What I’ve Been Listening To: George Benson/Walking To New Orleans

The other day, I found myself looking at the Billboard Blues Chart, something I rarely do. That’s when I spotted Walking To New Orleans, the latest album by George Benson. While I had known the jazz guitarist had crossed over to other genres like pop, funk and R&B, I had not associated him with the blues. Intrigued by my “discovery,” I looked up the album in my music streaming service and started listening – boy, what a fun and groovy record, which celebrates the music of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry!

Before getting to the album, I’d like to give a bit of background on Benson, who was born in Pittsburgh on March 22, 1943. He started out playing the ukulele as a seven-year-old before he picked up the guitar a year later. At the age of 10, Benson recorded his first single She Makes Me Mad, which appeared on RCA-Victor under the name of Little Georgie. His debut album The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, recorded together with The Brother Jack McDuff Quartet, was released in 1964 when he was 21.

George Benson

In the mid-60s, Benson worked with Miles Davis and appeared as a guest on Davis’ July 1968 studio album Miles In The Sky. Until the mid-70s, Benson recorded a series of albums mainly in the jazz domain. The release of Breezin’ in May 1976 marked his breakthrough into pop and biggest success topping the Billboard 200. Another big mainstream success was Give Me The Night, which appeared in August 1980 and peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard 200. I believe this Quincy Jones-produced record was my introduction to Benson. He has since released numerous additional studio, live and compilation albums.

Walking To New Orleans, which came out last month, is Benson’s 45th album and his first new recording since Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole from June 2013. “I’m a great appreciator of the music made by both of those guys,” Benson explained. “Chuck Berry was a great showman and a great musician, and Fats Domino cut nothing but hit after hit after hit.” With that said, let’s get to some music!

The Chuck Berry tune Nadine (It’s You) makes for a great opener. Berry released it as a single in February 1964. I dig the honky tonk piano and the horns, which like on many other tracks on the album give the song a great groove.

Rockin’ Chair is one of the five Fats Domino songs on the record. Co-written by Domino and Alvin E Young, it appeared as a single in 1951 – another great tune that makes you want to move and snip your fingers.

Next up: Chuck Berry classic You Can’t Catch Me. Written by Berry, the tune appeared as a single in 1956. It was also included on Rock! Rock! Rock!, a soundtrack album for a motion picture of the same name.

The last track I like to highlight is the album’s great title song, another Fats Domino tune. Written by Bobby Charles, Domino released it in June 1960 as a single. Featuring Domino’s signature rock & roll piano style, the song also appeared on his album …A Lot Of Dominos! that came out the same year.

The album was recorded in Nashville and produced by Kevin Shirley, a.k.a. “The Caveman.” Shirley has worked with many artists, such as Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Rush and Led Zeppelin. Backing up Benson is a quartet of excellent Nashville musicians, including Greg Morrow (drums, music director), Rob McNelley (guitar), Kevin McKendree (piano) and Alison Prestwood (bass).

“We did have us a ball making this record,” Benson summed up. It’s exactly that sentiment that is evident throughout the album and makes it such a fun listening experience. I think it may also encourage me to pay closer attention to the Billboard Blues Chart going forward.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, George Benson website, YouTube

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Southern Avenue Keep On Delivering Distinct Blend of Powerful Soul, Blues And R&B On New Album

Southern Avenue perhaps couldn’t have chosen a better title for their sophomore album. Released yesterday, Keep On continues to effectively draw from different musical backgrounds of the band’s members. Southern Avenue skillfully blend Stax-style soul with blues, R&B, gospel, funk and rock. The result is powerful music combining familiar with new influences and a sound that has noticeably matured and become more distinct since the band’s eponymous debut from February 2017.

The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn. has been on my radar screen since I listened to the first album about two years ago. I also witnessed what a great live act Southern Avenue are when I saw them in New York City last August. At the time, I briefly chatted with guitarist Ori Naftaly, who mentioned their new album. My anticipation grew further with the release of the lead single Whiskey Love in early April, followed by the appearance of the second single Savior.

For brief background, Southern Avenue were founded in 2015 when Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly met Memphis vocalist Tierini Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson, drummer and backing vocalist. Jeremy Powell on keyboards rounds out the band’s core line-up. Bassist Gage Markey has been a touring member for the past couple of years and also plays on the new record. Southern Avenue took their name from a street that runs from East Memphis to “Soulsville,” the original home of Stax Records. While that’s a clear nod to the band’s admiration for the legendary soul label, they are not a Stax revival act.

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierini Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

Keep On features some impressive guests. In this context, I first would like to mention the great horn section comprised of saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpet player Mark Franklin. They are an important factor for the above noted more mature sound. Edmaiston has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, while Franklin  has supported sessions for the likes of Aretha FranklinB.B. KingSolomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Another prominent guest is William Bell, who is perhaps best known for co-writing Born Under a Bad Sign with Booker T. Jones. The tune was first recorded by Albert King in 1967 and popularized by Cream the following year.

Alright, I think it’s time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track. Co-written by Ori Naftaly, Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black, the tune is a nice example of how Southern Avenue blend different genres. Naftaly clearly is a blues guitarist at heart and I can hear some Cream in his cool riff. The horns add a dose of soul while Jackson’s strong vocals throw in some R&B.

Since I previously wrote about the first two singles Whiskey Love and Savior, I’m skipping these great tracks here and jump to the nice funky Switchup. Like the title track, the song is co-credited to Naftaly, Jackson and Black.

Next up: Lucky. Co-written by Naftaly and Jackson, this song has a beautiful retro Stax vibe to it. But, as if to emphasize that Southern Avenue don’t want to be a retro Memphis soul band, Naftaly throws in a fairly rock-oriented guitar solo.

Another great number is Jive, a co-write by Naftaly, Black and both Jackson sisters. I dig the tune’s driving beat, which makes you want to get up and dance. The horns and the backing vocals set great accents.

On the upbeat We’ve Got The MusicWilliam Bell joins Tierini Jackson on vocals. Bell also shares writing credits with Naftaly and her. I like the song’s message about the power of music and how it can bridge differences among people: If you don’t look like me/If you don’t talk like me, that’s alright/We’ve got the music/If you don’t know my face/But you’re feeling the sound, it’s okay/We’ve got the music…

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer We’re Gonna Make It. I think music publication No Depression nicely described the tune in their review of Keep On. “This gospel-inflected song opens with a nod to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and builds a message of love, persistence, and encouragement layer-by-layer. The song takes up where the Staple Singers left off, carrying the torch of hope in a world of darkness and giving us a new anthem for these times.”

“Making this album was an interesting journey,” Ori explained. “Our first album was recorded very fast and released very fast. With this one, we spent a long time planning, and we knew how we wanted it sound. For me, it’s a big progression from the first album.” Added Tierini: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

One of the cool things about Keep On is that the album was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording. The studio was opened in Memphis in 1960 by no one other than legendary Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips, who worked with artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. Wow, one can only imagine what it must have felt like for this young band to record in that studio – the thought of it gives me goosebumps!

Southern Avenue In Concert

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” stated producer Johnny Black. “Even in their selection of studios; by picking Sam Phillips Recording, the band, in essence, forced themselves to record within the same parameters as some of their heroes. And while that process may have taken extra time, it was well worth the effort.” In my humble opinion, I think Black is spot on.

Southern Avenue currently is where they seem to be most of the time – on the road. Their tour schedule is packed between now and mid-November and mostly includes U.S. dates. From late May to mid-June, the band is also playing a series of shows in Europe. I have no doubt Southern Avenue will keep on wowing audiences with their performances that are passionate, authentic and humble at the same time. As a communications professional, I also have to commend the band for their effective use of Facebook to build their fan base. I’m planning to catch them again on July 11 during Jams on the Sand, a free outdoor event in Asbury Park, N.J.

Sources: Wikipedia, Southern Avenue website, William Bell website, No Depression, YouTube

Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

James Jamerson 2

During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/No Time To Lose

I’ve written about Southern Avenue before, for example here. Together with Greta Van Fleet, this five-piece funky blues, R&B and soul band from Memphis, Tenn. is one of the very few younger contemporary music acts I’m truly excited about. I had a chance to briefly chat with guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson at a gig in New York last August, and apart from being talented artists, they are such nice and regular people – not necessarily a given in the music world, especially for a band that appears to be received enthusiastically wherever they perform. These guys are keeping it real!

Co-written by Jackson and Naftaly, No Time To Lose is included on Southern Southern’s eponymous debut album that appeared in February 2017 on Stax Records – yep, that Stax where the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave released their music. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book. I also think this tune rocks: great guitar riff and superb singing. The sound of the keys played by Jeremy Powell is right up my alley as well. Tierinii’s sister Tikyra Jackson on drums completes the band’s core lineup. Bassist Gage Markey is a touring member.

Speaking of touring, Southern Avenue seems to be on the road most of the time. They’re playing in many parts of the U.S. and occasionally even oversees. You can check out their current schedule on their Facebook page here. They are also scheduled to release their sophomore album later this year.

Sources: Southern Avenue website and Facebook page, YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Commitments/Mustang Sally

Friday night, I watched The Commitments in a charming little theater close to Princeton, N.J.,  where they featured the Irish musical comedy in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. It must have been the third or fourth time I saw the picture about a lad putting together a soul band of working class youngsters on the northside of Dublin. Apart from being pretty hilarious, the movie features great Stax-like soul music. One of my favorites is Mustang Sally.

While the tune is most closely associated with Wilson Pickett, who released it in 1966 and scored a hit, it was actually first recorded the previous year by Stax fellow artist Bonny “Mack” Rice, who also penned the song. Apart from Mustang Sally, Rice is best known for co-writing Respect Yourself with Luther Ingram. I like both the original and Pickett’s cover of Mustang Sally but have to say the added pep in the version by The Commitments kicks it up a notch for me.

Andrew Strong, who plays the band’s obnoxious lead vocalist Deco Cuffe, just has a fantastic raspy soulful voice. According to Wikipedia, all other band members acting in the movie were actually performing as well and selected because of their musical talents. The only exception was saxophonist Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan (gotta love that name) played by Johnny Murphy.

At the end of the day, whoever was playing what you hear in the picture or on the soundtrack did a phenomenal job. Apparently, there is a still-active touring version of the band called Stars From The Commitments featuring various members from the movie’s cast.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Happy St. Paddy’s Day Weekend!

With S. Paddy’s Day weekend being underway, it felt right to post this clip of Fisherman’s Blues by British-Irish folk rockers The Waterboys. Apparently, the footage was captured during a 2007 gig in Germany as part of the long-running TV music show Rockpalast.

Co-written by founding member Mike Scott (vocals, guitar, piano) and Steve Wickham (fiddle, mandolin), who joined The Waterboys in 1985, Fisherman’s Blues is the title track of the band’s fourth studio album released in October 1988. Scott and Wickham continue to be part of the present line-up, which has seen many changes since the band was formed in 1983.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: The Jersey Angels/Roots

For those who are old enough to remember, first, there were Charlie’s Angels, now there are The Jersey Angels. While Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith became well-known actresses, I don’t believe their talents included singing. And if they did, I doubt it was anywhere as close as the angelic harmony singing of The Jersey Angels, a pop-oriented country duo I saw Friday night when they performed backing vocals for an excellent Neil Young tribute band.

According to their website, The Jersey Angels are Annie and Gianna. Both grew up in the Garden State and are childhood friends. They got together in 2015 and have performed live since November that year. In addition to their impressive vocals, each is also a musician. Annie is playing the violin while Gianna is a guitarist. As a (mostly former) hobby guitarist and bassist, that’s something I like. The ladies also write their own songs. And, as Annie confirmed to me, they’re doing all of this while having “full-time jobs and tons of other obligations.”

annie & gianna
The Jersey Angels (from left): Annie & Gianna

Roots is The Jersey Angels’ debut album, which appeared in March 2018. Frequent visitors of the blog may be surprised that I’m writing about a country duo when my core wheelhouse is ’60s and ’70s classic rock and blues. While that hasn’t changed, my music taste is more eclectic than it may seem. At the end of the day, what I truly care about is whether music speaks to me, not the genre. And these two ladies simply sound great to me! Time for some music.

Let’s kick it off with the opener Hick At Heart.

Next up: The album’s title track.

Appropriately, the record also has a tune called Jersey Girls. And why not? After all, Tom Waits wrote a song about a Jersey Girl in 1980, though his delivery was slightly less angelic. And let’s not forget about another music artist from the Garden State, who did a great cover of that song. His name? Of course, you probably already knew: Bruce Springsteen.

The last tune I’d like to call out is a beautiful picker-upper called Albatross.

Roots is available on Amazon and iTunes. As I was listening to the album, I could picture Cheryl Crow singing some of the songs. And, call me crazy, the combination of acoustic guitar and violin also reminded me a bit of John Mellencamp, though similar to Tom Waits it would be a quite a different vocal sound.

Sources: The Jersey Girls website, YouTube