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Southern Soul, Rhythm & Blues News And Reviews

The Blues Critic is back! Well, sort of. Many of you may remember that this website began as an album reviews website of new and classic Southern Soul/R&B/Blues albums. We have decided to get back into the opinions game. It's just that...opinion. We actually question the usefulness of reviews so we are just doing it for entertainment purposes. People like to read reviews. Simple as that. We aren't accepting submissions for review. We will only review something we like or recommend. Our reviews will often be just as much commentary as review. If we don't like it we won't review it. Writing negative reviews is pointless and unnecessary in our opinion. People have their own tastes. There is no objective way to judge music. You either like it or don't. Yes we're totally self righteous but we have made peace with that. LOL.

In regards to reviews, we will use this grading system:

***** = Excellent. Best Of The Genre
= Very Good. Just Shy Of Great
= Good. A Solid Effort Though Not Extraordinary
= Has It's Moments. Mediocre Over All.

(C) 2018. All written material found on this website is the property of Blues Critic and may only be used with permission and full accreditation (either "Blues Critic" or "Dylann DeAnna of Blues Critic") and link to this website.



Album Review

Rue Davis "Collectors Edition"  (1 Stop Graphics 2018)

****1/2 As it says on the album cover Rue Davis is a "man of many voices", which makes reference to his uncanny ability to imitate famous Soul Blues voices like Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, ZZ Hill, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Tyrone Davis, Ray Charles, Al Green and the list goes on. For a prime example of this vocal chameleon's talent check out the the 1998 Avanti Records LP "Sings With Friends", which had Davis singing like (not really "with") his friends from track to track. An exceptional writer, producer, recording artist and performer of Blues, R&B and Southern Soul Music for many years, Davis has bounced from label to label. Despite being or perhaps because of being a cherished artist of the Southern Soul Blues universe Davis has appeared on no less than eight different record labels from 1995 until now and has yet to record with the big five (Malaco/Waldoxy, Mardi Gras, Ecko, CDS Records). There's at least nine full Rue Davis albums for this "best of" to choose from not counting his collaborative albums with Little Buck and Bobby Powell. So how did "Collectors Edition" do in cherry picking tracks for this 13 song collection? Pretty darn good in my estimation.

Davis' first release was the 1995 album "You Are My Honey Poo" (later re-issued as "Heaven Has Sent Me Your Love" in 2003 via Kon-Kord Records) and this new release extracts "Honey Poo" (his very first chitlin circuit hit) and the equally good "I'm In Love With The Girl Next Door". Because "Edition" is limited it doesn't include other essential gems like "Heaven Sent Me Your Love" and "Love is So Good When You're Stealing It". His 1997 sophomore album, "Somebody Wants You", is perhaps his very best studio album and is represented by the gorgeous "Our Love Divine" and the title track. Proper picks for sure but including "Shoopedoo" would've been perfect. The aforementioned "Sings With Friends" has two tracks lifted ("Can't Help Myself" in Tyrone Davis mode and "Thanks For Saving Your Love"). So far these selections are nearly spot on. From 2001's "Candy Sweet" comes the title cut and "I'll Be Your Shoulder" but the "Honey Poo" sequel "Tippitaboo" is more essential than "Shoulder". The next album, "Dapp Daddy" gets ignored and it really is his weakest album anyway.

The hit single, "Tell Me What You Want", comes from the terrific 2005 album "For Real", which is an album you should own in whole. The Marvin Gaye-inspired "Between The Sheets" should have been here too. His tracks on the two Little Buck albums ("I'mma Stir It Up" & "I'mma Blues Man") are skipped (one track, "Big Hip Woman", appeared on a later Rue Davis LP) while the collection snags "I Promise", and "I'm Giving Up The Streets" from 2008's "Return Of The Legend" and the title cut to "Big Hip Woman" (2016). 2014's "Shake It Loose" has no tracks and neither does Bobby Powell's "Juke Joint Blues". That leaves one track unaccounted for, "Your Man". I wasn't able to source this excellent saxophone blessed slow beater (other than a digital-only self released "Love Songs" album from 2006, which is identical to "Collectors Edition" other than missing the song from "Big Hip Woman" ) so it may be be previously unreleased.

If you have no or very little Rue Davis in your collection buy this NOW, but be warned you're going to want more. This is the ideal sampler to the Rue Davis canon. That said, longtime fans like myself, know that one album cannot contain the "best of Rue Davis". (footnote: the track listing running order doesn't match what it says on the artwork)


Album Reviews*

(* edited further after publishing)

Wilson Meadows "Facts Of Life"  (Music Access 2018)

**1/2 Wilson Meadows has been one of the most popular Southern Soul artists in the business ever since his "That's Still My Love" became a hit in 1997- twenty-one years ago!  "Facts Of Life" is his first set of new material since 2011 (his 2014 release "Tighten Up" was a compilation of older tracks with a few new added). The LP was preceded by the single "Lady Luck" by nearly a year. That single broke new ground with a Jazzy Neo-Soul/funk sound featuring female counterpoint Thesis. The new direction works artistically on this cut but unless it had managed to crossover to bigger markets the song was D.O.A. in the Southern Soul market. The second single "A-T-Ti-Tude" is somewhat closer to Meadows' familiar sound. Instead of just programming, however, it has some grinding bass, chiming guitar and Thesis in the background again but the track lacks punch and is a bit clumsy, hardly settling into a comfortable rhythm. Meadows is still in fine voice, perhaps breathier but his signature vibrato is intact.

The album is schizophrenic. It wants/thinks it's someone new but as if for insurance there's a few old personality Southern Soul tracks ("Jump On It" and "Good Thang") that feel generic and pale in comparison. The two minds are at an odds. What's worse some tracks were mastered at a lower volume so you'll need to fiddle with the knobs to keep the same audio levels. But even the "new" personality falters at times like on the obnoxious "Don't Turn Me Down", with it's irksome Pop concessions. The refrain is pretty and it even starts to groove but the way Meadows sings the versus is a huge turn off. It smells like midlife crisis the way the seasoned veteran Meadows rap-sings his lines. I have to skip this track every time. And what's with the flat sounding snare that almost ruins the cool vibes ballad "We Can Fall In Love"? This track already appeared on 2011's "Man Up".

Now on to the highlights. "Lady Luck" was already mentioned, indeed a noble failure, but there's a lively new version/remix(?) of "Still My Love" and "Us" has some Funky swagger going for it. Great vocals again from Thesis, tasty saxophone fills and tinkling piano peppered throughout the track. "I'm Falling" is a lovely ballad where Meadows sounds completely in his element, even with the vocoder backing vocals ala Bigg Robb. A new version of "Tell Me You Love Me" (originally appeared on 2000's "Dealing Real") is another delicious slowie with finger snaps n' water drips percussion, tambourine, subtle bass and guitar. One thing is made clear. Meadows is a balladeer who has always somewhat struggled with dancey material. All in all there's enough positive going for it to make it worth checking out but somebody has to employ some better quality control next time 'round.



"When I'm Wrong I'm Wrong (But I'm Usually Right)"

I began writing album reviews from 2005 thru 2008 and I didn't hold back from writing a negative review of an album. I wrote some scathing reviews for sure. Since I began writing here again I have opted not to publish one star (*) reviews (and delete any from the past). Oh, believe me, I come across an ungodly amount of music due to this website and, well, most of it I don't particularly like. Some is just putrid and soul crushingly awful. I've been tempted to review some of the product that's so bad I'd advise you to avoid any continent there's a chance you'd be subjected to it. Do I need to include one star reviews to have more credibility and/or comparison to the other higher-starred reviews? Like some critics I don't feel I need to warn people of crappy music as if I were that important. Life's too short and there's too much music. I'm just going to tell you what I like and/or think and you can read between the lines. If my positive review influences you to seek out an album and you like it I would feel great about that. I understand negative reviews are useful. But in today's age and with the ubiquitous youtube, etc. the chances are high you will have an opportunity to listen to samples before purchasing any music. Now, if I was writing movie reviews I would definitely write negative reviews because sample scenes of a movie fail to give you a good enough impression on the movie which must be taken as a whole. With most music you can buy the single. By the way any new album we add to our store we will add sound samples.

As far as those one star (*) reviews and for your amusement here are two reviews I wrote for the same album back in 2007 and then late 2008. At first I hated it but later felt I was wrong and wrote a revision that never got published. I'm not sure why I disliked it so much as I love Ellis Hooks' voice and the work of Jon & Sally Tiven so I can only guess it's because critics often feel they need to include negative reviews to give more credence to their positive ones. Or maybe I was in just a bad mood that day. Well I was wrong with my original review so it shows you just can't trust a critic.

Original Review:

Ellis Hooks "Another Saturday Morning" (Evidence 2007)

* I'd like to give this record a rave just for the fact it's packed fair and square with 16 new tracks (!) all written by producer Jon Tiven, wife Sally Tiven and Ellis Hooks. What a bargain. Sadly, it's the blandest batch of songs I've heard from Hooks and the spousal writing team. The Tivens have written and produced terrific discs by Hooks ("Godson Of Soul") Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice & most recently the four-award winning (W.C. Handy's) "Think Of Me" by Little Milton. This time out they forgot to bring the goods. We got the same raspy Soul voice, punchy rhythm, real ingredients (organ, horns, guitar) that worked before but the songs contain few precious few hooks (no pun intended) and melody. Case in point: "Black Dirt" kicks up mighty dust with an authentic Stax groove and Hooks' Soul shoutin' but it becomes clear a minute into it we have a failed attempt to re-write "Shotgun". Song after song the disc has the sound but not the substance. "You Move Too Fast" has a nauseating, repetitive horn arrangement; "Don't Stop Dancing" will make your ass feel like a ton; "Your River" starts with a chiming hybrid of acoustic guitar and sitar that builds up but delivers an anti-climactic refrain; and the disappointment continues. Still, a few tracks might be worth burning onto your hard drive. "Bad MF" has a nasty little rhythm that would've made for a dynamite song if it were not for the weak hook. "I'm a bad mutha. That's the real deal". Naw, this time out you're just bad.

Revised Review:

Ellis Hooks "Another Saturday Morning" (Evidence 2007)

*** I'd give this record a rave just for the fact it's packed fair and square with 16 new tracks (!) all written by producer Jon Tiven, wife Sally Tiven and Ellis Hooks. A lotta bang for yo' buck. The Tivens have written and produced terrific discs by Hooks ("Godson Of Soul") Wilson Pickett, Sir Mack Rice & most recently the four-award winning (W.C. Handy's) "Think Of Me" by Little Milton. There's a winning formula. We got the same raspy Soul voice, punchy rhythm, real ingredients (organ, horns, guitar) that worked before and while the songs contain perhaps less immediately gratifying hooks (no pun intended) the results show there's plenty fuel left in the tank. "Black Dirt" kicks up mighty dust with an authentic Stax groove and Hooks' Soul shoutin' that makes this the "Shotgun" for our time. "Your River" starts with a chiming hybrid of acoustic guitar and sitar that builds up and delivers a subtle but rewarding refrain upon multiple listens. Those last few words are key to discovering this record's less obvious charms. Sure it sounds great from the jump but do the songs stick and stay? At 16 tracks there's a lot to digest here. I was a bit underwhelmed my first few listens (the first draft of this review was pretty damn negative when I look back) but I noticed it just kept getting better and better. Suffice it to say I enjoy this effort just as much as the previous LPs. This stuff ain't no soft, safe, easy listening, sip-on-your-wine music. No way. Much like Hooks considers himself this album is a "Bad Mofo". There's nobody else out there right now dealing out the MF'ing grit the way Hooks and the Tivens are. Hooks sings "I'm a bad mutha" and that's the real deal. (The album is ranked #10 in our Best Of 2007 Retro-Soul/Soul Blues List)


Album Reviews

Billy Price Otis Clay "This Time For Real" (Bonedog/Vizztone 2015)

****1/2 Shortly before his death in 2016 the great Otis Clay recorded a pair of duet albums with two fellow Soul-Blues peers and admirers. The first, "Soul Brothers", was recorded with Johnny Rawls in 2014 and released by Catfood (that label name always gives me a chuckle as if the guy runs the label to pay for, well, his cat's food and that's something close to my heart). Rawls' & Clay's voices meshed marvelously as expected but I find the combo of Clay and Billy Price to be an even finer fit.  Clay's career stretches back to 1964 (with the Gospel Songbirds) but is of course most famous for his stint with Hi Records where he had hits like "Trying To Live My Life Without You" (#24 R&B) and "That's How It Is" (#34 R&B"). Meanwhile relatively unsung Pittsburg hero Price has a discography that stretches back to 1981, including a now classic album produced by Swamp Dogg ("Can I Change My Mind?" 1999) and his excellent first long player for Bonedog Records, "East End Avenue". The latter made our Top 10 Retro-Soul/Soul Blues Albums of 2006 list. Price possesses a modest yet tension-filled voice that emits pent up soulfulness. Unlike Clay he doesn't seek to knock you on your ass with shouty rasps but picks expertly at your heart with pinched earnestness. Price's style is a perfect foil for Clay's powerful throaty harshness. While not as piercingly sharp as back in the day (he was 72 when he recorded this record) Clay still has that Deep Soul timbre and grit.

"This Time For Real" is a worthy showcase for these two soulful gents consisting entirely of smart covers. I say "smart" because we aren't forced to hear the godzillianth version of "Mustang Sally" or "My Girl". In fact other than Sam & Dave's "You Got Me Hummin'", Clay's own "All Because Of Your Love (#44 R&B)" and The Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody" this 12 song set features deeper catalog songs I wager aren't terribly familiar. I myself assumed 4 or 5 were originals so whomever selected these numbers knows their music history better than I. I was unacquainted with but enchanted by Percy Wiggin's Country-fried "Book Of Memories" and the vulnerable "I'm Afraid Of Losing You" originally cut by Quiet Essence on Hi Records circa 1972. One of the most moving and faithfully arranged covers is Los Lobos' "Tears Of God". This deep lilting slowie is one case where the cover version completely eclipses the original. Price and Clay wrench your innards with dueling bittersweet, aching phrases on top of icy organ and under luxuriant horn fills. Gorgeous. And speaking of horns Mark Earley (saxes) and Doug Woolverton (trumpet) absolutely slay on the swinging "Somebody's Done Changed My Sweet Baby's Mind" and the Funky rhythm & blues stomper "Going To The Shack". In fact praise must be given to the rest of the personnel: Duke Robillard (guitar), Mark Texixiera (drums), Brad Hallen (bass) and Brice Bears (keyboards) gave Price and Clay the keys to one hot ride that  cruised through Soul's expansive history to gather these twelve songs.

"For Real" was produced by guitarist Robillard and despite my familiarity with some of his mammoth amount of work I had no idea he was this skilled behind the board. An internet sweep only highlights his work as a bandleader and many guest artist gigs. Well, add producer to his many trades. This album is substantial Soul music. "This Time For Real" is as actual as gravity


Eugene Smiley Sr. "Blues With A Touch Of Jazz" (KCity)

*** Upon receipt of his promo package I was already familiar with Eugene Smiley Sr from back when I was hot and heavy writing album reviews for this website (before taking a long walk thru the wilderness with CDS Records). I reviewed his album "Legends" (as well as several discs from his label KCity Records) back in January 2007 and it ranked #4 of our Best Of 2007 list for Retro-Soul/Soul-Blues albums. I had almost forgotten about it until the pleasant surprise of new music materializing in our PO Box. The enclosed letter read: "It's been ten years since I've sent you any of my music." Smiley apparently had been busy helping up and coming Kansas City artists reach for their dreams during this time before suffering a "health setback" that sidelined him from 2014 until recently. Now recovered he's back to recording and despite my high expectations "Blues With A Touch Of Jazz" doesn't disappoint. Just as on "Legends" Smiley serves us with ten newborn beauties of horn-backed Soul Blues goodness. I'll admit any album I receive with the word "Jazz" in the title makes me nervous. The only Jazz I appreciate is the esoteric Ornette Coleman-type and I've yet to hear anyone dare attempt mixing Soul Blues with that. In actuality there's only a "Touch Of Jazz" as the title promises, almost entirely on the nifty instrumental closer "Sleep Walking".

The album briefly loses it's footing at the starting gate with "A Real Good Sign". It's a fine song as such but Smiley's vocals are mixed too low and given too much reverb. A remix would remedy that and, fortunately, things quickly get better. Track 2 is one of many cuts that's prime fodder for the Southern Soul Blues market courtesy of that ubiquitous cheating theme. It's a midtempo floater in which Smiley heard it through the grapevine that "People Are Talking" about his gal cheating on him. Perhaps things are looking up for him on the Sam Cooke-kissed "Ooh Baby", a shaggadelic Beach number where Smiley may have just found a new woman to replace the cheater. Maybe this happened when he was searching for "Someone To Love", which is also the first cut we added to our Southern Soul Radio station. Elsewhere Smiley gets to squeeze out some guitar licks on the bumping "Traveling Man" and slow blues "Blues This Morning". Just like "Legends" ten (11 actually) years earlier this is a fine assemblage of Blues styles with that teeny "touch" of Jazz. The production isn't as consistent as one would hope and a few songs suffer from muddy mixes but it is still on par sonically with most of the independently produced Southern Soul/Blues currently making the rounds.

Eugene Smiley Sr. once was part of an R&B group that recorded for the famed Brunswick record label subsidiary Dakar (Tyrone Davis, Major Lance). Originally called the Delmontes, they changed their name to The Visitors and enjoyed some local Chicago area hits in 1968 with "I'm In Danger" and "Changes". The group was short lived so Smiley moved to Kansas City in 1976 where he put together a group called Essence Of Love but by 1979 he retreated from the music business until 1992 when he formed another group, BWB and formed his label KCity Records on which we have "Blues With A Touch Of Jazz"


Blast From The Past Album Reviews

I was listening to some Prince today so I dug out an old review I did nearly a dozen years ago. Also, one of my favorite albums of that year was by Willie Walker & The Butanes so here's two reviews from 2006. Prince & Willie Walker...

Prince "3121" (NPG 2006)

**** The artist once again known as Prince has enjoyed a bit of a comeback the last few years partly due to nostalgia as the 80s generation has come of age. His previous disc "Musicology" was a mixed bag that mostly sold on the strength of high profile appearances (such as with Beyonce at the Grammys), a great video ("Musicology") and a monster tour. There really were no major hit singles from that record and this time it's obvious he's gunning for the charts. After all, his last bona fide smash was "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" (#3 Pop) and that was 1994! So on "3121" he comes out swinging with everything from the Princely bag-o-tricks: You got the Al Green-kissed falsetto voice, synth/funk ("Black Sweat", "Get On The Boat"), Prince guitar rock ("Fury"), keyboard pop ("Lolita", "Love"), sultry slow jams ("Satisfied") and some good ole' eccentricity ("3121"). Firstly, I gotta admit I kinda dig the new Prince image. Since he's been involved with the Jehovah's Witnesess and become cleaner and seemingly happier he just oozes cool confidence. That said- what about the music?

Well, you know how it is- because Prince hit such highs with albums like "1999", "Purple Rain" & "Sign O The Times" everything the artist does is overshadowed by those triumphs. Face it the "Purple Rain" (and his reign) is over and Prince is now just another legacy pop artist putting out whatever music he wants to put out. There's no single as brilliant as "Little Red Corvette", "When Doves Cry", "Sign O' The Times" or "Kiss" but there's some darn good tracks. Interestingly, the current single and video is an obvious tip of the hat to "Kiss'. The Spartan synth funk/pop "Black Sweat" is a kissing cousin, albeit without as strong a hook, to that minimalistic dance funk gem. This deserves chart action. The wacky title track "3121" hearkens back to his one-man band "Sign O' The Times" heyday replete with that tweaked vocal effect ("Camille"). It's not much of a song just a fun jam before leaping into the retro-80s synthesizer pop of "Lolita", which may remind the young folk of Andre 3000. But that's a chicken and egg thing, no? The rocker "Fury" is what Jimi Hendrix might have sounded like in the 80s and "Love" strangely reminds me of a Janet Jackson song circa "Rhythm Nation". Oh yeah, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis produced that Jackson record and who were they influenced by again? Yep. The purple one. Perhaps the best track is "Word", with that clever beat, acoustic guitar, sax hook and guitar solo. So, while it doesn't stand a chance if compared to his paisley peak this is definitely his best record since 1995's "The Gold Experience". While I don't care much for pop music and though I'd like to hear him drop the mainstream and do a straight blues or classic Soul record it'd sure be nice to hear Prince on the radio again. This album should do the trick.

That last sentence...well the album didn't put Prince back on the radio again and sadly he never really did get much radio play outside Urban Adult Contemporary stations up until his death. I remember being a bit annoyed "Black Sweat" didn't become a hit (It debuted at #60 on Billboard almost entirely on sales and was off the chart by week two).

P.S. As a footnote I want to air a minor gripe I have that is sorta Prince-related. Ever notice that when someone brings up either Prince or Michael Jackson someone feels compelled to compare them? Why? Yes they are two Pop/R&B geniuses of basically the same era but I've always found it a bit suspect. I mean people have no problem mentioning Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger without conflating the two into some silly duel. I've always felt it had to do with Prince and Michael being black, as if there really could only be the one token black pop star or something. Anyway, mini-rant over. Good news it's okay to dig them both. I like Prince very much but I love Michael. See? I just did it. They must have hated it while living to be part of a rivalry they didn't start.


 Willie Walker & The Butanes "Memphisapolis" (Haute 2006)

****1/2 For all the fans and critics bemoaning Soul music’s reliance on machines these days I present you with a pacifier. 100% organic, natural Deep Soul music (and original songs to boot!). We’re talking Hammond organ, a horn section, rhythm section with a pulse and an authentic O.V. Wright-styled Soul shouter. Actually, Soul aficionados already know about Willie Walker & The Butanes. Their 2004 LP “Right Where I Belong” made waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Blues Critic Online placed it in the Top 10 Soul Blues CDs of said year. Well, nothing’s changed as Willie, songwriter Curtis Obeda and the Butanes (John Lindberg, Virgil Nelson, Robb Stupka) are back with an equally gritty slab of raw, sweaty aural pleasure.

It must be noted first that all 13 tunes are originals- so there’s no godzillionth cover of “Respect Yourself” or “Mustang Sally” here- just some new relatives penned by Obeda. Wasting no time “Memphisapolis” commences with a vintage Stax-kissed groove on “What’s It Take”, which even quotes “In The Midnight Hour” (musically) following the chorus. You wonder who’s the star here- Walker’s throaty rasp or the tidal wave of horns (Jim Greenwell-sax, Michael B. Nelson-trombone, Brad Shermock-trumpet). Like a lot of Obeda’s compositions the song is more groove than melody. Many of the songs aren’t immediate but slyly burrow their way into your heart on repeated listens. Not so for “My Baby Drives Me Crazy”, “Opposites Attract” and “Thanks For Being There”; a trio of easily accessible Memphis movers replete with female backups and riffing horns. Some of the cuts here were originally intended for others: “Real Love” for Al Green; “I’ll Get To You” for Bettye LaVette; “Thanks For Being There” for Tyrone Davis but those shoes are now filled by Walker just fine thank you.

The gem of the set is “Exactly Like You”, a midpaced 50s-styled ballad about brotherhood that bear hugs your soul. “What’s it Gonna take for you to see/You’re exactly like me...we’re both men but we’re living different lives”. It’s a stunner. The Deep Soul “Cry Cry Cry” (not the Bobby Bland song) isn’t far behind. The liners say this song was the first Walker and Obeda demoed together. “Real Love” has a definite Al Green/Willie Mitchell/Hi Records thang going for it with Walker delivering a more mellifluous vocal than usual. The man’s a rarity these days- singing Soul with a pitch and pain the greats like Pickett, Redding, Clay, Cooke & Wright used to do. Walker’s career does stretch back to those same 1960s with the famed Goldwax and Checker labels. Only a handful of 45s were issued and there hasn’t been much since. His profile was augmented a tad when his “There Goes My Used To Be” appeared on the excellent compilation, “The Goldwax Story”. Surely there were many who found it hard to believe a voice like his would be under-recorded (although I hear there’s mucho unreleased Walker out there somewhere). Fortunately Obeda and his Butanes had the wisdom to back Walker and he couldn’t ask for a more dedicated bunch. Take a listen to the Butanes get down, get funky and get loose on the last half of “The Last Time” to know what I mean. They may live in Minneapolis but their hearts reside in Memphis and there you have “Memphisapolis”."

P.S. Walker now goes by Wee Willie Walker and his 2017 album with the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra entitled "After A While" has been nominated for 5 Blues Music Awards!


Album Review

Frank Mendenhall "Hard Times" (Wurst Act 2004)

***** Gone way too soon. Frank Mendenhall passed away in 2007 at age 59 but not before he released three albums including "Hard Times" - simply one of the greatest Southern Soul/R&B albums ever created. Mendenhall possessed a weary, doleful voice that oozed n' ached Soul. On his first two albums ("Time" & "Sweet Love") Mendenhall displayed his eclectic roots of Soul, Blues, Reggae, somewhat pedestrian adult contemporary balladry but outside of "Time" and first hit "Shont Dont Dont" he hadn't yet perfected his trademark sound. When "Hard Times" dropped six long years later it was clear Mendenhall has created a masterpiece. Gone was the faux-Reggae conceits and the wimpy beat ballads. In it's place was song after song of hard hitting Southern Soul, rhythm and a little Blues with a propulsive groove bumping on top of an organ/bass foundation. To my ears Clarence Carter's "Slip Away" is a template Mendenhall uses time and time again to great effect. Just about every song on "Hard Times" has at some point gotten it's share of airplay. I recall when it first dropped. Many of you will remember the late great Funky Larry Jones of the Soul And Blues Report- best known for the Top 25 Southern Soul Chart. The week after "Hard Times" had dropped both the title track and "Jealous" made their Top 25 chart debuts. As months passed "Party With Me Tonight" and "All Blues Saturday" had also begun to spread.

"Hard Times" covers familiar ground lyrically. The blues are a condition. From matters mundane to the personal to even the spiritual the Blues can give you a catharsis.  After all if "you don't dig the Blues you got a hole in your soul" as Albert King said. Well, Mendenhall's got the blues thanks to money problems on the title track: "Sitting here wondering what went wrong/I got nothing to lose/Everything I had I lost/Got raindrops falling on my window pane/Got teardrops falling in my heart and it causes my pain/Tell me tomorrow will be a brighter day/But I can't worry about tomorrow when I'm worried about today". This tag teams "Gone On Away From Here" where he's been "Walking this long road/Seem like I'm getting nowhere/Been waiting on my ship y'all/Seem like it just won't come in/Done lost my woman after losing my job". But the album isn't all downers. The galloping groove of "All Blues Saturday" is one of the things Southern Soul aka "grown folks" look forward to. "I've been waiting all week long y'all/For the all Blues Saturday y'all/I just wanna listen to the Blues/Then I wanna dance all day". Maybe later the same day he's inviting you to "Party With Me Tonight", which has aged as the most famous track from the record. We also have sagacious relationship advice and admonitions. On "What She Can't Get At Home" he, in a nutshell, echoes what Johnnie Taylor said about a man "doing his homework" because "She's out there getting what she can't get at home". The shoe is on the other foot with "Locked Doors". This time he's the victim as he channels Atlantic Records/Otis Redding on this Deep Soul slowie. Here he's fed up with her leaving him at home while she's out all night. He tells her he'll "find somebody else who wants it" if she doesn't want "it".

Mendenhall is not limited to cliché's evidenced by confessional songs like "Dish It All Out" where you may have guessed it: He can "dish it all out" when it comes to cheating but "sure couldn't take it" when he found out his woman "was doing the same thing too".  On "Jealous" he admits to being insecure and protective because of "how good (her) lovin' is".

The overall arrangement and playing is cohesive throughout. Further making this the one must own Mendenhall album is the inclusion of his aforementioned two best pre-2004 songs ("Time" & "Shont Dont Dont"). Every song is a gem. Absolutely essential.


Album Review

Uvee Hayes "Nobody But You" (Mission Park)

***1/2 Uvee Hayes has straddled the lines between Blues, Soul, Jazz and later Southern Soul throughout her career. She is one of precious few artists that have been able to make a mark in mainstream Blues as well as the Southern Soul markets. Hayes was born in Mississippi but relocated to Missouri after marrying St. Louis Radio Hall Of Famer Bernie Hayes, who started his independent record label Mission Park in order to issue Uvee's recordings.

Uvee's first LP was released in 1984. The 7-track album was entitled "I.C.U.U.V." and introduced the world to a smooth, sometimes sultry singer with a unique, identifiable timbre. In 1986 an obscure imprint Bunky 7 Records released one of the tracks from the LP on a 12 inch single ("He's My Man") followed by another 12 incher entitled "B.Y.O.M (Bring Your Own Man)" coupled with "He's My Man". It would be several more years for new music to appear. Mission Park released Uvee's first CD, "On My Own" in the mid 90s. More notable was the 1998 release "Sweet & Gentle", a 14-track collection of both old and new recordings. It was at this point people started to take notice. This pattern of recycling older tracks with fresh material continued in 2001 on the 15-track "There'll Come A Time". All these early releases were aimed at the Blues and Jazz markets.

In 2009 Uvee signed with the fledgling CDS Records label, which issued a 17 collection of (yet again) both new and previously-released tracks. The label chose her duet with Otis Clay, a cover of Johnnie Taylor's "Play Something Pretty" (also the album's name), as the first single but it was the follow up, "Maintenance Man", that put Uvee on the map in Southern Soul. Boosted by WDIA out of Memphis in late 2010 the song has gone on to receive extensive and consistent airplay and sales over the past seven years.

Mission Park issued a new collection, "True Confessions" in 2011, which featured another duet with Otis Clay ("Steal Away (From The Hideaway)"), but it was the next album that produced her next successful song. Taken from 2014's "In The Mood", the track "Handy Man" was a sequel to "Maintenance Man" and followed a similar shuffle-bump arrangement. You'd think Uvee would ditch the Blues and Jazzy elements to her music but fortunately she has not. So that brings us to 2017 when another sequel to "Maintenance Man" makes it's appearance on "Nobody But You"

The groove-heavy "Mr. Fix-It-Upper" has Uvee singing: "Met this man/Said 'I was watching you'/'I was wondering whether I can talk to you'/'I see you had a maintenance man then you had a handy man'/'I understand they were doing the best they can....'/'...allow me to introduce myself to you'/'I'm the man that's gonna give you what you need'/'I'm Mr. tried the rest now try the best'".

It remains to be seen if this is the one that gets the job done or another mechanically-inclined, jack-of-all-trades steps up. Even better is "Your Love's Gotta Hold On Me", a Tyrone-Davis-like headbobber with an especially pretty and emotive vocal from our heroine. It's wonderfully retro but doesn't sound out of place on a typical Southern Soul playlist. In fact it's a contender for the best track she's cut so far.

The down home "I Wanna Hear Some Blues" should satisfy her Blues contingent. "Hold On" and "Oh Baby" are lovely, electric piano and synth-led slow jams that gives us that "smooth and gentle" Uvee we crave. "That's How You Make Me Feel" is a midtempo number fueled by programmed horns and a sing-along-worthy refrain.

And finally the title track incorporates subtle guitar noodling and vocoder-ized backing vocals into a slinky, breezy slow song. And then it's over. Too soon. The seven songs on "Nobody But You" are some of the best of her career and with the addition of a couple tracks this could have been her best album to date. It's still highly recommended. BUY CD


Album Review

Mo' B "Toast It Up" (self released) 

**** His name is pronounced "mo bee" not "mob". You'd be surprised how many goof on that one. Legal name Marrisee Boyd. He's also gone by "Mo B The Prince Of Urban Soul". I've known about Mo' B for some time. He was always bubbling over and under the radar for years but I wasn't aware of a full CD until we reached out to him on Facebook. Glad we did. "Toast It Up" is a tour-de-force 14-song set full of club bangers and sweet, buttery goodness. Get it? "toast" and "buttery". Aw, never mind. Wrong kind of toast. Annnnnnyway, the derivative current single "Here Kitty Kitty Stomp" is a head-bobbin', shuffle-bumper in double-time that nicks KC & The Sunshine Band's famous keyboard riff from "Boogie Shoes" (as did Nellie Tiger Travis' "If I Back It Up" and many others) and lyrics from "Atomic Dog" ("Why must I feel like that/Why must I chase the cat?"). It's a delirious, loose bit of fun that's truly contagious (in a good way). If ever there was a track tailor-made for chitlin' circuit dance floors this "B" it.

The galloping title track is a great contender for a follow up single. "Toast it up/Hold up your cups/Get your drink on". This is straight party music that manages to reference many welcome cliche's in Southern Soul life ("BYOB", "BBQ", "DJs playin' Southern Soul", "All the ladies lookin' beautiful"). After all everybody knows grown folks like to get down and have a good time. The midtempo "Beautiful" has a retro-mid 80s R&B arrangement and style. Underrated decade for Soul music. There's a brand new chapter to the infamous long standing "Jody" saga (that lowdown so-and-so sexing up your woman while you're working). Well, "Jody Got His Ass Whooped"! Finally! See, Johnnie Taylor may have said "Ain't no use in going home/Jody's got your girl and gone." Well, Mo' has different ideas. Seems, Jody was out bragging about hooking up with Mo's gal so Mo decided to come home early one afternoon "on his ass". And the lyrics explain what happened: "While Jody was swingin' his d***/I was beating on him with this stick". That says it all, doesn't it? Jody finally got what's coming to him. This is one of two tracks only found on the CD version of this album. The other is a rolling downhome Blueser, "Hitting On Me". Harmonica on a Southern Soul album? Yep! Mo' is informing you (and Pokey?) "Your side piece is all over me". Well you know what they say? If he/she is cheating with you he/she probably will cheat on you too.

Mo' gets romantic on "U My Lady", a slinky slow number, as is "Baby Come Home" and "8 Dayz". Meanwhile "Old And Gray" ups the ante on lovey-dovey. What woman doesn't want to hear "Even when when I'm old and gray/I'll have a kiss for you/Even when you're old and gray/I'll still be your boo". I'm betting not a one. In a nutshell "Toast It Up" feels like an album full of pent up ambition and inspiration, years of songwriting and planning, just waiting for the right time to cut a full-length album. There's no duds. Mo' may as well have titled the LP "Greatest Hits". This one definitely deserves attention and should produce plenty of hits. BUY CD


Album Review

Albert King Red HouseAlbert King "Red House" (Castle/Essential 1991)

*** This is the very last studio album recorded by the late Blues titan. One of my motivations for writing this short review is my annoyance over how woefully inaccurate most info out there is on exactly what this actually is. If it's even listed at all it's usually listed as another live album or a compilation of previously-released tracks rather than the final album from the master. My research suggests it was only officially released in the United Kingdom in 1991 months before his fatal heart attack. It received almost no attention and quickly fell into obscurity. I'm the one that added it to his Albums Discography on Wikipedia but then some nitwit edited the page and moved it over to the "Compilations" section (as of today it's still listed incorrectly). Insert angry emoji here.

Recorded both in Memphis, TN (produced by King and Gary Belz) and Los Angeles, CA (produced by Bruce Gary and Alan Douglas) this rare 9 song set includes songs new to the King canon ("Red House", "Bluesman", "If You Got It", "Stop", "When You Walk Out The Door", "Problems", 'Our Love Is Going To Win", "Trouble", "Don't Let Me Be Lonely"). The project was spear-headed by none other than the drummer for the New Wave band The Knack ("My Sharona") Bruce Gary! Finally something good to come out of that musical abomination. Following the disbandment of that (irksome) band Gary became an in demand session drummer and turned his attention to the Blues. In addition to King he (died in 2006) recorded with John Lee Hooker and along with Alan Douglas produced a series of archival releases on Jimi Hendrix, most notably Jimi Hendrix's "Blues" album (highly recommended).

"Red House" suffers overall from shrill synthesizer parts throughout that try and fail to be a proxy for horns. Adding insult to injury there is, in fact, live horns on "Our Love Is Going To Win" and "Trouble". Only budgeted for two tracks?  In addition there's a sterile and distant studio sound to these recordings that dull King's normally razor-sharp, piercing guitar licks. Nevertheless this is Albert King and his talent overshadows the misgivings. The highlight by far is the title track, a Hendrix original, a rolling midtempo shuffle with a confident King vocal and his trademark bag of tricks courtesy of his "guit-fiddle" named Lucy. Pity the lame keyboard fills couldn't have been excised. And, unfortunately, the rhythm section is stiff and lazy while the mix is muddy. It also sounds like King's mic was too "hot" and clipping, resulting in some distortion. Ever since I've owned this album I've fantasized of someone taking these sessions, stripping away all accompaniment and re-recording new backing tracks behind King's vocals and guitar.

King gets his croon on for James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely". Those familiar with King know he possessed a husky, soulful voice that shined on slow numbers like "The Very Thought Of You" from years passed. He nails this one. The track also features an uncredited sax solo.

Another highlight is "Bluesman", which no doubt draws it's lyrical inspiration from Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters. "On the night I was born my poor mother cried/She said Lord have mercy on this manchild/The devil screamed and threw up both his hands/And said this boy was born to be a Bluesman". And "When You Walk Out That Door" benefits from one of the better arrangements (and mixes) on the album (unfortunately the liner notes don't tell us which cuts were recorded in Memphis vs. Los Angeles). But elsewhere the rocking rhythm guitars ruin an otherwise effective performance of "Stop" and the mix almost buries the stomping "Trouble", which features King's most powerful and best recorded leads.

Overall you have an album absolutely necessary for King fanatics but perhaps one the casual fan can do without. Like I said earlier I'm still hoping for a re-release with a brand new mix or newly recorded backing tracks. Sadly, as it's been 25+ years without a single reissue I reckon that's just a dream of mine. Nevertheless this is part of the Albert King story and it should be properly credited wherever his discography appears.

(If you want your own copy of this CD email and we'll try to find you one for sale).



Album Review

Stan Butler "The Blues In Me" (self released) LISTEN

***1/2 Nowadays there is a staggering amount of new music being produced in the Southern Soul Blues genre. New artists crop up seemingly weekly. The DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit is thriving and for most a bona fide record label and distributor is no longer necessary. Anybody can buy a keyboard, pro-tools, program a track, lay down vocals and blast an MP3 to a network of radio and club djs, while putting the music up for sale digitally and hoping for a hit. A hit can mean gigs and gigs are the only true way to make decent money in this business. Streaming and piracy has left the business of selling music in a coma. An encouraging trend has been the increasing appearance of little Quincy Joneses, record producers with their own independent labels. Your Beat Flippas, TK Souls, Jerry Floods, Bigg Robbs, etc. have dominated the game for years now. I consider this a very positive thing as there is an inexhaustible supply of talented people who wouldn't stand a chance without the current system. The days of trying to sign with an established label are long gone. In Southern Soul that is. Of all genres this one is the easiest to break into. The competition is fierce though and while this current situation results in excess mediocrity there's always something special that breaks out.

Stan Butler is one of the special results of this new paradigm. Like Jody Sticker or Luther Lackey, Butler is not necessarily a knock-u-flat Soul singer ala Wendell B or Willie Clayton but he became an expert at using his voice and lyrical wit for the greatest effect. Prime example is the absolutely brilliant shuffle bumper "I Took My Grandma To The Club", one of the most clever and humorous tracks to come along since Sir Jonathan Burton's "Too Much Booty Shakin'". A refreshing respite from all the "side piece" clones. As the title suggests the song tells a (tall?) tale of Mr. Butler acquiescing to bringing his grandma to the club. She asks and he agrees as long as: "You promise me when we get to the club you'll sit down in your seat". Now you see Butler tipped his hand here. Was it necessary to remind her to stay in her seat or did he suspect she just may cut some rug? Perhaps not the first time? As anticipated when they get to the club grandma is enjoying herself so much she decides to teach these young whippersnappers how to do the damn thang, in this case the "Tootie Boot", a reference to one of Butler's first songs to appear on the radar (found of his first full-length "Back To Basics"). "I'm eighty years old as y'all can see/I bet not one of y'all can out dance me". Though funny it really isn't insulting or unbelievable like certain television commercials that, say, show old people suddenly acting like young idiots after drinking Mountain Dew or sneaking away from their retirement home to party hardy before stopping at Taco Bell for late night fuel. Those are obnoxious and exploitive but Butler's "Grandma" isn't for what he reports does actually happen! I've witnessed it myself. My grandmother being challenged in the skin color department did this and certainly did not, er, "out dance" anyone! Alas, I won't be writing a song about this unfortunate experience.

Butler's vocals on the verses are basically rapped and remind me of Young MC of "Bust A Move" fame. He sings the bridge and refrain: "I took my grandma to the club and told her to take her seat/But uh she got up and out danced me". This is a feel good song that is extremely catchy and, well, fun. Elsewhere on "The Blues In Me" Butler gets serious on the (Luther Lackey-inspired?) "Preacher Was A Homewrecker". On this story-telling slow jam Butler informs us that a friend from work invited him and his wife to his church and the wife soon falls prey to the seduction of the not so man of God. "All the time I was changing my life/And the preacher was having my wife". Butler didn't re-invent the wheel here. Luther Lackey has a whole series of songs describing similar exploits. Nevertheless Butler's delivery sounds earnest. Another bumper "Third Of The Month" has our working class hero promising his woman he will "Pay your rent and your car note too" but not until the "third of the month". Who can't relate to that? The percolating dancer "Take Me To The Bootlegger" is not about music bootlegs but old school hooch. Butler cheats on "Who Said The Grass Is Not Greener On The Other Side" and is cheated on in "I Lost My Woman To A Woman". Meanwhile "Juke Joint Shack" checks the box for the requisite "Hole In The Wall" jam.

While "The Blues In Me" is a bit uneven overall and is occasionally generic production-wise (endemic of the genre) it is more than enough to announce that Butler has a bright future in this ever (hopefully) expanding market. BUY CD


DVD Review/Commentary

"Go Back To Africa!"

B.B. King "Live In Africa '74" (Shout Factory)

****1/2 Here we have captured on video the undisputed "King Of the Blues" playing to a crowd of more than 80,000 people in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during an historic week leading up to the "Rumble In The Jungle", a championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman. Notably, this concert was filmed by Leon Gast, the director of "When We Were Kings", an Academy Award-winning documentary on this legendary match and cultural event. Quite the setting indeed.

Firstly, before I continue, I must confess ever since I can remember I've been an Albert King man. Always loved B.B. but Albert was the "king" with me when it comes to the Blues- a perfect combination of smoky Soul vocals and icy Blues guitar. That said, B.B., truly is the king live (and co-fave) and he leaves no doubt during this performance in front of an enthusiastic crowd, which included Ali, Don King (and very likely Forman and James Brown). There's barely any introduction before B.B. confidently strolls to center stage picking a few guitar licks and then leading into a song from his most recent album, "To Know You Is To Love You". B.B. was at one of his commercial peaks at this point. The song ("To Love You") had hit #12 R&B and #38 Pop on the charts while another single from the LP, "I Like To Live The Love", did even better at #6 R&B and #28 Pop. Soon as he opens his mouth it's exceedingly apparent he's in fine voice this evening. He really lets those raspy vocals roar on the next number, "I Got Some Outside Help I Don't Really Need" (annoyingly mis-titled on the DVD case as "I Believe To My Soul"), a slow, humorous Blues . It isn't said often enough but King possessed one of the greatest male voices of the modern era, a razor-sharp, Soulful wail that could be tempered with a softer, melodic croon. He uses both tonight all the while interjecting his tasty, economical, laconic guitar fills. Part of the fun is watching King's face, famously full of expression. He doesn't disappoint here. He unequivocally FEELS it. Joy, pain, the groove, the Blues. When King is on stage he gives his all and leaves it all out there when he's done, not a second devoid of energy and passion.

It's a riveting show. Just the hits ("The Thrill Is Gone", "Sweet Sixteen", more). My only complaint? It's not long enough! The performance is just shy of 43 minutes but, fortunately, each and all minutes are stellar. So when I first purchased this DVD I played it three times in a row giddy, grinning like a moron throughout at how great it is to watch the master in all his glory. See, there's plenty of B.B. King DVDs on the market but precious few from younger days. B.B. was a mere 49 at the time. It's the first time I've seen him pre-1990. While he was great until the very end it's a thrill seeing him lean, mean and in his prime.

Something else I want to mention about this viewing experience. Something happened in the middle of my third viewing. I was suddenly struck by just how monumental this night was. Sure, it was a series of music performances (occasionally dubbed the "black Woodstock") including B.B. and James Brown leading up to a mega-hyped title bout, but what shook me was something more seismic. Here we have the greatest Blues musician in front of 80,000 people (including the strikingly handsome Ali at his prime whom the camera showcases at least once) playing the Africa. It's hard not to recall the horrible truth that B.B.'s ancestors were once unlawfully taken hostage and enslaved not that terribly long ago from this very continent. I posit it's without debate the Blues got it's start on American cotton fields by African slaves. History has since proven so-called "African Americans" went on to create the most popular and most lucrative music forms of modern times from the Blues, Soul to Rock & Roll, Jazz and Hip Hop. It's "black music". It's "African American music". It was the children of slaves that went on to change America and the world. And on this evening we have three black men, "African Americans" (B.B., Ali, Forman), all descendants of African slaves, returning to Africa as kings ("When We Were Kings"). Most remarkable we have the King of the Blues himself playing this creation, the Blues, for free men and women in Africa. In one of the songs, the classic "Why I Sing The Blues", B.B. sings:

"Everybody wanna know why I sing the Blues/I've been around a long time/I've really paid my dues/When I first got the Blues they brought me over on a ship/There were men standing over me and a lot more with a whip".

I paused the DVD in awe for a moment....before reality came crashing down. While B.B. didn't sing those lines with any particular emphasis it's still a powerful moment and a timely one. Earlier this month it was widely reported a sitting American president allegedly made "racist" remarks that left little doubt we still have so far to go when it comes to race. But I cheered up again when I remembered he'll one day be gone and "African Americans", black persons in general, and their (and now all of our by adoption) culture and their gift, the Blues, will continue on until time indefinite. Mr. Gast please re-title your documentary to "When We Were, Are And Will Continue To Be Kings".

Here's a clip from the DVD:



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