“The Blues Is Alive And Well,” Sings Buddy Guy On New Release

After listening to the blues legend’s smoking hot 18h studio album, you actually believe the title

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“Is your album wishful thinking or reality,” Billboard asked Buddy Guy about his new record. “Both,” replied Guy. “Truth is, I’m worried about the blues. When B.B. King was still alive, we had long talks about why, outside of satellite, the radio don’t play no blues. On the other hand, I got me some youngsters. My protégé Quinn Sullivan is 19, but I discovered him when he was 8. Cat named Kingfish Ingram from the [Mississippi] Delta, just out of high school, is also playing serious blues.” Frankly, the way Guy sings and plays guitar on his new album doesn’t make you feel he needs any young dude to keep the blues alive, since he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

The Blues Is Alive And Well, which appeared yesterday about three years after his last Grammy-awarded release Born To Play The Guitar, is nothing less but breathtaking. On his 18th studio album, the 81-year-old blues maestro sounds as great as ever. And with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, he has some pretty cool guests. There is also 27-year-old English singer-songwriter and guitarist James Bay.

Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards & Jeff Beck

Why the “Glimmer Twins” and Beck when Guy could have invited anyone to join him, asked Billboard. D’uh, why not? But Guy actually had answer that reflects his longtime sentiments. “Feel like I owed the British the respect they gave Muddy. In the ’60s, when our music was dying, the Stones and their English buddies woke up the world to the blues. They wouldn’t play if Muddy wasn’t on their show. They were shocked America was ignorant of the geniuses living right here in our own backyard. They saw where the gold was buried and they dug it up.”  Well, enough said for the upfront and time to get to some of that blues!

Frankly, I could highlight pretty much any of the record’s 15 tracks, since they are all terrific. Let’s kick if off with one called Guilty As Charged, which shuffles along nicely. According to Blues Blast Magazine, on this tune Guy is joined by producer and longtime collaborator Tom Hambridge (drums), Rob McNelley (rhythm guitar), Kevin MdKendree (keyboards) and Willie Weeks (bass). As also was the case on Guy’s more recent albums, Hambridge was also instrumental in the writing.

Cognac is one of the three tracks that had come out prior to the album. Featuring Richards and Beck, it’s definitely one of the album’s highlights. And even though I already wrote about it in my previous post, with these three dynamite guitarists trading solos, I just couldn’t resist including the song here as well – it’s just priceless!

Here’s the dynamite title track, which was co-written by Hambridge and Gary Nicholson. When I walked through the front door/I swear I heard the back door slam/I got a sneaky suspicion/You got another man/you’re doin’ me wrong, our love is dead and gone/But as far as I can tell/The blues is alive and well. One of tune’s distinct features are the great accents set by The Muscle Shoals Horns, including Charles Rose (trombone & horn arrangements), Steve Herrman (trumpet), Doug Moffet (tenor sax) and Jim Hoke (baritone sax) – gives me goose bumps!

Bad Day is another terrific mid-tempo blues shuffle that makes you want to grab a guitar and groove right along – not that I’m trying to imply that I could contribute anything meaningful here – just daydreaming a little! Blues Blast Magazine notes that the great blues harp fills are provided by Emil Justian, who once was the frontman for Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s band – good company!

On the next track I’d like to call out, Whiskey For Sale, things get funky – yeah, baby! I can hear a little bit of a Stevie Wonder groove in here. I can also picture James Brown shouting out a few ‘uh’s’ as you listen to the track. The beautiful backing vocals by Regina & Ann McCrary of the gospel music quartet The McCrary Sisters add a nice soul touch. I really dig that tune. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to highlight, You Did The Crime, is the song featuring Jagger. Intriguingly, you don’t hear him on vocals, but instead Jagger reminds us that he is a pretty decent blues harpist – something that was also vividly on display on Blue & Lonesome, the Stones’ all blues cover album from December 2016.

I’m really excited about this record – in fact, I predict it’s going to win Guy another Grammy in the blues category. I mean, seriously, how could you top this? In addition to being an ace guitarist, who still plays 150 shows a year, Guy once again shows us that music in order to be truly great needs one critical ingredient: the love to perform it!

Prompted by Billboard’s observation that throughout the album Guy’s joy seems to outweigh his worry about the future of the blues, he said: “Hell yes, the music is shot through with joy. Always has been. When I left the Louisiana farm on Sept. 27, 1957, for Chicago, I was looking for joy. And I found it. Joy went by the name of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy [Williamson], Howlin’ Wolf. One thing those guys told me never left my mind: ‘Keep these blues, alive, Buddy. Don’t you ever let them die.'”

 

Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Blues Blast Magazine, YouTube

Little Steven Captures 2017 Tour In Great Live Album

“Soulfire Live!” is a journey through rock history

Today, I coincidentally came across this great new live album from Steven Van Zandt and his excellent Disciples Of Soul backing band in Apple Music. I had completely missed Soulfire Live! when it appeared on April 27 on digital platforms for streaming and downloading. According to an announcement, the “surprise release” came just before Little Steven and the band embarked on a new tour through the U.S. in late April, which will last through May and be followed by dates in Europe in late June and July.

Recorded at 2017 shows in Europe and North America, the 24-track collection features original tunes by Little Steven and covers. It includes various tracks from his excellent last studio album Soulfire from May 2017, his first new record in nearly 18 years and one of my favorite albums from last year. I previously wrote about it here. And since I really dig the music, I also decided to catch Little Steven and The Disciples at one of their U.S. gigs in September last year. I also had something to say about that show here.

Soulfire Live! nicely captures the concert atmosphere. At least as intriguing as the music are some of Little Steven’s announcements, during which he provides his perspective on music and shares anecdotes from the past, reminiscent to what he does on his excellent Underground Garage radio show. But the highlight of the talking undoubtedly is Mike Stoller, who the introduced the band at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles last October – yep, The Mike Stoller who together with Jerry Leiber wrote numerous legendary tunes for artists like Big Mama Thornton (Hound Dog), The Drifters (Fools Fall In Love), Ben E. King (Stand By Me) and of course Elvis Presley (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Treat Me Nice, etc.).

Stoller notes he was an usher at the theatre 67 years ago until got into an argument with his boss and was fired. After that he says he decided to team up with his friend Jerry Leiber to write songs, dryly adding it worked out pretty good. Listen for yourself – it’s priceless!

On to some music. Here is one of my favorite covers from this collection, which also appeared on the Soulfire studio album: Blues Is My Business, a tune co-written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and sung by Etta James on her 2003 blues record Let’s Roll. The band is just killing it!

One of the original Little Steven tunes is Angel Eyes, which he recorded for his 1982 solo debut record Men Without Women. That tune has a nice soul groove.

Standing In The Line Of Fire is another song by Little Steven. He wrote it for Gary U.S. Bonds, and it became the title track of a studio album Bonds released in September 1984. Little Steven also co-produced the record. I like the song’s Hank Marvin-style guitar intro.

Another superb cover is the blaxploitation tune Down And Out In New York City. It was written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon, and recorded by James Brown for Black Caesar, a soundtrack album for the motion picture of the same name, which appeared in February 1973. The track was also included on Soulfire, though the live version is extended.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is another cover, Groovin’ Is Easy, by American blues rock and soul band The Electric Flag. The song was written by the band’s guitarist Nick Gravenites and appeared on their debut album A Long Time Comin’ from March 1968. Based on some of their music I’ve heard, I have to check out these guys more closely.

Soulfire Live! was produced and arranged by Van Zandt, and appears on his rock and roll label Wicked Cool Records. It was mixed by heavy hitter Bob Clearmountain, who has worked with artists like Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and The Who, among many others. The album will also become available on CD, Blu-ray and vinyl editions this summer.

Sources: Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) press release, NJArts.net, Wikipedia, YouTube

Making Your Christmas Groove

A list to get you into the mood for that most wonderful time of the year

When I was looking back at previous posts on the blog, I came across a list of Christmas rock, soul, rap and pop tunes I had put together last year. For the most part, I still stand behind it and thought it would be fitting to publish a slightly updated version.

One of the things I liked to do during the Christmas holiday while growing up in Germany many moons ago was to listen to my favorite radio station, which was then called SWF III. At that time of the year, the DJs would frequently play song requests from listeners. Not surprisingly, Christmas pop and rock songs were high in demand. Some of these tunes became seasonal anthems, such as Wham’s Last Christmas, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. Okay, maybe these are not the most compelling examples, but these tunes come to mind first when I think about those times.

Some folks may cringe about the thought of pop and rock artists dressing up as Santa and performing Christmas songs, whether they are covers of traditional tunes or new songs with holiday themes. Others may get cynical about music artists and record companies all for a sudden discovering Jesus and Santa when people conveniently are willing to spend insane amounts of money on Christmas presents. I get all of that and being cynical about it is not unfounded.

Christmas Rocks

I still think there are some great Christmas rock and pop songs that have come out over the years – in fact, make that over the decades! Plus, let’s be honest, while many traditional Christmas tunes have beautiful melodies, they don’t exactly groove. I don’t know about you, but I like listening to music that makes me want to get up and move – by the way, probably not such a bad thing during the holiday season when many folks like to indulge on food and drink. So how about rockin’ and rollin’ off that of these extra calories!

Below are some clips of some of my favorite Christmas rock and pop tunes in no particular order: From John Lennon’s haunting Happy Xmas, to Chuck Berry’s rockin’ & rollin’ Run Rudolph Run, to Run-D.M.C.’s cool rap Christmas in Hollis, to AC/DC’s hard-charging Mistress For Christmas, to a fantastic live version of Feliz Navidad with José Feliciano and Daryl Hall, to the unforgettable James Brown and his funky Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, these tunes come in many different genres!

John Lennon/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1971)

Chuck Berry/Run Rudolph Run (1958)

The Pogues/Fairytale Of New York (1987)

Run-D.M.C./Christmas In Hollis (1987)

AC/DC/Mistress For Christmas (1990)

José Feliciano/Feliz Navidad (2010)

James Brown/Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto (1968)

Otis Redding/Merry Christmas Baby (posthumous, 1968)

The Ravers/(It’s Gonna Be) A Punk Rock Christmas (1978)

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band/Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (2007

Happy Holiday season!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue

The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Gladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo. Countless other major artists, such as Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

Apollo Theater Historic Image

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

Aretha Franklin at Apollo Theater

The theater reopened under new management in 1978 and before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him Mr. Dynamite and The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Mary Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, the Apollo Theater continues to be a important cultural institution, attracting an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. Music remains at the core of its offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: July 6

1957: John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time. Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen performed at a garden party at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, Liverpool. While the band was setting up for their gig, Ivan Vaughan, who occasionally played with them on tea-chest bass, introduced his school classmate 15-year-old McCartney to Lennon (16 years). They hit it off right away. McCartney showed Lennon how to tune a guitar and sang a few songs, including Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock, Gene Vincent’s Be-Bop-A-Lula and a medley of Little Richard songs. A few weeks later McCartney joined The Quarrymen and the rest is history.

The Quarrymen

1963: Live at the Apollo by James Brown and The Flames peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Albums chart. Altogether, the amazing live album remained in the chart for 66 weeks. After the record company’s had refused to fund the recording, Brown paid for it himself. In 2012, the record was ranked no. 25 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The accompanying write-up called it “Perhaps the greatest live album ever recorded.”

1967: Pink Floyd appeared for the first time on the BBC music show Top of the Pops. They performed See Emily Play, their second single. Written by Syd Barrett, the song was also included in the band’s U.S. edition of their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. See Emily Play climbed to no. 6 in the U.K. Singles Chart. The tune is also included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock. It’s one of three Pink Floyd songs in the list, which includes artists alphabetically and does not rank songs. The other two are Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 and Money.

1972: In another appearance on Top of the Pops, David Bowie presented his new single Starman. Written by Bowie, the song reached no. 10 on the U.K. Singles Chart. It was also included on his fifth studio album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Sources: The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music.com; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: 500 Songs that Shaped Rock; Wikipedia; YouTube