What I’ve Been Listening to: Mick Hayes/My Claim to Fame

If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog, the name Mick Hayes may ring a bill. I included him and a tune from his fantastic new album My Claim to Fame in the last installment of my Best of What’s New feature. On his website, Hayes gave the record the tagline “Southern Soul Music with a California Finish.” I’m not sure I understand the California finish, but folks who are aware of my music taste know that I’m all ears when it comes to southern soul.

One of the truly remarkable things about this album is that Hayes recorded it at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. on vintage equipment, together with musicians who backed artists like Ray CharlesEtta James and B.B. King during their recording sessions at the legendary studio. I’m mean, think about this for a moment, how friggin’ cool is that!

As I complained in my previous Best of What’s New post, Hayes doesn’t do a great job to put out some information on his background, such as a bio. Why still beats me! But at least his website has links to some reviews, and the folks who wrote them apparently got some insights from him.

Additionally, when you google Hayes, his birthday pops up as June 17, 1978, which means he’s 42 years old. Apparently, he was born in Buffalo, N.Y. A review by American Blues Scene notes Hayes became interested in the Muscle Shoals scene while browsing record stores as a young man and seeing albums by the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett, who were recorded at FAME. So using different sources, one can kind of get at least a blurry picture of him.

The American Blues Scene review also reveals some of the above studio musicians and artists they backed: Bassist Bob Wray (Ray Charles, The Marshall Tucker Band), electric piano and organ player Clayton Ivey (Etta James, B.B. King), trumpet and flugelhorn player Vinnie Ciesielski (Gladys Knight, Lyle Lovett), saxophonist and flute player Brad Guin (Jason Isbell) and rhythm guitarist Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm). I mean, damn, let’s face it, Hayes isn’t exactly Stevie Wonder, so having gotten all these musicians is really something!

And the list continues. Also on the record are backing vocalists Marie Lewey and Cindy Walker, aka The Muscle Shoals Singers. Moreover, Hayes secured some impressive “outsiders”: Trombone player Billy Bargetzi (The Temptations, The Four Tops, The O’Jays, Bobby Vinton) and trumpet player Ken Watters (Natalie Cole, W.C. Handy Jazz All-Stars). Hayes provides lead guitar and vocals. And, as I stated in my last Best of What’s New, he co-produced My Claim to Fame with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood. Okay, on to the real fun part!

Here’s opener Sweet to Me. Like all tunes on the album, it was written by Hayes. He’s definitely got soul. I also think his voice isn’t bad.

Parking Lot Romance is another great tune. It openly pays homage to Ray Charles, undoubtedly one of Hayes’ musical heroes.

Want a bit of funky soul with a message? Ask and you shall receive! Hey, hey, hey, hey, here’s Political Funk.

Next up: No Second Chances. Frankly, I could have picked any other tune. They all sound great, in my opinion!

The last song I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Saddest Picture of Me.

You might say, ‘Hayes isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel on this record.’ That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I feel these recordings are beautifully executed, making My Claim to Fame a joyful listening experience. I’m curious to see what Hayes is going to come up with next. I feel with this album he set a high bar for himself.

Sources: Mick Hayes website; American Blues Scene; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Jessy Wilson/Phase

Does it sometimes happen to you as well that suddenly you remember an artist you really liked when you first discovered them but then they somehow completely disappeared from your radar screen? That’s exactly the experience I had earlier today with Muddy Magnolias and their fantastic debut album Broken People from October 2016. I had first come across this urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North in August 2017 and blogged about the record’s title track here.

So when I checked whether they had released any new music in the meantime, it turned out North had left at the end of 2017. That’s too bad since I really dug their sound! But there was some good news. I couldn’t find any trace of North but learned Wilson went on to release her solo debut Phase in May 2019. And while at least initially I don’t like it as much as Broken People, there are some pretty intriguing tunes on this album.

MuddyMagnolias
Jessy Wilson (left) and Kallie North

Before getting to the record, I’d like to say a few words about Wilson. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, listening to artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Biggie. After high school, Wilson became a backup singer, working and touring with artists like Alicia Keys, Usher, Kanye West, Faith Hill and Macy Gray. She also met John Legend who became her mentor. In 2013, she decided to strike out on her own as a full-time songwriter and moved to Nashville, Tenn.

There she met North, who originally hailed from Beaumont, Texas, and had worked as a photographer before deciding to pursue a career in music. Eventually, Muddy Magnolias got to Third Generation Records, which released their above-mentioned debut in October 2016. North left at the end of 2017. While her departure was a surprise to those following the band and no official reason was given at the time, Wilson during a November 2019 interview with NPR said she had seen it coming. Unlike Wilson who had been well accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the music business and the demands of touring, the lifestyle became too overwhelming for a married woman like North whose husband as a farmer could not accompany her on the road.

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Wilson decided to soldier on by herself. Not only that but she already had decided she wanted to work with Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys. “Growing up in New York listening to hip hop…but still loving rock & roll music, I really became infatuated with the Black Keys,” Wilson told NPR. “And it was not just because it was rock music, it was music that was informed by all of the other stuff I really love. You know, when I would listen to Dan’s (Auerbach) vocals, I could hear Smokey Robinson in there. When I would listen to Patrick’s drumming, I could hear like that Wu-Tang girth, just like swag…for my ears and my taste, they were the only rock band that struck me that had like that swag, that street swag.”

Apparently, it took Wilson some time to convince Carney who initially did not appear to be impressed with her songs. But eventually, he agreed to work with her. This resulted in 11 tracks that with one exception are all co-written by Wilson, Carney and Jim McFarlin. In addition to being the producer, Carney also provides drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. McFarlin handles keyboards and backing vocals, while Wilson sings lead and backing vocals and plays keyboards. Other musicians on the album include Casey Kaufman (cello) and Steve Marion (guitar). Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the great opener Oh, Baby!

Clap Your Hands is an intriguing mix of hip hop, rock and R&B. Here’s the official video.

Waiting On… is a beautiful soulful ballad and a standout on the album. The tune is credited to an army of people who in addition to Wilson, Carney, McFarlin and Wilson’s former partner Kallie North include Luke Enyeart, Weldon Irvine, Calvin Knowles and interestingly Nina Simone. Not sure what the deal with Simone is – perhaps they sampled a part of one of her songs.

Another cool tune is aptly called Stay Cool.

Let’s do one more: Cold In the South.

Phase definitely is outside my core wheelhouse. But lately, the boundaries of that core wheelhouse have started to become a bit fuzzy. Plus, at the end of the day what really matters is whether I dig music or not.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube

James Taylor Releases American Songbook Cover Album

I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.

I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.

So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”

James Taylor in this studio
James Taylor in his barn studio in Western Mass.

“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”

Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.

Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.

Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.

My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King ColeElla Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.

American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.

Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube

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

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! 🙂 A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube

If You Can’t See The One You Love, See The One You Can – Part 2

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I generally dig tribute bands and wrote a feature about some of them about a year ago. While then I did not plan a part 2, the reality is I’ve seen many more tribute acts than I could ever feature in one post. So, who knows, this may turn into a series of occasional posts with additional parts in the future. For now, I’d like to focus on part 2. Since I couldn’t figure out in which order to lists the acts, I decided to do so alphabetically.

Almost Queen

As their name suggests, this band is a tribute to Queen. While I could not find public information on the backgrounds of the musicians, these guys from New York surely impressed me when I saw them last September at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. Almost Queen are Joseph Russo as Freddie MercurySteve Leonard as Brian MayRandy Gregg as John Deacon and John Cappadona as Roger Taylor. Their delivery of four-part harmonies and Queen’s music, combined with their looks, make for a fun live experience. More information on the band and their impressive touring schedule that extends beyond the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, can be found on their website and Facebook page. Here’s a sample: We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions.

Beginnings

This tribute to Chicago is one of the most compelling tribute bands I’ve seen, and without meaning to brag, I’ve seen many! Another group from New York, Beginnings is a national act, performing over 100 shows each year – great news for Chicago fans. Founded in the fall of 2002, the band consists of Mason Swearingen (bass, vocals), Johnny Roggio (guitar, vocals), Dan Hendrix (trombone, percussion, vocals), Adam Seely (saxophone, percussion), Doug Woolverton (trumpet, percussion), Scott Chasolen (keyboards, vocals) and Chris Milillo (drums, vocals). Beginnings’ impressive member credits include recording and performing with artists like Peter Frampton, Don Henley, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and Blood Sweat & Tears, and awards like the Billboard Songwriter’s Award and ASCAP Songwriter’s Award – frankly, way too many credits I can list here! Check out their website and Facebook page for more information. Here’s a great rendition of Just You ‘N’ Me I saw during a recent summer concert. BTW, the band mostly focuses on Chicago’s early and in my opinion best work.

Brit Floyd

This amazing tribute to Pink Floyd is the brainchild of musical director Damian Darlington, who also provides vocals and plays guitar and lap steel. Prior to forming the band in Liverpool, England in 2011, he had played for 17 years with long-running Aussie tribute The Australian Pink Floyd Show. The other members of Brit Floyd include Rob Stringer (keyboards, vocals), Ian Cattell (bass, vocals Chapman Stick, trumpet), Edo Scordo (guitar, vocals), Arran Ahmum (drums), Thomas Ashbrook (keyboards, vocals), as well as backing vocalists Ola BienkowskaAngela CervantesRoberta FreemanEmily Jollands and Jacquie Williams – quite a mighty line-up! For more on this band, read my previous post from March of this year when I saw them in Bethlehem, Pa., and visit their website and Facebook page. Here’s Brit Floyd with Pink Floyd classic Comfortably Numb.

Decade

I have mentioned Decade on previous occasions, but as a huge Neil Young fan, I simply couldn’t resist to include this fantastic tribute from New Jersey in this post. The band revolves around singer-songwriter and Neil Young tribute artist John Hathaway. A life-long fan of Young, Hathaway has faithfully studied this artist in and out, and it shows. While he typically focuses on capturing the music, he can also act like Young, which I have witnessed myself. To bring the Canadian artist’s music to life in its full mighty, Hathaway is usually backed by a varying line-up of other long-time musicians. This clip of Old Man was captured during a gig earlier this year at Tim McLoone’s Super Club in Asbury Park. The backing musicians that night included Gordon Bunker Strout (guitar, backing vocals), Pam McCoy (backing vocals), John Dickson (bass), Bob Giunco (drums), Thomas Stevenson (banjo),  Dave O’Brien (pedal steel guitar), Jeff Levine (keyboards) and James Doyle (guitar, banjo). More information about Decade and John Hathaway is available on Facebook here and here.

The Doobie Others

I really dig The Doobie Brothers, so a tribute I came across last month caught my immediate attention. Ingeniously called The Doobie Others, this six-piece band from New York and New Jersey features Pat Montefusco (lead vocals, guitar), Joe Torres (lead vocals, percussion), Eddie Profet Jr. (bass, backing vocals), Allan Korenstein (keyboards, backing vocals), Mike Quadrino (saxophone, keyboards, backing vocals), Ron Lovisa (lead guitar) and Jim Del (lead & backing vocals, drums). While The Doobie Others mostly seem to perform in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area, their current schedule shows they occasionally venture out to other states on the East Coast. For more information, check their website and Facebook page. Here’s the band in action with Jesus Is Just Alright. Captured during a summer concert last month, the footage doesn’t do their high musical caliber full justice, but I feel you still get a good idea.

Free Fallin

This band from Minneapolis is a great tribute to Tom Petty, one of my all-time favorite artists. Founded in September 2007 and named after one of Petty’s songs, Free Fallin  are Tom Brademeyer (as Tom Petty, guitar & lead vocals), Mark Larsen (as Stan Lynch, drums), Russ Lund (as Ron Blair, bass), Karl Swartz (as Mike Campbell, guitar & vocals), Dale Peterson  (as Benmont Tench, keyboards, percussion & vocals) and Craig Volke (as Scott Thurston, guitar, keyboards, harmonica, percussion & vocals). Free Fallin is a full-time tribute band performing throughout the U.S. and even internationally. Check out their website and Facebook page, as well as this cover of Refugee from last year’s Rock The Farm Festival in Seaside Heights, N.J., which I previously covered here.

Good Stuff

Good Stuff is another outstanding tribute act I covered before here, but similar to Decade, I did not want to leave them out – how could I as a huge Steely Dan fan? Formed about a year ago and named after a Donald Fagen tune, Good Stuff features Mike Caputo (lead vocals), Don Regan  (guitar), Axel Belohoubek  (keyboards), Jay Dittamo  (drums), Scott Hogan (bass), Phil Armeno (saxophones, flute) and vocalists  Deanna Carroll and Linda Ferrano. Among them, these professional musicians have very impressive credits, such as tour pre-production for Madonna and David Bowie, and touring musicians for Chuck BerryBo DiddleyThe Duprees , The Les Paul TrioJose Feliciano and  Keith Emerson – yep, that Keith of ELP. Similar to Beginnings, there is too much to list. I should also mention that in addition to Steely Dan, the band performs music by Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder. While this may look somewhat arbitrary, combining music from these four artists works pretty well. The key is selecting songs that have a common denominator, which is a jazz influence. Check out more about this unique tribute act on their website and Facebook page. Oh, and here’s My Old School.

Kiss The Sky

With the 50th anniversary of Woodstock going on, I’d like to close this post with a compelling tribute act to Jimi Hendrix. Again, if you are a frequent reader of the blog, the name Kiss The Sky may sound familiar, since I covered them before here. The band revolves around Jimi Hendrix tribute artist Jimy Bleu, who actually met Hendrix in 1968 as a teenager. The following year, Bleu attended Woodstock and got one of the guitar straps Hendrix used during his performance there. You can read more about his cool background story in the above post. Kiss The Sky covers music from both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Band of Gypsys. Bleu’s excellent backing musicians for The Experience include bassist A.J. Hager as Noel Redding and drummer Ted Edwards as Mitch Mitchell. The Band of Gypsys tribute features Jay Powerz as Billy Cox (bass) and James Jaxon as Buddy Miles (drums). You can find more information about this tribute act on their Facebook page. I also encourage you to check out this clip of Voodoo Child I took last October. Filming conditions weren’t ideal, but I think the footage still gives a good impression about this outstanding band.

Pictured in the image on top of the post are (clockwise from upper left corner) Almost Queen, Beginnings, Brit Floyd and Jimy Bleu/Kiss The Sky.

Sources: Almost Queen website and Facebook page; Beginnings website and Facebook page; Brit Floyd website and Facebook page; Decade and John Hathaway Facebook pages; The Doobie Others website and Facebook page; Free Fallin website and Facebook page; Good Stuff website and Facebook page; Kiss The Sky Facebook page; YouTube

 

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 Tierinii 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): Tierinii 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, Tierinii 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 Tierinii 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 Tierinii: “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

Southern Avenue Release Whiskey Love, Single From Upcoming Second Album

I rarely get excited when it comes to contemporary music – most of what I know to me sounds generic, artificial and without any true soul. A caveat here is that I’m primarily referring to the mainstream. One of the few exceptions of contemporary music I dig is Southern Avenue, a band from Memphis, Tenn. that blends southern soul, blues and R&B. More regular visitors of the blog may recall that I’ve covered them on previous occasions, for example here. Today, Southern Avenue released Whiskey Love, the first single from their upcoming sophomore album Keep On set to drop May 10.

According to the band’s website, Whiskey Love is one of the original tracks on the record. The tune has a cool bluesy groove, fueled by rhythm section Tikyra Jackson (drums) and guest bassist Gage Markey, along with nice guitar work from Ori Naftaly. Keyboarder Jeremy Powell and a horn section set great accents. Tierinii Jackson once again is delivering a powerful and soulful performance on lead vocals. This is going to be a great song live!

The horn section features saxophonist Art Edmaiston, who has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, and trumpet player Mark Franklin. In addition to Allman, Franklin has been in sessions with the likes of Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Solomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. – holy mackerel!

“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 Tierinii: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” noted 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.”

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

“What makes it Southern Avenue is that when we come together, the music we make together is music we could never come up with individually,” Tierinii further stated. “It’s really rewarding to have so many influences in the band, and that we can find the balance between them.”

The last comment shall belong to Ori: “I’m proud that we don’t sound like anyone else. We’ve been all over the world, from Australia to Poland to Norway to Spain to Canada to Mexico. Those experiences, and all the highs and lows, it’s all reflected in the music. I’ve waited all my life to be in a band like this, and it’s amazing to me that I get to play with these people every night.”

Southern Avenue are one of the hardest touring bands I’ve seen. That’s great news for their fans. If you happen to be in Aspen, Colo., you can see them at The Après tonight. Other upcoming gigs include Chicago (Apr 13), Asheville, N.C. (Apr 19), Salisbury, N.C. (Apr 20) and New Orleans (Apr 28). Altogether, the band’s current schedule lists more than 50 gigs between now and early November in the U.S., Canada and various European countries, and I’m sure more will be added!

Sources: Southern Avenue website, YouTube

Soul Men Comin’ To You With Good Lovin’

Sam & Dave were Stax top act along with Otis Redding

With the country teetering from one crisis to the other, the news isn’t great these days, but not all is bleak. When I spotted this recent story from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, it put a smile on my face. Sam & Dave will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on February 10, 2019. While I don’t ever need a reason to cover great music, this well-deserved honor provides a great angle to celebrate “The Dynamic Duo” that became Stax Records’ top performers in the ’60s, together with Otis Redding.

Sam Moore, born on October 12, 1935 in Miami, and Dave Prater, born on May 9, 1937 in Sycamore, Ga., met at the King of Hearts Club in Miami in 1961 while working on the gospel music circuit. At the time, they had already individually established themselves in the gospel groups The Melionaires and the Sensational Hummingbirds, respectively. They decided to team up but success didn’t come right away.

Sam & Dave In Concert
Sam Moore & Dave Prater

Shortly after meeting at the above Miami club, Moore and Prater got a contract with Roulette Records. They released a series of six singles that went unnoticed. In late 1964, Billboard journalist turned record company partner Jerry Wexler signed them to Atlantic Records. Moore and Prater were excited about the prospect to record at the label’s headquarters in New York or perhaps at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. But, as the above Commercial Appeal story notes, “instead they were given two bus tickets to Memphis, home of Stax Records.”

To further quote from the article, “When Moore and Prater got off the bus, they were shocked at what they found: an integrated collection of musicians working out of a funky old studio on the city’s south side.” And I might add all of that during a time and in a place where racial segregation was still very much a reality despite the enactment of the Civil Rights Act on June 2, 1964.

Sam & Dave at Stax
Sam & Dave at Stax Records ca. 1970 (from left): Sam Moore, Isaac Hayes, Andrew Love, Wayne Jackson, Dave Prater, Jim Stewart and Steve Cropper

Initially, Sam & Dave worked with Stax producer and engineer Jim Stewart and songwriter Steve Cropper, guitarist of Stax dynamite house band Booker T. & The M.G.s. Then they moved to Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who at the time were still relative newcomers to writing and producing music. Sam & Dave’s first two singles didn’t make the charts. But success came with the third release You Don’t Know Like I Know, a no. 7 on the R&B chart.

In April 1966, Sam & Dave released their debut album Hold On, I’m Comin’. And comin’ they did. Both the record and the title track became hugely successful. Over the next three years, Sam & Dave scored eight additional consecutive top 20 R&B chart hits. Then their luck ran out. After a series of unsuccessful singles in 1969 and early 1970, they broke up in June that year.

Sam & Dave_Back at 'Cha

Each went on to record some solo singles that didn’t make an impact, and in August 1971, Sam & Dave decided to reunite, just before their contract with Atlantic expired. While they didn’t have a label, they continued to be a sought after live act. In 1975, they released a new studio album, Back At ‘Cha via United Artists. Produced by Steve Cropper and featuring the M.G.s and The Memphis Horns, the record yielded a top 100 single appropriately titled A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad).

The emergence of The Blues Brothers in the late ’70s and their cover of Soul Man brought Sam & Dave back into the limelight. A series of concert appearances and two compilation albums (Soul Study Vol. 1 and Soul Study Vol. 2) followed, before The Dynamic Duo gave their last concert as a pair on new year’s eve in 1981.

Sam Moore at the White House
Sam Moore performing at The White House in July 2013

Following the second and final break-up, Prater hired singer Sam Daniels to perform the Sam part and started touring under the “Sam & Dave” name or as “The New Sam & Dave Revue.” This didn’t go over well with Moore, who tried to block Prater from using the name. On April 9, 1988, Prater was killed in a car accident in Sycamore, Ga.

Since 1981, Moore has continued to tour with other famous soul artists, such as Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & The M.G.s and Carla Thomas. He has also done some recording, for example, You Must Not Be Drinkin’ Enough, together with Don Henley for his 1984 album Building The Perfect Beast. In 1986, he also re-recorded Soul Man with Lou Reed for a motion picture with the same name. In October, Moore turned 83 and still appears to be active. Let’s get to some music!

What better tune to start off this playlist than with Hold On, I’m Comin’, the title track of Sam & Dave’s debut studio album released in April 1966. The song was co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Initially, I was going to include a clip of the studio recording. Then I came again across this killer live footage. Damn’, if this doesn’t make you get up and dance or at least groove along by snipping your fingers, you’ve probably had too much eggnog or too many Christmas cookies!

In addition to Hayes and Porter, other Stax musicians were involved in writing music for Sam & Dave. One such example is If You Got The Loving, another tune from the debut album, for which Steve Cropper received a co-writing credit, along with Hayes and Porter.

Here’s Soul Man from Sam & Dave’s third studio album Soul Men, which appeared in October 1967. Another Hayes-Porter composition, Soul Man became a no. 1 single on what was then the Billboard Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart, nowadays known as the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It also peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Like for many other Stax recordings at the time, the label’s killer house band Booker T. & The M.G.s  provided the instrumentation. It’s acknowledged in the second chorus with the line, I‘m a soul man, play it Steve, a reference to guitarist Steve Cropper.

Next up: Broke Down Piece Of Man, another great tune from the Soul Men album. This song was written by Cropper and Joe Shamwell, a frequent co-writer of Stax music.

In 1968, Sam & Dave released I Thank You, their fourth and final studio album prior their first official breakup. Here’s the title track

I Thank You was the title track from Sam & Dave’s fourth studio album from 1968, the final record prior to their first official breakup. Another great Hayes-Porter co-write, the tune became Sam & Dave’s last top 10 single.

Here’s another hot tune from the record: Wrap It Up, yet another co-write by Hayes and Porter. If the song sounds familiar, yet you haven’t heard this version, you may know it from The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who included a great cover on their January 1986 studio album Tuff Enuff.

I’d like to close this post with two tunes from Sam & Dave’s final studio album released in May 1974. First is the above mentioned A Little Bit Of Good (Cures A Whole Lot Of Bad). The song was co-written by Gary Dalton and Kent Dubarri, who also performed as Dalton & Dubarri and released four records in the ’70s.

Last but not least, here’s Shoo Rah, Shoo Rah, a nice cover of a tune written by Allen Toussaint and first recorded by American soul and R&B singer Betty Wright.

In addition to the upcoming Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Sam & Dave have received various other accolades. In 1992, they were induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. According to Wikipedia, they are also members of the Grammy Hall of Fame, Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame – gee, frankly, I didn’t know there were so many different halls of fame. Apart from Soul Man, their songs have been covered by many other top music artists, such as Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton & B.B. King.

Sources: Wikipedia, Memphis Commercial Appeal, YouTube