What I’ve Been Listening to: Yola/Walk Through Fire

When I included the latest single by Yola in my last Best of What’s New installment, I noticed her first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire received many accolades. Since the strong voice of the English singer-songwriter immediately grabbed me, I checked it out and have to say it’s a true gem, both musically and in terms of her vocal performance.

Getting to that point wasn’t exactly an easy path for Yola who was born as Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England. According to this review in Popmatters, Yola had a tough childhood characterized by poverty and a parent who didn’t care for her and banned music. Later she lived homeless in London for some time before establishing herself as a session singer and touring with acts like DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and electronic music outfit Massive Attack.

Yola Carter

In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. But ultimately, as her artist profile in Apple Music notes, Yola felt the need to strike out on her own. Over the next few years, she started writing her own songs that were influenced by Muscle Shoals era country-soul, R&B and classic singer-songwriter style. In 2016, she released her debut EP Orphan Offering under the name of Yola Carter.

Eventually, Yola went to Nashville where she met Dan Auerbach after he had seen a video of her. Apparently, Auerbach was immediately impressed by her. “Her spirit fills the room, just like her voice,” he reportedly said. “She has the ability to sing in a full roar or barely a whisper and that is a true gift.” Auerbach teamed up with Yola to co-write songs, together with other writers, including Bobby Wood, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn.

Yola and Dan Auerbach

Auerbach also assembled an impressive group of seasoned studio musicians, including Dave Roe (bass), who played with Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp, among others; harmonica player Charlie McCoy (credits include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, etc.) and drummer Gene Crisman, who together with Bobby Wood was a member of the Memphis Boys. They were the house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tenn. where artists like Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield recorded. Auerbach also produced Walk Through Fire, which appeared in February 2019 on his Easy Eye Sound label.

With all of the above, it’s not surprising the album has a retro late ’60s sound. This is also matched by the cover. And yet, to me, Walk Through Fire feels like an album that will hold up well over time. It simply is a work of beauty. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Faraway Look. The track was co-written by Auerbach, McLaughin and Yola. BTW, McLaughlin’s compositions have been performed by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others. Sure, the production might be a bit on the lush side, but this is just a beautiful tune.

Ride Out in the Country is another great track. The song was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Joe Allen. Allen is a county songwriter and bassist who since the early ’70s has worked with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Next up is the title track, which according to Wikipedia references both a fire that damaged Yola’s home and an abusive relationship from which she escaped. The tune was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Dan Penn. Penn has co-written many soul hits of the ’60s, including The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Cry Like a Baby.

Rock Me Gently is my current favorite on the album. It’s another Auerbach-Allen-Yola co-write.

Let’s do one more: Love All Night (Work All Day), co-credited to Wood, Auerbach and Yola.

As noted above, Walk Through Fire was very well received. The album also generated three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song (Faraway Look) and Best New Artist. Walk Through Fire was also nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards. And, yes, the album also did score a win: UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards.

At age 37, Yola still is relatively young. I look forward to much more great music from this talented songwriter and vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Popmatters; Apple Music; YouTube

Larkin Poe Largely Stick to Their Great Old Guns on New Album

“Self Made Man” mostly features sister act’s familiar brand of roots-oriented blues rock

While breaking new ground can be exciting, sometimes it makes sense to stick to your old guns, especially if your fire power is as mighty as the raw and high-energy roots-oriented blues rock by Larkin Poe. And that’s pretty much what sisters Megan Lovell and Rebecca Lovell have decided to do on their fifth full-length studio album Self Made Man, which appeared today.

I really dig Larkin Poe, so if you’ve visited the blog in recent weeks, chances are you’ve seen some of my previous posts. If you’re new to this band, which at its core is the Lovell sisters, and would like some background, you can find it here. Without further ado, let’s get to some music.

The album kicks off with what essentially is the title track: She’s a Self Made Man. Co-written by the sisters, this tasty blues rocker nicely sets the stage for the record. Typically, Rebecca takes the role of the front woman, providing lead vocals and guitar, while her 2-year-older sister Megan plays smoking lap steel fill-ins and sings backing vocals. Here’s the official video.

