My Favorite Female Vocalists

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of vocals. Oftentimes, this becomes clear to me when listening to instrumental music. After a while, something seems to be missing. So I thought it would be fun to think about my favorite vocalists and feature some of them in a post. And since much of the blog is focused on male artists, I decided to keep the list to females. While I can’t deny a certain bias for artists I generally dig for their music, this selection first and foremost is based on vocal ability that grabs me. And with that let’s roll.

I’d like to kick things off with Annie Lennox, who of course is best known for Eurythmics, her pop duo with Dave Stewart, which became a powerhouse during the ’80s. Following Eurythmics’ hiatus in 1990, Lennox launched a solo career. Here’s Why, a beautiful tune that nicely showcases her amazing voice. She wrote this song for her solo debut album Diva released in April 1992.

Alicia Keys is an artist I rarely listen to, but every time I do what typically stands out to me is her vocal performance. One of her most compelling songs I know in this context is called Fallin’. Written by Keys, it was included on her debut record Songs in A Minor from June 2001. Listening to this tune gives me goosebumps!

Carole King needs no further introduction. I’ve been a fan from the first time I heard her 1971 album Tapestry. Since my sister who had this record on vinyl was a young teenager then, I must have been eight years old or so. I didn’t understand a word of English. But King’s beautiful music and voice were more than enough to immediately attract me. From Tapestry here is Way Over Yonder.

Next, I’d like to highlight an artist I bet most readers don’t know, though frequent visitors of the blog may recall the name of the band she’s in: Tierinii Jackson, the powerful lead vocalist of Southern Avenue. This contemporary band from Memphis, Tenn. blends traditional blues and soul with modern R&B. I’ve covered them on various previous occasions, most recently here in connection with a concert I saw. That lady’s voice is something else, especially live! Check out Don’t Give Up, a great tune co-written by Jackson and Southern Avenue guitarist Ori Naftaly. It’s from their eponymous debut album that came out in February 2017.

Another artist I dig both as a guitarist and a vocalist is Bonnie Raitt. In fact, I have to admit, I’ve really come to love her over the years, so there could be a bit of bias at play. But I don’t care what you may think, Raitt does have a great voice. One of my favorite songs she recorded is Angel from Montgomery written by John Prine. It appeared on Raitt’s fourth studio album Streetlights from September 1974.

Perhaps the artist with the most distinctive voice in this playlist is Stevie Nicks. No other vocalist I know sounds like her. The first tune that came to mind was Landslide, a timeless gem she wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac on their second eponymous studio album released in July 1975, the tenth overall in their long catalog.

An artist who to me was both an amazing performer and a great vocalist is Tina Turner – I say was, since she retired from performing in 2009. I was going to feature a song from her 1984 Private Dancer album, but then I thought what could possibly be better than her killer version of John Fogerty’s Proud Mary. Her initial recording is from 1971 as part of Ike & Tina Turner. Instead, I decided to select this clip capturing an amazing and extended live performance. I’ve been fortunate to see Tina Turner twice, including this tune. It was mind-boggling! Every now and then, she liked to do things nice and easy. But somehow she never ever seemed to do nothing completely nice and easy. Why? Because she liked to do it nice and rough. Go, Tina!

No list of my favorite female vocalists would be complete without Linda Ronstadt. Here is her beautiful cover of When Will I Be Loved. Written by Phil Everly, this great tune was first released by The Everly Brothers in May 1960, giving them a top 10 hit. Ronstadt’s version, which was included on her fifth solo album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974, became even more successful, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s not hard to see why!

The next artist in this playlist may be the biggest surprise, at least for folks who have read previous posts: Christina Aguilera. Yep, an artist I have never covered, since I generally don’t listen to her music. But I think she’s one of the best female vocalists I know. Beautiful is a powerful ballad written by Linda Perry, the former lead vocalist of 4 Non Blondes, who has a pretty decent voice herself. Aguilera recorded the track for her fourth studio album Stripped that appeared in October 2002. To me, singing doesn’t get much better!

This brings me to the final artist I’d like to highlight – Aretha Franklin. No playlist of female vocalists would be complete without the Queen of Soul either! In addition to being a songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist, Franklin was an incredible singer. Here’s her cover of the beautiful Sam Cooke song A Change Is Gonna Come from her 10th studio album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, released in March 1967. I was reminded of this great record by hotfox63, who covered it the other day.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T. Jones/Sound The Alarm

I dig the distinct sound of the Hammond B3 – just can’t get of enough it! Whether it’s used in blues, jazz, rock or even hard rock a la Deep Purple, to me it’s one of the greatest sounding music instruments I know. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, this won’t be exactly a new revelation. If you happen to be here for the first time and would like to read more about the B3, I invite you to check out this previous post from June 2017.

Undoubtedly, one of the music artists most closely associated with the legendary tone wheel organ is Booker T. Jones. I feel magic is happening when the man works those keys and drawbars. As I’m writing this, I can literally hear Greens Onions.  Jones wrote the tune’s distinct organ line when he was just 17. His band mates from the M.G.s helped put it all together, and it became their signature tune. Booker T. & the M.G.s, of course, were primarily known as the house band of Memphis soul label Stax. While I know and dig the music Jones helped create in the ’60s, until recently, I had not explored any of his work post Stax and the M.G.’s.

Booker T. & the M.G.s
Booker T. & The M.G.’s (from left): Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn

Booker T.’s solo debut Evergreen appeared in 1974, four years after he had severed ties with Stax and moved to Los Angeles. Sound The Alarm from June 2013 is his most recent solo work. It also marked Jones’ return to Stax since Melting Pot, the M.G.’s final album with the label in January 1971.

Sound The Alarm was co-produced by Jones and brothers Bobby Ross Avila and Issiah “IZ” Avila, who have worked with the likes of Usher, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliot. The album also features various collaborations with younger R&B artists. The result is an intriguing blend of Booker T.’s Hammond B3 and contemporary sounds.

Booker T. Jones

Here’s the groovy opener and title track. It’s one of eight tunes co-written by The Avila Brothers. The song features American multi-talented artist Andrew Mayer Cohen, known as Mayer Hawthorne, on vocals. To be clear, I had never heard of the 40-year-old from Los Angeles before, who in addition to being a singer is a producer, songwriter, arranger, audio engineer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist, according to Wikipedia.

Broken Heart features another contemporary artist, Jay James, who has a great soulful voice that blends beautifully with Jones’ warm Hammond sound. The tune was co-written by Jones, The Avila Brothers and Terry Lewis. Together with his song-writing and production partner James Samuel (Jimmy Jam), Lewis also co-produced the track

Next up: Austin City Blues. Of course I couldn’t skip a good ole blues! Penned by Jones, the instrumental features Gary Clark, Jr. on guitar. The Hammond and Clark’s electric guitar live in perfect harmony, to creatively borrow from a Paul McCartney ballad he recorded with Stevie Wonder in the early ’80s. “Gary and I have a real thing going on mentally, kind of like what I had with Steve Cropper in the MGs, really understanding each other,” Jones noted on his website.  “He really is in my corner.”

66 Impala is a cool, largely instrumental Latin jazz tune with an infectious Santana vibe, even though there’s no guitar. But you can easily imagine Carlos playing electric guitar lines in his signature style and tone on the track, which is another co-write by Jones and The Avila Brothers. Instead of Santana, it features two other big names: Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E on percussion and drums, respectively.

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer Father Son Blues. The title of this Jones-written tune couldn’t be more appropriate. On guitar, the instrumental duo features Booker T.’s son Ted, who was 22 years old at the time of the recording. Apparently, Booker T. coincidentally had heard his son play at their house one day and at first mistakenly had assumed it was Joe Bonamassa. “I thought, ‘This is amazing,'” Jones noted. “‘you can have something right in front of your own nose and you don’t see it!’”

Commenting on the collaboration with The Avila Brothers, Jones said, “Bobby and I had previously done a little impromptu gig with El Debarge – that was the turning point when I decided to work with him. They have a different perspective about the musical palette. Their attitude is quite unique and quite innovative. That’s something I’ve looked for since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and had figured out a little bit about music. It can be very predictable or it can be exploratory. I’m always looking for something new to do.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Booker T. Jones website, YouTube

 

In Appreciation of the Drummer

My top 10 favorite rock drummers, from Baker to Watts

I learned the guitar and also used to be a bass player. The first additional instrument I’d pick up if I had the time would be the drums – and, yes, also after soundproofing a room in my basement!

I’ve always been fascinated with the drums. I have a fairly good feel for rhythm and might actually be good at it – at least that’s what I’m telling myself! Since the drums and the bass form the core rhythm section of a rock band, I also think it would make sense for me to learn the drums next.

