Etta James Sings “Tell Mama”

Listen to this song by much-missed R&B stylist, and elementally gifted vocalist Etta James. It’s “Tell Mama”, a broiling example of full-on soul-power, charged with the fire of the blues, as taken from the album of the same name, Tell Mama, from 1968.

The record and song was something of a comeback for James, who first broke out in 1960 after  some minor dents in the R&B charts previously. She had become sidelined by the middle of the decade by a series of personal problems, including a growing heroin habit. Her addiction to drugs would continue to be a personal millstone around her neck for many years.

Yet, the sheer power of her voice, and the uniqueness of the same, would remain undiminished. And this tune is my favourite of her songs, which is really saying something given the quality of her output.

The comeback itself was successful, with this song being top 10 on the  R&B charts, and with the album being her first for almost half a decade to hit the Billboard 200. This tune would become something of a signiture hit, along with “At Last”, her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, and another cut off of the same LP – “I’d Rather Go Blind”.

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The Persuaders Sing “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”

Listen to this track by million-selling New York soul vocalists the Persuaders. It’s their signature single and their biggest hit to date from 1971, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”. Here is a classic tale of neglect, seeming acceptance, pent up anger, and one of the best lyrical payoffs in the history of soul music.

Pop music is full of stories of how love can go wrong, and how lovers can become callous, taking each other for granted. Many more are about the scorned woman, the one waiting at home while their men are out “doin’ the camel walk”.

But, with this song, the emotional landscapes are not quite that easily defined. We have the man who is out on the town at all hours, and his seemingly patient and selfless other half waiting at home for him, even at 5 O’clock in the morning, ready to fix him something to eat, unfazed by his absence up until then.

Who could predict how the story would end up from here? And, what else does this song reveal?

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Sam & Dave Perform “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me”

Sam & Dave You Don't Know What You Mean To MeListen to this track by two-in-one soulmen and Stax/Atlantic “double dynamite” recording giants Sam & Dave (Sam Moore, and Dave Prater, that is). It’s “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me”, as co-written by Eddie Floyd (who is name-checked in this version) and Stax house band Booker T & The MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. The song appears on the duo’s 1968 album I Thank You, their first, and last, LP on the Atlantic label.

After being signed to Atlantic in 1964,  it was decided that to keep their gritty, Southern soul sound, they would do well to work with Jim Stewart, founder of Stax records based in Memphis, a label that Atlantic served as a distributor. They would also  work with writing team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who penned most of their hits even after they were once again released on Atlantic.

This song, “You Don’t Know What You Mean To Me”, would be among the last top twenty hits Sam & Dave would enjoy on the last album of their career together that enjoyed top forty chart placement before their first split by the early ’70s. What would cause the well to run dry, after such a fantastic run of singles, including this one, known to be a favourite of the duo themselves?

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The Staple Singers Sing “When Will We Be Paid”

Listen to this track featuring the first family of gospel/R&B message music, the Staple Singers. It’s “When Will We Be Paid”, a key track off of 1970’s We’ll Get Over, and later to be featured in the film Soul to Soul, a documentary and concert film shot in Ghana the next year, and featuring the Staples along with Santana, Ike & Tina Turner, Booker T. & the MGs, Wilson Pickett, and others.

The song itself is something of a civil rights anthem, a history of what black people have contributed to the course of American culture and history. They were taken from their homes in West Africa, taken to the colonies as slaves and later as cheap labour to fuel the industries of a burgeoning super-power, and yet were given no credit for that country’s success.

The performance of “When Will We Be Paid” in Ghana was something of a cultural homecoming of sorts, stylistically speaking. Yet in many ways it’s a pretty universal story of struggles against oppression and exploitation in general. Read more

Bill Withers Sings “Use Me”

Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-soulman extraordinaire Bill Withers. It’s “Use Me”, a story of dysfunctional, one-sided, and yet sexually charged love as it appears on Withers’ 1972 album Still Bill, his second album. That album also features another big hit, “Lean On Me”, which is arguably more celebrated as one of the most life-affirming songs ever written.

