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Posts tagged ‘Memphis’

The Soul of Johnny Mathis

“Who is that singing?” asked one of my customers last week, referring to a CD that I was playing in the shop at the time.

“Johnny Mathis,” I replied.

“No kidding? I used to listen to him when I was in high school. That was back in South Dakota,” said the man, who added that he’s 76-years-old. “How old is Johnny Mathis now? He must be about ninety!”

Well, not quite. Although Johnny Mathis has seemingly been around forever — he recorded his first song in 1957 — he won’t turn 80 until September next year. It’s reported by the Guinness Book of World Records that Mathis has sold over 350 million records worldwide, ranking him as the third most successful recording artist of the 20th century. While recording legends such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles are at least names known to children born this century, I expect only a miniscule percentage have even heard of Johnny Mathis, much less heard any of his songs.

mathis_essential 

Granted, Johnny Mathis doesn’t possess the “cool factor” of Elvis or the Beatles, but you can’t ignore the fact that he was an outstanding vocalist. Mathis has one of the effortlessly smooth voices that sound good no matter what type of material he is singing. Mathis often gets lumped into the “easy listening” category of vocalists but he’s recorded an impressive and versatile canon of music during his long career, ranging from pop and country to jazz and soul, not to mention copious movie themes and Broadway show tunes.

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The CD that I was playing in my shop was I’m Coming Home, an album recorded in 1973 that represented a “comeback” of sorts for Mathis, who after so much success in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was finding the new decade a more difficult proposition as far as selling records. The album was produced by the legendary Thom Bell, and reflected Bell’s “Philly Soul” background. In the long line of Johnny Mathis albums, this one wasn’t a big seller and tends to get overlooked by many fans, but the lack of sales certainly wasn’t due to lack of quality. The album was chock-full of great tunes, most of the material written by Bell and his partner, Linda Creed, along with a couple of cover tunes. Mathis’s version of “I’m Stone in Love With You” (a big hit for the Stylistics) and “Life is a Song Worth Singing” (a solo hit for Teddy Pendergrass a few years later), along with the scintillating title track rank as some of the best songs that he ever recorded. I’m Coming Home is an album well worth checking out for fans of Mathis and those that enjoy early 1970s soul music.

Meanwhile, here are the other great and groovy CDs that I’ve been listening to repeatedly in recent weeks:

stevemiller_anthology 

Steve Miller Band – Anthology

Nick Heyward – From Monday to Sunday

Charles Earland – In Concert

Various Artists – Super Funk 2

Eddi Reader – Vagabond

 

memphis70 

Various Artists – Memphis 70

Paulo Nutino – Caustic Love

Richard X. Heyman – X

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare

 

bridgewater_redearth 

Dee Dee Bridgewater – Red Earth: A Malian Journey

Daryl Hall & John Oates – Our Kind of Soul

Grant Hart – Good News for Modern Man

Robin Trower – State To State: Live Across America 1974-1980

Tommy Guerrero – A Little Bit of Somethin’

 

ec_wayout 

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Way Out Label

Chicago – Live in Japan

White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade

The Ovations – One in a Million: The XL and Sounds of Memphis Recordings

The Merry-Go-Round – Listen, Listen: The Definite Collection

 

johnnyotis_boogie

Johnny Otis – That’s Your Last Boogie

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

Parliament – The 12-Inch Collection and More

The Voices of East Harlem – Right On Be Free

Churches – The Bones of What You Believe

 

petergreen_splinter

Peter Green – Very Best of Peter Green and the Splinter Group

Eric Clapton & Friends – The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale

Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland

Boogaloo Joe Jones – Legends of Acid Jazz

Joe Henderson – State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard

 

hawley_coles

Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

Various Artists – Hall of Fame Volume 3: More Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults

Low – The Invisible Way

Jimmy Eat World – Damage

Paul Revere & the Raiders – Greatest Hits

 

brenda_tipoftongue

Brenda and the Tabulations – Right on the Tip of My Tongue

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Gordon Lightfoot – A Painter Passing Through

Various Artists – Late Night Tales: Groove Armada

Willie Nile – Places I Have Never Been

 

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Eccentric Soul

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Over the past decade the Numero Group has been reissuing lost or obscure recordings from the 1960s and 1970s as part of their “Eccentric Soul” series. These CDs are a virtual goldmine of rare soul music treasures. Most of fans of Soul and R&B are familiar with the more popular labels that released great music in the 60s and 70s, such as Motown/Tamla, Stax, Atlantic, Chess, and even smaller imprints such as Hi Records, Okeh, Malaco, and Loma. But during this golden era of music there were hundreds of smaller labels scattered around the USA that released music that rivaled the big companies in terms of quality. Many of these regional labels, however, couldn’t get their records publicized due to lack of airplay, distribution limitations, or financial problems. Thankfully, however, the dedicated music addicts at Numero Group are resurrecting these lost jewels.

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One of those regional labels was the South Florida-based Deep City. Numero has released two separate compilations from that label: Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label, and Eccentric Soul: Outskirts of Deep City. Holy Sunshine State, where were they hiding these amazing songs? I grew up in Florida, but had never heard of the Deep City label, or most of the artists on these thrilling compilations. There are a few recognizable names on here, such as Betty Wright and Paul Kelly, but the rest are mainly “no-name” artists who cut a few singles and disappeared for the most part. The material on the first volume comes from 1964-68, and there is a distinct Motown vibe to a lot of the songs on there. The final track, “Darling I’ll Go” by Moovers, even sounds like a classic Four Tops tune. The second volume includes two tunes by Clarence Reid, an underrated artist who later gained fame as a funky and nasty costumed character known as Blowfly. Those antics aside, Reid was a very talented songwriter and the song credits on this compilation offers proof: he wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 20 songs. Most of the songs are culled from the period 1966-1971, along with one tune from 1963.

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The very first compilation I bought in this series was Eccentric Soul: A Red, Black & Green Production. Oh my, I don’t know where to begin in praising this CD. I bought the excellent Father’s Children CD that the Numero Group reissued and was so impressed with that one that I ordered this collection of tunes from RBG (Red, Black & Green) Productions, the people behind the Father’s Children recording. Actually, it’s pretty much one man, Robert Williams, who was the genius behind this stuff. He produced all 19 tracks on this CD compilation, recorded between 1972 and 1975, including the closing track, the dreamy “Linda Movement” by Father’s Children. Everything I love about 70s soul can be found here, from funky, jazzy jams to soulful crooning, and pop bliss. One group, East Coast Connection, has a track called “Summer in the Parks” that is a brilliant tribute/medley to popular tunes by Kool & the Gang, Isaac Hayes, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers.

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Another highlight from Numero is their Eccentric Soul: Prix Label collection. The Prix label was headquartered in Columbus, Ohio and most of these tracks were recorded at Harmonic Sounds studios in Columbus between 1969 and 1973. The CD booklet includes this cool tidbit about some of the demo recordings on this collection: “Nearly 30 years after the label closed its doors, a mysterious box of tapes turned up at an estate sale in Columbus, Originally thought to be the lost Prix masters, it turned out instead to be dozens of demos, rehearsals, and few finished songs recorded during the rime of Harmonic Sounds. The tape boxes were, for the most part, unmarked, presenting a puzzle that would require much time and effort to solve.” Thankfully, the folks at Numero Group DID put in the time and effort to figure out who was singing what and the result is this fabulous CD. As with all Numero Group reissues, you get a very detailed booklet with the history of the label and the recording artists, plus a bunch of very groovy old photos. The booklet also includes a 2011 “Postscript” with additional information on the mysterious origins of Penny & the Quarters, the group that was featured on the soundtrack to the film Blue Valentine.

 nickel&penny

Another of my favorites in this series is Eccentric Soul: The Nickel & Penny Labels. These labels were founded by a guy named Richard Pegue. I’d never heard of him before, but he qualifies as a certifiable musical genius. Pegue was a songwriter, producer, DJ, musician, and the creator of these two labels. Based in Chicago, his labels released some brilliant soul music between 1967 and 1973. But, as the liner notes tell us, most of these singles went out of print only weeks after they were released, and most of these artists never recorded full albums of their own. Pegue wrote 16 of the 24 tracks on this collection, and the quality is very, very high. Some songs just jump out at you, perfect examples of magical soul bliss. Really, if you played these songs for someone and told them that they were long-long tracks from the Motown vaults, they would be lavishing endless praise on this album. But because they were put out on obscure labels in the late 1960s and early 70s, no one seemed to pay much attention at the time, nor is this timeless music getting much publicity even after the 2011 Numero Group reissue.

 twinightlunar

For a double whammy of soul delights, check out Eccentric Soul: Twinight’s Lunar Rotation. The Chicago-based Twinight (and Twilight) label is best known for being the home of soul legend Syl Johnson, who later recorded for Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records label in Memphis. This 2-CD collection highlights the “other” recordings that Twinight put out from 1967-1972. With 40 tracks, there is something for everyone, including a few torrid instrumentals. As for the “Lunar Rotation” part of this album title, the booklet inside this collection explains that this was the late night period on local radio stations when airplay was given to “high school talent show winners, major label cast offs, minor label upgrades, and girlfriends with decent voices … the DJ’s call it lunar rotation, broadcast lingo for radio limbo, all-night airplay for 45s with no chance of making the charts, a nice time for a disc jockey to make good on that fifty dollar handshake.” The booklet goes into detail about the label’s history and the recording acts represented on this CD. There are not any Syl Johnson songs on this compilation, but the essay in the booklet explains his crucial importance to the label, not only as the label’s sole hit-maker, but its foundation. When Syl Johnson left the label in 1972, the label not only lost their main source of income, but it also severed their ability to attract new talent. It’s a shame that the label didn’t enjoy more success. Certainly, the songs on this compilation are good as anything else you’d hear on airwaves at the time.

And those are just a few of the compilations that Numero Group has released thus far. I’m currently listening to Eccentric Soul: The Big Mack Label, and just ordered the newest release in the series, Eccentric Soul: The Forte Label. Based on the excellent track history of what the Numero Group has been releasing, I’m going to be immersed in yet more soul nirvana.

 

Stax Records and the Last Days of Soul

The Memphis-based Stax Records was a powerhouse of a label in the 1960s, ranking only behind the mighty Motown Records in terms of churning out hits on the R&B and Pop charts. But many fans of soul music would argue that Stax was actually miles ahead of Motown in terms of quality, boasting a roster of singers and musicians such as Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG’s, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, Eddie Floyd, Little Milton, and dozens of others.

 nobodywins

But as the decade ended and the 1970s arrived, the hits became fewer and fortunes of Stax declined. However, a compilation of songs on Stax released by the Kent label in 2012, Nobody Wins: Stax Southern Soul 1968-1975, reveals that even though the hits might have dried up, the label was still releasing plenty of great tunes. Because of their legal problems and a dispute with CBS (the label’s very important distributor), by 1975 Stax had a cashflow problem and many of their “name” artists had left the label. According to the liner notes that come with the CD, “To fill the gap in the release schedule members of the back room staff were encouraged to make records.”

Man, what a talented back room staff that must have been! Among those unheralded artists was a guy known as Sir Mack Rice. Rice may not have been a known entity as a recording artist, but he was a very respected songwriter, having penned tunes such as “Mustang Sally” (a monster hit for Wilson Pickett), “Respect Yourself” (which the Staples Singers turned into a hit), and “Cheaper to Keep Her” (one of Johnnie Taylor’s biggest hits). He ended up recording three songs for Stax in late 1974, one of which, “Nobody Wins ‘Til the Game Is Over,” is included on this CD. It’s a gritty, soul shaker with that classic sound you associate with Stax. The liner notes call the song “very much in the Hi (label) sound”, but I actually think the following tune on the CD, “Groovin’ on My Baby’s Love” by Freddie Waters, sounds more like a vintage Hi Records tune, like something in the style of Al Green as produced by Willie Mitchell. Yep, it’s that delicious.

There are plenty of other great songs on this CD, both from “no-name” artists such as Charlene & the Soul Serenaders, Inez Foxx, and Calvin Scott, to veteran acts such as Little Milton, the Soul Children, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, and Mabel John. Another one of my favorite tracks on this collection is “Make a Joyful Noise” by Bettye Crutcher, a sweet soul masterpiece that recalls some of the best “joyful” tunes of the era. Crutcher worked at Stax for many years as a songwriter (in fact, she co-wrote several of the songs on this CD) until she finally got a chance in 1974 to record her own material, resulting in a most pleasing album, Long as You Love Me.  As with all CD compilations from the Kent and Ace team, Nobody Wins: Stax Southern Soul comes with a deluxe booklet that has a history of the label and details about these recordings, along with artist bios and vintage photos. Another “must have” for fans of 60s and 70s southern soul. Meanwhile, here are the other CDs that are keeping me afloat during this rainy month in Bangkok.

 bettyecrutcher

Bettye Crutcher – Long As You Love Me

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Made Up Mind

I See Hawks in L.A. – New Kind of Lonely

Grant Hart – The Argument

Kings of Leon – Mechanical Bull

 diablosdelritmo

Various Artists – Diablos Del Ritmo: Colombian Melting Pot

Michael Fennelly – Love Can Change Everything

Various Artists – Late Night Tales (selected by Midlake)

Gene Clark & Carla Olson – So Rebellious a Lover

Terry Adams & Steve Ferguson – Louisville Sluggers

 salute2buddy

Various Artists – The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons

Propaganda – Secret Wish (25th Anniversary Edition)

Booker T – Sound the Alarm

Michael Chapman – Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967-2010

World Famous Headliners – World Famous Headliners

 altonellis

Alton Ellis – Mr. Soul of Jamaica

Lou Donaldson – Here ‘Tis

Z.Z. Hill – The Brand New Z.Z. Hill

Various Artists – Country Funk 1969-75

Menahan Street Band – Crossing

 bennysoe

Benny Soebardja – Lizard Years

Kenny O’Dell – Beautiful People

Bert Jansch – A Rare Conundrum

James Iha – Let it Come Down

Deerhunter – Monomania

 dangreer

Dan Greer – Beale Street Soul Man

Richard X. Heyman – Actual Sighs

Skatalites – Foundation Ska

Francis Dunnery – Let’s Go Do What Happens

O.M.D. – English Electric

 difford_lasttemp

Chris Difford – The Last Temptation of Chris

Samuel Purdey – Musically Adrift

Angel City – Face to Face

Pete Donnelly – When You Come Home

Woody Shaw – Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard

 freddieroach

Freddie Roach – Good Move!

Local Natives – Hummingbird

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion – Wassaic Way

Lee Morgan – Rumproller

Jeb Loy Nichols – Days Are Mighty

 

Soul Music Legend: George Jackson

gj_fame1

One of the legends of soul music, George Jackson, passed away on Monday this week. If you never heard of George Jackson, that’s not really surprising. He earned most of his fame as a songwriter during his long career in the music business and released only a handful of songs in the 1960s. But many of his old recordings were unearthed and released for the very first time in recent years and reveal that in addition to being an ace songwriter, he was also an outstanding singer and performer.

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Reading online obituaries, it’s not clear how old George Jackson was; Wikipedia and All Music list him as 78, while the New York Times and several other wire services gave his age as 68. However, most sources give his birthdate as 1936, so if that’s the case he’d certainly have been in his late seventies. But what is undisputed is how talented this man was. While he was signed to Fame Records in the 1960s, Jackson only released two singles, but he spent most of time at that label as a songwriter and producer.

 gj_muscleshoals

Whether you realize it or not, if you are over the age of 35 you’ve probably heard some of the songs that George Jackson wrote, most notably “Minnie Skirt Minnie,” “One Bad Apple” (a hit by the Osmonds), “Old Time Rock and Roll” (a huge hit for Bob Seger), and “The Only Way is Up” (a hit for the electro/new wave act Yaz). He also wrote hit songs for Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Z.Z. Hill, Candi Staton, and other artists, most of who recorded for the Fame and Atlantic labels. As a singer, he recorded more than 100 solo tracks for Fame, but strangely, those recordings were never released and sat in the archives for nearly 40 years until they were finally put on various CD compilations by the UK reissue label Ace/Kent.

 gj_memphis

The first release of vintage George Jackson material came in 2009 with In Memphis: 1972-1977, a CD containing 21 tracks, some of which were recorded for the legendary Hi Records label. But, like his 60s output for Fame, these excellent songs also sat on the shelf for several decades. As a music fan, I’m both shocked and saddened that music of this quality went unheard for so many years. But luckily the music junkies at Kent Records realized what a goldmine they had, and continued to release more George Jackson compilations. The second in their series, released in 2011, was Don’t Count Me Out: The Fame Recordings, Volume 1. This collection contained 24 tunes, all of them delicious soul gems. Last year Kent followed that one up with another compilation, Let the Best Man Win: The Fame Recordings, Volume 2. Like the previous set, this one also contained 24 songs rescued from the vaults, every single one of them an expertly crafted soul gem. Honestly, the quality of these recordings is extremely high and the tunes are thrilling. But what elevates them all to a higher level is Jackson’s scintillating vocals and soulful performance. He sounds a bit like Percy Sledge with some Tyrone Davis thrown in the mix; heartfelt southern soul with an irresistible backwoods country vibe. I’m telling you, this guy should be ranked up there with Otis Redding, James Carr, Wilson Pickett, and other great soul vocalists of the era. He was that outstanding. Obviously, he had the rep as a great songwriter, but hearing him sing these songs it’s painfully obvious that he was also a first-rate singer. All the more shameful that these songs were never released and promoted when they were first recorded.

 gj_recent

In addition to those solo collections, a few more George Jackson songs can be found on recently issued compilations such as Hall of Fame: Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults and Lost Soul Gems from Sounds of Memphis, both put together by the fine folks at Kent/Ace. Lost Soul Gems has two wonderful Jackson tunes, one of which is a rough mid-80s demo, just Jackson on piano and singing, an achingly beautiful tune titled “It’s Hard to Say No.” Once again, I find it mind boggling to think that music this special was shelved for so long. Did someone once say that the people running record companies were idiots? Well, here’s the proof.

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For an interesting interview with George Jackson, check out this link:

http://www.soulexpress.net/georgejackson_tribute.htm

Sadly, George Jackson wasn’t the only soul music legend to pass away in recent months. Last month we lost Bobby Smith, one of the main vocalists for the Spinners. He’d been singing with Spinners since their days with Motown in the 1960s, and of course during their hit run with Atlantic in the 70s. In February we lost soul-jazz pioneer Donald Byrd, the unheralded singer-guitarist Lou Bond (check out his self-titled CD that was recently reissued by Light in the Attic, the same label that revived the career of Rodriguez, the singer/star of the “Searching for Sugar Man” documentary), Cecil Womack (brother of Bobby, and member of Womack & Womack with his wife Linda, who was Sam Cooke’s daughter!), two members of the Temptations (Richard Street and Damon Harris), and the oldest sister in the Staple Singlers, Cleotha Staples. Back in January, Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner of the Ohio Players also passed away.

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 donaldbyrd

spinners

Neglected Southern Soul

Here are yet more examples of immensely talented soul singers who have mysteriously remained under the radar for far too many years. In the case of Candi Staton, she actually enjoyed a bit of success with the 1976 hit single “Young Hearts Run Free” (later covered by Rod Stewart, among others) but for most of her recording career she has been ignored by the titans of the music business. Part of that may be by choice — at one point Candi Staton dropped out of the pop world to record gospel music — but there’s no doubt that over the years, her labels dropped the ball in promoting her songs to the masses.

 

A few years back I picked up a copy of The Best of Candi Staton (part of the Warners Archive reissue series) that I found in the sale bin of a shop in Bangkok. That compilation contained “Young Hearts Run Free” along with 14 other tracks, including goodies such as “Six Nights and A Day” and “Victim.” The material on this album runs the gamut from sultry soul to funky disco. This is a strong collection of songs, mostly culled from her mid to late 1970s Warner Brothers period. But recently I bought a new Candi Staton compilation that is even more stunning; Evidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters. Spread out over two CDs are 48 tracks of heartfelt southern soul that she recorded in the 1960s and early 70s, songs positively dripping with love and heartache. In one review I read, her vocals were called “achingly vulnerable,” which I think is a very apt description. To my ears, Candi Staton’s voice sounds as soulful and powerful as that of Aretha Franklin. Really, she’s that damn good. Songs like “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool)” and “You Don’t Love Me No More”, as well as covers of famous tunes like “In the Ghetto” and “Stand By Your Man,” are nothing short of brilliant. If you like Aretha, Etta James, or southern soul in general, you should treat yourself to this CD. This set includes 12 previously unreleased tracks, and they are all strong ones. Another excellent reissue from the folks at Kent.

 

Many of the songs on Evidence were written by George Jackson, a very talented songwriter whose songs were covered by a staggering variety of rock, pop, and soul artists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Jackson also recorded some very fine albums of his own during those years. I recently found a copy of a George Jackson compilation called In Memphis: 1972-77. It was also compiled by Kent Records, so you can trust the quality is top-notch. But the songs themselves are what is worth raving about: 21 tracks of superb southern soul, ranging from smooth ballads to more funky numbers. I hear this album —as well as the Candi Staton compilation — and marvel at how music this amazing could have been ignored for so long. But hey, it’s never too late to discover incredible artists like these. Kent released another George Jackson collection late last year; Don’t Count on Me: the Fame Recordings. I’m already salivating just thinking about getting that one. Can’t get enough of that sweet soul music!

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.

Dan Penn

Do any of these songs sound familiar?

 

“Cry Like a Baby”

“Sweet Inspiration”

You Left the Water Running”

“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”

“The Dark End of the Street.”

“Out of Left Field”

“I’m Your Puppet”

“A Woman Left Lonely”

“It Tears Me Up”

“I Met Her in Church”

“Feed the Flame”

“Good Things Don’t Come Easy”

 

Sure, you know these songs. At least you do if you’re over the age of forty and weren’t raised in an Amish commune. Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, once you listen to the song, you’ll have one of those “Oh, yeah!” moments.

 

These are songs so delicious that they melt in your ears, and all of them were written by the legendary Dan Penn. Once again, you may be stumped by the name, but that’s not surprising. Dan Penn is not a name that is well known to most people, even most die-hard music fans, but the songs that he wrote, and those he penned in collaboration with musician pal Spooner Oldham, rank as some of the finest of the rock and soul era. From Muscle Shoals to Memphis, Dan Penn is songwriting royalty.

Both Penn and Oldham are accomplished musicians, but many of their songs were hits by other artists. The Box Tops scored with “Cry Like a Baby,” The Sweet Inspirations had success with “Sweet Inspiration,” Otis Redding recorded “You Left the Water Running”, Aretha Franklin claimed “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, and James Carr’s signature song was with “The Dark End of the Street.”

 

Penn and Oldham are fine proponents of southern soul, but their songs are so well crafted that they can be covered by country, pop, or rock acts, and always sound like they were written especially for that artist. Many diverse examples of the duo’s songwriting craft can be found on the 24-track compilation Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, released by Ace Records in the UK this past year. This compilation focuses on the duo’s late 1960s output, with artists such as Percy Sledge, Dionne Warwicke, Charlie Rich, Etta James, Solomon Burke, the Box Tops, Tony Joe White, Ronnie Milsap, Patti LaBelle, Irma Thomas, Tommy Roe, and Joe Simon performing a sumptuous bunch of songs. Needless to say, there’s not a dud in the bunch.

For a taste of Penn and Oldham performing their own material, pick up Moments From This Theater, a fabulous recording of small-venue shows that they did in the UK back in the late 1990s. Many of their best-loved hits are included on this single disc, along with little known gems such as “Memphis Women and Chicken.” Penn and Oldham have the crowd enthralled with their heartfelt performance, using only piano and guitar. This is a true musical love-fest.

Dan Penn has recorded only a handful of solo albums but they are all excellent, including 1994’s comeback (his first album in over 20 years) Do Right Man. We already knew he was a great songwriter, but Penn shows off his prowess as a very soulful singer in his own right, performing ace versions of “The Dark End of the Street,” “I’m Your Puppet” and many others. This was an excellent, woefully neglected album that is sadly out of print. If you can find a copy, grab it!

 

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