Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

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

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

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

Black Pumas/Fast Car

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

Twisted Pine/Don’t Come Over Tonight

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

Ruston Kelly/Rubber

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

Mick Hayes/Autumn Romance

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

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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

Multi-Part Harmonies And Seductive Grooves – The Magic Of The Temptations

When it comes to vocal groups, I can’t think of a more compelling example than The Temptations. Their perfect multi-part harmonies have impressed me from the very first moment I heard them sometime during my early teenage years. I was reminded of The Temptations’ mighty singing while listening to a Christmas playlist yesterday that includes their beautiful rendition of Silent Night. Since I’m a huge fan of great harmony vocals, I decided a tribute post was an order.

The story of The Temptations began in Detroit in 1960 when members of two other vocal bands formed a group called The Elgins: Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant and Melvin Franklin of Otis Williams & the Distants, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams who came from a group called The Primes. Following an audition in March 1961, an impressed Berry Gordy signed the group to Motown imprint Miracle Records. However, there was one problem. The name Elgins was already taken by another band. According to Wikipedia, Miracle Records employee Billy Mitchell, songwriter Mickey Stevenson, Otis Williams and Paul Williams came up with the idea to call the group The Temptations.

In April 1961, the group released their debut single Oh, Mother of Mine. Co-written by Otis Williams and Mickey Stevenson, who also produced the track, the tune was not successful. Neither were the following seven singles The Temptations released. In January 1964, Al Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin, marking the start of “The Classic Five” era that would turn the group into superstars. In the meantime, Smokey Robinson had become their producer, and it was one of his tunes that became the group’s first no. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts: My Girl, released in December 1964. Every time I hear that song, I got sunshine, no matter how cloudy my day may be. By the way, that cool bass intro is played by the amazing James Jamerson. Feel free to snip and groove along!

While it would take The Temptations another four and a half years before scoring their second double no. 1 on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, they released plenty of other hits in the meantime, many of which topped the Hot R&B Singles. Here’s one of my favorites: Get Ready, another tune written and produced by Smokey Robinson. I was going to feature an audio clip of the track but couldn’t resist using the below footage instead, which was captured during a TV appearance in 1966. The song appeared in February that year. Even though none of the singing and music are live, just watching the dance choreography of these guys and the female backing dancers is priceless!

And then the era of The Classic Five came to an end after success and fame apparently had gotten to David Ruffin’s head. His behavior led to friction with the other members of the group, and The Temptations ended up firing him on June 27, 1968. The very next day, he was replaced by Dennis Edwards, a former member of The Contours. The new line-up became what some called the group’s “second classic line-up.” But more changes were in store.

Norman Whitfield took over as producer, and The Temptations started adopting a more edgy sound, influenced by contemporaries like Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic. The group’s four-year psychedelic soul period kicked off with their ninth studio album Cloud Nine from February 1969. The record climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and brought the group their first Grammy Award in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. Here’s Run Away Child, Running Wild, a co-write by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. A shorter version of the tune was also released separately as a single and became another no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here’s the full album version. That’s one hell of a hot funky tune!

Even though The Temptations had come a long way from their oftentimes romantic songs that marked their early years, the group did not entirely abandon sweet ballads. Here’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion, released in January 1971: Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). Evidently, the public liked it as well. The song became the group’s third and last to top both the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts. Interestingly, it was written by the same guys who penned Runaway Child, Running Wild. Perhaps appropriately, the track also appeared on an album called Sky’s The Limit. Damn, these guys could harmonize – it’s pure perfection and actually no imagination!

Writing about The Temptations’ psychedelic soul era wouldn’t be complete without including another epic tune: Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett gem. Initially, it was recorded and released as a single in May 1972 by another Motown act called The Undisputed Truth – something I had not known until I did some research for this post. While their original is pretty cool, I still prefer The Temptations’ version. Interestingly, it hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 but “only” peaked at no. 5 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here it is in its full 12-minute glory!

By the time of the release of 1990 in December 1973, The Temptations had become tired of psychedelic soul and wanted to move back to their more upbeat style and lyrics of the ’60s. The album turned out to be the final record produced by Whitfield. January 1975 saw the release of the group’s next studio album A Song For You. Wikipedia lists a hodge-podge of producers, including Berry Gordy, Jeffrey Bowen, James Anthony Carmichael, Suzy Wendy Ikeda, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford. The record was the group’s last to top the Billboard Hot R&B LPs chart. It also featured their two last no. 1 singles on the Hot R&B Singles chart, Happy People and Shakey Ground. Here’s the latter, a nice groovy tune co-written by Jeffrey Bowen, Alphonso Boyd and Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who also played lead guitar on the track.

Following A Song For You, success dried up. After the release of The Temptations Do The Temptations in August 1976, the group left Motown and signed with Atlantic Records. That didn’t change their trajectory, and after two albums, they returned to Motown in 1980. Two years later, they reunited with co-founder Eddie Kendricks and “Classic Five” era member David Ruffin for a tour, during which they recorded a studio album appropriately titled Reunion. Released in April 1982, the record marked a comeback of sorts, peaking at no. 2 on the Hot R&B LPs and a respectable no. 37 on the Billboard 200. Here’s opener Standing On The Top, a funk tune written and produced by Rick James, who also contributed vocals and clavinet.

While success has largely eluded them since Reunion, The Temptations have released 17 additional studio albums. The most recent, All The Time, appeared in 2018. Here’s Stay With Me, a cover of the beautiful pop soul tune by English songwriter and vocalist Sam Smith. In fact, when I heard this version for the first time, I thought it was Smith together with The Temptations, but apparently it’s not. The tune is credited to Smith, James Napier and William Phillips, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, following a legal settlement. After the song’s release, Petty’s published had noticed a similarity to I Won’t Back Down and reached out to Smith’s team.

Altogether, The Temptations have had an impressive 14 chart-toppers on the Hot R&B LPs, including eight in a row between March 1965 and February 1969 – I suspect this must be a record. The group also scored 14 no. 1 hits on the Hot R&B Singles chart and topped the Hot 100 chart four times. In 1989, The Temptations (Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has ranked them at no. 68 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Temptations are active to this day, with Otis Williams remaining as the only original founding member. The other current line-up includes Ron Tyson (since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and Willie Green (since 2016). Next year, the group will embark on a tour through the U.S., U.K. and Germany to celebrate their 60th anniversary. This includes two dates in May in my area. My wife and I saw The Temptations once in the early 2000s at The Apollo in New York City, together with The Four Tops. We both remember it as a great show, so we’re thinking to catch them again. The current tour schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Temptations website; YouTube

Woodstock 50 Clips & Pix: Sly And The Family Stone/I Want To Take You Higher (Part 3 of 4)

Here is part 3 of a 4-part mini series of Woodstock clips to supplement my recent post about the festival. The above footage of Sly And The Family Stone is from Woodstock’s third day, Sunday, August 17, 1969. The band’s gig fell into the early morning hours (3:30 to 4:20 am ET, according to Wikipedia).

I Want To Take You Higher was written by front man Sly Stone. The tune is from their fourth studio album Stand!, which appeared in May 1969. It also became the b-side to the record’s single of the record’s title track released during the same year. The song is a great example of the band’s mixture of social messages with high-energy rock, soul, R&B, soul and psychedelia. It is simply impossible to watch this clip without starting to groove.

Formed in late 1966, the band’s members included singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone, Sly’s brother Freddie Stone (guitar, vocals), his sister Rose Stone (keyboards, vocals) and his cousin Larry Graham (bass), as well as Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), Greg Errico (drums) and Jerry Martini (saxophone). The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, into which Sly And The Family Stone were inducted in 1993, called them rock’s first integrated, multi-gender band and Woodstock their greatest triumph.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, YouTube