Britain’s Ruby Turner Releases Classic Soul Gem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another gem is Under Your Sky.

Next up: The album’s title track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Great Music Isn’t Quite Dead Yet

Four coinciding releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry Cooder, John Mellencamp and Glenn Fry

Yesterday was a great day in music as far as I’m concerned. When was the last time you can remember new releases from four great artists coming out the same day? While admittedly sometimes I don’t recall what I did the previous day, I really couldn’t tell you. Sadly, when checking iTunes for new music, I usually see stuff I don’t care about, so why even bother? Well, part of me refuses to give up hope that amid all the mediocre crap that dominates the charts these days, I might find something I actually dig. This time I surely did, with new releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry CooderJohn Mellencamp and Glenn Frey.

Since I just wrote about Daltrey’s new single How Far from his upcoming solo album As Long As I Have You, I’m only briefly acknowledging it in this post. Based on this tune and the previously released title track, his new record surely looks very promising. It’s set to come out June 1, tough I have a feeling we might see a third single leading up to its release – really looking forward to this one!

Ry Cooder_The Prodigal Son

Ry Cooder’s new album The Prodigal Son is his 17th solo record and first new release in six years. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on his music – in fact, I know far too little about it. But here’s what I know. I’ve yet to hear bad music from this virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and I know good music when I hear it. And this it, baby, great music – plain and simple – no need to over-analyze!

The Prodigal Son is a beautiful collection of roots and gospel music. Eight of the 11 tunes are covers from artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Alfred Reed and Carter Stanley. All of the reviews I read noted the album represents a return all the way to the beginning of Cooder’s 50-year recording career. Asked by the Los Angeles Times why he decided to make a gospel-focused record, Cooder said, “In these times, all I can say, empathy is good, understanding is good, a little tolerance is good. We have these dark forces of intolerance and bigotry that are growing back…The gospel music has a nice way of making these suggestions about empathy…Plus I like the songs, I have to admit.” Well said!

Here’s a nice clip of the Blind Willie tune Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right – sadly, this couldn’t be more timely! Watching the maestro at work live in the studio is a real treat. By the way, the drummer is Cooder’s son Joachim, who has collaborated with him on several records and tours in the past and apparently was an important catalyst for the new record.

More frequent readers of the blog know that I’m a huge fan of John Mellencamp. His new release Plain Spoken: From The Chicago Theatre is a companion to a concert film that debuted on Netflix on February 1st. It captures a show Mellencamp performed at the landmark venue on October 25, 2016. The set features country singer Carlene Carter, with whom he has been on the road for several years and recorded the excellent 2017 collaboration album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.

John Mellencamp_Plain Spoken From The Chicago Theatre

The new DVD-CD set includes the original version of the Netflix film with commentary from Mellencamp throughout, a “non-commentary” version of the film, and a live CD of the concert. While I’ve only listened into some of the tunes from the CD via Apple Music, I certainly like what I’ve heard so far. Here’s a clip of Cherry Bomb, a track from the 1987 studio album The Lonesome Jubilee, one of my favorite Mellencamp records.

Last but not least, there’s Above The Clouds: The Collection, a new four-disc box set capturing the solo career of Glenn Frey. The set combines well known tunes like The Heat Is On, Smuggler’s Blues and You Belong To City with lesser known, deeper cuts and, perhaps most intriguingly, a copy of Longbranch Pennywhistle, a pre-Eagles 1969 album Frey recorded with J.D. Souther. The set also includes a DVD capturing footage from Frey gig in September 1992.

Glenn Frey_Above The Clouds Box Set

Admittedly, I had not been aware of Longbranch Pennywhistle, which according to Ultimate Class Rock until now had only been available on CD as an import. Frey and Souther also performed as a duo under that name, though it was a short-lived venture. Frey went on to co-found the Eagles in 1971, together with Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. Souther ended up co-writing some of the band’s best known tunes, such as Best Of My Love, Heartache Tonight and New Kid In Town. Here’s a clip of Run Boy, Run, one of the tracks from the Longbranch Pennywhistle album, which was written by Frey.

While Daltrey’s upcoming album is something to look forward to, I’m under no illusion that yesterday was an aberration. The days when great music releases were part of the mainstream are long gone. Still, why not enjoy the nice moment while it lasts!

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, NPR, John Mellencamp official website, USA Today, Ultimate Classic Rock, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Albert King, B.B. King, Robert Cray et al/Blues Medley

Inspired by this recent post from Music Enthusiast, I’ve been listening to Koko Taylor and originally intended to post a clip of this amazing artist who was also known as The Queen of the Blues. Then I came across the amazing clip above, which apparently was captured at the Grammy Awards in 1987 and shows two back-to-back performances by some of the greatest blues artists on one stage.

Things kick off with Willie Dixon and Taylor singing the Dixon tune When I Make Love. The backing band includes Dr. John, Junior Wells and Ry Cooder, among others. Next up is the Louis Jordan song Let The Good Times Roll, performed by Albert King and B.B. King, together with Big Jay McNeely, Robert Cray and Etta James. The audience is on their feet and McNeely on his back by the end of the track – any doubts you may have had whether the blues is here to stay will be gone after you’ve watched this!

I’ll definitely do something on Taylor soon and also post on some of the other blues pioneers who wrote music that was made popular by others, often white artists.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube