Southern Blood. The NPR article makes the point that returning to Muscle Shoals to record Southern Blood brought Allman full circle because it was there that he and Duane started their career, as sidemen and as an unknown new band, Hourglass. It’s fitting, therefore, that he did include a tune from one of Muscle Shoals’ top songwriting teams, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn’s “Out Of Left Field,” originally a hit for Percy Sledge.

 

The opening song, “My Only True Friend,” is quite good but clearly personal. Perhaps too much of that wouldn’t have been such a good thing. I think the covers he chose to follow his opening statement make the appeal more universal – it’s not just about himself. You and I might have chosen the same songs for our own farewell. Enjoy it with a smooth whiskey.

 

Cale Tyson – Careless Soul

Young Mr. Tyson is a Texan who in his twenties moved to Nashville. From what I’ve learned from the articles I’ve found, he’s not a record industry guy. Rather he began performing in the somewhat “alternative” club scene in East Nashville. He seems to have started as a neo-traditionalist honky tonker. A few years ago, he did an EP that sounded like Hank Williams and early Ray Price, but was that really Cale Tyson? While he respected the artists he mimicked, he hadn’t really grown up on their music. Then he hooked up with a producer who, after listening to Tyson describe the music floating around in his head, suggested they go to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. They took a bunch of musicians from Nashville; the only original FAME swamper in the studio was bassist David Hood. But then again, who’s more responsible for a record’s groove than the bass player? And maybe there is something to the legends about the studio there. As Tyson told NPR, “The room was incredible.”

The result is, dare I say it -cowjazz, an otherwise indescribable mix of folk, country, R&B and whatever. There are horns and strings along with guitars and pedal steel. There are tunes you can dance to, tunes that make you yell “yahoo” and tunes to cry to. There are tunes with a soul groove and tunes that sound like they could have been written by denizens of the Brill Building like Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Regardless, they all possess catchy melodies and intelligent, sometimes clever lyrics.

One of my favorite lines is from “Somebody Save Me,” in which the singer, whose lover is out of town, is begging that “somebody save me from doing her wrong.” As he confronts the temptation to stray, he intones “somebody please help me, I’m losing my mind, I’m crossing my fingers that I won’t cross the line, if somebody sees her, tell her come home, I want to be faithful, but I won’t be for long.” Well, you can guess how it ends.

What we can’t guess is where Tyson will go next. Careless Soul was released in the UK a couple of years ago, but was unheard here in the states until it was released this past summer. He didn’t grow up on country music, although he appreciates it, and he didn’t grow up on R&B either. He can sound authentic with either genre but he worries they’re not authentically him. He told Rolling Stone that while waiting for Careless Love to be released in the US, he’s been writing songs in more of an indie-folk vein inspired by Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris on Oberst’s album Bright Eyes. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what that might sound like. I do know he’s a fine singer and a very good songwriter. I also know that he found something good inside the walls of that old studio in Muscle Shoals, perhaps the spirit of Rick Hall and Clarence Carter. Stated simply, Careless Soul is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard this year.

 

And in the category of “what the heck…”

Marc Broussard – SOS-2: Save Our Soul: Soul On A Mission

Marc Broussard is not from Alabama, and this 2016 album was not recorded at Muscle Shoals. Nevertheless several of the tunes were originally written and recorded in integrated studios in Muscle Shoals and at Stax in Memphis. All are from the canon of greatest soul hits by Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Solomon Burke. In fact Burke’s song “Cry To Me” inspired Broussard to depart from his usual repertoire and record this set.   He openly says that he tried to emulate the arrangements of the original recordings. He wanted to expose their pleasures to a new generation of audiences, albeit with a higher recording fidelity given technology today. Having said that, this is not a case of a white guy ripping off black artists’ music. Born into the melting pot of Louisianna music – his dad is in the Louisianna Music Hall of Fame, Broussard has built his chops from the ground up.

Clearly he internalized classic soul music while growing up. Even more clear is the joy he brings to the project. I don’t think he’s quite wicked enough to pull off Wilson Picket’s “In The Midnight Hour,” but otherwise there’s more than a record full of great fun here. As I listened I couldn’t help remembering all the white bands I heard in the sixties – the Embers, Catalinas, Fabulous Five, Sardams and so many more – playing R&B and Soul music in college frat houses and beach dance clubs throughout the south. White bands covering  records of black singers written and produced by both black and white artists. What’s in those grooves bound them all.  You know, I think we can bridge some divides, if we just turn off the news and turn up the stereo.

 

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Remembering Jim Croce

Late July and most of August proved to be a busy period for me, so I ended up taking an unplanned hiatus from posting to “Finding Classic Cowjazz R&B.” Instead of writing about music, I played some music – and some golf, and I listened to quite a bit of music, new and old. I saw a great performance on “Austin City Limits” by Parker Millsap, which reconfirmed that he’s one of the most compelling high intensity vocalists of the last forty of fifty years. I also stumbled across an old favorite from the early 1970’s.

Jim Croce first began to emerge from South Philadelphia in the early to mid 1960’s as a folk singer. Mind you, most singers who emerged from South Philly from the late fifties to the mid-sixties were the teen idol pop rock ’n’ rollers like say, Fabian. Croce was a mold breaker.

He finally burst onto the big time during the singer-songwriter period of the early to mid seventies. This was the era of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Harry Chapin, Paul Simon and even erstwhile rockers like Stephen Stills. Croce shouldered his way into this mix with a combination of great character songs like “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” mixed with broken-love songs like “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels”) and “Lovers Cross.”

He also did odes to the  “everyman” like one of my all time favorites, “Working In The Car Wash Blues.” And he had a sidekick guitar virtuoso, the classically trained Maury Muehleisen. Today, such a lineup would be labeled Americana.

What separated Croce then, and what still gives him punch nearly fifty years later, is his singular vocal style, clever while sometimes ironically biting wordplay, and a smidgen of south Philly attitude. He put out less than a handful of albums before perishing in a plane crash in Louisianna, the same fate that befell Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ricky Nelson and Patsy Cline among many others. I fear he’s largely forgotten today, overlooked on most lists of seventies stars. Yet those few albums yielded a treasure trove of wonderful songs and masterful performances.

Jim Croce – I’ve Got A Name

If I were to recommend one album by Croce, I’d be tempted to go with the posthumously released Photographs and Memories, His Greatest Hits, because of course it includes all of his hits including two of my four favorite songs by Croce, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Operator.” And you wouldn’t go wrong with that album. Still, I’d also recommend I’ve Got A Name. The title track was the theme song in the movie about NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero,” starring Jeff Bridges, and it’s the rare recording by Croce of a song he did not write. The album also includes the aforementioned “Working In The Car Wash Blues” and my other favorite “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song.”

All of the songs I’ve mentioned are on the greatest hits collection. The reason I love this particular album, however, is the pleasures derived from lesser known tunes like “Salon and Saloon,” “Five Short Minutes,” “ Top Hat Bar And Grille,” and “The Hard Way Every Time” to name a few.

Over the years I’ve developed a soft spot for singer songwriters: Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett. But coming out of the sixties, the period when I was almost totally absorbed in Atlantic/Stax/Motown soul, the first singer-songwriter who really grabbed my attention was Jim Croce. I saw him on TV a few times but never in person. The closest I came was a 1973 show in Richmond, Virginia, on a bill with The Doobie Brothers and Loggins and Messina. A bad storm delayed Croce’s flight, so he was a no show. Sadly, not long after, an ill fated flight between one gig and the next ended his life at the age of 30 along with Muehleisen and three others. I Got A Name, completed the week before and released three months after the crash, reached number 2 on the Billboard Album Charts. Enjoy the gift he left behind.

Take A Break, Look Back, Listen…And Enjoy

While I love exploring new releases, I never want to forget the pleasures from revisiting buried treasures from yesteryear. Recently a couple of references in new releases triggered a journey back into the vaults of my library where I rediscovered (so to speak) four CD’s you may enjoy as much as I do. So for this post we’re setting aside the new to take advantage of the greatest benefit of recordings – the ability to look back, listen anew and enjoy all over again.

Linda Ronstadt: Cry Like A Rainstorm – Howl Like The Wind

Actually this great record is like getting two for the price of one because it features the uniquely amazing voice of Aaron Neville on four cuts, not just as a backup singer but as a full fledge duet partner. Linda very generously lets Neville take the lead role on a couple of the cuts, especially on their scintillating version of Sam & Dave’s soul classic, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” In fact, there are times when I think Linda and Aaron have topped the great Stax duo. Another duet cut, “Don’t Know Much” was certified gold and reached #2 as a single. The truth is Ronstadt revived Neville’s solo career which had languished since his hits in the sixties. He returned the favor with performances that helped her CD go triple platinum.

Of course, Ronstadt was terrific on the solo cuts as well. The album was her first since the trio of standards albums she had recorded with Nelson Riddle, and her return to pop firmly reminded everybody why she had become one of the biggest selling female singers ever. The woman could flat sing any kind of music and along with Gram Parsons practically invented country-rock. Remember, the Eagles were her backup band in the sixties. Moreover she proved herself perfectly able to handle folk, pop, R&B, straight country, and rock, picking songs from among the greatest songwriters of our time ranging from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan to Smokey Robinson to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. She chose from several great writers on this album including notably Jimmy Webb’s beautiful “Adios,” which became another top ten tune for her.

Ironically her range, both musically and stylistically, and the sheer beauty of her voice may cause some to dismiss her as too commercial. In my opinion, however, it’s her transcendent talent and integrity in her musical choices that made her the incredible commercial success she became. Alas, her story has a rather sad note. She now suffers from Parkinson’s which has robbed her of her ability to sing. Thank goodness we have her recordings, so her marvelous sound cannot be stilled. If somehow this album slipped by you, or you haven’t heard it in awhile, do yourself a favor and get it on your turntable post haste. It will restore your faith that there can be such a thing as great pop music.

 

Gary U.S. Bonds: Back In Twenty

Gary U.S. Bonds had a string of about a half dozen rock ’n’ roll hits beginning in 1961 topped by “Quarter to Three,” which hit #1. Although Bonds grew up singing R&B in clubs in Norfolk, VA, these records were more flat out party tunes targeting the teen audience. When the British invasion hit, his career was essentially washed away, like so many others. Lo and behold, twenty years later Bruce Springsteen met Bonds, who apparently had been one of the Boss’s early heroes. He helped get him a record deal, and Bonds promptly had a hit with “This Little Girl.” Then he all but disappeared from view again.

Flash forward another twenty years – I know, by now you see from whence the title of the CD derives. Once again Springsteen enters the picture along with Southside Johnny, also a big Bonds fan, and Gary U.S. Bonds returned with a set of sizzling blues flavored R&B. The amazing thing is that despite his twenty year fallow periods, when Bonds gets a chance to record, he puts out damn good music. Several friends join him on various tracks including, Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Dickie Betts and Phoebe Snow. In addition to the celebs on board, Bonds is accompanied by a strong rhythm section led by guitarist Mark Leimbach, and a handful of hot horns.

There are a couple of cuts from the classic R&B canon – “Fannie Mae” and “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember,” but most of the others have not been recorded before. In fact, Bonds wrote or co-wrote seven of the twelve cuts. And he’s listed as the Producer and also part of the horn arrangements team. Stylistically, the closest comparison I can give you is Delbert McClinton and his hot horn driven band from the mid-1980’s to the late 1990’s. Most of the tunes are uptempo, and while these are not like the teen party tunes from the early sixties, they have more than enough brass, punch and soul to put adults in a get-down mood.

 

Quincy Jones: Q’s Jook Joint

I must admit, I was hooked from the time I saw the album cover and title. In his long, illustrious career, Quincy Jones has been a musician, composer, arranger, band leader and record producer at the highest levels. As a producer alone, he’s worked with everybody from Ray Charles to Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson, usually with superlative results. But in the eighties and nineties he produced a collection of albums on which his role could best be described as amalgamator, if such a word exists.

The concept seems to be that as record producer, Q would bring together a batch of songs and various singers and players and build a thematic whole out of seemingly disparate parts. Often, as is the case here, he didn’t write any of the songs or play any of the instruments. He just makes it happen. Of the series, this is by far his most appealing to me.

The idea seems to be to evoke the notion of a jook joint through a blend of R&B, soul and jazz songs performed by R&B icons like Stevie Wonder and Q’s old friend Ray Charles , young nouveau soulsters like Tamia (check her out below) and Brandy, rockers like Bono and Phil Collins, and jazzmen like James Moody, plus too many more to mention.

The album’s arc more or less follows the night from the excitement of bursting through the doors of the joint to closing time. Q’s version of a jook joint is far more sophisticated than the image – or sound – embodied by the joints on the chitlin’ circuit where you might hear Gary U.S. Bonds, for example. Still it’s an interesting, and most importantly, entertaining compilation that moves from tune to tune almost seamlessly. Yes you can pull out individual cuts to enjoy on their own, but the album is particularly satisfying when enjoyed holistically.

 

Jimmie Dale Gilmore: After Awhile

Jimmie Dale Gilmore may have been the first hippie West Texas cowboy singer. He’s melodically and rhythmically grounded in west Texas, but his ethereal tenor voice and elliptical lyrical style often take his tunes to a whole ‘nother place. He was born in Amarillo and raised in Lubbock, but according to Wikipedia “Gilmore spent much of the 1970s in an ashram in Denver, Colorado, studying metaphysics with teenaged Indian guru Prem Rawat, also known as Maharaji” before moving to Austin where he still resides. Not too many Texas musicians have gone that route.

Since the early 1970’s he has performed periodically with his buddies Joe Ely and Butch Hancock as The Flatlanders. At the time, they were influenced by the Austin based originators of “outlaw” country like Jerry Jeff Walker, and they’ve carried the torch further on ever since. He finally released his first solo album, which included covers of tunes by other writers, in 1988. After Awhile followed in 1991, and it’s a fine a statement of alternative or progressive or outlaw country – pick your own label – as you’ll ever find.

All twelve tunes were written by Gilmore except for the rollicking bluegrass-like “My Mind’s Got A Mind Or It’s Own,” which is by his fellow Flatlander Hancock.

Gilmore ranges across tempos and emotions as easily as a tumbleweed blowing in the wind across a west Texas prairie. It’s all there: sadness, happiness, tragedy and humor. Songs to dance to and songs to contemplate over red wine or brown whiskey. Perhaps some are more comprehensible with herbal assistance. Best of all, he’s played enough beer joints to know how to pace the set. The result here, as on the other albums presented in this post, is very satisfying musical entertainment.

And now a fond farewell…

Glen Campbell: Adios

This look back was actually inspired by Glen Campbell’s recently released last album, recorded near the end of his farewell tour as he was being overtaken by Alzheimers. The title song is a cover of the Jimmy Webb penned hit by Linda Ronstadt, and Glenn’s excellent rendition sent me into my vaults to find Linda’s original. I was never a big fan of Glen’s although I certainly acknowledge his seventies era hits like “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and others, all written by Webb. And yes I’m amazed by the Youtube videos of him playing the William Tell Overture on a 12-string guitar. But I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed this album, a collection of tunes he apparently always loved but never recorded. The four by Webb are excellent, and the other choices for the most part are inspired and often surprising. It’s given me a fresh perspective on his fine singing and incredible guitar playing. He gave us a nice parting gift while burnishing his own legacy.

2017: A Vintage Year So Far – Part 2

There’s so much good music flooding into our ears so far in 2017, let’s jump right into Part 2 or our survey of the keepers from the year so far. As in the previous post, we’re not going in any particular order neither chronological nor ranking preference. I have plenty to choose from across multiple genres. Here we go!

Chris Stapleton – From A Room, Volume 1

Chris Stapleton’s first solo album, which I wrote about two years ago, was such a huge hit, I assume all of you know about him and know he’s released a new album.  Often an artist has a tough time following up something as big and as good as Traveller, but dadgum I think Chris has done it. That’s all I’m going to say about it now. Here’s his take on Gary P. Nunn’s “The Last Thing I Needed, The First Thing This Morning,” which was a big hit for Willie back in the eighties. I heard him on Sirius/XM radio describe it as just about the quintessential country song in terms of structure and content.

 

Charlie And The Regrets – Rivers In The Streets

Front man and primary songwriter Charlie Harrison and his mates sound at first like a bunch of good old boys from Houston (probably because they are.) But their songs on their first full length album stretch across quite a range of tempos and subject matter. They’re seasoned with humor, even when the subject matter is dead serious, and there’s plenty of depth in the lyrics. Fun songs like “Proud Man” are balanced by the beautiful “Houston Rain” with some very interesting dissonant chords that lift the melody from the ordinary. Band member and frequent co-writer Willy T. adds great work on lap steel and dobro. Best of all, the album is paced beautifully, so even when the mood is somber, it’s never dull.

 

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’TajMo

From a band of young newcomers, we jump to a couple of old pros with Taj and Keb.’ When you consider how much influence the former has had on the latter, you may ask why they’ve never collaborated like this before. Like much of the music on their individual albums this one is filled with blues and R&B that is more likely to make you feel good than bring you down. In short, listening to this album is fun with engaging performers, good guitar playing, and an excellent backing band with a tasty horn section. Music like this makes you want to dance and sing along. As one of the song says, “there’ll be nothing on the radio but good news.”

Here’s a fun look at just that tune with Taj, Keb’ and the “Late Show” Band.

 

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

This eponymous titled album features Robison, a hugely successful songwriter just on the basis of the hits he wrote for George Strait, and a few good friends having a grand old time. As he says on his own web site, it’s “recorded on analog tape with no digital shenanigans. Just like back when music was good…”  There are three songs by Bruce himself and others by the likes of Jack Ingram, Jason Eady, Micky Braun and even Pete Townshend. (In a strange coincidence, The Who’s “Squeeze Box” is on both this album and TajMo.)

Even the quieter songs and sad ones like the old George Jones weeper, “Still Doin’ Time” reflect the joy the musicians find in this work. It’s short with only nine tunes, but I dare you to try and not smile while you listen.

 

Greg Graffin – Millport

Greg Graffin is a punk rock singer, songwriter and band leader (Bad Religion) who also holds a PhD from Cornell and more recently lectures on subjects like paleontology and evolution at UCLA as well as Cornell. In recent years he’s developed a solo music career as a folk-rocker influenced by the folk and country rock artists who emerged in the Southern California late 60’s – early 70’s music scene of his youth. He tackles serious subjects like Lincoln’s assassination and the demise of small town America with an earnest, energetic and engaging style executed with excellent musicianship surrounded by a band of merry me with comparable talent.

Ruthie Foster – Joy Comes Back

Ruthie Foster, like so many of her fellow Texans, is hard to pin down genre wise. She’s often listed under “blues,” but she’s also soul, folk, gospel, country and who knows what. Joy Comes Back has a little of everything from the gospel tinged title song to a re-working of an old Four Tops hit, “Lovin’ You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” to a toe tappin’ old time country ditty that Jerry Jeff Walker might do. You’ll probably want to add eight of the ten tunes to your regular playlist.

There’s so much fun in so many of the tunes from this batch of albums. What really unites them is the sense of joy all the musicians involved seem to find playing such good music. To tie it all together in a nice bow…I opened this post with Chris Stapleton, and I’m going to close it with one of his songs which became Ruthie’s kick off cut for Joy Comes Back. She’s accompanied by a great band on the album, but this solo, live performance really shows off her voice and Stapleton’s lyrics on his pre – Traveller tune, “What Are You Listening To?

 

2017: A Vintage Year So Far – Part 1

So far in 2017, I’ve seen a boatload of new music that fits easily under the big tent of Classic CowjazzR&B, to mix at least two metaphors. In the first couple of weeks of February, I was almost overwhelmed by the number and variety of promising looking albums. About half of them proved to be inconsequential, but many turned out upon repeated listening to be great joys. Subsequently, despite a few quiet weeks, the flow of top shelf music has continued.

For this week and the next couple of weeks, therefore, I will pass along to you my recommendations for what I consider the best new releases of the first third of the year. No doubt you may have heard about some of these already, but I hope I’ve found some you love but missed. These will be “quickie” reviews rather than more lengthy descriptions and back stories. Bottom line: I want you to know about these albums. We’ll start with four:

  • Louisianna swamp R&B,
  • classic country,
  • contemporary “commercial” country with classic vocal chops,
  • and a folk album that is contemporary in presentation yet 60’s era classic in commitment  to justice.

Shiny Ribs – I Got Your Medicine

Shiny Ribs leader Kevin Russell was formerly frontman for Austin based band The Gourds. This amazing group was grounded somewhere near the nexus of progressive country and R&B. Russell’s vision, given shape with Shiny Ribs, took him further toward R&B. His new band came to my attention via my youngest brother and his friends who attend Merlefest every year. Their first few albums had some great and some not so great tunes, in my opinion. With this album, he hits his stride as one of the most fun, entertaining and yet never slick acts I’ve heard in a long time. When a song with as much crowd appeal as “I Don’t Give A S- – t” is not even the best song on the album, well it’s a damn fine, fun album. You’ll have to get up off your butt and let it all loose.

 

Allison Krauss – Windy City

Buddy Cannon, who has brilliantly produced Willie Nelson’s last couple of albums, helped Krauss select and develop a marvelous collection of mid-twentieth century album cuts and B-sides by some of country’s best songwriters. As you listen to her voice float over the melodies, you’ll wonder why they weren’t all top ten tunes like “Gentle On My Mind,” which was one of the few here that were. She’s terrific and the arrangements and musicians are first rate. There are several highlights, but my favorite is Roger Miller’s beautiful “River In The Rain” from his score for the Broadway re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn, Big River.

Tony Jackson – Tony Jackson

Quick – name an African American country music singer other than Charlie Pride. Darius Rucker doesn’t count. And when I listened to the first cut of Tony Jackson’s first album, I thought, heck, I could be listening to Darius or any number of young faux country artists. But then I got into the meat of the album, and I found one of the best country voices I’ve ever heard. Unlike Pride, Jackson didn’t grow up on country music. It didn’t cross his radar until he found himself as a US Marine in the middle east, far from home. Much later after quite a few years as a bank executive, he started singing. Fortunately for us he hasn’t stopped. Although he’s quite facile on contemporary pop country, his real strength is classic country. He tackles toughies like George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Conway Twitty’s breakout hit, “It’s Only Make Believe” with aplomb. Another particular favorite is the John Sebastian tune, “Last Call.” Tony proves sometimes commercial is cool.

 

Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

Rhiannon Giddens proved on her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn that she’s an extraordinary talent capable of singing in just about any genre she chooses. Her voice is rich and able to be both powerful and subtle, sometimes within the same song. She can be blue, she can be gay.

Giddens can also be angry, and she can be mournful. She is at heart a folk singer. Not the sappy variety. Freedom Highway in fact has a sharper point of view than her debut. Some of her songs make you a bit uncomfortable. Some lift your spirit. All of them have strong stories to tell. And her voice compels you to listen, to cry, to laugh, to rejoice in her talent.

Giddens was born a decade after the folk boom.  Regardless, she can certainly carry the torch for the likes of Odetta, Judy Collins, Mary Travers (of Peter Paul & Mary) and fellow banjoist Pete Seeger. For evidence, check out her album’s title song written by Pops Staples for the Staples Singers in 1965.

Okay folks, these are my first but by no means final four picks from 2017’s bumper crop. Stay tuned next week for four or five more.

A Big Week For Two All Time Greats

Last week was truly special for music lovers. For starters, Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday was April 25; she would have been 100 years old. Ella was the quintessential female jazz/pop singer, and a case could be made that she would edge out Frank Sinatra as the greatest interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Her influence on vocalists over the decades regardless of genre cannot be over estimated.

In addition, last week saw the release of Willie Nelson’s umpty umpth album, God’s Problem Child, a remarkable collection of songs that may well be his best in quite awhile. Willie’s output of albums is unprecedented, and there have been times, perhaps every couple of dozen albums or so when he almost seemed on auto pilot. Yet at 83, Willie has produced a collection of songs as vital and fresh as his classic tunes were back in the 1960’s.

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

Willie writes and sings about growing old with sentiment but never sentimentality. He can convey nostalgia, regret, or sweet memories in one song and stab you with humor the next. A classic example of the latter is “Still Not Dead,” co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, in which he muses about rumors that spread on the internet not too long ago that the old red headed stranger was on his last legs.

 

“It Gets Easier” epitomizes the former, blending quiet humor with the regret in lines like, “I don’t have to do one damn thing that I don’t want to do, except for missing you.”

One of my favorite tunes is “Old Timer” by the great and underrated Donnie Fritts. “You think you are a young bull rider, then you look in the mirror and seen an old timer.”

There’s also a fine tribute to Willie’s great friend Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” written by Gary Nicholson whom I wrote about a few months ago. These two songs, notwithstanding, the strength of the album lies in the seven tunes Willie co-wrote with Cannon.

I also have to say that in addition to Willie’s great writing and singing, any description of the strength of this album has to include his guitar playing, which has not diminished at all with age, and the incomparable harmonica of his long time sideman Mickey Raphael.

 

Ella Fitzgerald And The Count Basie Orchestra – A Perfect Match (Live)

There are literally dozens of Ella Fitzgerald albums I could recommend. For starters over several years in the fifties she recorded a series of albums focused on the songbooks of the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook from Duke Ellington to Cole Porter to the Gershwin’s to Irving Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and others. The collection is excerpted in Best Of The Songbooks. There are many others including great live recordings and her marvelous duets with Louis Armstrong. I happen to like A Perfect Match, which was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979. It catches Ella still young enough at 62 to ignite an audience united with one of jazz’s hardest swinging big bands and recorded with reasonably modern technology.

I’ve had the album since it was released on vinyl, and I always get a kick when I put it on. In researching for this post, I found a number of reviews with a variety of quibbles. All I can say in rebuttal is it won the Grammy in 1980 for best female jazz vocal performance. No singer could swing, improvise of scat like Ella as evidenced by the closing number “Basella,” the opener “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” or the romping conclusion to “After You’ve Gone” as you no doubt saw.  And few could match her on love songs tinged in blue like “You’ve Changed” or Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” Her rich voice saturates these songs like honey poured over a warm biscuit.

 

Yes, Ella in 1979 may have been past her prime as a vocalist. As a singer who could convey the essence of her songs and both connect with and entertain her audience, however, she was still at the top of her game. She and the Basie orchestra deliver the passion and punch that make for a concert performance to cherish.

And what the heck… Duke Ellington’s birthday was also last week, so I’ll close this week with one of the most beautiful versions of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. From the 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Here is “Mood Indigo.”

Chuck Berry And The Birth Of Rock ’N’ Roll

A couple of weeks have gone by since the passing of Chuck Berry, and I’ve wrestled with what to say or to recommend to you. So many people have commented on his death, his music and his impact. The New York Times alone had several wonderful articles including one about his best hits and another about the songs that influenced several of his hits followed by subsequent recordings that were in turn influenced by those same hits. Frankly, I really had nothing to add.

Then I came across an album that is a compilation of his early blues tracks for Chess Records. It’s called simply:

Chuck Berry Blues

The album features Chuck covering sixteen tunes primarily from the 1940’s and early 1950’s blues canon – tunes like “House of Blue Lights,” “Route 66,” “Confessin’ The Blues,” “Driftin’ Blues,” “Worried Life Blues” and “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”

On these cuts, you hear an artist looking for his identity, his own original sound. You hear influences of Nat King Cole, Charles Brown, Louis Jordan, and Elmore Leonard, but also you hear a performer who wants to innovate rather than duplicate . In this sense the album reminds me of the Sun Sessions compilation by Elvis Presley. Both albums fall short in places, but both tease us with glimpses of what’s to come. Fittingly, the album ends with the strongest evidence that Chuck was evolving into something special, a scintallating version of W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” that breathes sparkling new life into an old chestnut. The riffs and swagger are clearly emerging.

Beyond Berry’s guitar playing and singing, his songwriting, especially his lyrics, is what not only separated Chuck from other artists, but also separated his music from everything that came before. He captured the day to day joy, frustrations, trials and tribulations of young Americans in the mid-fifties – black and white – and put them to an ebullient beat that defied anyone to sit still when they heard it. In doing so, he converted R&B, with a tiny country seasoning, into a music that galvanized a generation. In my not so humble opinion, he along with three others were the alchemists of rock ’n’ roll.

Rock ’N’ Roll’s Mount Rushmore

In 1955, the top selling record for the year was Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”  Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” was the only rock ‘n’ roll record in the top 30. Just one year later, as an old song goes, rock ’n’ roll was here to stay. There were twelve rock ’n’ roll songs in the top 30, five by Elvis who held the top two spots, plus another two by the Platters who were evolving from easy listening to become a precursor of black vocal groups like the Dells and the Temptations. It’s hard to describe how revolutionary the change was at the time. Here’s what a top ten hit sounded like before the earth moved between 1955 and 1956.

I was there, listening to radio and records, when Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard hit the scene. Yes, there were earlier artists who planted the seed, and giants like Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and His Comets were making waves and upsetting the programmers on “Your Hit Parade.” Ray in particular was laying the foundation for what would one day become “Soul” music. But nobody, I mean nobody, generated electricity and heat like Chuck, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard.

I’m going to list for your consideration my favorite early record by each of these “big four.” Before I list them for you, however, I first must submit that the greatest record in the history of rock ’n’ roll is by far and away Chuck Berry’s “Johnnie B. Good.” It wasn’t the first rock ’n’ roll record. It wasn’t even Chuck’s first hit. But from the opening riff, its story and the musical way it tells the story define the genre. There’s not even a close second. I’ve heard it at least 1000 times including this very afternoon. Without exception, every time I hear it, I’m over taken with glee; I play air guitar; I pound on the steering wheel if I’m in the car; I jump from my chair if I’m at home; I hop out of my booth and onto the dance floor if I’m at a juke joint; I turn it up, and I sing out loud. Having said that, here are my other personal favorites by the Big Four.  When you hear any one of them, you know you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll.

Chuck Berry – “School Days”

Next to “Johnnie B. Good” this tune best defines rock ’n’ roll in a teenager’s life, the cure for the humdrum and anxiety of high school. There was a joint right across the street from my high school, The Varsity Grill, which fits Berry’s description to a “T,” right down to “dropping the coin right into the slot.”

Elvis Presley – “Heartbreak Hotel”

This was Elvis’ first release on RCA after departing Sun Records, and it went on to be Billboard’s top selling single record for 1956. It’s a different tempo from most of his early rockers, more bluesy and featuring a tinkling piano along with the guitar. But from the opening line, Elvis’ voice commands your attention, and he never lets go.

Jerry Lee Lewis – “Great Balls of Fire”

Jerry Lee only knew one way to play. All out and on fire. Following closely behind Elvis at Sun, he lit up the radio waves with songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless,” but for me “Great Balls of Fire” stamped Jerry Lee and rock ’n’ roll itself as something just a little bit dangerous.  Jerry Lee re-recorded the tune for his bio-pic starring Dennis Quaid. Though not the original, this clip from the movie aptly illustrates the mania surrounding early rock ‘n’ roll and recreates a legendary encounter between Jerry Lee and Chuck. Although Jerry Lee got the best of Chuck here, he’s on record quoting his mother as saying, “You and Elvis are good, son — but you’re no Chuck Berry.”

Little Richard – “Lucille”

The first rock ’n’ roll record I ever owned was Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and it was soon followed by the two sided “Ready Teddy” and “Rip It Up” along with “Long Tall Sally.” I give the nod here to “Lucille,” however, based on its almost subversive opening with the distinctively throbbing rhythm contrasted by sparse well placed piano single note key strokes, then Richard’s pleading squeal – “Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will.” Little Richard always seemed on the verge of coming completely unglued while pounding his piano and leading his relatively large band. He was early rock ’n’ roll’s most flamboyant showman and set a standard that influenced a wide array of artists from James Brown to Prince, as I think you’ll agree seeing this clip from 1969.

These four records cover the spectrum from day to day teen life to heartbreak to hot new love to pleading for a departed lover to “come back where you belong.” I don’t think anybody can deny that Chuck Berry belongs on rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore of the genre’s founders. Who do you think should be up there with him? What are your favorite songs from the launch years of rock ’n’ roll? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… the one and only Chuck Berry with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still rockin’ and rollin’ forty years later.

 

Departures

In the last two weeks of February, the music industry released a veritable flood of interesting albums across a wide spectrum of genres. I’ve been busy listening to music searching for those albums that I can genuinely endorse with enthusiasm. Long time readers of this blog know I don’t necessarily chase the “new,” but rather give each album multiple listenings to separate the wheat from the chaff. By spending the necessary time on all of this new music, I fear I’ve neglected the first obligation of the blogger – to write.

Tonight I’m taking a departure from working through the new music to tell you about a couple of albums that I’ve been enjoying for several years. By coincidence I’ve revisited both in the last few days to “clear the palate” so to speak when taking a break from assessing all the new music. Both albums are by contemporary artists who took a departure themselves to pay homage to two of the giants of jazz singing from the past. Generally, I question my expertise to write knowledgeably about jazz. Occasionally, however, I come across albums that deliver music that one can thoroughly enjoy without necessarily knowing what a diminished chord is. The singers on these two albums made that leap and showed the true depth of their vocal chops while delivering immense pleasure.

Please join me on this departure. I think you’ll find it a timeless adventure.

Deborah Cox – Destination Moon

Deborah Cox came onto the recording scene in 1995 when Clive Davis signed her to Arista Records. After a couple of years she began to achieve considerable record sales and acclaim in hip hop and dance music scoring several number one hits in those genres. In the early 2000’s she began to move back and forth between her hip hop and dance recording career and theater work, such as a run on Broadway in Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s production of Aida. In fact she’s currently starring in the touring company of the theatrical version of the movie The Bodyguard.

In 2007, she took a major departure from her musical comfort zone and released Destination Moon, a tribute to the great jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington. This was not a change of direction. Rather it was just something she wanted to do and in fact worked on for a couple of years. I consider it a huge success, and it’s among my favorite albums.

First, Washington was in many ways a precursor to the great R&B singers. She was in that second generation of jazz singers who were inspired by the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, yet still wedded tightly to the blues. Although she could caress a lyric, she had a sassy personally and projected supreme confidence. Thus she was an excellent choice for a tribute from someone like Cox. Dinah Washington was a unique talent who bridged the transition from jazz to soul so well that she’s in the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. If Cox’s work brought her to the attention of a new generation of music lovers, then I’d say “well done.”

Although Washington’s biggest hit was probably “What A Difference A Day Makes,” I happen to love her in her “Queen of the Blues” mode covering Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.”

 

The surprise is how damn good Cox is. Released from the repetitive pounding and electronic rhythm of hip and hop and dance music, she really takes hold of Washington’s songs and more than holds her own with a big band backing her. She handles big brassy uptempo numbers like the title track, classy ballads like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” or gut bucket blues like “New Blowtop Blues” with aplomb. In the early sixties, Washington herself took a departure from her normal jazz setting to record a couple of more commercial pop oriented R&B numbers with Brook Benton. Cox takes on one of those tunes, “Baby, You Got What It Takes,” interestingly with a more jazz oriented arrangement than Miss Dinah’s.

In this video, she not only sings “Destination Moon” but also talks a bit about why she made the album.

 

As I said, Destination Moon was a departure for Cox, and she went immediately back to her comfort zone. This was despite the fact the her album hit number one on the iTunes Top Jazz Albums and number three on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums charts. My recommendation to you is that you enjoy this great departure by Deborah Cox. And my second recommendation is that you give a listen to Dinah Washington herself.
Patti Austin – For Ella

By 2002 when she released For Ella, Patti Austin had already enjoyed a long career dating from the mid-1980’s working in the contemporary intersection of smooth jazz, pop and R&B with a touch of dance thrown in. She distinguished herself from others in the field with her uncommonly rich and supple voice whose almost natural antecedent was Ella Fitzgerald. I had an earlier album by Austin called That Secret Place, which could have easily been discarded if it weren’t for her magnificent vocal instrument and the depth of feeling that cut through the overly slick arrangements. So when I first saw For Ella, my reaction was “aha, Patti’s taken on a project worthy of her talent.” When I realized it had been cut with a classic big band, my anticipation ran even higher. When I heard the record, I smiled with joy by the match of material, singer and band.

Ella started as a teenage singing sensation with the hottest band playing  Harlem’s Apollo theater in the 1930s, The Chick Webb Orchestra. When Webb died, she took over the band. Her career continued to develop in the 1940s when she mastered singing bebop while with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. During this period, inspired by Louis Armstrong, she took his scat singing to dazzling new heights. Then she really hit her stride in the fifties with a series of landmark recordings, each focused on the songbook of the greatest writers of the thirties, forties and early fifties – everyone from Cole Porter to Duke Ellington to the Gershwins. She became a favorite not only of audiences but also of the musicians and other singers with whom she performed. She could improvise with the best jazz players and hit any note, seemingly in any sequence, whether in beautiful ballads of when swinging like crazy.

In a sense she became a female counterpart to Frank Sinatra as both built their careers from the 1950’s onward by focusing on the “great American songbook.” For starters that means that Patti Austin’s tribute is first of all built upon magnificent songs. She doesn’t try to copy Ella, but she is able to put her own marvelous voice in service to songs associated with Ella in a manner that is fitting and, more importantly to you, thoroughly entertaining. Songs like “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “Satin Doll” and “The Man I Love” soar anew.  As with Deborah Cox, I hope you enjoy Patti Austin and are inspired to check out Ella Fitzgerald. (Among others, I recommend her pairings with Count Basie.)

Not too many singers could swing toe to toe with Frank, but then again not too many singers could swing toe to toe with Ella. See for yourself:

 

And in the category of why not…

Hey, I needed a break from country, cowjazz and R&B, and I do hope you enjoyed this little departure.  And while we’re on the subject of great singers of great American songs, the Smithsonian’s 2016 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song was awarded to Smokey Robinson, one of my favorite songwriters. I saw the award concert on NPR last week and was particularly enthralled with Smokey singing Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” So I’ll leave you with that – one of the great R&B/soul artists takes on a songbook classic.

 

PS Just learned a few hours ago that Chuck Berry, the personification of rock ‘n’ roll passed away at 90. You can expect more on that from me in the coming days.

 

 

 

 

 

Ian Tyson – The Legendary Canadian Cowboy Troubador

There are tons of country singers posing as cowboys, but Ian Tyson is one of the few who are the genuine article. He was a rodeo competitor in his late teens and early twenties. In fact, he learned to play the guitar while recovering from an injury during a rodeo. For those not familiar with Tyson, he first came on the music scene in the early to mid sixties as part of the Greenwich Village branch of the folk music boom. With his girl friend and eventual wife, the native of western Canada came to New York via Toronto, By 1961, the pair were performing as a duo known as Ian and Sylvia on their way to becoming one of the top four or five folk acts. As their career gained traction, he wrote two of the most iconic, enduring songs of the period: “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon.” Both were recorded by multiple artists and sung around campfires for years and years. Those two songs alone make him a musician worth following.

Eventually, the folk boom subsided. Some folks singers moved into rock like Dylan. A few moved into country. Others returned to folk albeit with a much lower profile and smaller audiences. Ian and Sylvia eventually amicably split up. He returned to his ranch in western Canada. After a brief hiatus, he began to build a reinvented career singing country and cowboy songs from his base in Alberta. By 1989, he was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

Of course his exposure in the US was relatively limited during this period, but he did gain some recognition when Jerry Jeff Walker recorded one of Ian’s songs, “Navajo Rug.” This became one of Jerry Jeff’s biggest crowd pleasers, and many of his fans discovered (or rediscovered) Ian Tyson as a result. And sampling his work from the late eighties and on into the 21st century delivers hours of pleasure.

 

 

Ian Tyson – Live At Longview

Tyson always had a warm, extraordinarily appealing voice. He also has a demeanor that draws people to him, making his performances seem like very personal interaction with every audience member. That’s why I recommend his 2002 release Live At Longview as the best play to start getting acquainted with his music from the second stage of his career. The set list is an excellent cross section of his repertoire starting with “Navajo Rug.” And, of course, it includes “Someday Soon” which was a huge hit for Judy Collins in the sixties and then resurfaced as a hit for Suzy Boggus in the nineties. I originally planned to insert the album version of “Someday Soon” here, but then I ran across this clip from a 1986 reunion concert by Ian and Sylvia joined on the song by the lustrous Judy Collins.

 

All of the songs but one were written by Tyson, with two – “Navajo Rug” and “Sorta Together” – co-written with Tom Russell, another wonderful songwriter I’ll feature in a future post. Most of the tunes are connected to the cowboy life one way or the other. As a wonderful surprise, he takes one detour and jumps into a western swing version of the old Rodgers and Hart chestnut “Blue Moon.” All in all the crowd seems totally enthralled throughout the program, and I think you will be too.