But this post is not about my crazy drumming dreams. It’s about professional drummers who are masters of their craft. More specifically, it’s about drummers playing rock, blues, soul and pop, which are the genres I’m most familiar with. Undoubtedly, there must be incredible jazz drummers out there, but since I essentially don’t know jazz, I’m purposely leaving them out.

Here are some of the drummers I find pretty cool, in alphabetical order.

Ginger Baker

Best known as the founder of power rock trio Cream, Ginger Baker is widely considered to be one of the most influential rock drummers and a pioneer in jazz fusion, heavy metal and world music. Born Peter Edward Baker, he began playing the drums at the age of 15. He met bassist Jack Bruce and infamously started clashing with him for much of the time ever since when he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Despite their clashes, Baker and Bruce continued playing together in the Graham Bond Organization and, of course, in Cream, which they co-founded with Eric Clapton in 1966. After briefly playing with Clapton in Blind Faith and heading his own band Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Baker lived and recorded for several years in Africa. In the mid-70s, he co-headed the Baker Gurvitz Army, a hard rock band. He has also recorded 18 solo albums throughout his career, starting in the early 1970s, and collaborated with various other artists, including Gary Moore. Here is a clip of Cream instrumental Toad from one of the band’s 2011 reunion shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall, featuring an extended drum solo.

Cindy Blackman

The inclusion of Cindy Blackman in my list is solely based on the fact that she is a kick-ass drummer. That being said, how many high-profile non-white female drummers do you know? When I saw a clip of Blackman sometime ago, playing live with Lenny Kravitz, I was truly blown away by her furious drumming. Before becoming part of his live band in 1993, Blackman had focused on jazz. She returned to her roots when she left Kravitz’s touring band in 2004. Blackman joined forces with Kravitz again in 2014 to support the tour for his 10th studio album Strut. In 2010, she got involved with another well-known guitarist, Carlos Santana, and got married to him in December that year. Currently, Blackman, now Cindy Blackman Santana, is part of his touring band and also appears on Power of Peace, Santana’s just-released collaboration album with The Isley Brothers. Here is an awesome clip of Blackman’s live days with Kravitz. The entire band is absolutely killing it.

John Bonham

Modern Drummer magazine and others have called John Bonham the best rock drummer of all time. He is also no. 1 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list. While I’m not sure it’s possible to determine the best drummer, I think Bonham’s drumming on Stairway to Heaven is one of the coolest drum parts in rock music I know. According to Wikipedia, Bonham was self-taught and began playing when he was five years old, using containers and coffee tins. He would imitate his idols Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. At the age of 15, he received his first drum set and started playing in bands only a couple of years thereafter. In 1966, Bonham met Robert Plant when joining a blues group called Crawling King Snakes. When Plant formed Band of Joy in 1967, he chose Bonham as the drummer. After the breakup of the Yardbirds in 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page was putting together another band and recruited Plant who brought in Bonham. Bassist and keyboarder John Paul Jones completed the line-up of the band that soon thereafter became Led Zeppelin. After Bonham’s untimely death in September 1980 at age 32, the band decided to disband. Here is a clip of Stairway to Heaven from 1975.

Sheila E.

Born Sheila Escovedo, Mexican-American percussionist, drummer, singer, author and actress Sheila E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family since her early childhood. Since the late 60s, her father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente. Already at the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George Duke, Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince and worked with him until 1989. Meanwhile, she also launched her own solo career in 1984 with her debut album The Glamorous Life. E. reunited with Prince several times and also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006. Her most recent release in June 2016 was Girl Meets Boy, a song in honor of Prince. Here is a clip of E. showcasing her drum skills during and appearance on David Letterman in 2011.

Al Jackson Jr.

As a founding member of Stax Records‘ session band Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Al Jackson Jr. performed on countless classics produced by the legendary soul, blues and jazz label, such as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Albert King. He was known as “The Human Timekeeper” for his drumming ability. Jackson started playing the drums at an early age and began performing in his father’s jazz dance band when he was just five years old. Later, he played in the band of trumpeter Willie Mitchell, where he met Booker T. Jones who convinced him to come to Stax. Booker T. & M.G.’s were formed in 1962. In addition to backing up the label’s artists in the studio and working on Booker T. & the M.G.’s own music, Jackson co-wrote many Stax hits, such as Otis Redding’s Respect and Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. Additionally, he worked as a session drummer outside of Stax with artists, such as Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Bill Withers. On October 1, 1975, Jackson was shot to death by a home intruder. He was only 39 years old. Jackson was inducted in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015 and ranked No. 9 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. Sam Moore of Sam & Dave had this to say about Jackson: “I put him in the same bag with Ray Charles or Billy Preston, in a class all his own.” Following is a cool clip of Sam & Dave’s Hold On I’m Coming, featuring Jackson as part of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Keith Moon

I think it’s safe to say there is no other drummer like Keith Moon and perhaps never will be. According to Drum! magazine, “His drumming style was tribal, primitive, and impulsive, with him often stomping the bass drums and pounding his wall of toms like a madman. Yet his drumming was often surprising and always made an impression.” I think the following quote in Rolling Stone from Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove – the drummer and joint frontman of The Roots, sums it up nicely: “Often drummers are supposed to be the line on the paper where you write the sentence, but Keith Moon is the exclamation point.” Perhaps no other tune by The Who illustrates Moon’s raw energy better than My Generation – and Pete Townshend’s! Here’s an awesome clip.

Ian Paice

Ian Paice is best known as the drummer of Deep Purple. In fact, he is the only member of the band who played on each of their albums. After Deep Purple disbanded in 1976, Paice formed a supergroup called Paice Ashton Lord. From August 1979 to January 1982, he played in Whitesnake and then in Gary Moore’s band. In April 1984, he rejoined Deep Purple and remains with the band to this day. Pictures Of Home from 1972’s Machine Head album features on of my favorite Paice drum parts. It also happens to include a terrific bass solo by Roger Glover.

Jeff Porcaro

In addition to being the drummer of Toto from the band’s inception in 1977 until his death in 1992, Jeff Porcaro was one of the most sought-after session drummers. Pocaro took up the drums when he was seven years old. He received lessons from his father Joe Porcaro, a jazz drummer, and later from Robert Zimmitti and Richie Lepore. At 17, Porcaro got his first professional engagement with Sonny & Cher’s touring band. He has also collaborated with numerous other artists, such as Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Elton John, to name a few. Porcaro died from a heart attack at age 38 in August 1992. Here is a 1982 clip of Toto performing Rosanna, one of their biggest hits. It features Porcaro’s so-called “half-time shuffle groove,” a beat he explained to Drum! magazine he created by combining Bernard Purdie’s shuffle on Steely Dan songs Babylon Sister and Home Alone with John Bonham’s groove on Fool In the Rain.

Ringo Starr

While Ringo Starr may not be the first who comes to mind when thinking about The Beatles and got less attention than some of his ’60s compatriots like Keith Moon or the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, he has received accolades from may other drummers. Prior to joining The Beatles in 1962, Starr had played in Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, which had become one of Liverpool’s leading bands in early 1960. After the break-up of The Beatles in early 1970, Starr launched a solo career, which to date has included 18 studio albums. In 1989, he put together a live rock supergroup called The All-Starr Band, which has since consistently toured with various line-ups. Starr’s 19th solo album Give More Love is scheduled for September 15 and will be supported with a tour by the All-Starr Band starting in October. In 2015, Starr became the last Beatle to be included as a solo artist in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is ranked no. 14 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. The accompanying write-up quotes Dave Grohl who said, “Ringo was the king of feel.”  In Modern Drummer, Jim Keltner called Ringo “the epitome of a feel-good drummer, with just the right amount of chops needed!” According to Wikipedia, Journey’s Steve Smith said, “His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song.” A drum part frequently mentioned by other drummers is A Day In the Life from the Sgt. Pepper album. Here’s a clip.

Charlie Watts

Charlie Watts received his first drum set from his parents in 1955 at the age of 14. At the time, he was into jazz and practiced the drums listing to jazz records. In the late 50s, he joined a local jazz band, together with his neighbor and friend Dave Green, who went on to become a jazz bass player. In 1961, Alexis Korner invited Watts to join his band Blues Incorporated. Watts met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards the following year. But it wasn’t until January 1963 that he agreed to join The Rolling Stones. In addition to recording music with the Stones ever since, Watts has also released various jazz albums since the 80s. According to Rolling Stone, drum compatriot Jim Keltner told Drum! magazine, “Charlie can rush like mad and still make it feel great. That’s his style…He can’t explain it and I don’t necessarily like going into too much detail with him about it. I just marvel at it.” Here’s a cool clip of Get Off My Cloud, captured in 2012 from the Stones’ 50th anniversary show.

Sources: Wikipedia, Modern Drummer, Rolling Stone, Modern Drummer, Drum!, Sheila E. website, YouTube