musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Soul Survivors

It’s not unusual for a veteran recording act to make a comeback after a long spell of not recording any new music, but recently several soul music vets have make stunning returns to form with impressive new albums.

Betty Wright had a monster hit with “Cleanup Woman” back in 1971. “Where is the Love” and “Shoorah! Shoorah!” were two more of several hit singles she had that same decade, and she released the enormously popular Live album in 1978. Recalling all those “oldies”, one would assume Betty Wright is now a gray-haired granny living comfortably in retirement, but she was only 17 years old when she recorded “Cleanup Woman”, and at the relatively young age of 58 she is still going strong. She continued to record albums in the 80s and 90s, many of them critically acclaimed, but due to label issues and the always turbulent changing trends in the music business, Betty Wright pretty much disappeared from the radar of most listeners. I admit to being one of those oblivious listeners — in my case, caught up in the world of “alternative music” — who didn’t realize that she was still recording albums during that period.

Until she resurfaced with a new solo album in late 2011, Betty Wright: The Movie, she had not released any new music in a full decade. But Betty Wright kept busy writing songs, contributing background vocals for other artists, and even doing some production work. With her new album, recorded with The Roots, Betty Wright has reclaimed her position as one of the most dynamic soul divas around. Not having heard any of her 80s or 90s albums, I can’t compare those recordings to this new one, but Betty Wright: The Movie is simply an outstanding album. If I were still compiling Top 10 lists, this album would have easily made my “Best Of” for 2011. Her multi-year absence from recording solo albums has obviously not eroded any of her vocal ability; she still sounds like a house on fire: raw, spunky, vivacious, and most of all … vital. Co-producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots has incorporated some contemporary hip-hop elements into the mix, but it doesn’t dilute the soulfulness and power of these very strong songs. In addition to members of the Roots, other guests popping up during this sprawling collection of songs (78 minutes of music on a single disc) include Lenny Williams, Lil Wayne, Joss Stone, and Snoop Dogg.

Booker T. Jones, the keyboard whiz of Booker T. & the MGs fame, also released a new album, The Road from Memphis, in 2011. Once again, members of the Roots can be found contributing to the musical vibe on the recording. Busy guys! This wasn’t really a comeback album for Booker, though; that distinction goes to Potato Hole, an album he released the previous year. Nominated for a Grammy award, Potato Hole was a rough and funky collection of instrumentals, featuring members of the Drive-By Truckers, and a wayward guitarist by the name of Neil Young. Not the classic Booker T. & the MGs sound, but still mighty fine listening. The Road from Memphis, however, does indeed have more of that classic 60s soul vibe, Booker’s distinctive organ playing propelling the songs to dizzying heights. It’s a scintillating album of strong material, featuring both instrumental and vocal numbers. In addition to those workaholic Roots fellows, Lou Reed, Yim Yames (from My Morning Jacket), and Sharon Jones join the party. Obviously, the musicians here are top notch, but the songs themselves are also a cut above the rest. When Booker himself sings “Down in Memphis” you can close your eyes and picture the streets of the city. It’s such a joy to listen to music this well performed, and so heartfelt.

Speaking of Booker T. & the MGs, the guitarist from that band, Steve Cropper, also released a new album last year, Dedicated. Like Booker’s The Road from Memphis, Cropper’s album is a mix of both instrumental and vocal numbers, and features an array of special guest vocalists. Croppers cast includes Steve Winwood, Lucinda Williams, Delbert McClinton, B.B. King, Bettye LaVette, Dan Penn, and Sharon Jones. What? Nobody from the Roots is on here? They must have been resting that week! If you are wondering about the album title, it is indeed a dedication of sorts; a tribute to the music of the 5 Royales, an influential Memphis band from the 1950s. Cropper was influenced by the band’s guitarist, Lowman Pauling, and the songs on Dedicated are all ones originally performed by the 5 Royales. Once again, an awesome bunch of musicians are gathered for a funky musical feast. It SOUNDS like they are all having a blast, and that’s always a big plus.

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