Masters of the High Register

A selection of great falsetto vocalists

In late December, I did a four-part series on the Bee Gees here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). One of the group’s distinct features was the frequent use of falsetto singing, starting with their 1975 studio album Main Course. My most recent Best of What’s New installment included Aaron Frazer, a young vocalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also happens to be a falsetto singer. In fact, while I’m not a voice expert, I think he’s incredible! These posts triggered the idea to write about music artists I like, who are masters of the falsetto.

Before getting to some great music and singing, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. I’ll keep it light! According to Wikipedia, falsetto “is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.” Essentially, modal voice generates the richest tone that unlike falsetto isn’t breathy. It’s the most frequently used vocal register in speech and singing in most languages.

I always thought falsetto and head voice are the same – not so! As this post on Ramsey Voice explains, “While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.” Didn’t you always want to know that? 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about different voice registers and singing modes, the above Ramsey Voice post goes into all the gory details, illustrated with video clips. The only thing I’d like to add is that females have falsetto as well, though I think it’s fair to say this singing mode is primarily associated with male singers, and the examples in this post are all male artists. But as Ramsey Voice notes, “plenty of studies have…shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.” Time for some falsetto action!

Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind & Fire/September

September, one of my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire songs, initially appeared as a single in November 1978. Co-written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis, it became one of the group’s biggest hits. The song was also included on the compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which came out a few days after the single. The tune, on which Bailey shared lead vocals with White, is a great example of Bailey’s amazing falsetto.

Smokey Robinson, of The Miracles/OOO Baby Baby

OOO Baby Baby is one of the most beautiful examples of falsetto I can think of. Smokey Robinson’s voice sounds so sweet and gentle that it almost makes me want to cry! Robinson was also a co-writer of the ballad, together with Miracles bass vocalist Pete Moore. OOO Baby Baby became the lead singles of The Miracles’ studio album Going to a Go-Go in March 1965. The album came out in November that year.

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

When thinking of great falsetto vocalists, one of the first artists who came to my mind was Curtis Mayfield. While there are other tunes where his falsetto is more dominant, Move On Up is one of my absolute favorites, so I simply couldn’t skip it. Written by Mayfield, the song was first recorded for his debut solo album Curtis from September 1970. It also appeared separately as the record’s second single in June 1971. I just love that tune – the infectious groove, Mayfield’s singing and his effortless switching between modal voice and falsetto – it’s just perfect!

Marvin Gaye/Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)

Marvin Gaye is another exceptional vocalist, no matter what singing mode you’re talking about. On Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., the boundaries between Gaye’s head voice and falsetto are so fluid that to me it’s hard to tell, which is which. The tune was first recorded for his 11th studio album What’s Going On, a true gem released in May 1971. In September of the same year, it became the album’s third single.

Prince/Kiss

No post about falsetto vocalists would be complete without Prince. The funky Kiss was one of his biggest hits. Written by Prince, it became the lead single to his eighth studio album Parade, released in February 1986, just ahead of the album that followed in March. Frankly, the tune wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I’ve come to dig it.

The last two tracks shall belong to the artists who inspired the post. Here’s Nights on Broadway, the tune that started the frequent use of falsetto for the Bee Gees.

Co-written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, Nights on Broadway was recorded for the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album Main Course released in June 1975 in the U.S. and the following month in the U.K. The groovy track also became the album’s second single in September of the same year.

Aaron Frazer/Bad News

Bad News is another great tune from Aaron Frazer’s impressive debut album  Introducing…. The song was co-written by Frazer and producer Dan Auerbach. It actually reminds me a bit of Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ramsey Voice; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

After the unprecedented events we witnessed in this country earlier this week, it feels somewhat surreal to blog about something completely unrelated. At the same time, the fact new music keeps coming out is reassuring to me. In fact, music has always had a degree of healing power during challenging times and provided a welcome distraction. While ignoring reality can be dangerous, I believe occasionally escaping from it is a good thing to clear your mind and gather strength.

I’m very excited about this week’s Best of What’s New installment, which features indie and country singer-songwriters, a young incredibly talented vintage soul vocalist who knocked my socks off and…well, you’ll need to continue reading to find out yourself. All of this great music was just released yesterday (January 8).

Denison Witmer/River of Music

Dension Witmer is a singer-songwriter from Lancaster, Pa. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Tagged by many music journalists as one of the most likely songwriters to fill the void left by Elliott Smith in the acoustic indie singer/songwriter movement, [he] catalogs the experiences of young adulthood in almost painfully honest detail. With a soft and sensitive voice that perfectly matches his laid-back 1970s California pop production and subtly expressive guitar work, he has gone from writing in his journal to becoming an intimate of like-minded artists like Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion over the span of a few albums. Growing up in Lancaster, PA, Witmer picked up the guitar at the age of 16 and was soon showing enough promise to draw the interest of the Innocence Mission’s Don Peris. As Peris became Witmer’s musical mentor, he would oversee and play guitar and keyboard on his apprentice’s first recordings, 2000’s River Bends EP and the much-heralded Safe Away. Here’s the great River of Music, a track from Witmer’s new EP American Foursquare (Simplified). It surely feels good listening to his soothing voice and beautiful guitar-playing. And the lyrics about the power of music perfectly illustrate what I wrote in the intro of this post.

Morgan Wallen/Livin’ the Dream

Country music singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen, who hails from the tiny Tennessee town of Sneedville (about 250 miles east of Nashville), first gained some prominence as a contestant on season 6 of The Voice in 2014. While Wallen didn’t make it to the final, his stint eventually led to a deal with Panacea Records and his debut EP Stand Alone from August 2015. Wallen switched to Big Loud Records thereafter and released his first full-length studio album If I Know Me in April 2018. Livin’ the Dream is a track from his sophomore release Dangerous: The Double Album. This double album features a hefty 30 tunes, many prominent country songwriters and a guest appearance by Chris Stapleton. Livin’ the Dream, a tale about life as a “rock star,” was co-written by Wallen, Ben Burgess, Jacob Durrett and Michael Wilson Hardy, aka Hardy.

Barry Gibb/To Love Somebody

Yep, that’s Barry Gibb, formerly of the Bee Gees. I recently covered them in a four-part series here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). All I’d like to say in this post is if you think the Bee Gees were just a disco band, I’d encourage to take a closer look at their music or read my series. Was it necessary for Gibb, the group’s only surviving member, to come out with Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook, Vol 1., an album of newly recorded versions of mostly famous Bee Gees songs? Probably not – on the other hand, why not! The Bee Gees’ catalog is full with well crafted songs. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, To Love Somebody is among my favorite early Bee Gees tunes. It initially appeared on Bee Gees’ 1st, the group’s first internationally released full-length studio album that was released in July 1967 in the UK and appeared the following month in the U.S. The newly recorded version features Jay Buchanan, lead vocalist of American rock band Rival Sons. The album also includes many other guests, mostly from country music, a favorite genre of Barry’s, such as Little Big Town, Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow. Be cynical about it, if you like. I dig and stand behind these songs and the Bee Gees!

Aaron Frazer/ If I Got It (Your Love Brought It)

According to his website, Aaron Frazer is a Brooklyn-based, Baltimore-raised songwriter [who] first came into the international spotlight as multi-instrumentalist and co-lead singer for Durand Jones & The Indications. He penned some of the group’s most notable tracks, including ‘Morning In America,’ and sang lead on ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ – the latter an instant sweet soul classic anchored by Aaron’s falsetto, which caught the ear of producer and Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach…Soft-spoken with the look of a slightly disaffected 1950s matinee idol, Aaron Frazer possesses a unique voice that’s both contemporary and timeless. His higher register conveys a wide emotional palate and a progressive worldview in the tradition of musical masterminds like Curtis Mayfield. While Aaron’s stirring falsetto and thoughtful songwriting have made him established in the world of revival soul music, he refuses to be pigeonholed. That falsetto is in beautiful action on If I Got It (Your Love Brought It), a tune from Aaron’s debut album Introducing…, which was produced by Auerbach. The song was co-written by Frazer, Auerbach and David Ferguson. So good! check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Aaron Frazer website; YouTube

Happy New Year!

This is it – well, almost! As the remaining hours of 2020 are ticking away, the time has come for my final post of this year. Since I’ve already expressed my thoughts about this year in comments to posts by fellow bloggers, I’m keeping this short and sweet.

I’d like to wish all readers a happy and healthy new year and hope you come back for more. Also, please keep the comments coming. I always enjoy reading your thoughts, even though we may not agree all the time on the music we post about. Thank goodness! Can you imagine how boring it would be, if everybody always had the same taste? Reading different perspectives is a good thing!

I’d like to leave you with a few new year’s songs. They aren’t all happy, but I feel choices are limited to begin with. Plus, obviously, the following is based on what I could find. I’m sure there are other tunes that would have been worthwhile to include. Plus, I wanted to keep it to a handful only.

Death Cab For Cutie/The New Year

I only know this indie rock band from Bellington, Wa. by name. Credited to all four members of the band at the time, Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar, piano), Nick Harmer (bass), Chris Walla (guitar) and Jason McGerr (drums), The New Year is the opener of their fourth studio album Transatlanticism from October 2003.

Eagles/Funky New Year

Co-written by Don Henley and Glen Frey in 1978 but apparently not released at the time, Funky New Year was included in the Eagles’ box set Legacy, which appeared in 2018. Groovy!

Otis Redding & Carla Thomas/New Year’s Resolution

How about throwing in some sweet Stax soul music? My kind of music. Here’s New Year’s Resolution by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Co-written by Randle Catron, Willie Dean “Deanie” Parker and Mary Frierson, the tune was included on a studio album titled King & Queen. It appeared in March 1967 and was Redding’s final album prior to his untimely death in an airplane crash on December 10, 1967.

U2/New Year’s Day

Let’s wrap it up with what’s perhaps my favorite tune related to the new year: New Year’s Day by U2. The Irish rock band recorded it for their third studio album War from February 1983. Like all other tracks on the record, it was credited to U2. Here’s the live version from Under a Bloody Red Sky, released in November 1983, which I’ve always preferred over the studio take.

Happy New Year and be well!

Sources: Google; Wikipedia; YouTube

Happy Holidays!

Silent Night by The Temptations is my favorite rendition of a Christmas carol. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten into the habit to listen to this gem at this time of the year, even though I’m not much intro traditional Christmas music. But The Temptations and their magic harmony singing are truly in a league by themselves!

Silent Night (original German title: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) was written in 1818 by Austrian church organist and composer Franz Xaver Gruber, with lyrics by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest and writer. The Temptations recorded it for their second Christmas album Give Love At Christmas released in August 1980.

No matter whether and how you celebrate it, I wish you peace and happiness!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 2 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

This is second and last installment of my two-part year in review. In case you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Celebrating new music one song at a time

With more than 150 songs highlighted since the launch of the Best of What’s New feature, I find it impossible to call out the best tunes. As I wrote in the inaugural March 21 post, While I don’t see myself starting to write about electronic dance music or Neue Deutsche Haerte a la Rammstein, I’m hoping to keep these posts a bit eclectic. I realize the characterization “best” is pretty subjective. If a song speaks to me, it’s fair game. I should perhaps have added that I don’t need to like other tunes by an artist to include them. It’s literally about the specific song.

Best of What’s New installments have featured tunes ranging from prominent artists like Sheryl Crow, The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty to lesser known acts like rock bands Brother Man and Mondo Silicone and Austin, Texas-based band leader Joe Sparacino, aka. Dr. Joe. Frequently, these posts triggered new album reviews, e.g., LeRoux (One of Those Days), Mick Hayes (My Claim to Fame) and Niedeckens BAP (Alles Fliesst). Following are four songs I discovered in the context of Best of What’s New.

Dr. Joe: Believer

From Dr. Joe’s websiteBased in Austin TX but raised on a farm outside Salina, Kansas, band leader Joe Sparacino spent his early childhood learning piano from a southern gospel choir matron and listening to his family’s old vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Leon Russell and James Booker. Released on April 10, Believer was Dr. Joe’s then-latest single and it’s cooking!

The Reverberations: Under Your Spell

The Reverberations are a five-piece band from Portland, Ore. Their Bandcamp profile characterizes their music as “’60s influenced psychedelic jangle.” I’d call it psychedelic garage rock. Under Your Spell, the B-side to their single Palm Reader released May 28, features some cool Byrds-ey guitars and nice keyboard work. Did I mention it’s also got a quite catchy melody? And check out the lovely psychedelic cover art – super cool all around! For more on this great band, you can read my review of their February 2019 album Changes, their most recent full-fledged studio release.

Kat Riggins: No Sale

Kat Riggins is a blues artist hailing from Miami. According to her website, She travels the world with the sole mission of keeping the blues alive and thriving through her Blues Revival Movement. She has been vocally compared to Koko Taylor, Etta James and Tina Turner to name a few. The nice blues rocker No Sale, which has a bit of a ZZ Top vibe, is from Riggins’ fourth album Cry Out released on August 14. That woman’s got it!

Greta Van Fleet: Age of Machine

Age of Machine is the second single from Greta Van Fleet’s next album The Battle at Garden’s Gate, which is scheduled for April 16, 2021. I think this kickass rocker provides more evidence the young band has evolved their style, moving away from their initial Led Zeppelin-influenced sound. Looking forward to the album!

Live music in the year of the pandemic…

Except for two tribute band concerts in January, pretty measly for the ‘King of the Tribute Band,’ I didn’t go to any live gigs this year. Shows for which I had tickets, including The Temptations and The Four Tops, Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band, and Steely Dan with special guest Steve Winwood, were rescheduled until April, June and July 2021, respectively. Perhaps with the exception of the last concert, I hope all other shows will be rescheduled a second time and moved back to the second half of the year. For somebody who loves live music and over the past 4-5 years has gotten into the habit of seeing an average 20-30 shows per year (counting lower cost tribute band and free summer type concerts), seizing live concerts it’s a bitter but necessary pill to swallow until this lethal pandemic is behind us.

I ended up watching two live concerts via Internet stream: Southern Avenue at Instrumenthead Live Studio in Nashville, Tenn. last week, and Mike Campbell’s band The Dirty Knobs at the Troubador in Los Angeles in late November. It was fun and also a nice opportunity to support music via voluntary donations in lieu of buying official tickets, but no virtual experience can replace the real deal.

Some final musings…

While my primary motivation for the blog has always been the joy I get from writing about a topic I love, i.e., music, it’s nice to see continued growth in visitor traffic, followers and feedback. Just like in 2019, the most popular post remained my January 2018 piece about Bad Company’s live CD/DVD collection from their May 15, 2016 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre; personally, I find the post average at best. By comparison, my July 12, 2020 post about the mellotron, which I’m proud of, received less than one percent of traffic than the Bad Company post. Perhaps, it was too geeky! 🙂 It’s funny how these things sometimes go.

I’d like to thank all visitors of the blog. If you’re here for the first time, you’re welcome back anytime. If you’re a regular, I hope you keep coming back. I also enjoy receiving comments, including different opinions. All I ever ask is to keep things civil.

Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with a great song by Southern Avenue they also played during the above noted virtual concert. I feel it’s a great message, especially during these crazy times: Don’t Give Up, from their eponymous debut album released in February 2017. Since I couldn’t capture footage from the above gig, here’s an alternative I can offer: a clip I recorded during a show at The Wonder Bar, a small venue in Asbury Park, N.J. in July 2019.

Sources: Christian’s Music Music Musings; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Where the Blues Crosses Over

For more than 25 years, the independent German label Ruf Records has been a remarkable force for blues music

When blogging about music, it’s about the artists and their work first and foremost- seems obvious! Sometimes, I also like to get a bit nerdy and write about gear. What I rarely do is paying attention to music labels with a few exceptions like Stax or Motown. In fact, oftentimes, I don’t even bother to mention on which label an album was released.

One name that has kept popping up for contemporary blues is Ruf Records (pronounced “roof”). I noticed it again just yesterday while compiling my latest Best of What’s New installment that included blues rock artist Jeremiah Johnson whose latest album Unemployed Highly Annoyed appeared on Ruf Records.

Like the majority of Ruf’s roster of current artists, Johnson is an American musician. Yet Ruf isn’t located say in Chicago or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. London? Nope. Ruf is based in Lindewerra, a picturesque German village with a whopping 256 inhabitants (as of 2019) in the region of Thuringia, which used to be part of the former German Democratic Republic. I had to look that geographic location.

Lindewerra, location of Ruf Records

Germany and the blues? Not to mention a tiny village? That’s not the most obvious association, in my opinion. Or how about the fact the founding of this independent label in 1994 was connected to Luther Allison? Finally, Ruf got my attention.

This is how the label’s website describes how Ruf came about, from the perspective of founder Thomas Ruf. While they may have embellished it a bit, it’s just a wonderful story that would be perfect for a movie: It all started in the Black Forest, late at night, when it seems all great things begin. There in a small village bar, with the doors locked, window shades rolled down, an after- hours party was happening inside. Blues great, Luther Allison was jamming with a bunch of eighty-year old Black Forest folklore musicians.

I was young, lucky and overwhelmed by the communicating power of music. I left the farm to pay my dues as a concert promoter, agent and manager. Soon I collaborated with Allison, eventually becoming his representative on the European side of the world.

I was a student learning from a man who traveled the rocky blues road for more than thirty years. It became apparent that relationships between artists and record companies can be frustrating for the artists, with companies lacking enthusiasm and understanding of the music. So management had a baby and it was named Ruf Records. Born of the need and love to promote what we believe in… the communicating power of music.

Ruf Records founder Thomas Ruf with Cyril Neville

Based on this March 2012 post from the Blues.Gr, the above events happened in the late 1980s when Thomas Ruf started working in the music business as a European tour promoter. Ruf and Allison became friends and, eventually, Ruf started to represent the blues artist in Europe. In 1994, Allison who lived in Paris, France at the time, found himself without a label and a publisher. Apparently, that’s what triggered the formation of Ruf Records.

Fast-forward some 26 years and you’re looking at an independent label with an impressive roster of artists. Apart from Luther Allison and Jeremiah Johnson, the current and former line-up includes Canned Heat, Spooky Tooth, Walter Trout, Ana Popovic, Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Jane Lee Hooker. Following, I’d like to highlight some music by some of the label’s current artists. Occasionally, the label ventures beyond the blues.

Ally Venable/White Flag

Ally Marie Venable is a 21-year-old blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kilgore, Texas. She released her debut EP Wise Man in 2013 at the age of 14. White Flag is from her third and most recent full-length album Texas Honey, which according to this Rock & Blues Muse review appeared in March 2019 and features Mike Zito and Eric Gales, among other guests.

Bette Smith/Fistful of Dollars

According to her website, Bette Smith is a rock and soul singer who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her 2017 debut Jetlagger received rave reviews from the likes of NPR, American Songwriter, MOJO and The New York Times. Fistful of Dollars is the tasteful, funky opener of Smith’s new album The Good, The Bad and the Bette released on September 25.

Ghalia/Release Me

Ghalia Volt, who hails from Brussels, Belgium, is a natural-born rock star with the leather jacket and wicked grin, leaning from her album sleeve to offer you a hit on her hip flask, her website confidently states. Six years ago, Ghalia was a best-kept secret, her days spent busking on the streets of the Belgium capital, her nights shaking the city’s blues clubs. But as a die-hard R&B and blues fan, the singer-songwriter found the siren call of America too strong to resist. Visiting Chicago, Memphis and Nashville, Ghalia’s livewire talent saw her embraced by the musical motherland and elevated to headliner status. Release Me is a track written by Ghalia, which appears on her sophomore album Mississippi Blend from September 2019. And, yes, that lady is a rock star!

Whitney Shay/Stand Up!

According to Apple Music’s artist profile, Whitney Shay is a blues, soul and jump R&B singer-songwriter from San Diego, Calif. Her debut album Soul Tonic came out in 2012. She has since released two additional albums and received four San Diego Music Awards including Artist of the Year for her sophomore release A Woman Rules the World from 2018. Stand Up!, co-written by Shay and Adam J. Eros, is the soulful funky title track of Shay’s third studio album released in February this year.

Bernard Allison/Crusin for a Bluesin

Bernard Allison, who is based in Paris, France, is a blues guitarist and the son of Luther Allison. Though you’d perhaps think otherwise, Bernard taught himself how to play guitar as a child while his father was touring all over the world. While his old man wisely demanded that Bernard remain in school, he supported his music ambitions. Eventually, Bernard became part of Luther’s band and a musical collaborator. His European solo debut The Next Generation appeared in 1990. His first U.S. album Keepin’ the Blues Alive was released in 1997. Cruisin for a Bluesin is the groovy opener of Allison’s most recent studio album Let It Go from February 2018.

Jeremiah Johnson/Burn Down the Garden

Since it was Johnson and his new album that triggered this post, it felt appropriate to include the St. Louis-based guitarist and singer-songwriter, who according to his website merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today.  Here’s another great tune from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed: Opener Burn Down the Garden, written by Johnson, which sounds more like southern flavored country rock than blues.

Michael Lee/Praying for Rain

Michael Lee is a blues guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s more from his his website: Raised around blues music his entire life, Michael spent the majority of his young life in blues clubs receiving an ivy league education from watching and playing with blues legends such as Andrew “Jr Boy” Jones (Freddie King), Buddy Whittington (John Mayall), Lucky Peterson (Willie Dixon). On nights he was not in the blues clubs he was down in the stockyards soaking in the Country sounds which emanated from those honky tonks. Like Delbert McClinton and many Fort Worth musicians before him, Michael’s style of music has the perfect blend of Blues and Country. Praying for Rain, written by Lee, is from his eponymous sophomore album released in June 2019.

Ryan Perry/Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone

Let’s do one more. Ryan Perry, who hails from Mississippi, has established himself as leader of the award-winning Homemade Jamz Blues Band since 2007. According to his profile on Ruf, Although still in his twenties, Perry has the soul, scars and war stories to rival the most hard-bitten road dog. In March this year, Perry released his solo debut album High Risk, Low Reward. Here’s the tasty opener Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone, which like most other tracks on the album was penned by Perry.

Ruf Records’ story looks impressive. Apart from its artist roster, some 300 albums have appeared on this independent label to date. In 2007, Ruf Records received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tenn. According to Wikipedia, they also got nominations for two Grammy Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards, and that’s as of 2008.

In an undated interview on Ruf’s website, Thomas Ruf explained the label’s philosophy as follows: “It’s right there in our motto: ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’. We want to produce the blues of tomorrow, not just re-record the blues of yesterday, and that’s why we work with some of the bravest and most visionary artists around. People often ask me why Ruf has such a devoted following, but really it’s our artists – the Ruf Records family – who create that. Our role is to help them. To succeed in this business, it’s about working hard and being honest all the time. Speak the truth. Strive for quality in everything you do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Ruf Records website; Blues.Gr; Rock & Blues Muse; Bette Smith website; Apple Music; Michael Lee website; YouTube

Dylan by Others

A playlist of great Bob Dylan covers

The idea of putting together a playlist of great Bob Dylan covers came when I listened to Them and their fantastic version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. I have to give credit where credit is due. The impetus to revisit the Northern Irish garage rockers who launched the musical career of Van Morrison came from Max at PowerPop and his post about Them tune Mighty Like a Rose.

With so many artists having covered Dylan tunes, finding examples was very easy. The hard part was to limit the list to ten tracks, even though I deliberately focused on his ’60s albums for all but one track. I just couldn’t help it – Dylan’s early phase is the one I know and like the best!

Stevie Wonder/Blowin’ in the Wind

Kicking off this playlist is the great Stevie Wonder who included Blowin’ in the Wind on his studio album Up-Tight released in May 1966. His cover also came out separately as a single, yielding a No. 9 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Originally, Dylan recorded the track for his second studio album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from May 1963. I love how Wonder took a folk song and turned it into a beautiful soul tune.

Leon Russell/It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

When Leon Russell covers a tune, you just know you gonna get something great. It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall was included on his sophomore solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People that came out in May 1971. The tune is another track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Tracy Chapman/The Times They Are a-Changin’

Tracy Chapman’s version of the title track from Dylan’s third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ is one of my favorite renditions in this playlist. This is from a special concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden that took place on October 16, 1992 to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist. It was captured on a live double album appropriately titled The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration and released in August 1993. Dylan’s original recording first appeared in January 1964.

Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash/It Ain’t Me, Babe

I simply couldn’t leave out The Man in Black from this collection. Here’s Johnny Cash’s version of It Ain’t Me, Babe featuring June Carter Cash. It was included on The Essential Johnny Cash, a compilation that appeared in February 2002 to commemorate Cash’s 70th birthday. The original was part of Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth studio album from August 1964.

The Byrds/Mr. Tambourine Man

Not many other things get me as excited as the beautiful jingle-jangle sound of a Rickenbacker electric guitar. I also couldn’t think of anyone better in this context than Roger McGuinn and The Byrds who covered various Dylan tunes. My favorite remains Mr. Tambourine Man, their first single released in April 1965. The tune also was the title track of their debut album that came out in June of the same year. Dylan’s original was included on Bringing It All Back Home, his fifth studio album from March 1965.

Them/It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Now on to the tune that trigged the idea for the entire list. Them’s rendition of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue has to be one of the best Dylan covers of all time. They included it on their second album Them Again from January 1966, the last to feature Van Morrison who subsequently launched a solo career and remains active to this day. Dylan’s original is another track from Bringing It All Back Home.

Mick Ronson & David Bowie/Like a Rolling Stone

Until today, I had never heard of this version of Like a Rolling Stone, which appeared on Mick Ronson’s final solo album Heaven and Hull from May 1994. For this tune, the ex-Spiders From Mars guitarist teamed up with the former band’s frontman David Bowie. What a cool rendition! Dylan first recorded the track for Highway 61 Revisited released in August 1965. The maestro’s sixth studio album remains my favorite.

Joe Cocker/Just Like a Woman

A covers playlist definitely has to feature who perhaps is the ultimate master of the cover: Joe Cocker. His take of Just Like a Woman was included on his debut With a Little Help From My from My Friends released in May 1969. That album’s title track may well be the ultimate rock cover. As for Dylan, he first recorded the tune for his seventh studio album Blonde on Blonde from June 1966.

Jimi Hendrix/All Along the Watchtower

This next tune was another must to feature. Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower, which appeared on Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, just is absolutely killer! No disrespect to Bob Dylan, who after all penned the song, but after listening to Hendrix, one could be forgiven to forget about the original. Admittedly, I had known this cover for many years before I first heard Dylan’s rendition, which he included on his eighth studio album John Wesley Harding released in December 1967.

Indigo Girls/Tangled Up in Blue

I’d like to wrap things up with a beautiful cover of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, Tangled Up in Blue. It first appeared on his 15th studio album Blood on the Tracks from January 1975. In October 1995, Atlanta folk rock duo Indigo Girls released a live album titled 1200 Curfews, which features this incredible eight-minute version of the Dylan gem.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Another end of the week calls for another Best of What’s New. This latest installment is probably my most eclectic and diverse set to date, featuring a “Norwegian country sensation,” an indigenous Canadian folk and country singer-songwriter, electronic music by a U.S. multi-instrumentalist, and a German singer-songwriter blending soul, R&B and African folk music. Let’s get to it!

Malin Pettersen/Weightless

According to her website, Norwegian country artist Malin Pettersen released her first solo album [in 2018], which won her a Spellemannpris (Norwegian Grammy), placed her on the bill of some of Norway’s largest festivals and brought her to Nashville for more recording. She’s been coined «Norwegian Country sensation» by Paste Magazine and her music has been featured in Rolling Stone and Billboard. Her new Nashville recorded album “Wildhorse” is released October 16th on Die With Your Boots On Records and has already gotten fantastic reviews! Malin Pettersen is definitely one to watch – and most of all – one to hear! I agree! Written by Pettersen, Weightless is a tune from Wildhorse released October 16. It was mostly her voice that drew me in, which reminds me a bit of Stevie Nicks at times. I also dig the atmosphere of the music. Check it out!

William Prince/The One I Know

When I spotted this tune, the artist’s name William Prince sounded familiar. And no wonder, searching my own blog revealed I had seen him live in July 2018 in Boston as opening act for Neil Young and written about the show here. As I said at the time, Prince’s solo performance with just an acoustic guitar was captivating. The Canadian folk and country singer-songwriter, who is a member of Pegius First Nation from Manitoba, released his award-winning debut album Earthly Days in December 2015. The One I Know is a track from Prince’s new album Gospel First Nation, a collection of gospel tunes, which appeared on October 23. As noted on his website, Prince learned and sang these songs with his father in a chapel named for his great grandfathers, who were were all preachers. While I generally like gospel, it’s not the type of music I typically listen to. But I have to say I find Prince’s warm voice very comforting, and it’s just a pretty tune!

Daniel Tashian/Channels

According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Daniel Tashian, the son of Barry Tashian, leader of the legendary New England garage rockers Barry & the Remains, [is a] multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter [and] a decidedly different type of musician than his cult hero father. His folk-rock-based music recalls that of Michael Penn, Lisa Germano, and Sam Phillips, whose husband T-Bone Burnett produced Tashian’s debut album, 1996’s Sweetie. Along with his solo career, Nashville resident Tashian produces and plays with various other artists, most notably alt country singer/songwriter Julian Dawson, and hosts a weekly songwriter’s night at the famed Nashville music club 12th and Porter. Based on this profile, the above electronic instrumental tune Channels seems to be an outlier. It’s a track from his new all-instrumental EP Landscapes, Vol. 3 that appeared on October 23 – yet another unusual choice for me. But again, I just find this track appealing.

Joy Denalane/Be Here in the Morning (feat. C.S. Armstrong)

Joy Denalane is a German singer-songwriter blending soul, R&B and African folk music with lyrics in English and German. She was born in July 1973 to a black father from South Africa and a German mother and grew up in Berlin. Denalane left home at the age of 16 and started to focus on music, joining the reggae and soul bands Culture Roots and Family Affair, respectively. Her breakthrough came in 1999 when she hooked up with electronica and hip hop producers DJ Thomilla and Tiefschwarz for what became an international club hit, Music. Her debut solo album Mamani came out in June 2002. Denalane has since released four additional albums, including her most recent one Let Yourself Be Loved on September 4. Be Here in the Morning is from that album and features Los Angeles-based R&D artist Chauncy S. Armstrong who also co-wrote the tune with Denalane, along with Chris Soper, Jesse Singer, Nick Banns and Sway Clarke. Love that beautiful retro soul sound and what a great voice!

Sources: Wikipedia; Malin Pettersen website; William Prince website; Apple Music; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Frankie Miller/The Rock

When Max from PowerPop blog recently posted about I Can’t Change It by Frankie Miller, I was immediately intrigued by the Scottish rock singer-songwriter’s soulful vocals. I also instantaneously recognized the name from an appearance on the German TV concert program Rockpalast I had watched in August 1982, though I still can’t remember any of the songs Miller performed during that show. Anyway, this is what prompted me to start listening to his music including his third studio album The Rock from September 1975.

Before getting to this gem, a few words about Miller are in order. He was born as Francis John Miller in Glasgow on November 2, 1949. Miller’s first exposure to music was his mother Cathy’s record collection. She particularly liked Ray Charles who interestingly ended up covering the above I Can’t Change It on his 1980 album Brother Ray Is at It Again, a song Miller had written as a 12-year-old and recorded for his debut album Once in a Blue Moon released in January 1973.

Going back to Miller’s childhood days, another music music influence were his older sisters Letty and Anne, who introduced him to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Miller started writing his first songs at the age of nine after his parents had given him a guitar. While still being at school, he started singing in a series of bands. Eventually, he joined Glasgow outfit The Stoics. While Chrysalis signed them in 1970, the band broke up before making any recordings.

In 1971, Miller formed a band called Jude, together with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, ex Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker and James Dewar, a Glasgow bassist and vocalist. While the band got attention from the British music press, they dissolved in April 1972, also without recording any music. Miller ended up signing a contract with Chrysalis later that year and released his above debut album in January 1973.

Frankie Miller at Rockpalast, Germany, 1982

Until 1985, Miller recorded eight additional solo albums. After his second-to-last solo release Standing on the Edge from 1982, he mostly focused on songwriting, including film music. Miller’s professional career came to a tragic end in August 1994 when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while writing music for a new band he and Joe Walsh had formed with English keyboarder and drummer Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace, respectively.

According to a bio on Miller’s website, the brain hemorrhage should have killed him but he has shown remarkable courage to claw his way slowly back to health, after spending 15 months in hospital. With massive support from his partner Annette, Frankie is learning to walk and talk again and has even written a new song with lyricist Will Jennings called “Sun Goes Up Sun Goes Down”. But sadly, Miller has not been able to resume performing.

The Rock back cover

While Miller’s records apparently received positive reviews, they were not commercially successful. His singles did not fare much better. Only two of them reached the top 40 in the UK: Be Good to Yourself from May 1977 (no. 27) and Darlin’ from October 1978 (no. 6). Miller’s songs have won writing awards and been performed by an impressive array of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh and Eagles.

Time to get to The Rock, Miller’s only album officially credited to the The Frankie Miller Band. All tracks were written by Miller. Here’s the excellent opener A Fool in Love. Like other tunes on the album, it reminds me of Joe Cocker. The song was actually covered by Etta James on her 1990 album Stickin’ to My Guns.

The title track was inspired by the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, which could be seen from the studio where the album was recorded. According to Wikipedia, Miller said that music saved him from prison. He dedicated the song to the plight of prisoners, apparently a reference to his second cousin Jimmy Boyle, a Scottish former gangster and convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist after his release from prison in October 1981. The Rock has got a cool Faces, early Rod Stewart vibe.

Another gem is Ain’t Got No Money. It’s probably not a coincidence that it became the album’s most covered tune, including by artists like Cher, Chris Farlowe and Bob Seger. Frankly, this would be a great song for The Rolling Stones.

Let’s slow things down with All My Love to You, a dynamite soulful tune. Why this didn’t become a hit beats me. Check it out this beauty!

Frankly, there’s no weak track on this album and I could have selected any other. Let’s do one one more: I’m Old Enough.

The Rock was produced by Elliot Mazer, one of the co-producers of Neil Young’s Harvest album. Musicians included Henry McCullough (lead guitar, backing vocals), Mick Weaver (keyboards), Chrissy Stewart (bass), Stu Perry (drums, percussion) and Miller’s former Jude mate James Dewar. The album also featured two ingredients for shaping its soul sound: The Memphis Horns and The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Frankie Miller website; YouTube