 

Ian Tyson – Carnero Vaquero
Sadly, Tyson suffered an injury and illness which severely impacted his vocal chords several years ago. The good news is that after years of treatment and therapy, and by teaching himself how to sing again, he has recovered. He’s now in his eighties and continues working on his vocal recovery, so his voice is not as supple as before. Still it’s warm and engaging, and he’s put it to good use with his most recent album from 2015. And he’s still working on his ranch, a cowboy to the end. In some of his new songs, he laments the changes encroaching on his beloved west.

 

 

Here’s another of my favorite Ian Tyson songs with a humorous intoduction in which he tells the story of writing “Four Strong Winds.”

 
I’ll close the post with what my seem an odd song choice by Ian Tyson, but it’s one that he manages to fit seamlessly into his cowboy repertoire.

Out With The Old, In With The New – Not So Fast!

There will be loads of good new music to hear and talk about in 2017, I’m sure. Yet in the waning days of 2016 and the snow bound days of early 2017, I decided to slow down my rush to the new and spent some time rummaging through the “dust bins” of yesteryear. There I found a couple of albums that hardly made a ripple when they were released in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and another from the last decade that suffered the same fate. Regardless of their fate, all three are filled with great songs and performances, and despite or because of their relative anonymity, they sound fresh today.

Dionne Warwick – Soulful

By 1969, Dionne Warwick had established herself as a singular talent turning one song after another from the writing and producing team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David into sophisticated pop gold. In doing so, she differentiated herself from the somewhat grittier soul singers like Mary Wells, Betty Everett, Tina Turner, and the soul queen Aretha Franklin. I don’t know her motivation. Maybe she just wanted to remind her audience, and perhaps her peers as well, that she too grew up in the church and could bring the soul whenever she wanted. Whatever the reason, she took a one album break from Bacharach and David, and went to Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis. Chips was about as hot as a producer could be at the time working with Neil Diamond and more importantly Elvis Presley on what would become the album that turned around the King’s career, From Elvis In Memphis. Together Dionne and Chips produced this mighty fine collection of classic soul covers.

I shouldn’t say the album didn’t make a ripple because it did reach #2 on Billboard’s R&B chart, #11 on the pop chart, and the lone single, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” reached 16 on the pop charts and 13 on the R&B charts. From a chart perspective, it was one of Warwick’s most successful albums. Still, fairly quickly after its release, Dionne went back in the studio with Bacharach and David and resumed the string of pop songs that had been so successful for the three of them.

Perhaps because of her quick return to pop, or because there was no new material on Soulful, the album has been largely forgotten. It shouldn’t be. Yes Dionne was different from most female soul singers. Where many of them range from nitty gritty to soaring, Dionne’s voice seems to float. But the emotion is there all the same. The album cover photo fits the album’s title and the singer, not to mention the Memphis studio players.

The arrangements for most of the tunes are reminiscent of the originals of songs like “I’m Your Puppet,” “Do Right Man, Do Right Woman,” “People Got To Be Free,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and the aforementioned “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The one major exception arrangement-wise is on the Beatle’s “A Hard Days Night.” The tempo is slowed to a grinding groove transforming the song from a rock ‘n’ roll romp into R&B dirty dance – a very pleasing change up. It makes me wish Dionne had worked more with Moman and writers like Dan Penn to come up with a new batch of R&B/Soul. Why she didn’t is a mystery to me.

 

 
John Sebastian – The Tarzana Kid

How could an album featuring a multiple hit maker, who took a memorable star turn at Woodstock, with backing by the likes of the Pointer Sisters, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, Lowell George, Buddy Emmons and David Grisman, and with songs by some of the best tunesmiths around fail to even scratch on the charts. It’s not as if the output from all this talent isn’t worthy. In fact, it’s a damn fine album.

The Tarzana Kid, released in 1974, contains several Sebastian penned tunes including a couple of covers of songs from his Lovin’ Spoonful days, and a co-write with George, “Face of Appalachia.” There’s a nice version of John’s “Stories We Could Tell,” which had been the title song of the last Everly Brothers album before their early seventies break up. In fact, the great Phil Everly provides the harmony vocals. There are also entertaining covers of Lowell George’s Little Feat classic “Dixie Chicken.” the old Guy Mitchell chestnut “Singin’ The Blues,” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo.” The latter was adventurous then because few, if any, white musicians had tried their hand with reggae at the time.

Here’s one of my personal favorites from an early Lovin’ Spoonful album given an acoustic treatment on The Tarzana Kid with the great Ry Cooder backing John on slide guitar and mandolin.

So despite great talent, strong songs and the very engaging Sebastian, the album bombed. Ironically Sebastian had a surprise #1 hit with “Welcome Back,” the theme song for the hit TV comedy “Welcome Back Kotter” two years later. His label Reprise rushed out an album to cash in on the hit, and for my money it’s nowhere near as good as The Tarzana Kid. The point is, this is a really fine album, if you like well crafted songs played by genuine talents in a manner that feels like you’re all just sitting around the living room having a good time. I’m darn glad I found it, and I’m tickled to be able to tell you about it.

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Souls’ Chapel

Marty Stuart hasn’t had a hit since the early 1990’s, and this is an album of gospel songs, so it’s easy to understand why the album barely scratched into the top 100 on the country charts and produced no singles. It’s a shame because this is one terrific album. First, forget it’s gospel because it’s really rockabilly that could have been cut in Sun Studios in 1956 complete with extra reverb on the simmering guitars.

Marty was born to sing rockabilly, just born too late. Plus his band, the Fabulous Superlatives are aptly named not only for their playing but also for their harmony singing and their turns on lead vocals that Marty generously shares. I’m not a big fan of gospel music typically, but here it’s the emotional grit that gives the band traction. I can’t get the soulful voices and bent strings on songs like “There’s A Rainbow (At The End of Every Storm) out of my mine. These may be songs of praise, but the performances are country fried Rhythm and Blues as well.

My least favorite song on the album is the first, so I suggest you skip over that one and jump right into “Lord, Give Me Just A Little More Time,” a sentiment we probably all embrace.