The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

The Sunday Six has become my favorite recurring feature of the blog. Highlighting six tunes from any genre and any time gives me plenty of flexibility. I think this has led to pretty diverse sets of tracks, which I like. There’s really only one self-imposed condition: I have to truly dig the music I include in these posts. With that being said, let’s get to this week’s picks.

Lonnie Smith/Lonnie’s Blues

Let’s get in the mood with some sweet Hammond B-3 organ-driven jazz by Lonnie Smith. If you’re a jazz expert, I imagine you’re aware of the man who at some point decided to add a Dr. title to his name and start wearing a traditional Sikh turban. Until Friday when I spotted the new album by now 78-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith, I hadn’t heard of him. If you missed it and are curious, I included a tune featuring Iggy Pop in yesterday’s Best of What’s New installment. Smith initially gained popularity in the mid-60s as a member of the George Benson Quartet. In 1967, he released Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ, the first album under his name, which then still was Lonnie Smith. Altogether, he has appeared on more than 70 records as a leader or a sideman, and played with numerous other prominent jazz artists who in addition to Benson included the likes of Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan, King Curtis, Terry Bradds, Joey DeFrancesco and Norah Jones. Here’s Lonnie’s Blues, an original from his above mentioned solo debut. Among the musicians on the album were guitarist George Benson and baritone sax player Ronnie Cuber, both members of the Benson quartet. The record was produced by heavyweight John Hammond, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name some.

John Hiatt/Have a Little Faith in Me

Singer-songwriter John Hiatt’s songs are perhaps best known for having been covered by numerous other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe. While his albums received positive reviews from critics, it took eight records and more than 10 years until Hiatt finally had an album that made the Billboard 200: Bring the Family, from May 1987, which reached no. 107. The successor Slow Turning was his first to crack the top 100, peaking at no 98. If I see this correctly, his highest scoring album on the U.S. mainstream chart to date is Mystic Pinball from 2012, which climbed to no. 39. Hiatt did much better on Billboard’s Independent Chart where most of his albums charted since 2000, primarily in the top 10. Fans can look forward to Leftover Feelings, a new album Hiatt recorded during the pandemic with the Jerry Douglas Band, scheduled for May 21. Meanwhile, here’s Have a Little Faith in Me, a true gem from the above noted Bring the Family, which I first knew because of Joe Cocker’s 1994 cover. Hiatt recorded the album together with Ry Cooder (guitar), Nick Lowe (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums), who four years later formed the short-lived Little Village and released an eponymous album in 1992.

Robbie Robertson/Go Back to Your Woods

Canadian artist Robbie Robertson is of course best known as lead guitarist and songwriter of The Band. Between their July 1968 debut Music from Big Pink and The Last Waltz from April 1978, Robertson recorded seven studio and two live albums with the group. Since 1970, he had also done session and production work outside of The Band, something he continued after The Last Waltz. Between 1980 and 1986, he collaborated on various film scores with Martin Scorsese who had directed The Last Waltz. In October 1987, Robertson’s eponymous debut appeared. He has since released four additional studio albums, one film score and various compilations. Go Back to Your Woods, co-written by Robertson and Bruce Hornsby, is a track from Robertson’s second solo album Storyville from September 1991. I like the tune’s cool soul vibe.

Joni Mitchell/Refuge of the Roads

Joni Mitchell possibly is the greatest songwriter of our time I’ve yet to truly explore. Some of her songs have very high vocals that have always sounded a bit pitchy to my ears. But I realize that’s mostly the case on her early recordings, so it’s not a great excuse. Plus, there are tunes like Big Yellow Taxi, Chinese Café/Unchained Melody and Both Sides Now I’ve dug for a long time. I think Graham from Aphoristic Album Reviews probably hit the nail on the head when recently told me, “One day you’ll finally love Joni Mitchell.” In part, his comment led me to include the Canadian singer-songwriter in this post. Since her debut Song to a Seagull from March 1968, Mitchell has released 18 additional studio records, three studio albums and multiple compilations. Since I’m mostly familiar with Wild Things Run Fast from 1982, this meansbthere’s lots of other music to explore! Refuge of the Roads is from Mitchell’s eighth studio album Hejira that came out in November 1976. By that time, she had left her folkie period behind and started to embrace a more jazz oriented sound. The amazing bass work is by fretless bass guru Jaco Pastorius. Sadly, he died from a brain hemorrhage in September 1987 at the age of 35, a consequence from severe head injuries inflicted during a bar fight he had provoked.

Los Lobos/I Got to Let You Know

Los Lobos, a unique band blending rock & roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues and soul with traditional Spanish music like cumbia, bolero and norteño, have been around for 48 years. They were founded in East Los Angeles in 1973 by vocalist and guitarist David Hildago and drummer Louis Pérez who met in high school and liked the same artists, such as Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Later they asked their fellow students Frank Gonzalez (vocals, mandolin, arpa jarocha), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, bajo sexto) and Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals) to join them, completing band’s first line-up. Amazingly, Hidalgo, Pérez, Rosas and Lozano continue to be members of the current formation, which also includes Steve Berlin (keyboards, woodwinds) who joined in 1984. Their Spanish debut album Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles was self-released in early 1978 when the band was still known as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles. By the time of sophomore album How Will the Wolf Survive?, their first major label release from October 1984, the band had shortened their name to Los Lobos and started to write songs in English. In 1987, Los Lobos recorded some covers of Ritchie Valens tunes for the soundtrack of the motion picture La Bamba, including the title track, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in the summer of the same year. To date, Los Lobos have released more than 20 albums, including three compilations and four live records. I Got to Let You Know, written by Rosas, is from the band’s aforementioned second album How Will the Wolf Survive? This rocks!

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions

Let’s finish where this post started, with the seductive sound of a Hammond B-3. Once I decided on that approach, picking Booker T. & the M.G.’s wasn’t much of a leap. Neither was Green Onions, though I explored other tunes, given it’s the “obvious track.” In the end, I couldn’t resist featuring what is one of the coolest instrumentals I know. Initially, Booker T. & the M.G.’s were formed in 1962 in Memphis, Tenn. as the house band of Stax Records. The original members included Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They played on hundreds of recordings by Stax artists during the ’60s, such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Albert King. In 1962 during downtime for recording sessions with Billy Lee Riley, the band started improvising around a bluesy organ riff 17-year-old Booker T. Jones had come up with. It became Green Onions and was initially released as a B-side in May 1962 on Stax subsidiary Volt. In August of the same year, the tune was reissued as an A-side. It also became the title track of Booker T. & the M.G.’s debut album that appeared in October of the same year. In 1970, Jones left Stax, frustrated about the label’s treatment of the M.G.’s as employees rather than as musicians. The final Stax album by Booker T. & the M.G.s was Melting Pot from January 1971. Two additional albums appeared under the band’s name: Universal Language (1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (1994). Al Jackson Jr. and Lewie Steinberg passed away in October 1975 and July 2016, respectively. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper remain active to this day. Cropper has a new album, Fire It Up, scheduled for April 23. Two tunes are already out and sound amazing!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Woke Up This Morning, With the Blues in My Head (Ahhh)…

Woke up this morning, with the blues in my head…

I don’t even want to pretend I know how to write lyrics, so let’s better stop it right here. But the content of these words largely reflects the truth, if you allow that “the blues in my head” actually was a set of headphones and that I was listening to a Buddy Guy tune, followed by a Walter Trout song this morning.

While I never need an excuse to blog about music I dig, the aforementioned little episode gave me the idea to put together a post about blues and blues rock tunes, so I wanted to acknowledge it. In fact, I would say the majority of my blogging is triggered by spontaneous music encounters. With that explanation out of the way, let’s get to some music!

Buddy Guy/I Suffer With the Blues

Given the intro, it makes sense to kick things off with Buddy Guy. This is a tune from his 1967 debut album Left My Blues in San Francisco. I Suffer With the Blues was written by Guy who today, more than 50 years years later at age 84, still plays his energetic brand of electric guitar blues. I guess he wasn’t kidding when he titled his 17th studio album from July 2015 Born to Play Guitar, an amazing album, btw.

Janis Joplin/Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)

Boy, would I have loved to see Janis Joplin in concert! Her incredibly powerful voice and her energy were just off the charts. Try (Just a Little Bit Harder) is the incredible opener of what sadly was Joplin’s only solo album that appeared during her short lifetime, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, released in September 1969. The tune was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor.

Walter Trout/All Out Of Tears

Since I listened to Survivor Blues, Walter Trout’s aptly titled studio album from Jan 2019, I’ve really come to dig this bluesman who originally is from New Jersey. After overcoming alcohol and drug addiction in the ’80s and making it through a liver transplant necessitated by liver failure, Trout perhaps is the ultimate blues rock survivor. All Out Of Tears is a tune from is most recent album Ordinary Madness that came out in August 2020. The great slow blues, which has a bit of a Gary Moore vibe, was co-written by him, his wife and manager Marie Trout and blues fellow artist Teeny Tucker.

Bonnie Raitt/Mighty Tight Woman

While Bonnie Raitt crosses genres, I simply couldn’t do this post without including her. She’s one of my all-time favorite artists, not only because of her extraordinary slide guitar playing, but also because of her sincerity. Raitt covered Mighty Tight Woman, a Sippie Wallace tune, on her eponymous debut album from November 1971.

B.B. King/What Happened

B.B. King needs no further introduction. I pretty much could have picked any tune. What Happened is from Completely Well, King’s 17th studio album released in December 1969, which is best known for his cover of The Thrill Is Gone. What Happened holds the distinction of being the only tune on the album, which was written by King.

Dani Wilde/Bring Your Loving Home

The blues is a genre that has a number of great young female guitarists. One is 35-year-old Dani Wilde from South West England. At age 22, she was signed to Ruf Records, an independent German blues label, a force in blues with an impressive roster of artists. A significant portion of them are women. Bring Your Loving Home, written by Wilde, is the opener of her debut album Heal My Blues from 2008.

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Pride and Joy

A post about blues tunes really would be incomplete without Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sadly, this amazing guitarist from Texas lost his life already at age 35 in a helicopter crash, one of so many talented musicians who died in air travel accidents. Pride and Joy, written by Vaughan, appeared on his debut album Texas Floods released in June 1983. He’s also an artist I would have loved to see live.

Ana Popović/Fearless

Serbian blues singer and guitarist Ana Popović, who currently resides in Los Angeles, is another talented female artist who started her solo career at Ruf Records with the album Hush! from January 2001. Written by Popović, Fearless is the opener of her fifth studio album Unconditional that came out in August 2011.

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/Don’t Leave Me Here

One of the coolest collaboration albums I know is TajMo from May 2017, which brought together two blues greats from different generations: Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. I was fortunate to catch them during a tour they did that year to support the album – one of the best shows I’ve seen. Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here cowritten by Gary Nicholson, Mo’ and Mahal.

Eliana Cargnelutti/Just For Me

Time to wrap up this post. How many female blues guitarists from Italy do you know? Had you asked me that question a few years ago, I would have come up completely empty. I “discovered” Eliana Cargnelutti in January 2019, when I did a feature on female blues artists. The 31-year-old from Udine, Italy, who is yet another artist on Ruf Records’ roster, has released two albums to date. Here is Just For Me, a track from Cargnelutti’s sophomore album Electric Woman  released in January 2015.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sonny Landreth/Blacktop Run

Sonny Landreth is one of various top-notch guitarists I could have included in my recent slide guitar feature. This is what prompted me to check what Landreth who is also known as “the King of Slydeco” has been up to. Well, it turns out he released his 14th solo album Blacktop Run in February this year. While it’s classified as blues, I’d call it a tasty rootsy gumbo that includes flavors of blues, swamp rock, zydeco and jazz rock.

Before I get to it, first a few words about the man. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Landreth was born February 1, 1951, in Canton, Mississippi, and his family lived in Jackson, Mississippi, for a few years before settling in Lafayette, Louisiana. Landreth began playing guitar after a long tenure with the trumpet. His earliest inspiration came from Scotty Moore, the guitarist from Elvis Presley’s band, but as time went on, he learned from the recordings of musicians and groups like Chet Atkins and the Ventures. As a teen, Landreth began playing with his friends in their parents’ houses.

Sonny Landreth: "How Not to Sound Awful" | WWNO

After his first professional gig with accordionist Clifton Chenier in the ’70s (where he was the only white guy in the Red Beans & Rice Revue for awhile), Landreth struck out on his own, but not before he recorded two albums for the Blues Unlimited label out of Crowley, Louisiana, Blues Attack in 1981 and Way Down in Louisiana in 1985…The second of those two albums got him noticed by some record executives in Nashville, which in turn led to his recording and touring work with John Hiatt.

That led to still more work with John Mayall, who recorded Landreth’s radio-ready “Congo Square.” More recently, he’s worked with New Orleans bandleader and pianist Allen Toussaint (who guests on several tracks on South of I-10, as does Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler). Eric Clapton has called Landreth one of the most advanced guitarists in the world, notes Wikipedia, and one of the most under-appreciated. Landreth’s accolades include Instrumentalist of the Year (Americana Music Association, 2005) and a 2016 Blues Music Award in the Instrumentalist – Guitar category. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the opener and title track. It’s among the eight of the ten tacks that were written by Landreth.

Mule is a catchy up-tempo rocker that makes you want to dance. It features great slide guitar and accordion work.

Groovy Goddess is one of four instrumentals on the album. And groovy it certainly is! Its improvisational nature gives it a jazzy feel. And there’s more of Landreth’s amazing slide guitar work.

Two tracks on the album were written by Steve Conn, who also played electric piano, organ and accordion. Somebody Gotta Make a Move is one of them. Landreth’s website notes the newly arranged song features a guitar tuning Landreth developed but had not used in the studio.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Many Worlds, another instrumental.

Most of Blacktop Run’s tracks were recorded live in-studio at the storied Dockside Studios on the Vermilion River south of Lafayette, La., where artists like Dr. John, B.B. King and Taj Mahal are among past clients. In addition to Conn, Landreth was backed by David Ranson (bass) and Brian Brignac (drums).

The album was co-produced by Landreth, R.S. Field and Tony Daigletto. Field previously co-produced three of Landreth’s other albums. “His [Field’s] brilliance and creative energy recharged us,” Landreth stated. “We came up with new and better ideas, and that’s what you want. It couldn’t have gone better.”

He added, “All told, the different elements of this project came together and I’m really happy about it. Blacktop Run is probably the most eclectic recording I’ve done. And sonically, I think this is the best album we’ve ever made.” While I haven’t explored any of Landreth’s other albums, I know one thing: Blacktop Run is excellent and makes me want to hear more of his catalog.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Sonny Landreth website; YouTube

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

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This week’s Best of What’s New installment brings another nice mix of great new music. From country to blues to soul to singer-songwriter style, it’s all there. Or how about a Boston-based band with a very unique sound they describe as Americana funk? Or a neo soul collaboration’s beautiful cover of a well-known Tracy Chapman tune? I hope I’ve sufficiently whetted your appetite to read on!

Ray Wylie Hubbard/Bad Trick (featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh & Chris Robinson)

While Ray Wylie Hubbard has been active for more than 50 years, I don’t believe I had heard of him before, but I simply couldn’t skip a tune featuring Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh among the guests! Hubbard’s online bio states he is the secret handshake amongst those who know, which to me suggests he may not exactly be a household name. Hubbard was born in Soper, OK on November 13, 1946. Beginning in 1965, during semester breaks from his studies at the University of North Texas, he spent the summers in Red River, N.M., where he started playing music in a folk trio called Three Faces West. During that time period, he wrote a tune with the lovely title Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother, which was first recorded by country artist Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973. It helped Hubbard sign with Warner Bros. Records and release his debut Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies in 1976. Seventeen additional country, folk and blues-oriented albums have since appeared. This includes Co-Starring, which came out on July 10 and features the above tune, which was co-written by Hubbard and his wife Judy. Hubbard told Apple Music he had met Ringo about five or six years ago. When Ringo learned about Hubbard’s new album, not only did he offer to play drums on Bad Trick but also ask his brother-in-law Joe Walsh and Don Was to join on guitar and bass, respectively. The fourth guest is Black Crowes co-founder and lead vocalist Chris Robinson. Check out the fun video!

Black Pumas/Fast Car

Based on sampling a few tunes, Black Puma sound like a really cool, relatively new band. According to Apple Music, it’s a collaboration between producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada and singer-songwriter Eric Burton, who fuse cinematic neo-soul, light psychedelia, and a touch of urban grit. No matter how you characterize their music, it simply sounds great. Quesada and Burton joined forces in 2018 and released their eponymous debut album in June 2019. Their latest single Fast Car is a cover of the Tracy Chapman tune that appeared on her eponymous debut record in April 1988. I’ve loved that tune from the very first time I heard it when it came out. Things around Chapman seem to have been quiet for a long time. Perhaps this great remake will help bring her back on the radar screens of folks who dig but have forgotten about her.

Twisted Pine/Don’t Come Over Tonight

Don’t Come Over Tonight is a track from Right Now, the forthcoming sophomore album by Twisted Pine, a Boston-based band with a unique sound that’s hard to describe. Here’s how a short bio from their web site puts it: Praised by NPR for their “upbeat, poppy vibe; energetic, driving rhythms; and virtuosic solos,” Twisted Pine will release their sophomore full-length Right Now on August 14, 2020 (Signature Sounds). Exploring a sound they call Americana funk, Twisted Pine takes traditional music in exhilarating directions. Bassist Chris Sartori writes, “This album is easier to feel than describe. We’re rooted in bluegrass, continually inspired by explorers like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sierra Hull. Right Now takes this heritage into a new dimension. Our bluegrass is jazzy, our indie folk is poppy, our grooves are funky.” Twisted Pine [Kathleen Parks, fiddle; Dan Bui, mandolin; Chris Sartori, bass; Anh Phung, flute] grooves with fearless improvisation and intricate arrangements. The band has been around since 2013. Their eponymous debut album appeared in July 2017, followed by the EP Dreams in January 2019. Don’t Come Over Tonight was written by Parks. It’s quite unusual, yet pretty cool, in my opinion. These guys are virtuoso musicians and great vocalists. Check it out!

Ruston Kelly/Rubber

Ruston Kelly is a 31-year-old singer-songwriter who was born in Georgetown, S.C. and grew up in Wyoming, Ohio. He got into music at a young age and, according to Wikipedia, had a full album in high school with songs like “Bluebird” and “I’m Leavin’”. After signing a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2013, he co-wrote the song Nashville Without You Tim McGraw recorded for his studio album Two Lanes of Freedom, which appeared in February that year. In 2017, Kelly released his debut EP Halloween. His first full-length album Dying Star came out the following year. Released on June 10, Rubber is a track from Kelly’s forthcoming sophomore album Shape & Destroy scheduled for August 28. In October 2017, he married singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves, who as reported by Rolling Stone also performs on the album. Apparently, they since filed for divorce.

Mick Hayes/Autumn Romance

Mick Hayes is another great sounding artist with relatively little publicly available information, even though the blues guitarist and vocalist has a website and a Facebook page – I just don’t get it! At least his website links to various reviews of his most recent album My Claim to Fame, which was recorded at the legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., appeared on May 29 and includes the above tune. According to American Blues Scene, Hayes’ love affair with Muscle Shoals began when he was a young man growing up in upstate New York, where he would browse record shops with wall to wall music from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Duane Allman to Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke.  Rock and Blues Muse notes Hayes and his band have spent the last decade playing up to 200 festival and club gigs a year and have opened for Duke Robillard, Samantha Fish, and Delbert McClinton. AllMusic also lists a 2016 album, Segue, by Mick Hayes Band. The cool thing about My Claim to Fame is that not only did Hayes record it at FAME but, as American Blues Scene pointed out, he also worked with studio musicians who recorded with artists like Ray Charles, Etta James and B.B. King. Oh, and Hayes co-produced the record with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood – sounds like the stars truly aligned for Hayes!

Sources: Wikipedia; Ray Wylie Hubbard website; Twisted Pines website; Rolling Stone; American Blues Scene; Rock & Blues Muse; YouTube

Hey, Hey, The Blues is Alright

I got this song/I’m gonna sing/I’m gonna sing it just for you/If you dig the blues/I want you to help me sing it, too/I want everybody to hear me when I say/The blues is back, and it’s here to stay.

The above intro from The Blues is Alright, a tune by Little Milton, nicely captures how I’m feeling as I’m writing this post. Of course, the blues has always never really left, though I guess it’s fair to say it had greater visibility when Milton released that song back in 1984 and Stevie Ray Vaughan was all the rage.

Sadly, Vaughan and Milton are no longer with us, not to mention the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to name a few artists of the “old guard.” But over the past few months, exciting new blues music has been released. And as somebody who digs the blues, that truly makes me happy. Are you ready for some? Ready or not, here we go!

Robert Cray first appeared on my radar screen in 1988 with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the title track to his sixth studio album, a tune that grabbed me immediately. Fast-forward some 32 years and 18 records later to February 28 this year when Cray released That’s What I Heard. Produced by longtime collaborator Steve Jordan, who also plays drums and percussion, the great collection includes four original tracks and eight covers. The Robert Cray Band also features Richard Cousins (bass), Dover Weinberg (keyboards) and Terence F. Clark (drums). Here’s the opener Anything You Want, an original. Apart from being a decent guitarist, I think Cray also has a great soulful voice.

Ever heard of British blues-rock guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor? Damn, that lady sounds smoking hot to me! Even though Taylor is only in her mid-30s, she has an impressive record. She was discovered at the age of 16 by Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics), who in 2002 invited her to tour in Europe with his band D.U.P. In 2009, Taylor’s debut album White Sugar appeared. Her latest release is Reckless Blues, an EP that came out two weeks ago on March 6. Here’s a great cover of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, a tune John Mayer wrote and first recorded for his third studio album Continuum from September 2006.

Let’s move on to Frank Bey. Admittedly, I had never heard of him until earlier today, even though the man is 74 years old and, well, has been around for some time. According to his website, he began his singing career 70 years ago as a gospel singer – yep, we’re talking as a 4-year-old. At age 17, he joined the Otis Redding Revue. In the mid-70s, Bey became entangled in a legal battle with James Brown over one of his songs Brown had recorded without his permission. While the matter was settled out of court, it left Bey embittered, and he got out of the music business for 17 years. Then he returned and since 1998 has released six albums, the most recent of which is All My Dues Are Paid that appeared on January 17 this year. It’s warm and soulful. Here’s the tasty opener Idle Hands, featuring some cool wah-wah guitar and nice horn work, along with Bey’s great vocals and some hot gospel backing vocals. Check it out!

Ready for two more? Here’s Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with his new single Empty Promises, a live recording that came out on February 14. The 21-year-old from Clarksdale, Miss. released his debut album Kingfish last May and got rave reviews. It’s certainly no coincidence he has played with the likes of Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Gales and Rick Derringer. I think we will hear many more great things from this super talented young artist. Empty Promises was written by blues and soul singer and guitarist  Michael Burks who passed away in May 2012 from a heart attack. He was only 54 years old.

The final tune I’d like to call out is by Tas Cru, another blues artist I had not heard of before either. While he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, luckily, there’s a website. According to his bio, Cru is truly a blues eclectic who refuses to let his music be bound to just one blues style…with a repertoire of over 60 original songs from multiple albums and dozens of crowd-pleasing classics…Tas Cru is currently is based out of upstate New York and performs in multiple formats ranging from solo acoustic to a 7 piece-backing band. Cru’s most recent album, which was released on February 1, is titled Drive On. According to a review in Elmore Magazine, it’s his ninth and 11th overall, when including two blues-for-kids records he made. Here’s the funky title song featuring great horn and organ work. Don’t get fooled by the tune’s slow start. Keep listening!

Sources: Wikipedia; Robert Cray website; Joanne Shaw Taylor website; Frank Bey website; Tas Cru website; Elmore Magazine; YouTube

Britain’s Ruby Turner Releases Classic Soul Gem

Until this morning, I had never heard of Ruby Turner. Then I came across Don’t Cry Over Yesterday, a tune from her new album Love Was Here released on January 24th. After listening to the first few songs, I was immediately hooked – something that rarely happens. The Jamaican born British soul, gospel and R&B singer’s voice, the cool vibe of the ‘70s style soul tunes and the excellent sound of her backing musicians deliver a powerful package. I love it!

Turner is not a newcomer. In fact, she has been performing since 1983, and this is her 20th solo album. Turner has also worked with other artists like Bryan Ferry, Steve Winwood, Mick Jagger and UB40. And yet, I don’t recall having heard her name in the past. Ever. Have you? I’d be curious to know. Of course, I can’t exclude the possibility it’s plain ignorance on my part.

According to the bio on her website, Ruby Turner was born in Jamaica and grew up in Montego Bay. Her grandfather sang the lead in one of the island’s gospel groups. Moving to England when she was 9, Ruby has lived there ever since. Her career to date has always had many unexpected twists and turns with major tours, theatre and TV appearances…Her major break came in the mid 1980s, when she was asked to join ‘Culture Club’ at the height of their stardom…An offer of a solo record deal closely followed and she soon signed to Jive Records, part of the Zomba Group.

Between 1986 and 1995, eight of Turner’s singles entered the UK Singles Chart. In February 1990, she also scored a no. 1 hit on the Billboard R&B Chart with It’s Gonna Be Alright, a tune she wrote – apparently a rare feat that has been accomplished by less than ten British singles. Additionally, Turner has done acting, appearing on stage and television and in film. And, oh, she was also appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2016 Birthday Honours for services to music. Time to get to Love Was Here!

A good place to start is the opener Got to be Done. With a great groove, catchy chorus and neat sound, the tune sets the tone for the entire album. Like all except one of the 11 tracks, the song was co-written by Turner and the production team of Nick Atkinson and Kat Eaton.

Here’s the aforementioned Don’t Cry Over Yesterday.

Another gem is Under Your Sky.

Next up: The album’s title track.

The last tune I’d like to call is Runaway.

Frankly, I could have selected any of the other songs on the album. Each of these tunes is beautifully crafted and delivered with Turner’s warm and powerful voice and a backing band that just sounds great.

In a review on Something Else!, Turner is quoted as saying the album “is one I’ve always wanted to make. The feel and grooves I’ve heard and loved: Curtis Mayfield, B.B. King, Ry Cooder, the Rev. Al Green to name but a few.” While these are formidable reference artists, I feel Turner’s comments are not overblown.

“The opportunity came through meeting Nick Atkinson and Kat Eaton, a dynamic, confident and confident production team,” she added. “Their writing and approach was irresistible. They ignited my desire to write again, and I loved the creative process.”

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the great-sounding musicians playing on this album. Based on another review in AmericanBluesScene.com, they include Atkinson (guitar), Joe Glossop (keyboards), Jeremy Meek (bass) and John Blease (drums).

Love Was Here is an album of high quality and soulful delivery you rarely find among new music these days – a true gem!

Sources: Wikipedia; SomethingElseToReview.com; AmericanBluesScene.com; YouTube

This is it, Baby: Time For Bringing in a Brand New Year

At the stroke of midnight
On that great big holiday
We’re going to have a ball, and that ain’t all
I’m gonna chase my blues away

What could possibly be a better way than ending the year on a high note? Of course, there’s lots of great music but there was only one B.B. King. And while the blues and happiness may sound contradictory, I just love the blues, the man and Lucille, so here’s Bringing in a Brand New Year. Plus, this tune nicely illustrates the blues can also be a happy affair!

Co-written by Charles Brown and Gene Redd, Bringing In A Brand New Year appeared on King’s holiday studio album A Christmas Celebration of Hope released in November 2001. While according to Wikipedia’s tally, incredibly, it was one of only four of King’s records that topped the U.S. Blues chart, it earned him two Grammy awards in 2003: Best Traditional Blues Album (shared with recording engineer Anthony Daigle and John Holbrook for mixing) and Best Pop Instrumental Performance for Auld Lang Syne, the album’s closer.

I’ll be bringin’ in a brand new year
Bringin’ in a brand new year
So listen dear, won’t you meet me here
While I’m bringin’ in a brand new year

To all blog visitors – frequent, occasional and first-time – wherever you may be, I’d like to wish all of you a happy and healthy new year, and may the best be yet to come, in music and otherwise!

Cheers!

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

What I’ve Been Listening To: Jontavious Willis/Spectacular Class

I’ve said it before and I say it again. While the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon are gone and Buddy Guy is one of a handful of last men standing from the old guard, the blues is alive and well. It’s particularly encouraging to see young artists embrace it. Perhaps the most compelling example I know is 22-year-old Jontavious Willis. None other than Taj Mahal has called him “Wunderkind.” Recently, he executive-produced the young bluesman’s sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April this year.

In some regards, the story of Willis, who is from Greenville, Ga., mirrors that of other great blues artists. The church and a key event determined his path. According to his website, Willis grew up singing gospel music with his grandfather at a local Baptist house of worship. Then, as a 14-year-old, he saw Muddy Waters on the tube. In the old times, it would have been television, but this is the 21 Century, so it was actually YouTube. Apparently, Willis was instantly hooked and knew that’s the music he wanted to play – I just love these types of stories!

Jontavious Willis and Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal with his Wonderboy, the Wunderkind

I’m not sure how Willis and Taj Mahal found each other. Apparently, Mahal asked Willis to play on stage with him in 2015. Then I guess he became a mentor. “I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta,” said Mahal. “He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more.”

In 2016, Willis released his debut album Blues Metamorphosis. The following year, he opened up select gigs for Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ during their TajMo tour. That’s were I first heard about Willis and actually saw him.  As you can read here, I was really impressed what this young man who performed solo got out of his acoustic guitar. Fast-forward to the presence and Spectacular Class, which by the way is not some overly confident statement by the artist about his music, though it actually is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Instead it refers to a line in one of the songs called Take Me To The Country: …The folks in the country don’t live too fast got good mannerism and spectacular class

Time to get to some of that spectacular music! Here’s the opener Low Down Ways. Don’t you agree this sounds awesome and certainly not like some 22-year-old kid? It does remind me a little bit of Keb’ Mo’, who served as the record’s producer and also plays guitar on several tracks including this one. By the way, all songs on the album were written by Willis.

In the second track Willis asks the question The Blues Is Dead? But he doesn’t waste much time to offer his perspective: …The blues ain’t going nowhere, gonna be here for a great long time/As long as folks got situations and problems on their mind… According to this upbeat review from Rock and Blues Muse, the tune in addition to Willis on lead vocals and slide guitar features Phil Madera on piano and Andrew Alli on harp. Apart from Mo’ (electric guitar), other musicians on the album include Martin Lynds and Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, as well as bassist Eric Ramey – clearly, all top-notch craftsmen!

Daddy’s Dough is a delta blues type of tune that nicely showcases Willis’ abilities on acoustic guitar, with nice harp fill-ins by Alli. Dig the groove on this one!

Next up, the above mentioned Take Me To The Country. This is the type of country blues Willis is oftentimes associated with and another nice example of his acoustic guitar chops – just great! Here’s a nice video showing Willis in action. Check out the great fingerpicking!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer The World Is In A Tangle. Here’s the official video – some killer guitar, banjo and mandolin work on this tune! Sadly, the lyrics capture how I sometimes feel about present day America: The world’s in a tangle it’s time to make a change/I’m gonna move away and change my name/I said the world’s in a tangle what’s going on/I’m going to a foreign land and make it my home

Here’s how Willis describes his sound and approach to the blues: “My instrument sound is simple; my voice is what I put on the forefront. I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story.”

Given Taj Mahal’s important role in Willis’ career thus far, it feels appropriate to quote him again: “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.” High but well-deserved praise from a living blues legend!

Willis is currently on the road in the U.S., with a few gigs overseas in Switzerland, Denmark and Norway scheduled between August 29 and September 7. On some of his dates later this year, he is playing with Keb’ Mo’, e.g., Charlotte, N.C. (Sep 18), Oklahoma City (Sep 22) and Fort Collins, Colo. (Sep 26) – should be an awesome show! The full schedule is here.

Sources: Jontavious Willis website, Rock and Blues Muse, YouTube