But, “Use Me” is the photo opposite; a story of darkness, lust, and that even features a bona fide family intervention. That’s pop music all over, with one song on a record exploring the enlightened side to the human experience, while another is better understood in the dark, shadowy corners of human impulse. Read more

Interview With Eli Paperboy Reed, Feat. His New Single ‘Come and Get It’

Here’s a clip of Boston-bred soulman and 21st century rhythm & blues daddy Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed along with his band the True Loves.  It’s ‘Come and Get It’, the lead single of off his newest record of the same name, Come and Get It.   This is Reed’s third collection of songs that hearken back to the classic soul period, evoking the spirits of Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown, with a dash of the Chi-lites and Solomon Burke, too.

While he and the band continued their extensive tour of Europe, and after I was sent a copy of the new record, I asked Eli about this single, about the release of his first album on a major label, about his love of records and record collecting, and about the rich traditions of an American art form; sweet soul music!

Here’s that interview.

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The Delete BinThe newest record Come and Get It is your third album, yet it’s your first on a major label (EMI-Parlophone).  How did being on a major affect the way you’ve approached making and touring the record?

Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed: It didn’t really change much of the way I thought about approaching the record-making process but it was great to be able to record the whole thing all in one go and to be able to get all the musicians I wanted. Really it was just having the budget to do what we needed to do and having the support to release in so many countries. That was a huge deal, having all the different offices in different territories, it’s allowed us to really go everywhere and get exposure because of it.

DB: This new single,  “Come and Get It”, the title track off of the new record sounds like a classic from Stax/Voltz and Atlantic, an AM radio hit.  But, I get the impression it, and other songs like “Time Will Tell” and “Name Callin'” for instance, could have been written and performed as country songs.  What do you think the connection is between these strains of  American music?

EPR:  Well for starters, “Come and Get It” sounds way more like Brunswick Records or Twinight in Chicago than it does Stax or Atlantic but that’s neither here nor there. Country music and R&B have always gone hand in hand and I grew up listening to so much Country that’s really naturally informed my writing and style. The turn of phrase in “Name Calling” is actually sort of quintessentially 90s country wordplay. They did that kind of stuff all the time.

I’ve been really embracing my 90s country upbringing lately and I think people like Don Schlitz, Paul Overstreet, Alan Jackson and a million others writing that stuff were amazing writers who had knowledge of so much music. It’s all about southern stuff really; country, r&b, gospel, blues.  It all fits together.

DB: You gained an interest in rhythm & blues initially because of records your dad had in his collection.  These days with the Internet and all of the choice that it offers, do you think it’s easier or more difficult for kids to find classic soul music like you did?

EPR:  It’s actually both easier and more difficult. You have to know what you’re looking for and that’s the tough thing. Having a father with a great record collection or a great local record store means you can just browse and find stuff that has cool covers and buy it or put it on the turntable. I would just pull stuff out and be like “I don’t know what this is all about” and half the time it would be good.

I still buy records that way, especially 45s. If the label looks good and it’s got a good title, chances are it’s a great record. I think people just gotta seek stuff out that they don’t know. There are great music blogs that people can go to but for the most part nothing can replace looking through the racks and the stacks.

DB: You’re from the Boston area.  When you were seeking out live R&B music as a growing musician and writer, was there a local scene doing the strain of music you’re currently doing near to where you grew up?

EPR:  I went to some shows and things with my Dad but for the most part I was in a vacuum, listening to records on the living room floor. As I got to be older in high school I went to see shows but not really R&B. When I came back to Boston, though after Chicago I started playing in all these little churches and that really opened my eyes to that kind of music in Boston. I sang in this Gospel Quartet in Boston, the Silver Leaf singers, I was the only member under 65 and also the only instrumentalist they ever had. I played acoustic guitar and sang the high tenor parts and they even let me take some leads. It was amazing.

We sang at the funeral of one of the oldest members who I got along well with because he was from Mississippi and we knew alot of the same places. It was heavy. At the same time I started finding R&B and Gospel records that came out in Boston in the 60s like “Young Girl” and I started going to Skippy White’s record store all the time and talking to him about the records he released. By the time I moved to New York I had found almost every record he put out on all of his labels. He had Silver Cross for Gospel, WILD and Bluestown for R&B.

DB: Having been a singer and instrumentalist in a gospel church while you were going to school in Chicago as you mentioned, but also spending time in Clarksdale Mississippi in juke joints , how did the contrast of these experiences inform your music and performance style?

EPR:  Well how long have you got? That’s a tough question to answer in a short amount of time. I guess it’s sufficient to say it really shaped everything that I do. I learned about performing and keeping a crowd in Clarksdale and I learned to be tough and thick-skinned. In the churches I learned that as a performer it’s not about you. It’s about the audience you’re playing for. You have to do everything you can for them.  In Church, if they get the spirit, you stop when they’re done, not when you feel like stopping.

DB: Your popularity as a live act is undeniable, especially in places like the UK and continental Europe where you’ve spent a lot of time building a loyal following.  How do European audiences  appreciate soul music and rhythm & blues compared to audiences in the States and Canada?

EPR: I really don’t think there’s much of a difference in the actual audience, but clearly people in the UK and Europe are a little bit more scholarly about their appreciation of American music. When it comes to playing shows though, it doesn’t make a difference where you are.  A good audience is a good audience.

DB: Your influences can be detected  and attached to certain clearly defined musical traditions, yet you clearly have an artistic voice of your own.  How have you managed to avoid the temptation to simply take up the characteristics of a style, rather than find that voice?

EPR:  Listening.

I spent thousands of hours listening and taking things in and learning them. That’s how you ingrain things in your mind and let it come out as your own. If you don’t know the music you love (and why you love it) like the back of your hand, there’s no way you can come up with something new that’s based on that. Everybody needs to spend more time just listening to music, I think that’s probably the biggest problem with most singers these days.

DB:  Your first record Sings Walkin’ and Talkin’ and Other Smash Hits!, which was released independently.  Any chance of a re-issue?

EPR: I hope so, man. I’d love to put it out on vinyl. I might wait a little while longer until the price hits $100 on ebay though!

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What a thrill to get to interview Eli!  As you can see, he was extremely generous with his time, as reflected here.  Thanks, Eli!

You can check out music, tour information, buy the new record from the official Eli Paperboy Reed site.

Also, you can follow Eli Paperboy Reed on Twitter for real-time updates from the man himself.

And be sure and check out the Eli Paperboy Reed Facebook Page, too.

Enjoy!

Nina Simone Sings George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’

ninasimoneherecomesthesunListen to this song by the High Priestess of Soul herself.  It’s a cover version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” by the incomparable Nina Simone as taken from her LP of the same name, 1971’s  Here Comes the Sun.  Today is Harrison’s birthday. He would have been 67 had he not succumbed to lung cancer in 2001  But, he left behind this song, certainly one of my favourites of all time.

Toward the end of the 60s, there was a lot of pressure on jazz vocalists to become more contemporary, to catch up with the times. Some were less successful with the critics than others on this score.  For instance, Ella Fitzgerald’s take on Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ was jarring to both rock critics and, certainly, jazz critics too.  Rock and pop music as approached by jazz musicians at the time were often odd bedfellows.

 

But listen to Simone’s lightness of touch here. The great thing about her take on this is that she barely touches the ground vocally. It’s a pop record, but Simone’s jazz influences make this really special, and not only because of her crystalline and intricate piano lines.  It’s her voice, a sandpapery whisper, effortless, and using the words to the song like an angel uses a skyful of clouds, leaping from one to another, light as air.   Also, the arrangement is lush, with backing vocalists and strings drifting in and out. But where this might have been overblown in the hands of another artist, somehow this song is spacious as well as being lush. Magic.

And getting back to the stylistic chasm between the immediacy of rock music and the improvisational landscapes presented by jazz, I think what a jazz approach brings to pop songs originally written in a rock vein like this one is the power of subtlety, of interpretation.  If immediacy is the province of the rock songwriter, than the intricacies to be found in between, the aural treasures that are waiting to be found, are what artists of Simone’s calibre bring outside of the rock idiom.

That touch of sadness, the blueish tones to be found in the golden warmth and sunshiny glow of Harrison’s original is what really makes this special for me. Where Harrison’s tune is about a sudden feeling of freedom (and playing hooky from Apple Corp, while hanging out in friend Eric Clapton’s garden), Simone’s version is the sound of someone emerging from a real trial, a sorely dark time, with the first rays of hope finally being seen.

And no matter what motivated Simone’s interpretation, whether deliberate or entirely visceral, she delivers a facet of this song that brings out just how great a songwriter Harrison was while she’s doing it. And that is the mark of a first tier artist in any stylistic field.

For more information about  Nina Simone, check out the Nina Simone Official Website.

Enjoy!

Allen Toussaint Sings ‘Sweet Touch of Love’

Listen to this track by a member of New Orleans royalty,  singer, songwriter, producer, piano player, arranger, and all-around cool customer Allen Toussaint.  It’s ‘Sweet Touch of Love’, a supremely joyous slice of funky R&B from Down South as taken from his 1970 sophomore LP From A Whisper to A Scream. You might recognize this song from the recent Axe deodorant TV commercial.

Before putting out albums under his own name, Toussaint was a mover and shaker in the crafting of the New Orleans soul sound  starting in the 1960s, with hits by Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, The Neville Brothers, and Lee Dorsey, among many others.  Among many others, his song ‘Fortune Teller’, was widely covered by non-New Orleans acts from the Rolling Stones, to the Who,  to Robert Plant & Alison Krauss.  He also wrote ‘Pain in My Heart’ under his pen name Naomi Neville, a tune made famous by Otis Redding.

Toussaint was a force to be reckoned with as a writer, but also as a bandleader.  He surrounded himself with players like Mac Rebennack (AKA Dr. John), and singers Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields, both of whom were to become highly sought after as backing singers to rock bands.  Allen Toussaint himself would work with the Band on their live Rock of Ages shows, arranging the horn parts that make that recording such a standout.

His work with the Meters was instrumental in the development of New Orleans funk.  Writing of crossover hit ‘Southern Nights’, a big success for Glen Campbell by the mid-70s, and producing Patti Labelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ around the same time showed Toussaint’s range, and really underscores his understanding of how various traditions in American music often are best showcased when they intertwine.

This is really only a fraction of Toussaint’s activities.  You might think that he wouldn’t have time for a solo career.  Yet, listening to this track which just bounces with sexiness and positivity, you can tell he focused all of his considerable skills on it.  Toussaint’s lead vocal is as cool as a cucumber, with his barrelhouse piano providing a second voice in counterpoint.  And I love the backing vocals that root this tune into a gospel tradition, even as the rhythm section funks it up into a frenzy, and brings a wonderful stylistic tension to it.

Toussaint’s influence would go beyond his own mastery of R&B, pop, and funk, when his material began to be sampled by the 90s.  His link to New Orleans is indisputable both musically, and as a member of the community.   When the area was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Toussaint weathered the storm while still in the city, leaving for New York City and settling there, only until his house is rebuilt. Apparently, it takes more than a deadly weather system to break Toussaint, a musical and cultural force of nature if there ever was one.

For more information, check out AllenTousaint.com

Enjoy!

Curtis Mayfield Sings ‘Future Shock’

curtis_mayfield_-_back_to_the_world_album_coverListen to this track by funk-soul voice of conscience Curtis Mayfield.  It’s ‘Future Shock’ as taken from his 1973 album Back to the World . This is a song that muses on the state of the present world, characterized by poverty, inequality, and hopelessness, and how it will impact the coming world for future generations. It is another poignant, and extremely funky, wake-up call from a voice of one generation to the next.

Curtis Mayfield is regarded as something of a visionary, not only as a musician and a songwriter, but as a figure in soul music that took the genre itself to another level.  Mayfield’s political motivations are the fuel to much of his music, starting from his anthem ‘People Get Ready’ with his group the Impressions.  That song took a gospel convention of deliverance from the world into the next, and made it more worldly, where deliverance is still hoped for, but rooted in the here and now in this world.

Mayfield was a writer of conscience, clearly interested in being a voice of his community, and even those outside of it.  Yet, he was a musician interested in putting across an appealing sound, and solid songwriting as well.  He follows the instrumental template of the Superfly Soundtrack, his most recognized achievement, pretty tightly here.  But, there’s no harm in that, seeing as it had become a distinctive sound for him, with funk-soul grooves contrasted so adroitly with an orchestral string arrangement.  And as also per his approach, Mayfield aims his socially conscious eye to the thread of history, and to the plight of a generation, and the one to follow.

This is what this track is all about. Concerns for the rapidly changing world and the relative cultural unpreparedness to support that change was a reflection of socio-political sentiment of the time, reflected in turn in Mayfield’s work.  Even in academic circles, these ideas were being expressed in Alvin Toffler’s book of the same name, Future Shock released a few years before the release of this song.  The state of the world is no different today, with drugs in inner cities, and now in suburbs too, along with seemingly endless conflicts abroad that present young men and  women as fodder for war machines.

Even if Mayfield’s wah-wah guitar and funk-soul textures are decidedly, and wonderfully, rooted in the sounds of the early 70s, the problems which he is singing about certainly are not.  We have a new year and decade before us.  Maybe this will be the year that technological innovation and social consciousness are brought to the same level, when the types of solutions that technology presents, and the minds behind those innovations, can be applied to making our world a better place.

Happy New Year!

For more information about Curtis Mayfield, and for more music too, check out curtismayfield.com.

Enjoy!

Ray Charles Sings ‘That Lucky Old Sun’

ingredients_in_a_recipe_for_soulListen to this song by the Leonardo DaVinci of R&B, and one of the prime movers in the invention and development of popular music as a whole, Ray Charles.  It’s his version of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, popularly recorded by Frankie Laine in 1949, and covered by a great many artists since then ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis, to Aretha Franklin, to Frank Sinatra, to Brian Wilson.  It may be one of the most heartfelt versions of one of the most heartfelt songs ever recorded. Ray’s version appears on his 1963 album Ingredients in a Recipe For Soul.

The first time I heard it was on the soundtrack of the film Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. The song itself is something of a throwback to the days of toil in the cotton fields, in the film being a great contrast to the more militant and politicized nature of where many in the black community were at by the 1960s. Yet, in some ways, that only because of the colloquial language used in the lyrics.  I personally find that the lyrics hit on quite a universal theme of existential alienation.  Wow, that sounds weighty.

But the subject matter is weighty, with the troubles and toils of the common man seeming to be irrelevant or ignored by the rest of the cosmos, which seems to have been set running like clockwork; no compassion, no purpose, and no reason for anyone to think that the sun ‘rolling around heaven all day’ means very much beyond the action itself.   I think what strikes me about Ray Charles’ version most, is the sound of utter disappointment which he expertly infuses in his voice.  It’s the sound of someone who desparately wants to believe that the universe has a greater purpose beyond its function, yet is coming to conclude that such a hope may be a vain one.

Pop music hits on all kinds of emotions and spiritual states.  Where it is easy to sing about the meaninglessness of the world, its not as easy to capture the emotional core of that, and to bring that across so well.  If you’re wondering why they called Ray Charles the Genius, then this is a great place to start.

Enjoy!