I’m going to skip the next three tunes – Holy Ghost Fire, Keep Diggin’ and Back Down South – since I already previously covered them here, here and here. Together with the title track, each of these songs already appeared as singles leading up to the release of the album. Instead, here’s Tears of Blue to Gold, another co-write by the sisters, which illustrates Larkin Poe isn’t a pure breed southern blues rock one-trick pony but also blends in other music styles – in this case country rock.

Every Bird That Flies introduces some keyboards, which I understand are played by Rebecca as well. This adds some welcome variety to the soundscape. The other standout to me here is Megan’s lap steel work. The sisters co-wrote this tune with singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, who like them is based in Nashville, Tenn. It’s got a cool vibe.

Next up: Scorpion written by Rebecca. This tune has a great riff and a nice driving beat. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Easy Street. Co-written by Rebecca and Megan with Tony Esterly, another Nashville-based singer-songwriter, the tune is an interesting mix of gospel, country and blues. It’s also a nice illustration that Megan and Rebecca sound great harmonizing together.

According to this review by Glide Magazine, other musicians on the album include Tarka Layman (bass on three tunes) and Kevin McGowan (percussion). In addition, blues rock artist Tyler Bryant plays lead guitar on Back Down South.

Like Larkin Poe’s predecessor Venom & Faith from November 2018, which by the way topped the Billboard Blues Albums chart and received a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Self Made Man is self-produced by the sisters and appears on the band’s own label Tricki-Woo Records. While I think it’s fair to say the latter may explain the relatively basic sound quality, it does give the album a bare bones character that I find charming.

I’m going to leave you with another nice clip of a recent Behind the Mic live streaming performance presented by American Songwriter. It gives you a great idea about these two engaging ladies and their infectious energy together.

Sources: Wikipedia; Glide Magazine; American Songwriter; You Tube

A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom!

In Memoriam of Little Richard

“I created rock ‘n’ roll! I’m the innovator! I’m the emancipator! I’m the architect! I am the originator! I’m the one that started it! There wasn’t anyone singing rock ‘n’ roll when I came into it. There was no rock ‘n’ roll.” No, Richard Wayne Penniman wasn’t exactly known for modest self-assessment. I think this comment he made during an interview with SFGATE.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, in July 2003 also illustrates he was a showman who had a knack for memorable quotes.

I’m writing this, as the obituaries still keep pouring in for the man known as Little Richard, who passed away this morning in Tullahoma, Tenn. at the age of 87, according to The New York Times. CNN reported Richard’s former agent Dick Alen confirmed the cause of death was related to bone cancer. Apparently, Richard had not been in good health for some time.

Little Richard 2

Instead of writing yet another traditional obituary, I’d like to primarily focus on what I and countless other rock & roll fans loved about Little Richard, and that’s his music. While he is sadly gone, fortunately, his music is here to stay. And there is plenty of it, so let’s get started and rock it up!

Richard’s recording career started in 1951 close to his 19th birthday when RCA Victor released Every Hour. An original composition, the soulful blues ballad doesn’t exactly sound like A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom!, but one already can get an idea of Richard’s vocal abilities. While tune became a regional hit, it did not break through nationally, just like the other songs Richard recorded with RCA Victor, so he left in February 1952.

Following a few lean years and a struggle with poverty, which in 1954 forced Richard to work as a dishwasher in Macon, Ga., the breakthrough came when Specialty Records released Tutti Frutti as a single in November 1955. The record company had hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to replace some of Richard’s sexual lyrics with less controversial words. Not only did the classic bring Richard long-sought national success, but the loud, hard-driving sound and wild (yet somewhat tamed) lyrics also became a blueprint for many of his tunes to come.

Tutti Frutti started a series of hits and the most successful two-year phase of Richard’s career. One of my favorites is the follow-up single Long Tall Sally from March 1956. Co-written by Richard, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and Enotris Johnson, the song became Richard’s highest-charting U.S. mainstream hit, climbing to no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also marked his first no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Over the years, I must have listened to Long Tall Sally 100 times or even more. It still grabs me. I also dig the cover by The Beatles. Classic rock & roll doesn’t get much better.

Ready, Teddy, for another biggie? Yeah, I’m ready, ready, ready to a rock ‘n’ roll.

Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will?
Oh, Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will?
You ran off and married, but I love you still

Lucille, released in February 1957, was co-written by Richard and Albert Collins – and nope, that’s not the blues guitarist. The two just happen to share the same name. According to Wikipedia, “the song foreshadowed the rhythmic feel of 1960s rock music in several ways, including its heavy bassline and slower tempo.” Okay, I guess I take that. Lucille became Richard’s third and last no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles. The song reached a more moderate no. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, on the other hand, it climbed to no. 10 on the Official Singles Chart. In addition to Richard’s vocals and piano, the horn work on this tune is just outstanding!

And then came that tour of Australia together with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in October 1957 that changed Richard’s trajectory. As Rolling Stone put it in their obituary, After what he interpreted as signs – a plane engine that seemed to be on fire and a dream about the end of the world and his own damnation – Penniman gave up music in 1957 and began attending the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College, where he was eventually ordained a minister. When he finally cut another album, in 1959, the result was a gospel set called God Is Real.

After Richard left the music business, his record label Specialty Records continued to release previously recorded songs until 1960 when his contract ended and he apparently agreed to relinquish any royalties for his material. One of these tunes was another classic, Good Golly, Miss Molly. Co-written by John Marascalco and Blackwell, and first recorded in 1956, the single appeared in January 1958. It became a major hit, peaking at no. 10 and 8 in the U.S. and UK pop, charts respectively, and reaching no. 4 on the Hot R&B Singles.

Here’s the title track from the above noted 1959 album God Is Real. The tune was written by gospel music composer Kenneth Morris.

In 1962, Richard started a gradual return to secular music. While according to Rolling Stone, a new generation of music artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan welcomed him back, his music no longer sold well. When Richard performed at the Star-Club in Hamburg in the early ’60s, a then still relatively unknown British band called The Beatles opened up for him. The above Rolling Stone obituary included this quote from John Lennon: “We used to stand backstage at Hamburg’s Star-Club and watch Little Richard play…He used to read from the Bible backstage and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen. I still love him and he’s one of the greatest.”

In January 1967, Richard released a soul-oriented album titled The Explosive Little Richard. It was produced by his longtime friend Larry Williams and featured Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They co-wrote this tasty tune for Richard, Here’s Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail). It also appeared as a single and reached no. 121 and 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, respectively. The record didn’t chart.

While Richard enjoyed success as a live performer, his records continued to sell poorly. In April 1970, he had a short-lived comeback of sorts with Freedom Blues, a single from his album The Rill Thing released in August that year. Co-written by Richard and R&B singer Eskew Reeder, Jr., who had taught him how to play the piano, the tune reached no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 28 on the Hot R&B Singles.

During the remainder of the ’70s, Richard continued to perform and also had guest appearances on records by Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Walsh and Canned Heat, among others. He also became addicted to marijuana and cocaine. Eventually, his lifestyle wore him out, and in 1977, Richard quit rock & roll for the second time and returned to evangelism.

In 1984, he returned to music yet another time, feeling he could reconcile his roles as a rock & roll artist and an evangelist. Following a role in the movie picture Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Richard released another album, Lifetime Friend, in 1986. I actually got it on CD at the time. Here’s the nice opener Great Gosh A’Mighty, which Richard co-wrote with Billy Preston. Reminiscent of the old “A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom Richard,” the tune had also been included in the soundtrack of the aforementioned movie.

In 1992, Richard released Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, which featured newly recorded versions of his hits. The final Little Richard album Southern Child appeared in January 2005. Originally, the record had been scheduled for release in 1972 but had been shelved. Richard continued to perform frequently through the ’90s and the first decade of the new millennium. Nerve pain in his left leg and hip replacement forced him to reduce concerts and eventually to retire in 2013.

Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the very first group of inductees, which also included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He also was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and received numerous awards. Four of his songs, Tutti Frutti (no. 43), Long Tall Sally (no. 55), Good Golly, Miss Molly (no. 94) and The Girl Can’t Help It (420), are in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time from April 2010.

I’d like to end this post with a few reactions from other music artists:

“He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid 50’s” (Mick Jagger)

“So sad to hear that my old friend Little Richard has passed. There will never be another!!! He was the true spirit of Rock’n Roll!” (Keith Richards)

“He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly” (Jerry Lee Lewis)

“God bless little Richard one of my all-time musical heroes. Peace and love to all his family.” (Ringo Starr)

“He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll. He was a such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard’s music will last forever.” (Brian Wilson)

Sources: Wikipedia; SFGATE.com; The New York Times; CNN; Rolling Stone; 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

What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T./Note By Note

I guess I really should consider subscribing to a music magazine. The thing is, based on what I’ve seen, these publications mostly write about contemporary stuff that rarely interests me. If anyone has a great recommendation, please let me know. Why am I bringing it up? Because here’s another recently released album I completely missed. And while it only includes two new songs, I was immediately hooked when I started listening to the music a couple of days ago: Note By Note by Booker T. Yep, I’m talking about the man from Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

To start with, I think Booker T.’s love of music isn’t only obvious but also truly infectious. That’s why I dig the man! Witnessing him in action playing the keys of his Hammond B3 frequently gives me goosebumps. In case you haven’t watched it yet, check out Booker T.’s demo of the iconic organ I previously covered here. If you’re a music lover and curious about exploring instruments, tell me how you can not feel like wanting to have a friggin’ Hammond and, in case you don’t know how to play keyboards, figuring out yourself how to create these magic sounds or take lessons after watching this – heck, if I could afford it, I would even put a B3 in my living room as a beautiful piece of furniture!

Booker T

By the way, Booker T. has something else I admire: The man is a multi-instrumentalist. Two instruments (guitar, electric bass) was all I could handle to learn many moons ago and, frankly, while I guess I was on okay player when I was at my best, I was far away from mastery! According to Wikipedia, apart from his signature Hammond B3, Booker T. also knows how to play the oboe, saxophone, trombone and double bass. And let’s not forget about the piano, though one could say that’s perhaps less of a surprise, considering the organ, despite the significant differences between those two instruments. In fact, as you can learn from the above noted clip, it was the piano and lessons Booker T. took as a child with his teacher in Memphis, Tenn., which led him to discover the mighty Hammond. Great story, by the way, and one of various anecdotes he tells during the demo. Have I whetted your appetite to watch? 🙂

Released on November 1, Note By Note is a companion album to Booker T.’s memoir Time Is Tight, which was published by Little, Brown and Company and appeared on October 29. According to a press release, Note By Note celebrates and revisits a number of integral musical moments throughout Jones’ life – from playing with Mahalia Jackson at age 12, to his pivotal role as bandleader, performer and songwriter at Stax, to his focus on production through his work with Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana. The tracks largely mirror the chapter titles of the book. The memoir certainly sounds intriguing, and you can check out a review in The New York Times here. In this post, I’d like to focus on the music, so let’s get to it!

Booker T. 2

While I didn’t see any clips on YouTube, luckily, the album is available on Soundcloud. Here’s the excellent opener Cause I Love You, the first single released by Carla Thomas in 1960, a duet with her father Rufus Thomas, who also wrote the lyrics of the song. It also featured her brother Marvell Thomas on keyboards and, yes, you perhaps guessed it, Booker T. A 16-year-old high school student at the time, he played the tune’s opening notes on a borrowed barritone saxophone – his very first studio recording! The single was released by Satellite Records, which eventually became the legendary Stax Records. The cover on this album features Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet, two young talented vocalists who sound smoking hot!

While it’s very well known, I simply could not leave out Born Under A Bad Sign, the blues classic first recorded by Albert King at Stax in May 1967, and co-written by Booker T. and William Bell. It’s the only track on the album, featuring Booker T. on lead vocals. That’s a bit of a pity, in my opinion, since he has a quite soulful voice. Check it out! By the way, that nice guitar work comes from Booker T.’s son Ted Jones.

Another tune I have to call out is Precious Lord. Written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, the gospel tune was recorded by Mahalia Jackson in March 1956 and became her signature song. The original complete title was Take My Hand, Precious Lord. As noted above, Booker T. got to perform with the famous gospel singer as a child – it’s not hard to see how that must have made a lasting impression on a 12-year-old! Check out the album’s powerful version featuring vocalist Sharlotte Gibson. Her voice together with the sparing instrumentation led by Booker T.’s Hammond is just beautiful! It makes me want to do a post to gospel music – so many powerful tunes in that genre!

So how about some Otis Redding? Ask and you shall receive! These Arms of Mine was written by Redding and initially released as his first single for Stax in October 1962. The song was also included on his debut album Pain In My Heat that appeared in March 1964. Redding, of course, was one of many Stax recording artists who were backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. This cover of the slow-tempo soul tune, which includes a piano part that reminds me a bit of Fats Domino, features Ty Taylor, another great vocalist who hails from New Jersey and is the leader of a soul rock band called Vintage Trouble. 

Next up: Havana Moon, a song written by Chuck Berry and first released in November 1956 as the B-side to his single You Can’t Catch Me. The tune also became the title track of a 1983 studio album by Carlos Santana, who appropriately gave it more of a Latin feel. That recording featured Booker T. The take on Note By Note is much closer to the Santana version than Berry’s original. In fact, Ted Jones’ guitar work is reminiscent of Santana – nicely done!

The last track I’d like to highlight is Maybe I Need Saving, one of the album’s two new tracks; the second one is called Paralyzed. Both were co-written by Ted Jones and feature him on vocals. I could not find information on who else was involved in writing these songs. At first, I was a little surprised about their inclusion on the album. Sure, Ted is Booker’s T.’s son, which is an obvious connection. But initially, I felt the more contemporary sound of these tracks created a bit of a disconnect to the other, older tunes. Yet, after fter having listened a few times, I actually think they are worthy tunes. Maybe I Need Saving has a nice bluesy touch, which once again features great guitar work by Ted, who has impressive guitar chops, and yet another illustration of Booker T.’s beautiful Hammond.

In addition to Ted Jones, Booker T.’s backing musicians on Note By Note include Steve Ferrone on drums (Average White Band, Tom Petty) and his longtime bandmate Melvin Brannon on bass. Booker T. is currently on the road to support the book and the record. Had I known about all of this a week earlier, perhaps I could have seen him at Le Poisson Rouge, a live music venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village – definitely a missed opportunity! Unfortunately, any of his remaining gigs are nowhere close to my location and include Salt Lake City (tonight), Phoenix (Jan. 8 & 9), Tucson (Jan. 10) and Nashville (Jan. 16). The schedule of all outstanding currently scheduled shows is here.

But not all may be lost. Booker T., who less than two weeks ago turned 75, is aging admirably and seems to be in decent health. So there still could be an opportunity for me to see the man – I would definitely love to, and preferably so at a small venue. Maybe he’ll read this and add some dates to his current tour that are within reasonable geographic reach! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Shoe Fire Media press release; New York Times; Booker T. website; Soundcloud

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

My Playlist: Aretha Franklin

Earlier this year, I got very close to seeing Aretha Franklin live at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. I had already purchased two tickets and was thrilled to finally experience who I felt was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. Another cool thing was that the March 25th show would have coincided with her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

On very short notice, the concert was cancelled due to an unidentified illness. When media reported shortly thereafter that Franklin’s doctor had ordered three months of absolute rest, I didn’t have a good feeling. After all, this wasn’t the first time she had dealt with health issues. Yesterday, the Queen of Soul passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer, barely five months after her birthday and what I’m sure would have been an unforgettable performance.

FRANKLIN
Aretha Franklin performing at the VH1 Divas 2001

Given the vast number of obituaries that have been published since news about her untimely death broke yesterday morning, I’m not going to develop yet another one. Instead, I’d like to focus on what will remain – an amazing amount of music by an amazing performer, released over a 60-year-plus professional career.

Based on Wikipedia, Franklin’s enormous catalog includes 42 studio albums, six live albums, 131 singles and numerous compilations. While it’s obviously impossible to capture all of that music in one playlist while keeping it to no more than 10 tracks, I tried to come up with tunes that span her entire recording period.

Where to start the undertaking? Well, how about Franklin’s studio debut Songs Of Faith from 1956, which was recorded live at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Here’s While The Blood Runs Warm. Franklin was only 14 years old at the time, but you can already hear her powerful voice. This is giving me goosebumps!

Franklin’s fourth studio album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin from August 1962 became her first charting record, reaching no. 69 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Here’s Try A Little Tenderness, a tune I dig, written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods, and first recorded by the Ray Nobel Orchestra in December 1932. It has since been covered by many other artists, who in addition to Franklin most notably included Otis Redding in 1966.

Respect is perhaps the best-known Aretha Franklin song. The signature tune, which was written and first released by Otis Redding in 1965, appeared on her 11th studio album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You from March 1967. The song was Franklin’s first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, as well as the Cash Box chart. The record became her highest charting to date, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard album chart and topping the magazine’s R&B chart.

Another Franklin signature song undoubtedly is Think, co-written by her and her manager and first husband Ted White. The feminism anthem appeared on her 15th studio album Aretha Now in June 1968 and was also released separately as a single in May of the same year. White’s involvement in the song’s writing looks ironical, given Franklin divorced him in 1969, following reports of domestic abuse.

This Girl’s In Love With You was Franklin’s first ’70s album appearing in January that year, and her 18th studio album overall. Intriguingly, it includes the first commercial release of Let It Be, preceding The Beatles’ version by two months, and the following take of The Weight written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Oh, and if the guy on the slide guitar somehow seems to sound familiar, it was Duane Allman. I think not only is this soulful cover smoking hot, but it’s also a great illustration of Franklin’s great ability to take songs written by others and make them her own.

In February 1974, Franklin released her 22nd studio album Let Me Be In Your Life.  The second single from that record was Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), co-written by Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder and Morris Broadnax. It was first recorded by Wonder in 1967, though he didn’t release his version until 1977. The tune became a million-seller for Franklin, topping the Billboard R&B chart and peaking at no. 2 on the Hot 100. It was her last major ’70s hit.

Jumping to the ’80s, Franklin collaborated on a number of songs with various other artists during that decade, such as George Benson, Elton John, George Michael and Eurhythmics. The tune I’d like to highlight in this context is Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, another feminist anthem that Franklin recorded with Eurhythmics. Apart from appearing as a single in October 1985, the tune was included on Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and the British pop duo’s Be Yourself Tonight studio albums. Co-written by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, the song reached no. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 9 in the U.K. on the Official Singles Chart. The track proves that Franklin could even make an ’80s commercial pop tune sound pretty hot.

A Rose Is Still A Rose, released in March 1998, was Franklin’s last studio album that reached Gold certification and became her best-selling record of the ’90s. Following is the title track, which was written by Lauryn Hill and is yet another feminist-based tune. It also appeared as a single one month ahead of the album, reaching no. 1, 5 and 26 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop/Rap Songs and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

Jumping to the current century, in September 2003, Franklin’s 38th studio record So Damn Happy appeared. It included Wonderful, a song co-written by Aleese Simmons and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, which won Franklin the 2003 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

Franklin’s 42nd and final studio album A Brand New Me was released in November 2017. It featured archival vocal recordings from her years with Atlantic Records combined with new arrangements by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and newly recorded backing vocals. Here’s I Say A Little Prayer, which Burt Bacharach and Hal David co-wrote for Dionne Warwick who released it in 1967 as as single. It was also included on her eighth studio release The Windows Of The World. Franklin originally recorded the tune for the above noted Aretha Now album and released it as a single in July 1968, scoring a no. 3 and 10 on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

As previously noted, the goal of the above playlist was to be career-spanning. As such, not all of the songs are among my favorite tunes. But at the same time, I feel that because of her powerful voice and soulful delivery, Franklin simply never sang a bad song in the first place – at least I haven’t heard one yet. Two other artists who come to my mind in this context are Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. It’s a rare quality that is going to be part of Franklin’s legacy.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube