Ural Thomas May be the Greatest Soul Artist You Didn’t Know

This is just an incredible story I wanted to share right away. Until earlier today, I had never heard of Ural Thomas. It’s safe to assume many other fans of soul music are in the same boat. Then I caught a performance of the now 80-plus-year-old Thomas with his band called The Pain at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore. that was streamed earlier today on local listener-funded radio station KBOO-FM. And I can assure you, it was everything else but painful!

Before we get to some sweet soul music, here’s some background on Thomas from his website. Obviously written a few years ago, this text captures the story better than I could ever do, especially given than other than this website, there appears to be little publicly available information on Thomas out there. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Copy and paste, except for the images.

If life was at all fair Ural Thomas would be a household name, his music slotted into countless sweet, seductive mixtapes between James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder (all of whom Thomas has performed with.) Straddling the line between hot soul shouter and velvety-smooth crooner, Thomas released a few singles in the late 60’s and early 70’s; most notably “Can You Dig It”, which featured backing vocals from soul luminaries Merry Clayton, Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway. Thomas played over forty shows at the legendary Apollo Theater before turning his back on an unkind business and heading home to Portland, OR.

It goes without saying that a man practically built out of rhythm would never stop playing music. Thomas began hosting a regular Sunday night jam session at his home that ran for nearly twenty years. A de facto mentor to many of the younger players, Thomas reminds us all that “If you care about what you’re doing, you need to build those muscles and do the work. Don’t get discouraged, do it for love. Even if you’re digging ditches, do it with passion.”

In 2014, local soul DJ Scott Magee sat in on drums. The two became fast friends and at Magee’s urging Thomas decided to give his musical career another shot. Magee became the musical director, they put together a band, and in 2016 released a self-titled album on Mississippi Records.

In 2017 Thomas signed with Tender Loving Empire and began work on what, in many respects, will be his debut full length. Diving deep into lifetime of melodic creativity, Thomas and his band got to work. Recorded in Magee’s studio Arthur’s Attic, The Right Time features the air-tight work of Magee on drums, percussion, and backing vocals, Bruce Withycombe (The Decemberists) on baritone sax, Portland jazz scene fixture Brent Martens on guitars and vibraphone, Arcellus Sykes on bass, Steve Aman (Lady Rizo) on piano and organ, Dave Monnie on trumpet, Willie Matheis (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) on tenor sax, and Jasine Rimmel, Joy Pearson, Sarah King, Rebecca Marie Miller on backing vocals. The Arco Quartet performed the strings, and the record was engineered and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Blitzen Trapper) and mastered by JJ Golden (Sharon Jones, Ty Segall).  

One might think after a sizeable taste of early success Thomas would be more than a touch bitter – yet the opposite is true. “We have to be positive if we want the world to get better” Thomas advises. “We’ve come a long way, but if you carry a grudge with the whole world you’ll stop your growth. We’re a family, all just brothers and sisters, descendants of Adam. You can’t get anywhere without an open heart.”

A developing artist at nearly eighty years old, for Thomas music has always been about bringing people together. “If we play for twenty people we cook it like it’s twenty thousand” says Thomas. “If we make someone smile we’re satisfied. They’re ain’t no difference between us. It’s all love and brotherhood. If folks listen to my record and feel that I’ll feel very blessed.”

Standing in bold defiance of the idea that aging is a reason to slow down and stop living, for Thomas the right time to get down is the next time someone plugs in a guitar or puts on a record. Ural is ready – are you?

Well, that’s a perfect segue into some music. Let’s kick it off with the above noted Can You Dig It? Co-written by Russ Regan and producer Jerry Goldstein, Thomas released this funky soul tune in 1967. And, yes, I sure as heck dig it!

Following are a few tracks from the above noted debut album by Ural Thomas and The Pain. It’s titled The Right Time and appeared in 2018. Here’s No Distance (Between You and Me).

Next up: Smoldering Fire. Oh, man, I just love this tune! How come pretty much nobody knows about it? It’s just incredible!

Here’s the album’s funky title track!

Let’s do one more tune from this great album: Show Ya.

I’ll leave you with one more song I found on YouTube: A 2015 live performance of a tune called Deep Soul. Holy moly. It’s a got a dose of a James Brown vibe!

As for the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival, it’s still streaming today and tomorrow at https://kboo.fm/media/81471-blues-fest-air. I’m currently listening to Southern Avenue, a great band from Memphis, Tenn. I’ve covered on numerous previous occasions. Coming up later today:  Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram and Bettye Lavette with Texas Horns, among others. Tomorrow’s line-up looks great as well!

Sources: Ural Thomas website; Discogs; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I could have called this latest installment of the recurring feature best of what’s new in blues. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may have read this sentiment before: In my opinion, unlike classic rock, the blues remains as vibrant as ever. And this, my friends, makes me a very happy camper!

Are you ready for some good ole’ blues, featuring three veterans and three younger female artists? Ready or not, here we go! Coz, to creatively borrow from the American blues artist who was known as Little Milton, hey, hey, the blues is alright, alright (alright), alright (alright) every day and night.

Joe Louis Walker/Blues Comin’ On

How can you go wrong with a guy named Joe Louis Walker and a tune called Blues Comin’ On? From his web bio: Joe Louis Walker, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee and four-time Blues Music Award winner celebrates a career that exceeds a half a century…A true powerhouse guitar virtuoso, unique singer and prolific songwriter, he has toured extensively throughout his career, performed at the world’s most renowned music festivals, and earned a legion of dedicated fans…Born on December 25, 1949 in San Francisco, at age 14, he took up the guitar. Just two years later, he was a known quantity on the Bay Area music scene, playing blues with an occasional foray into psychedelic rock. For a while, he roomed with Mike Bloomfield, who introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Okay, I have to say I feel a bit ignorant that I don’t recall having heard of this blues veteran before who released his debut Cold Is the Night in 1986. Blues Comin’ On, which features Eric Gales and Dion DiMucci, is the title track of his most recent 26th album that was released on June 5. Dion co-wrote the tune with Mike Aquilina and included his own version on his Blues With Friends album, which interestingly also came out on June 5.

Dion/Bam Bang Boom

Obviously, I couldn’t ignore the above noted Blues With Friends by “The Wanderer” Dion, who after a 63-year career is still marching strong. With those friends including the likes of Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Sonny Landreth, Brian Setzer, Joe Louis Walker and Bruce Springsteen, this surely looks like a killer album! Dion has been active since 1957 and is turning 81 years on July 18 – holy cow, how many other artists can you name with such a long career! And, boy, does he still sound great! “Great songs, great guitarists. What more do you need?” is how Dion confidently summed up the record in a statement. Here’s Bam Bang Boom featuring Billy Gibbons. “Billy Gibbons was a joy to work with on this,” noted Dion in the same statement. “There’s nobody like him.” This surely sounds sweet – damn!

Gina Sicilia/Love Me Madly

Gina Sicilia is a 35-year-old singer-songwriter hailing from Newtown, Pa. Characterizing her music as blues, roots, Americana, soul and R&B, Wikipedia notes Sicilia began singing at 6 years old performing at local talent shows and by the age of 12 she began writing songs. At 14 years old she became interested in blues and classic soul music and decided to pursue singing in that genre. Sicilia’s debut album Allow Me to Confess came out in 2007. She has since released eight additional albums. Love Me Madly is her most recent, which appeared on May 29. Here’s the soulful title track, co-written by her and the album’s producer Cody Dickinson. He is also a member of North Mississippi Allstars, a Southern blues rock band he formed together with his brother Luther Dickinson. I really dig Sicilia’s vocals. Gosh, I can hear some Anita Baker in here!

Dani Wilde/Brave

Here’s another female performer with a compelling voice: 34-year-old Dani Wilde from the village of Hullavington, England. Well, whatever they may have in their water there, it doesn’t seem to damage the vocal chords! According to her website, Over the past 10 years Blues and Country singer-songwriter Dani Wilde has performed at thousands of venues and festivals across Europe, America, Canada and Africa; from the main stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall, to the slum communities of Kenya, to Times Square – New York City…In September 2015, Wilde was awarded ‘Best Female Vocalist” at the British Blues Awards. Wilde has released four studio solo albums to date, starting with Heal My Blues in 2008. Written by Wilde and released on May 6, Brave his her latest single. The tune is dedicated to healthcare professionals and other essential workers around the globe. “I wanted to maintain the organic raw emotion of the blues whilst also taking inspiration from traditional popular song arrangements,” Wilde told Blues Matters. “I love how artists like Patty GriffinPaul Simon and John Mayer take the blues but fuse it with Americana and popular song to create something beautiful.”

Eliza Neals/Black Crow Moan

From her website: Eliza Neals is a prolific songwriter, confident producer, arranger, bandleader, pianist, and one-of-a-kind live performer…Eliza’s history of performing/opening for legendary musicians goes back many years from Detroit’s songwriting godfather Barrett Strong to George Clinton, The Four TopsKenny OlsonMike ZitoTommy CastroWalter TroutPoppa ChubbyAlbert CastigliaMicki Free, Victor Wainwright and recently Blues Foundation HOF man Joe Louis Walker. Kind of ironical – until today, I had not been aware of Walker, and now he seems to be everywhere. I suppose this only confirms my prior ignorance! Black Crow Moan is the title track of Neals’ most recent studio album that was released on April 6; if I interpret it correctly, it’s her seventh. And, yes, you guessed it correctly, the tune features Walker – okay, keep rubbing it in my face!

Mick Clarke/Snappin’ at Your Heel

Let’s wrap things up with another blues veteran: British blues guitarist Mick Clarke, who began his career in 1968 as co-founder of blues rock band Killing Floor. They recorded two albums until their break-up in mid-1972. In 2002, the original line-up reunited. The band remains active with Clarke and Bill Thorndycraft (vocals, harmonica) as original members. During the ’70s, Clarke was also involved in two other bands, Salt and Ramrod, before forming The Mick Clarke Band in the early ’80s. His first solo album Looking For Trouble came out in 1986. Snappin’ at Your Heel is from Clarke’s most recent album Big Wheel released on April 17.

Sources: Wikipedia; Joe Louis Walker website; Dion DiMucci website; Gina Sicilia website; Blues Matters; Eliza Neals website; Mick Clarke website; YouTube

Clips & Pix: John Mayer/Waiting on the World to Change

I still remember initially I was in complete disbelief that this fantastic tune was written John Mayer. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always thought of Mayer as a decent songwriter and a great guitarist. I just didn’t believe he had so much soul in him! You could easily imagine somebody like Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield having performed this song.

Waiting on the World to Change, released in July 2006, became the lead single to Mayer’s third studio album Continuum that appeared in September of the same year. According to Songfacts, the reflective tune describes how most people deal with problems in the world. When Mayer sings, “Me and all my friends, we are all misunderstood, say we stand for nothing but there’s no way we ever could,” he’s talking about his generation and their lack of faith in the government – all we can do is wait, and it seems like everyone is waiting for the world to become a better place.

Songfacts further notes, In an interview with the Daily Mail December 21, 2007 Mayer explained why he wrote this song that makes a point without laboring matters: “I wanted to start a debate. Most of us are happy to wait for things to change.”

Waiting on the World to Change became one of Mayer’s most successful singles. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Adult Contemporary chart. It also charted in Canada, New Zealand and a few European countries. Additionally, the tune won the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in February 2007.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis

Prompted by a clip of Southern Avenue on Facebook, I spontaneously decided to do another post on 80 Miles From Memphis. I’ve dug this band and this song since I listened to their eponymous debut album about three years ago, which was released on the re-activated Stax Records label.

Southern Avenue from Memphis, Tenn. blend elements of traditional blues and Stax-style soul with contemporary R&B. The band’s first album and this tune have a more traditional sound, while their sophomore release Keep On from May 2019 is more funk and R&B-oriented. I can highly recommend both records!

80 Miles From Memphis was written by the band’s guitarist Ori Naftaly, who originally is a blues guitarist from Israel. In 2015, he decided to relocate to Memphis where he formed Southern Avenue with vocalist Tierini Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson (drums, backing vocals). You can read more about the band’s remarkable background story and a great concert I saw in New York in August 2018 here.

I saw the band a second time in Asbury Park, N.J. in July 2019 and posted about it here. Both gigs proved the band is a strong live act. I’m definitely planning to see them again when the opportunity arises and the time is right.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chévere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Melissa Etheridge

I still remember when I first heard Bring Me Some Water by Melissa Etheridge, which received lots of radio play in Germany when it came out in 1988. Her raspy vocals and the tune’s catchy melody grabbed my attention right away. Then except for occasional songs on the radio, she largely disappeared from my radar screen until 2016 when I came across her killer cover of Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Coming. It was on a great album titled Memphis Rock and Soul, a compilation of classic Stax tunes.

Melissa Etheridge was born on May 29, 1961 in Leavenworth, Kan., which is in the Kansas City metropolitan area. During her teenage years, she started performing in local country bands. Following high school graduation in 1979, Etheridge went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. After three semesters, she decided to call it quits and moved to Los Angeles to start a career in music. Eventually, she was discovered by Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records where in May 1988 her eponymous debut album appeared.

The record did pretty well, climbing to no. 22 on the Billboard 200. The lead single, the above noted Bring Me Some Water, peaked at no. 10 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, but surprisingly missed the Hot 100 altogether. Etheridge has since released 14 additional studio albums, the most recent of which, The Medicine Show, came out in April 2019. Her best-selling record became Yes I Am from September 1993, which was certified six times Platinum in the U.S. Her highest charting record on the Billboard 200 was Your Little Secret from November 1995. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s Bring Me Some Water from Etheridge’s eponymous debut. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks in this playlist were written by her. In addition to singing vocals, Etheridge also plays acoustic guitar. It’s just a great tune!

In September 1989, Etheridge released her sophomore album Brave and Crazy. Here’s the You Used to Love to Dance.

I’m the Only One, a nice slow rocker, became Etheridge’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100 where it climbed to no. 8. It topped the Adult Contemporary chart. The tune appeared on the above mentioned Yes I Am, which was her fourth studio album.

In November 1995, the follow-on album Your Little Secret appeared. I Want to Come Over became the second single. Here’s the official video for the tune.

Tuesday Morning is a moving tribute to the victims of 9/11, in particular Mark Bingham, a PR executive who was on United Airlines Flight 93 and one of the four passengers who attempted to retake control of the plane from the hijackers. This resulted in the tragic crash into a field near Shankville, Pa., preventing the plane from hitting its intended target in Washington, D.C. Co-written by Etheridge and Jonathan Taylor, the tune was included on Etheridge’s eighth studio album Lucky from February 2004.

At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Etheridge and Joss Stone performed a great tribute to Janis Joplin. Stone kicked it off with Cry Baby and was joined by Etheridge for a scorching rendition of Piece of My Heart. Etheridge, who appeared bold, had undergone chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer following her diagnosis shortly after the release of the Lucky album. The medley was subsequently made available as a download-only single. Here’s a clip of the Grammy performance. What a triumphant return for Etheridge to the stage!

Let’s do two more. I simply can’t skip the above noted cover of Hold On, I’m Coming. Co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the tune was first recorded by Sam & Dave and released in March 1966. It became one of their biggest hits that has been covered by countless other artists. Etheridge’s smoking hot rendition has to be one of the best. Check it out!

The last track I’d like to call out is from Etheridge’s most recent album, The Medicine Show, her fifteenth from April 2019. Here’s Faded By Design, which also appeared separately as a single.

I also want to acknowledge the recent news of the tragic death of Etheridge’s 21-year-old son Beckett Cypher from opioid addiction, as reported by CBS News. Etheridge’s former wife Julie Cypher had given birth to Beckett in 1998 after artificial insemination. Later the couple revealed the donor had been David Crosby.

Etheridge has won multiple music awards, including a 2007 Grammy in the category of Best Original Song for I Need to Wake Up, a tune from the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Over the course of her 30-year-plus recording career, she has had five Platinum and two Gold certified albums and six top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Etheridge has given close to 60 daily live performances on Facebook throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the bio on her website rightly calls her “one of rock music’s great female icons.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Melissa Etheridge website; CBS News; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s very satisfying to me that since the introduction of this recurring feature two months ago, I’ve discovered newly released music each week that sufficiently intrigues me to write about it. This may sound arrogant, but the reality is most new music simply doesn’t speak to me, especially pretty much anything that’s in the current charts. So it’s been great to see there are exceptions.

This week’s installment includes nice variety, featuring rock, country, folk, Americana and soul. The majority of these artists are new to me, even though most have been around for more than 20 years. There are also two who have been active for 60 years, including one name I had not heard in a long time. Let’s get to it.

Jupiter Coyote/Hungry Ghost

According to AllMusic, Jupiter Coyote is a five-piece band blending bluegrass with traditional rock, which has been around since the early ’90s. Their debut album appears to be Cemeteries and Junkyards from November 1993. In total, AllMusic lists 12 records in the band’s discography, the most recent of which is The Interplanetary Yard Dog from February this year. Hungry Ghost is their latest single, which came out last Friday, May 8. It’s not on the aforementioned album. It was written by co-founding members and guitarist Matthew Mayes. I can hear some Hootie & the Blowfish in the tune, mostly because of the vocals that stylistically remind me a bit of Darius Rucker, though the music has a nice build toward a more edgy rock sound. It’s pretty cool – check it out!

John Frinzi/Used to These Blues

John Frinzi is a country singer-songwriter from Lakeland, Fla. According to his website, he was discovered by Doyle Grisham, the pedal steel guitarist of the Coral Reefer Band, Jimmy Buffett’s touring and recording group. Their working relationship led to Frinzi’s 2003 debut album Into the Dawn. On his second album Shoreline, he co-wrote many songs with Tom Corcoran, a Florida-based mystery novel author who has also been in Buffett’s circle. In 2017, Frinzi recorded Blue Sky View, an EP with songwriter and producer Aaron Scherz. Used to These Blues is Frinzi’s most recent single released on April 27. I like his vocals and the tune’s warm sound and pedal steel fill-ins. Nicely done!

Delbert McClinton/Still Rockin’

Unlike the title suggests, Still Rockin’ actually is a rather mellow ballad and the most recent single by Delbert McClinton, which appeared on March 31. McClinton, which Rolling Stone has called “Godfather of Americana Music”, has been around for more than 60 years. He released his debut album Delbert & Glen together with Glen Clark. While he has since released 29 additional albums, apparently, mainstream chart success has largely eluded him, though since the late 1990s, most of his records reached top positions on Billbord’s U.S. Blues chart. His most recent album Tall, Dark, and Handsome was well received and won the 2020 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Based on the opener I just checked out, this definitely sounds like a record I should check out sooner than later! For now, back to Still Rockin’, which McClinton co-wrote with Bob Britt and Pat McLaughlin.

Gordon Lightfoot/Do You Walk, Do You Talk

Here’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Admittedly, other than If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which were all released in the ’70s and became hits in the U.S. and Canada, I don’t know Gordon Lightfoot’s music. What I do know is I like all of these tunes, as well as Do You Walk, Do You Talk, which is on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s new album Solo that appeared on March 20. According to a Rolling Stone story, it is his first album of newly released material in more than 15 years. Lightfoot who last November turned 81, discovered the material for the album in his home office. Initially, these tunes were recorded in late 2001 and early 2002. But before anything could be released, Lightfoot had an abdominal aortic aneurysm that nearly killed him. After unearthing the old recordings, he decided to re-record the tracks, using his guitar only.  “I thought my fans would be interested in hearing what songs sound like when first written,” Lightfoot stated. According to this fansite, Lightfoot vigorously toured throughout last year and as recently as February. His tour schedule also shows many dates between March and June, which have all been rescheduled to later in the year to due COVID-19. Lightfoot has been active since 1958 (that’s an incredible 62 years!) and released his eponymous debut album in January 1966. According to Wikipedia, Solo is his 21st. Here’s Do You Walk, Do You Talk. Lightfoot still sounds pretty compelling.

Nadia Reid/Oh Canada

Nadia Reid is a 28-year-old singer-songwriter from Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Somehow her name sounded familiar and I had an idea, so I checked Aphoristic Album Reviews, and surely enough Graham covered her before, among others in this post from last October titled The Ten Next Best Singer-Songwriters Ever. Oh Canada is from Reid’s third album Out of My Province that came out on March 6. She released her debut Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs in March 2015. Not quite sure what it is about this tune, but I like it. Reid’s vocals are definitely part of it. Check out the official video.

The James Hunter Six/I Can Change Your Mind

James Hunter is an English R&B and soul singer-songwriter who has been around for 30 years. According to his website, he’s worked on the railway, busked in the streets of London, provided backup vocals and guitar for Van Morrison, played clubs and theaters all over the world, written scores of original songs, and recorded some of the most original and honest rhythm & soul albums of the last two decades.  By 2006, Hunter was recognized with nominations for a GRAMMY® Award (“Best Traditional Blues Album” for People Gonna Talk (Rounder)) and an American Music Award (“Best New/Emerging Artist”). He and his band then hit the road for a decade of extensive touring and recorded critically-acclaimed studio albums— The Hard Way (Hear Music), Minute by Minute (Fantasy), Hold On! (Daptone), Whatever it Takes (Daptone).  By 2016, MOJO magazine had crowned him “The United Kingdom’s Greatest Soul Singer.” Somehow, I missed all of that, but I’m glad Hunter is now on my radar screen. I Can Change Your Mind sounds like beautiful old-fashioned soul. The vocals are pretty amazing. I can some Sam Cooke and Otis Redding in there. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; GordonLightfoot.com fansite; AllMusic; YouTube

A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom!

In Memoriam of Little Richard

“I created rock ‘n’ roll! I’m the innovator! I’m the emancipator! I’m the architect! I am the originator! I’m the one that started it! There wasn’t anyone singing rock ‘n’ roll when I came into it. There was no rock ‘n’ roll.” No, Richard Wayne Penniman wasn’t exactly known for modest self-assessment. I think this comment he made during an interview with SFGATE.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, in July 2003 also illustrates he was a showman who had a knack for memorable quotes.

I’m writing this, as the obituaries still keep pouring in for the man known as Little Richard, who passed away this morning in Tullahoma, Tenn. at the age of 87, according to The New York Times. CNN reported Richard’s former agent Dick Alen confirmed the cause of death was related to bone cancer. Apparently, Richard had not been in good health for some time.

Little Richard 2

Instead of writing yet another traditional obituary, I’d like to primarily focus on what I and countless other rock & roll fans loved about Little Richard, and that’s his music. While he is sadly gone, fortunately, his music is here to stay. And there is plenty of it, so let’s get started and rock it up!

Richard’s recording career started in 1951 close to his 19th birthday when RCA Victor released Every Hour. An original composition, the soulful blues ballad doesn’t exactly sound like A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom!, but one already can get an idea of Richard’s vocal abilities. While tune became a regional hit, it did not break through nationally, just like the other songs Richard recorded with RCA Victor, so he left in February 1952.

Following a few lean years and a struggle with poverty, which in 1954 forced Richard to work as a dishwasher in Macon, Ga., the breakthrough came when Specialty Records released Tutti Frutti as a single in November 1955. The record company had hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to replace some of Richard’s sexual lyrics with less controversial words. Not only did the classic bring Richard long-sought national success, but the loud, hard-driving sound and wild (yet somewhat tamed) lyrics also became a blueprint for many of his tunes to come.

Tutti Frutti started a series of hits and the most successful two-year phase of Richard’s career. One of my favorites is the follow-up single Long Tall Sally from March 1956. Co-written by Richard, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and Enotris Johnson, the song became Richard’s highest-charting U.S. mainstream hit, climbing to no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also marked his first no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Over the years, I must have listened to Long Tall Sally 100 times or even more. It still grabs me. I also dig the cover by The Beatles. Classic rock & roll doesn’t get much better.

Ready, Teddy, for another biggie? Yeah, I’m ready, ready, ready to a rock ‘n’ roll.

Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will?
Oh, Lucille, you won’t do your sister’s will?
You ran off and married, but I love you still

Lucille, released in February 1957, was co-written by Richard and Albert Collins – and nope, that’s not the blues guitarist. The two just happen to share the same name. According to Wikipedia, “the song foreshadowed the rhythmic feel of 1960s rock music in several ways, including its heavy bassline and slower tempo.” Okay, I guess I take that. Lucille became Richard’s third and last no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles. The song reached a more moderate no. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, on the other hand, it climbed to no. 10 on the Official Singles Chart. In addition to Richard’s vocals and piano, the horn work on this tune is just outstanding!

And then came that tour of Australia together with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in October 1957 that changed Richard’s trajectory. As Rolling Stone put it in their obituary, After what he interpreted as signs – a plane engine that seemed to be on fire and a dream about the end of the world and his own damnation – Penniman gave up music in 1957 and began attending the Alabama Bible school Oakwood College, where he was eventually ordained a minister. When he finally cut another album, in 1959, the result was a gospel set called God Is Real.

After Richard left the music business, his record label Specialty Records continued to release previously recorded songs until 1960 when his contract ended and he apparently agreed to relinquish any royalties for his material. One of these tunes was another classic, Good Golly, Miss Molly. Co-written by John Marascalco and Blackwell, and first recorded in 1956, the single appeared in January 1958. It became a major hit, peaking at no. 10 and 8 in the U.S. and UK pop, charts respectively, and reaching no. 4 on the Hot R&B Singles.

Here’s the title track from the above noted 1959 album God Is Real. The tune was written by gospel music composer Kenneth Morris.

In 1962, Richard started a gradual return to secular music. While according to Rolling Stone, a new generation of music artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan welcomed him back, his music no longer sold well. When Richard performed at the Star-Club in Hamburg in the early ’60s, a then still relatively unknown British band called The Beatles opened up for him. The above Rolling Stone obituary included this quote from John Lennon: “We used to stand backstage at Hamburg’s Star-Club and watch Little Richard play…He used to read from the Bible backstage and just to hear him talk we’d sit around and listen. I still love him and he’s one of the greatest.”

In January 1967, Richard released a soul-oriented album titled The Explosive Little Richard. It was produced by his longtime friend Larry Williams and featured Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They co-wrote this tasty tune for Richard, Here’s Poor Dog (Who Can’t Wag His Own Tail). It also appeared as a single and reached no. 121 and 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, respectively. The record didn’t chart.

While Richard enjoyed success as a live performer, his records continued to sell poorly. In April 1970, he had a short-lived comeback of sorts with Freedom Blues, a single from his album The Rill Thing released in August that year. Co-written by Richard and R&B singer Eskew Reeder, Jr., who had taught him how to play the piano, the tune reached no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 28 on the Hot R&B Singles.

During the remainder of the ’70s, Richard continued to perform and also had guest appearances on records by Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Walsh and Canned Heat, among others. He also became addicted to marijuana and cocaine. Eventually, his lifestyle wore him out, and in 1977, Richard quit rock & roll for the second time and returned to evangelism.

In 1984, he returned to music yet another time, feeling he could reconcile his roles as a rock & roll artist and an evangelist. Following a role in the movie picture Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Richard released another album, Lifetime Friend, in 1986. I actually got it on CD at the time. Here’s the nice opener Great Gosh A’Mighty, which Richard co-wrote with Billy Preston. Reminiscent of the old “A-Wop-Bop-a-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom Richard,” the tune had also been included in the soundtrack of the aforementioned movie.

In 1992, Richard released Little Richard Meets Masayoshi Takanaka, which featured newly recorded versions of his hits. The final Little Richard album Southern Child appeared in January 2005. Originally, the record had been scheduled for release in 1972 but had been shelved. Richard continued to perform frequently through the ’90s and the first decade of the new millennium. Nerve pain in his left leg and hip replacement forced him to reduce concerts and eventually to retire in 2013.

Richard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of the very first group of inductees, which also included Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. He also was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and received numerous awards. Four of his songs, Tutti Frutti (no. 43), Long Tall Sally (no. 55), Good Golly, Miss Molly (no. 94) and The Girl Can’t Help It (420), are in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time from April 2010.

I’d like to end this post with a few reactions from other music artists:

“He was the biggest inspiration of my early teens and his music still has the same raw electric energy when you play it now as it did when it first shot through the music scene in the mid 50’s” (Mick Jagger)

“So sad to hear that my old friend Little Richard has passed. There will never be another!!! He was the true spirit of Rock’n Roll!” (Keith Richards)

“He will live on always in my heart with his amazing talent and his friendship! He was one of a kind and I will miss him dearly” (Jerry Lee Lewis)

“God bless little Richard one of my all-time musical heroes. Peace and love to all his family.” (Ringo Starr)

“He was there at the beginning and showed us all how to rock and roll. He was a such a great talent and will be missed. Little Richard’s music will last forever.” (Brian Wilson)

Sources: Wikipedia; SFGATE.com; The New York Times; CNN; Rolling Stone; YouTube

A Change Is Gonna Come, Ooo, Yes It Is

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

This great song by Sam Cooke popped up in my mind yesterday. While he wrote it in a very different context, I still felt it fits the current situation where so many of us are hunkered down at home, hoping this bloody COVID-19 pandemic is going to turn a corner and that eventually, the country can get back to more normal circumstances.

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

The tune was inspired by unfortunate events Cooke experienced in Louisiana in October 1963. On October 8, Cooke called a local motel in Shreveport to reserve rooms for his wife and himself, as well as his entourage. But it turned out to be a “whites-only” motel, so when they arrived, a nervous front desk clerk told them there were no vacancies. Cooke got angry and demanded to speak with the manager, but his wife convinced him to leave. After he eventually agreed, they drove away voicing insults and blowing their horns. When they got to another local motel, the police were waiting and arrested them for “disturbing the peace.”

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke New York Times 1963

The news agency UPI reported on the incident with the headline Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport. The piece was picked up by The New York Times on October 9 (see picture above). The story lead reads as follows: SHREVEPORT, La., Oct. 8 (UPI) – Sam Cooke of Los Angeles, a Negro band leader; his wife and two associates were arrested for disturbing the peace today after they tried to register at a white motel. George D’Artois, Public Safety Commissioner, said the four were not arrested for trying to register at the motel, but for creating a disturbance after they failed to get accommodations

Last year – that’s 56 years after the despicable incident – Shreveport mayor Adrian Perkins apologized to Cooke’s family for the event – well, I suppose better late than never! He also posthumously awarded Cooke the key to the city. Sadly, something tells me his actions were not embraced by everybody. Ignorance and racism are a bit like the coronavirus – they persist, at least in certain circles. Let’s leave at that!

Another factor that prompted Cooke to write the song was Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. According to Songfacts, he couldn’t believe that tune had been penned by a white man. After hearing it, he became determined to write something similar. And he did. Following Christmas in 1963, Cooke presented the tune to J.W. Alexander, a close music associate. Apparently, Alexander cautioned Cooke the song may not be as successful as his previous lighter, poppier songs, but Cooke decided to proceed anyway, saying he wanted to make his father proud.

A Change Is Gonna Come was recorded at RCA Studios in Los Angeles on January 30, 1964. The session was conducted by Cooke’s musical arranger and guitarist René Hall. Production is credited to songwriting and producer duo and cousins Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti. They worked out of New York City’s storied Brill Building and are also known for having produced other Cooke songs like Twistin’ the Night Away and Another Saturday Night, The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens, and Shout by The Isley Brothers.

A Change Is Gonna Come first appeared on Cooke’s final studio album Ain’t That Good News released on March 1, 1964. It wasn’t issued as a single until December 11, 1964, two weeks after Cooke had been shot to death under mysterious circumstances by the manager of a motel in Los Angeles. The manager claimed she had acted in self-defense after Cooke had forced himself into her office, half-naked, looking for a woman who had spent the evening with him. The single version omitted the verse and chorus preceding the bridge (“I go to the movies…”) for radio airplay.

The tune became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Interesting, Cooke only performed it once in public, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on February 7, 1964 – and only after his manager Allen Klein had pushed him to do so. Cooke told him there was no time to pull together the necessary musical arrangement, but Klein managed for RCA to pay for a full string section. According to Wikipedia, after that performance, Cooke had second thoughts about the tune, apparently in part triggered by Bobby Womack who felt it sounded “like death.” Cooke reportedly answered, “Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.”

As you’d expect, a gem like A Change Is Gonna Come has been covered by many other artists. One of my favorite takes is by Solomon Burke, who made it the title track of a studio album he released in 1986. He truly made it his own with a riveting version that takes the song to the then-present time of the mid-’80s. If you haven’t heard it, give this a listen!

I’d like to close with another intriguing cover by rock band Greta Van Fleet. Yep, you read this right – they included it on their second EP From the Fires that came out in November 2017. And, holy smoke, their gifted lead vocalist Josh Kiszka is absolutely killing it!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

23-Year-Old Southern Rock Guitarist Marcus King Shines On Soulful Solo Debut

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Playing For Change and that organization’s incredible videos produced with musicians from all over the world, covering well-known songs. One of the clips I highlighted was The Weight, featuring Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr and professional musicians from eight other countries. The first thing I thought was, ‘how cool is it that Robertson and Starr are in the video. My second thought: ‘The young dude playing guitar and singing is killing it on vocals with his soulful voice. That guitarist was 23-year-old Marcus King. Earlier today, I listened to his solo debut album El Dorado and have to say I’m pretty blown away!

King who hails from Greenville, S.C. is not a newcomer. In fact, he has performed for a whopping 15 years! After beginning to play guitar at a very young age, already as an eight-year-old he started to be on stage with his father Marvin King, a professional blues guitarist. In 2013, as a 15-year-old, he formed the Marcus King Band. In October 2015, their debut album Soul Insight appeared. They have since released two additional records and two EPs. El Dorado, which came out on January 17 this year, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Let’s get to some music!

Here’s the beautiful opener Young Man’s Dream. Spill Magazine called it reminiscent of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush era. With King’s high pitched vocals and the tune’s sound, I think that’s not too far-fetched. Co-written by King, Auerbach and Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, the track also has some early Rod Stewart feel. It’s just cool!

The Well, a nice blues rocker that’s right up my alley, was co-written by King, Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, a bluegrass vocalist and songwriter. I dig the main guitar riff and sound of that tune. Check it out!

Next up is Wildflowers & Wine, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Bowman. I really find it impressive how much soul the 23-year-old has in his vocals. That’s three great songs in a row, which already make it worthwhile to listen to this album.

There’s more. How about some country? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Sweet Mariona, yet another tune co-written by King, Auerbach and Bowman. Listen to that sweet-sounding pedal steel guitar!

Another soul gem with a dose of country flair is Beautiful Stranger. I also love the gospel type backing vocals. To write this song King and Auerbach teamed up with country singer-songwriter Paul Overstreet.

The last track I’d like to call out is Too Much Whiskey, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Overstreet. It’s a great mix of blues and country.

In addition to King (lead vocals, guitar) and Auerbach (bass, guitar, backing vocals), other musicians on El Dorado include Gene Chrisman (drums), Matt Combs (strings), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Chris St. Hillaire (percussion), Russ Pahl (guitar), Ray Jacildo (Glockenspiel, keyboards), Dave Roe (bass), Mike Rojas (keyboards), Billy Sanford (guitar), Bobby Woods (keyboards), as well as backing vocalists Ashley Wilcoxson and Leisa Hans.

Deservedly, El Dorado has received great reviews. Rolling Stone called it “excellent” and King “one of the most exciting guitarists to break through in years.” NPR’s rock critic Ken Tucker characterized the record as “a real beauty — and a turning-point for King.” Last but not least, Spill Magazine opined the album is a “musical masterpiece.”

King seems to be happy with the result as well, as he should be. “I’m really proud of it,” he told Rolling Stone. And what did Auerbach, who has produced for other artists like Dr. John, Ray LaMontagne and The Pretenders, have to add? “It’s staggering how good he is, how crazy-good his vocals are, how he can go anywhere on guitar.” I think that nicely sums up my sentiments.

Sources: Wikipedia; Spill Magazine; Rolling Stone; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube