The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to a new Sunday Six and another hot weekend, at least in my area of Central New Jersey. This is the latest installment of my recurring weekly feature that celebrates music I love in different flavors and from different periods, six tunes at a time.

In some cases, my picks are songs that I earmarked over the course of the week. On other occasions, the posts are coming together pretty spontaneously at the last minute. This one predominantly falls into the latter category. I’m happy with the way it turned out. Hope you find something in here you dig!

Colin McLeod/Old Soul (featuring Sheryl Crow)

Starting this week’s set is Colin McLeod, a Scottish singer-songwriter and farmer I had not heard of until yesterday. McLeod got my attention when I spotted a clip on Facebook, featuring a song he recorded with Sheryl Crow and included on his new album Hold Fast, which was released on June 18. The mellow atmospheric tune spoke to me right away – I love these types of coincidences! For a bit of additional background, here’s an excerpt from his Apple Music profile: Raised on the Isle of Lewis, the largest island of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides archipelago, MacLeod amassed a wide array of influences, from regional folk and pop to widescreen Springsteen-esque rock, before leaving the island in 2009 to test his mettle as a performer. An A&R scout from Universal caught one of MacLeod’s gigs in Aberdeen, which resulted in the release of his debut album Fireplace, which he issued under the moniker Boy Who Trapped the Sun in 2010. The experience left a bad taste in his mouth, so, exhausted and homesick, he returned to the Isle of Lewis, where he spent his days raising sheep and growing crops. It proved to be a fortuitous move. Inspired by the sights, sounds, smells, and stories of his remote part of the world, MacLeod was able to parlay those experiences into his music, culminating in the release of the acclaimed Ethan Johns-produced Bloodlines, his first collection of songs to be issued under his own name. McLeod’s new album is his sophomore release. Old Soul was written by him. Call me crazy, I can hear a bit of Bono in his voice. I also think his vocals beautifully blend with Sheryl Crow’s.

Buddy Guy/Kiss Me Quick (featuring Kim Wilson)

On to some great electric guitar blues. Yes, it’s quite a leap. But you see, that’s the thing about The Sunday Six – it can be arbitrary. If you’re into the blues and see the names Buddy Guy and Kim Wilson, you know you’re in for a treat. What can I say about the amazing Buddy Guy? He’s the last man standing from the old Chicago blues guard, who played with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. Guy who is turning 85 in July is a force of nature. I’ve been fortunate to see him live twice over the past five years. Wilson, of course, is best known as the lead vocalist and frontman of blues rockers The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I’d love to see these guys as well! So what do get when combining the two artists? A nice blues shuffle titled Kiss Me Quick that appeared on Guy’s 17th studio album appropriately titled Born to Play Guitar, which won the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2016. The tune was co-written by Richard Fleming and producer Tom Hambridge. Makes me want to listen to the entire bloody album!

The Who/The Real Me

Let’s kick things up a notch with The Who and The Real Me. Why pick the second track from side one of Quadrophenia? To begin with, The Who’s sixth studio album from October 1973 is one of the gems in their catalog. Another reason why I chose this particular tune is John Entwistle and his outstanding bass work. As a former hobby bassist, perhaps I pay closer attention and get a little bit more excited about bass runs than some other folks. All I can tell you is this: Seeing The Ox with The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2001 was an unforgettable event. In typical fashion, Entwistle was standing pretty much motionless on one side of the stage, while Pete Townshend launched from one windmill attack to the other, Roger Daltrey engaged in impressive lasso acrobatics with his microphone, and Zak Starkey (yep, Ringo Starr’s son) was working that drum kit. It was really something else! Sadly, Entwistle passed away about six months after that show in Las Vegas, the day before The Who were scheduled to kick off their 2002 U.S. tour. He was only 57 years old – what a loss!

Seals & Crofts/Summer Breeze

Time to slow things down again. And since summer is in full swing, here’s one of the warmest sounding tunes I can think of in this context: Summer Breeze by Seals & Crofts. Every time I hear this song, it puts me at ease. Behind the soft rock duo were multi-instrumentalists James Eugene “Jim” Seals  and Darrell George “Dash” Crofts. Summer Breeze, the title track of their fourth studio album from September 1972, probably is their best known song. It peaked at no. 7 and no. 6 on the U.S. and Canadian mainstream charts, respectively. The album marked their commercial breakthrough. Seals & Crofts also scored two other hits: Diamond Girl (1973) and Get Closer (1976). Unlike Summer Breeze, I had to sample these tracks to remember them. Then the hits stopped, and in 1980, after their record company had dropped them, Seals & Crofts decided to go on hiatus. They have since reunited a few times. There are also younger torch bearers. Wikipedia notes in 2018, Jim Seals’ cousin Brady Seals and Darrell Crofts’ daughter Lua Crofts began touring as Seals and Crofts 2, performing Seals & Crofts music as well as some originals.

The Zombies/She’s Not There

The first time I heard She’s Not There was the cover by Santana from their excellent 1977 Moonflower album. Since it certainly sounds very much like a Carlos Santana tune, I simply assumed it was their song. Only years later did I find out She’s Not There was written by Rod Argent, the keyboarder of The Zombies. The tune first appeared in the UK in July 1964 as the British rock band’s debut single. Two months later, it came out in the U.S. She’s Not There was also included on The Zombies’ debut album. In this case, the self-titled U.S. version was first out of the gate in January 1965. The U.K. edition, titled Begin Here, appeared in April that year. As was common at the time, there were some differences between the two versions. After the breakup of The Zombies in 1969 and a couple of impersonating bands, Argent and original lead vocalist and guitarist Colin Blunstone reunited in 2000, moved to the U.S. and recorded an album, Out of the Shadows, released in 2001. Starting from 2004, they began touring again as The Zombies. There have also been three additional albums since, released under the name Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent/The Zombies. The most recent one, Still Got That Hunger, appeared in October 2015. The band is still around. Ticketmaster currently lists some gigs for 2022.

Gregg Allman/My Only True Friend

The time has come again to wrap up things. My final pick is by Gregg Allman. He and The Allman Brothers Band were a very late discovery for me. Fortunately, it happened just in time to see them once in New Jersey on their very last tour in 2014, a couple of months before their final curtain at the Beacon Theatre in New York. After exploring the band, I also got into Gregg Allman’s solo catalog. I particularly dig Low Country Blues from January 2011 and his final album Southern Blood, which I got on vinyl. It came out in September 2017, four months after Allman had passed away at the age of 68 due to complications from liver cancer. Even though I had only become fond of his music a few years earlier, his death really moved me. I still get emotional about it. There was something very special about Gregg Allman when he was singing and hitting those keys of his Hammond B3. I can’t quite explain it. Here’s Southern Blood’s opener My Only True Friend, the sole track on the album that was co-written by Allman. The other writer was Scott Sharrad, lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s backing band. You can read more about the album here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

The Venues: Beat-Club

“Cult” German TV show featured prominent music acts from Alice Cooper to Zeppelin

A YouTube clip from Beat-Club I coincidentally caught on Sunday reminded me that I hadn’t done a post in my series about popular concert halls and music programs since July 2020. So I felt the popular German TV music show, which aired monthly between September 1965 and December 1972, would be a great topic for another installment.

Beat-Club was created by music producer Gerhard Augustin, who according to Wikipedia was Germany’s first professional disc jockey, and film director and writer Mike Leckebusch. Broadcast on one of Germany’s main national public TV channels ARD, the show was hosted by German architect-turned-singer-turned-TV presenter Uschi Nerke. Until early 1969, she was joined by Augustin and afterwards by Dave Dee, of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, before Nerke started hosting alone in 1970.

Uschi Nerke kommt – blacksheep Festival
Uschi Nerke

Beat-Club began as a live program with music guests performing in front of a plain brick wall. In 1967, the program was revamped to adapt a “more professional look,” which among others included large cards in the background that displayed the names of the performers. The new format also allowed for inclusion of artists who could not appear live. In these cases, a troupe of young women called the “Go-Go-Girls” was dancing to the featured songs – ouch! On a cooler note, in its later years, Beat-Club incorporated psychedelic visual effects during many performances. These effects became much more pronounced after the program switched to color in late 1969.

German TV personality Wilhelm Wieben opened Beat-Club’s first episode with the following words: “Hello, dear beat friends. The time has finally come. In just a few seconds starts the first show on German television, which exclusively was made for you. Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you who may not enjoy beat music for your understanding. It’s a live program with young people for young people. And now, let’s go!”

Beat Club (TV) - March 27, 1969 / Bremen | Led Zeppelin Official Website
Led Zeppelin at Beat-Club, March 1969

I guess Wieben and the master minds behind the program pretty much foresaw what would happen: While Beat-Club’s target audience embraced the show right way, the older generation in Germany was horrified. This probably ensured young people liked it even more. In fact, the show quickly reached “cult” status.

Over its seven-year run, Beat-Club featured an impressive array of music artists and bands. Badfinger, Chuck Berry, Cream, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Who were some among many others. Now on to the real fun part: Clips that capture some of the action. The year in parenthesis after each title marks the timing of the show episode. It’s all based on Beat-Club’s YouTube channel.

Cream/I Feel Free (1967)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience/Purple Haze (1967)

Canned Heat/On the Road Again (1968)

Joe Cocker/With a Little Help From My Friends (1968)

Chicago Transit Authority/I’m a Man (1969)

The Who/Sally Simpson & I’m Free (1969)

Black Sabbath/Paranoid (1970)

Muddy Waters/Honey Bee (1970)

Fleetwood Mac/Dragonfly (1971)

T. Rex/Jeepster (1971)

Ike & Tina Turner/Get Back (1972)

Manassas/Rock & Roll Crazies

Beat-Club eventually was replaced by another music program called Musikladen (music store). While I was too young to watch Beat-Club, I have some nebulous memories of Musikladen, and I’m afraid they aren’t great! Nerke co-moderated the program with main host Manfred Sexauer until September 1978. Subsequently, she hosted her own radio show Beat-Club until January 2013.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Of Slides and Bottlenecks

The sound of a well played slide guitar is one of the coolest in music in my opinion. I’ve always loved it. It’s also one of the most challenging techniques that requires great precision and lots of feeling. You can easily be off, which to me is the equivalent of a violin player who hasn’t mastered yet how to properly use the bow or a trumpet player who is still working on their blowing technique – in other words real torture, if you miss!

I thought it would be fun putting together a post that features great slide guitarists from different eras. Before getting to some music, I’d like to give a bit of background on the technique and a very brief history. More specifically, I’m focusing on slide guitar played in the traditional position, i.e., flat against the body, as opposed to lap steel guitar where the instrument is placed in a player’s lap and played with a hand-held bar.

How to Play Slide Guitar - Quickstart Guide | Zing Instruments

Slide guitar is a technique where the fret hand uses a hard object called a slide instead of the fingers to change the pitch of the strings. The slide, which oftentimes is a metal of a glass tube aka “bottle neck,” is fitted on one of the guitarist’s fingers. Holding it against the strings while moving it up and down the fretboard creates glissando or gliding effects and also offers the opportunity to play pronounced vibratos. The strings are typically plucked, not strummed with the other hand.

The technique of holding a hard object against a plucked string goes back to simple one-string African instruments. In turn, these instruments inspired the single-stringed diddley bow, which was developed as a children’s toy by Black slaves in the U.S. It was considered an entry-level instrument played by adolescent boys who once they mastered it would move on to a regular guitar.

Clockwise starting from left in upper row: Sylvester Weaver, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Brian Jones, Mike Boomfield, Muddy Waters, Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks

The bottleneck slide guitar technique was popularized by blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta near the beginning of the twentieth century. Country blues pioneer Sylvester Weaver made the first known slide guitar recording in 1923. Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and other blues artists popularized the use of slide guitar in the electric blues genre. In turn, they influenced the next generation of blues and rock guitarists like Mike Bloomfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) and Ry Cooder.

Time for some music. Here’s Sylvester Weaver with the instrumental Guitar Blues, one of the earliest slide guitar recordings.

One of the masters of Delta blues who prominently used slide guitar was Robert Johnson. Here’s the amazing Cross Road Blues from 1936 from one of only two recording sessions in which Johnson participated. If you haven’t heard this version but it somehow sounds familiar, chances are you’ve listened to Cream’s cover titled Crossroads.

Are you ready to shake it? Here’s smoking hot Shake Your Money Maker written by Elmore James. James released this classic blues standard in December 1961.

The Rolling Stones were fans of the Chicago blues. One of their blues gems featuring Brian Jones on slide guitar was Little Red Rooster, which they released as a single in the UK in November 1964. It was also included on their third American studio album The Rolling Stones, Now! from February 1965. Written by Willie Dixon, the tune was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in October 1961.

Next is Walkin’ Blues, which The Paul Butterfield Blues Band covered on their second studio album East-West from August 1966, featuring Mike Bloomfield on slide guitar. The tune was written by Delta blues artist Son House in 1930.

In May 1969, Muddy Waters released his sixth studio album After the Rain. Here’s slide guitar gem Rollin’ and Tumblin’, which was first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern (gotta love this name!) in 1929. It’s unclear who wrote the tune.

Here’s one of the greatest slide guitarists of all time: Duane Allman with The Allman Brothers Band and One Way Out. This amazing rendition appeared on an expanded version of At Fillmore East released in October 1992. The original edition appeared in July 1971, three months prior to Duane’ deadly motorcycle accident. Co-written by Marshall Sehorn and Elmore James, the tune was first recorded and released in the early to mid-’60s by Sonny Boy Williamson II and James.

A post about slide guitar wouldn’t be complete without the amazing Bonnie Raitt, an artist I’ve dug for many years. Here’s Sugar Mama, a song co-written by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, which she recorded for her fifth studio album Home Plate from 1975.

Let’s do two more tracks performed by two additional must-include slide guitar masters. First up is Ry Cooder with Feelin’ Bad Blues, a tune Cooder wrote for the soundtrack of the 1986 picture Crossroads, which was inspired by the life of Robert Johnson. This is a true slide beauty!

Last but not least, here’s Derek Trucks who is considered to be one of the best contemporary slide guitarists. Trucks is best known as an official member of the Allmans from 1999-2014 and as co-founder of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which he formed together with his wife Susan Tedeschi in 2010. Here’s a great live performance of Desdemona by The Allman Brothers, featuring some amazing slide guitar playing by Trucks. Co-written by Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, the tune was included on the band’s final studio album Hittin’ the Note that came out in March 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Popa Chubby/It’s a Mighty Hard Road

Shout-out to my brother-in-law who brought Popa Chubby to my attention earlier today. Before then, I had never heard of the 60-year-old electric blues-focused guitarist and songwriter from the Bronx, New York, who was born Theodore Joseph “Ted” Horowitz.

Chubby has been playing music for more than 30 years. On his website he describes his style as “the Stooges meets Buddy Guy, Motörhead meets Muddy Waters, and Jimi Hendrix meets Robert Johnson.” These are many names to throw around, but based on YouTube clips I have seen it’s not just empty words.

The above tune is the title track of Chubby’s most recent album that came out in March this year in celebration of his 30th anniversary as a blues artist. It’s one of 13 original tracks on the record that also includes covers of Freddie King’s I’d Rather be Blind and Prince’s Kiss.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to further explore Chubby and write more about him. Until then I’ll leave you with this cool rendition of Jim Hendrix’s Hey Joe captured in 2011 on the German music TV program Rockpalast.

Sources: Wikipedia; Popa Chubby website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band/The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

While I don’t ever feel I need a specific reason to write about the blues, I can’t deny the timing of this post isn’t entirely coincidental. The other day, I watched a Q&A with Walter Trout that was streamed online, during which he answered questions fans had submitted. At some point, he talked about his influences and in this context noted The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and their eponymous debut album from October 1965. Well, evidently, Trout’s got great taste!

Frankly, I could have picked any tune from this record, which is just outstanding from the first to the last bar. So let’s kick it off with the opener Born in Chicago. It was written by blues, rock and folk singer-songwriter Nick Gravenites, who became best known as the lead vocalist for The Electric Flag and his work with Janis Joplin and Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1966 (from left to right, front: Paul Butterfield (lead vocals, harmonica)& Billy Davenport (drums); back: Jerome Arnold (bass), Mike Bloomfield (guitar), Mark Naftalin (organ) & Elvin Bishop (guitar)

Apart from the great music, I’d like to call out the tune’s lyrics. These words could have been written in present-day America – something to think about as the country’s so-called leaders present alternate facts, while they pretend to celebrate the nation’s birthday with grandiose and thoughtless mass gatherings in the middle of a deadly pandemic!

I was born in Chicago 1941/I was was born in Chicago in 1941/Well, my father told me/”Son, you had better get a gun”/Well, my first friend went down/When I was 17 years old/Well, my first friend went down/When I was 17 years old/Well, there’s one thing I can say about that boy/He gotta go…

As frequent visitors of the blog know, I just dig vocals, so let’s shake things up a little with a great instrumental. Thank You Mr. Poobah was co-written by Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and the band’s keyboarder Mark Naftalin. I love that tune’s groove fueled by Jerome Arnold’s walking bass and Sam Lay’s drum work. And there’s also Bloomfield’s masterful guitar-playing and Butterfield’s great harmonica work. Frankly – dare I say it – when the music is so nicely rockin’ and rollin’, who needs vocals! Yes, that just came from the guy who likes to wine about certain tracks, especially in prog rock, which seemingly have endless instrumental parts with no vocals! 🙂

While it’s perhaps an obvious choice, I just couldn’t skip I Got My Mojo Working – what a killer rendition of the Muddy Waters tune that originally came out in April 1957! ‘Nuff said, here it is!

Let’s move on to another original, Our Love Is Drifting, co-written by Butterfield and the band’s second guitarist Elvin Bishop. It’s a great mid-tempo blues track. Butterfield’s singing, Bishop’s guitar work and Arnold’s bassline are the standouts to me in this tune.

I’d like to wrap up things with another blues classic: Mystery Train written by Junior Parker and produced by Sam Philips in 1953. Elvis Presley was the first among many other artists who covered the tune.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was the first of six albums Butterfield released under that name between 1965 and 1971. The band saw various line-up changes already starting with its sophomore album East-West from August 1966, which featured Billy Davenport on drums. Bloomfield who had tired of the band’s intense touring schedule left in 1967 to form The Electric Flag. Among others, that band included the above-noted Gravenites (rhythm guitar, vocals), Barry Goldberg (keyboards), Harvey Brooks (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums), who later became a member of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s eponymous debut album essentially was ignored when it came out, at least from a chart perspective. It only climbed to number 123 on the Billboard 200. I’m also a bit surprised it merely ranked at no. 468 on Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Well, it least they did include it, along with the following commentary: Where American white kids got the notion they could play the blues. This band had two kiler guitarists: Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. Jeez, there’s even a typo in there – what an embarrassment!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Playing for Change – Reimaging a World Connected by Music

The other day, I came across an amazing video clip featuring Robbie Robertson and a bunch of well-known and to me unknown, yet pretty talented other musicians from all over the world, playing The Weight, one of my favorite tunes by The Band. At first, I only paid attention to their great version of the iconic song and ignored the chiron at the beginning and the end of the clip that notes “Playing for Change.” Then, I noticed other video clips on YouTube, which were also put together by Playing for Change. Finally, I got curious. Who or what is Playing for Change?

It didn’t take long to find their website, which describes their story as follows: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music… Playing For Change was born in 2002 as a shared vision between co-founders, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, to hit the streets of America with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of inspiration and the heartbeat of the people. This musical journey resulted in the award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

PFC Co-Founders
PFC co-founders Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke

In 2005, Mark Johnson was walking in Santa Monica, California, when he heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” Roger had so much soul and conviction in his voice, and Mark approached him about performing “Stand By Me” as a Song Around the World. Roger agreed, and when Mark returned with recording equipment and cameras he asked Roger, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Roger replied, “Man I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people.” Ever since that day the Playing For Change crew has traveled the world recording and filming musicians, creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.

Creating Songs Around the World inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey and form the Playing For Change Band. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language. Songs Around The World The PFC Band is now touring the world and spreading the message of love and hope to audiences everywhere.

I realize the above may embellish things a bit; still, PFC sounds like an intriguing concept. They also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded through donations and supports arts and music programs for children around the world. Based on the foundation’s website, it looks like a legitimate organization. That being said, this isn’t an endorsement. Let’s get back to what originally brought me here – recorded musicians all over the world performing the same song and everything being neatly put together in pretty compelling video clips. Before getting to the above mentioned Robbie Roberson clip, let’s take a look at some of PFC’s other videos.

Walking Blues (Son House)

Walking Blues was written and first recorded by delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues musicians recorded their own versions. This clip features Kevin Roosevelt Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, along with other musicians from Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Morocco. Apparently, the clip was put together in honor of Johnson’s birthday. Check it out!

Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)

Written by Bob Marley, Soul Rebel is the opener to Soul Rebels, the second studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which appeared in December 1970. This clip features Bunny Wailer, an original member of the Wailers, French guitarist Manu Chao and Jamaican reggae singer Bushman, along with other musicians from Jamaica, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina and the U.S. Feel free to groove along!

Listen to the Music (Tom Johnston)

Listen to the Music is a classic by The Doobie Brothers from their second studio album Toulouse Street released in July 1972. It was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the band’s founding members. Apart from Johnston and fellow Doobies Patrick Simmons and John McFee, the clip features other musicians from Venezuela, India, Brazil, Lebanon, Japan, Argentina, Senegal, Congo, South Africa and the U.S., including a gospel choir from Mississippi. This is just a joy to watch!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

While perhaps best known by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along the Watchtower was written by Bob Dylan. He first recorded it for John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album from December 1967. Check out this riveting take featuring Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, John Densmore of The Doors and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, along with other musicians from Italy, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Niger, Ghana, India, Japan, Mali and the U.S. The latter include singers and dancers from the Lakota, a native American tribe that is part of the Great Sioux Nation. This is just mind-boggling to watch!

The Weight (Robbie Robertson)

And finally, here comes the crown jewel that inspired the post: The Weight written by Robbie Robertson, and first recorded for the debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. This clip was co-produced by PFC co-founder Mark Johnson and Robbie’s son Sebastian Johnson to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song. And it’s quite a star-studded affair: In addition to Robertson, the clip features Ringo Starr, blues guitarist Marcus King, roots rockers Larkin Poe and country-rock guitarist Lucas Nelson, along with other musicians from Italy, Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica – what a beautiful tribute to this great tune. Just watch the smile on Robertson’s face at the end. He knows how figgin’ awesome this came out – priceless!

PFC clearly has their go-to musicians in each country, and they’re not hobby musicians. Based on PFC’s website, all musicians are professionals who appear to be recognized within their countries. While as such one could argue PFC doesn’t seem to use amateur/ hobby musicians, it doesn’t take away anything of the concept’s beauty, in my view. Most of their videos capture songs performed by individual artists from different countries or by the PFC band. But it’s the song-around-the-world videos I find most impressive. You can watch all of PFC’s clips on their YouTube channel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Playing For Change website; Playing for Change Foundation website; 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

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

Rolling Stones Can’t Get No Satisfaction And Release New Live Concert Film/Album

I suppose after more than 25 predecessors, it’s fair to ask whether we really need another live album from The Rolling Stones, especially knowing there will never be a repeat of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. As somebody who has enjoyed listening to the Stones for some 40 years, I don’t have a problem with it; while I don’t necessarily love each and every new Stones record, I always find it cool when they release new albums, though it’s safe to assume I’m biased here.

Bridges To Bremen first and foremost is a concert film that’s also available in audio-only formats. It captures the Stones’ full show at Weserstadium in Bremen, Germany on September 2, 1998 during what was the fifth and final leg of their Bridges To Babylon tour. For the most part, it is a collection of the band’s greatest hits, combined with some songs from their then-new album Bridges To Babylon.

Rolling Stones Bridges To Bremen Concert Shot
The Stones in action at Bremen’s Weserstadium (from left): Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

According to the Stones’ website, Ever the innovators, Bridges To Babylon was a tour of firsts – the first time the band went on the road with a permanent B-stage, and also the first time where fans could vote on the band’s website for a track they wanted to hear on the setlist – Memory Motel in the case of the Bremen fans. This concert film has been meticulously restored from the original masters, and the audio remixed and remastered from the live multitrack recordings.

Interestingly, the Stones opted to kick off the show with their best known song that is oftentimes reserved until the end of their concerts: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The tune was first released as a single in the U.S. in June 1965 and was also included on the band’s U.S. version of Out Of Our Heads, their fourth studio release in America. I wouldn’t have called it out, would it not have been for the fact that there are currently only two clips on YouTube from the concert film and I didn’t want to settle for audio clips only. Plus, let’s be honest here, while I must have listened to the friggin’ tune more than one thousand times, I still get a kick watching Keith Richards launch into the song’s signature riff.

The other clip I’d like to highlight is a nice cover of Like A Rolling Stone. Obviously, the band’s formation predates the Bob Dylan tune, so there’s no connection between the song and Stones’ name. In fact, the latter was inspired by a 1950 Muddy Waters track called Rollin’ Stone. Dylan first released Like A Rolling Stone as a single in July 1965. The tune also was included on his fifth studio album Highway 61 Revisited that came out in August that year.

Bridges To Bremen came out today. Here’s the complete track list:

1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
2. Let’s Spend The Night Together
3. Flip The Switch
4. Gimme Shelter
5. Anybody Seen My Baby?
6. Paint It Black
7. Saint Of Me
8. Out Of Control
9. Memory Motel
10. Miss You
11. Thief In The Night
12. Wanna Hold You
13. Its Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)
14. You Got Me Rocking
15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. Sympathy For The Devil
17. Tumbling Dice
18. Honky Tonk Women
19. Start Me Up
20. Jumpin’ Jack Flash
21. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
22. Brown Sugar

In addition, the concert film comes with four bonus tracks that were captured in Chicago during the same tour:

1. Rock And A Hard Place
2. Under My Thumb
3. All About You
4. Let It Bleed

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stones website, setlist.fm, YouTube