Lightnin' Hopkins – Soul Blues (1966)

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Lightnin’ Hopkins
“Soul Blues”
Recorded in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in May 4-5, 1964.
Recording Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder.
Originally released on Prestige / Bluesville (PR 7377), 1966
Digital remastering by Phil De Lancie (1991, Fantasy Studios, Berkeley).

01. I’m Going to Build Me a Heaven of My Own
02. My Babe
03. Too Many Drivers
04. I’m a Crawling Black Snake
05. Rocky Mountain Blues
06. I Mean Goodbye
07. The Howling Wolf
08. Black Ghost Blues
09. Darling, Do You Remember Me
10. Lonesome Graveyard

Lightnin’ Hopkins (vocals, guitar)
Leonard Gaskin (bass)
Herbie Lovelle (drums)

Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins recorded and released so many records it is hard to know where to tell a person to start. But this record is as good a place as any, featuring him playing both with and without a band on electric and acoustic guitar. Country blues musicians such as Hopkins and contemporary Fred McDowell were not easy guys to accompany if you were a rhythm section. They frequently would change tempos and chord structures at will, and you had to be paying close attention to see a change coming or catch it quickly when it caught you off guard. There are a few places on this session where the songs almost break down but the vibe never wavers. Immaculately recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, this is one of Hopkin’s best. The CD reissue includes the rather worthless liner notes of a Houston DJ who doesn’t seem to have anything the least bit informative or insightful to say, but it was nice of Prestige to include them. I guess.

“I’m Going to Build Me A Heaven On My Own”, which is dedicated “to all the womens of the world,” is probably the strangest song I have ever heard from him. Coming off as at least partly improvised, it is a rambling, irreverent, and quite probably blasphemous bit of blues. Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” is a perfect choice for Hopkins and you can easily appreciate why he was so influential as a guitarist-singer. “Too Many Drivers” is an environmental protest song about traffic congestion and greenhouse gases. “I’m a Crawling Black Snake” is a reworking of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake” for which he receives no credit. I could keep doing this for every song but my fingers will get tired. Why don’t you just listen to the record? The last three cuts, however, are particularly splendid. “Black Ghost Blues” is not recommended for the insomniacs out there. “Darling, Do You Remember Me?” is a uncharacteristically tender and melodic tune that is both stark and sweet — “You’re face / something I wanna see / Just to know darlin’ / you used to enjoy with me / but hello, hello darling / baby, do you remember me?” The song is Hopkins all by himself – which makes me wonder if there was a full-band take that didn’t quite work, prompting this version. It is particularly worth you attention because, freed from the obligations of playing with a rhythm section, we can see the logic of Hopkin’s improvisational flights, unanchored one moment, back in the pocket the next. The last track is one of the best ‘haunting’ blues about death and dying that was ever committed to tape, sprinkled with Hopkins’ own “gallows humor.”

This post is dedicated to Celia in Portugal who has said she’s been liking the blues posts.

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Al Green – Full of Fire (1976)

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Al GREEN
Full of Fire
Released on Hi Records, 1976
This pressing, The Right Stuff, 1996

Recorded at Royal Recording Studios,
1320 South Lauderdale, Memphis, Tennessee 38118.
Mastered at Audiotronics, Memphis, Tennessee.
Recorded, mixed, and produced by Willie Mitchell

Yesterday I took a four-hour bus ride with no headphones and this song (above) ran through my imagination repeatedly to keep my sanity intact. I never ever travel without some music to listen to, but then I had never planned to be leaving a huge music festival a day early and taking a bus home by myself. I am not the praying type, but only about 12 hours before I had muttered an oration to St. George asking for strength, protection, and courage to say some things that don’t come naturally to me. It didn’t work, as now I was feeling more or less like garbage: physically, spiritually, emotionally like garbage, and feeling as naked as the day I was born. But while the saints may have hung me out to dry, Al Green never fails. I let this song play on `repeat` for most of the four hours, as well as I could remember it in details which tend to be fairly accurate.

My musical ruminations were interrupted by long conversations with near strangers. I could say to you simply that “I love meeting new people!” and leave it like that, but the truth is that I love meeting new people because once they get to know me better they usually don’t want anything to do with me. I move from one city to another, wearing out my “welcome mat” at each as I go along. New city, new mat. The result is a life filled with long conversations with near strangers. I am always on the verge of a disappearing act. And I never felt more like disappearing than I did on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Enter, alas, the Church Of Al Green, where you are always truly welcome.

After the bus ride I had lunch with the less than total stranger and then went to get my car. More conversations with closer strangers who almost feel like family to me, although I know too well that this can never be. But where my car was parked, the woman who lives there simply can’t let you pass by her door without inviting you in for coffee and conversation. I accepted because, with closer strangers who feel like they could be family, there is no other choice. And besides, it lifted my spirits for an hour and made it easier to get behind the wheel and actually drive home as opposed to driving off a cliff. But there are no cliffs here, so once again the choices were fairly limited anyway. We talked of geography and inequality, of Belém and Detroit, of history and health. Feeling less alone, less strange.

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After the uplifting conversation I drove home in my car that currently lacks even a simple radio. A hour, hour and a half of driving through a major city, some small towns, and some very dark highways through the countryside. I would be lying if I said I still had Al Green on replay. The concentration required puts me into a state of attention almost like meditation, sliding into reflection, pensiveness, but always coming back to the moment because, well, it is rather necessary when you are behind the wheel of a large automobile. (My automobile is not large but David Byrne was once my spiritual adviser). I drove slowly in the light rain, letting those with less patience pass me as they saw fit. What reason did I have to hurry when I live alone and had nothing in particular to do when I got home besides sleep for eleven or twelve hours.

Upon getting home I was not sleepy and instead put on this Al Green record. And I ended up playing this song, “As Soon As I Get Home,” ten or eleven times in a row. This is a common habit for many people but I very rarely if ever find myself fixated on a song like that. This record sees Al Green entering his religious period but before he started recording straight-up gospel. The lyrics are less direct, more sensuous, often romantic, and remind me somehow of the Qawwali music of the Sufis. With the difference that I can understand the lyrics. This particular song, co-written with Michael Allen whose electric piano rings cascades of texture around the gentle arrangement, is quite possibly Al Green’s most underrated composition. The whole album overflows with the incomparable work of the Hodges brothers — Leroy, Charles, and Teenie on bass, organ, and guitar respectively – who were collectively the stealth missile of Hi Record’s arsenal of sound. These guys make musical understatement into a declaration of virtuosity. One of the last collaborations with producer Willie Mitchell, this record gets buried by his more famous albums from earlier in the decade. And it’s a shame, because this one belongs right alongside them.

There are times when we all feel our soul slipping into darkness. For some of us, we wonder if it even exists or belongs with other fairy-tales like love and God. Enter then, ye of little faith, the Church of Al Green, and find your way home.

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Labelle – Nightbirds (1974)

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LaBelle – Nightbirds
Released 1974
Epic (KE 33075)

1. “Lady Marmalade” (Bob Crewe, Kenny Nolan) – 3:56
2. “Somebody Somewhere” (Nona Hendryx) – 3:25
3. “Are You Lonely?” (Nona Hendryx) – 3:12
4. “It Took a Long Time” (Raymond Bloodworth, L. Brown, Bob Crewe) – 4:03
5. “Don’t Bring Me Down” (Allen Toussaint) – 2:48
6. “What Can I Do for You?” (Patti LaBelle, Hendryx, Sarah Dash, Edward Batts, James R. Budd Ellison) – 4:02
7. “Nightbird” (Hendryx) – 3:09
8. “Space Children” (Hendryx) – 3:02
9. “All Girl Band” (Allen Toussaint) – 3:50
10. “You Turn Me On” (Hendryx) – 4:37

Featuring – Meters, The
Guitar – Rev Batts, Leo Nocentelli
Organ – Arthur Neville*
Bass – George Porter, Jr.
Piano – Bud Ellison* (tracks: 4, 5, 9)
Producer [Executive] – Vicki WickhamProducer, Arranged By, Keyboards, Percussion, Guitar – Allen Toussaint
Alto & soprano saxophone,clarinet – Earl Turbinton
Alto axophone – Clarence Ford
Baritone, saxophone – Carl Blonin
Tenor saxophone, Flute – Alvin Thomas , Lon Price
Trombone – Lester Caliste
Trumpet – Clyde Kerr Jr. , Steve Howard

Recorded At Sea-Saint Studios, New Orleans

Engineer – Ken Laxton
Produced by Allen Toussaint

I think everyone on the planet knows the song “Lady Marmalade” unless they’ve been living under the proverbial rock. Actually I think even them, along with some basement dwellers, probably know this song and can even sing all the words for you. But much lesser known is the album that it came off. The first time I put this on my turntable, I didn’t bother to look at the credits, but by the second or third song I was thinking — damn the arrangements on this sure do sound like Allen Toussaint… And lo and behold, they are! In fact it is a strike against my musical credibility that I did not already know that he produced one of the biggest #1 funk / soul / proto-disco hits of the first half of the 1970s, and Labelle’s biggest album. His trademark keyboard and piano work is all over this album, as is his characteristically New Orleans brass sensibility. Hell, this album even has The Meters on it! By `74, Toussaint was producing them along with Dr.John, and this record has plenty of sweaty southern soul stank on it. The first six cuts on this are all fantastic, with a heavy vibe of Stax and Muscle Shoals but filtered through Mr. Toussaint’s bayou universe. A particular favorite of mine is the mellow Philadelphia soul of “It Took a Long Time,” just gorgeous, bittersweetly tender soul about finally meeting the “right” person. The tune makes great use of one of Labelle’s biggest strengths – the backing vocal harmonies of Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash singing a different set of complementary lyrics. Although it is the least funky of the bunch, it’s possible this song is my favorite track here – for me, it’s a perfect amalgamation of soul and pop music where everything about it works.

The album does have a few clunkers on it, but even those are enjoyable due to the great vocal and production work. Basically the first side of the original LP is just much stronger than the second half, where the songwriting just doesn’t quite make the cut. Opening up with the very strong “What Can I Do For You?”, which was their other hit tune off this record, the record kind of loses steam after that. Nona Hendryx is more than deserving of my respect and admiration but I’m just not too crazy about the title cut ‘Nightbirds’, penned by her, which incidentally seems to have stolen some of its melody from Neil Young’s “Old Man.” The tune “Space Children” is just plain silly, but I can’t help but like it in spite of myself mostly due to the way Patti sings “spaaaay-e-ahyy-e-ace childreh-heh-hehn” in a couple places. The lyrics are pretty disposable – they might be a critique of drug use, or of hippies, which would ordinarily score some points with me, but they just aren’t very good. But not as bad as Toussaint’s “All Girl Band”, which contains completely ridiculous lines like, “And there was Mary / Quit her job at they dairy / Took up the name Blackberry”…. Is this so bad it’s good? No, it’s just bad. Toussaint had some great work under his own name but he was a much better producer-arranger-musician than he was a songwriter (his ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ fares better but still suffers from dumb lyrics and a cheesy hook). But not everybody can “do it all” — Donny Hathaway he is not…

The closing cut, “You Turn Me On,” is a slow soul burner that grows increasingly erotic as it goes on (“I cum like the pouring rain / Each time you call my name / It’s good what you’re doin’, what you’re doin’…”). This song is really, really good and essentially makes up for the mediocrity of the two (or three) songs in front of it. I don’t believe this blog features too many records than went Platinum. Even with its flaws, this one deserves the kudos.

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Syl Johnson – Is It Because I'm Black? 1969-71 (2006)

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Syl Johnson – Is It Because I’m Black, 1969-1971 (2006)

I have had some requests for a repost of this record since the old link appears to be dead. The songs that make up the original album that gives this disc its title are just excellent. (Unfortunately packaged in a very confusing way and with a jumble of songs of dubious origins in terms of source tapes.. see original post below). The record opens with “Right On Sister” which owes a heavy debt to the Isley Brothers and James Brown, a nice long jam that references The Funky Chicken so you know it must be good. The next song is the bomb, though – “Is It Because I’m Black?”. Unfortunately some overpaid pundits (see reference to AMG in the original post, below) have been dismissive of Syl Johnson and insinuated that this record was an attempt to be contemporary with people like Marvin Gaye by incorporating social critique in his music. Without dissing Marvin Gaye at all, I have to say this is a ridiculous statement. “Is It Because I’m Black?” is a pretty damn courageous song and much more in the mold of “deep soul” than Motown, a slow southern burner laden with blues. When they first hit that minor-seventh right around 1 minute and 25 seconds, it just makes my backbone tingle. The lyrics tackling racial politics in the US are far more direct and confrontational than anything coming from most mainstream soul artists, with observations guaranteed to make white folks uncomfortable, today just as much as in 1970. The album has a fair share of cover tunes (Walk A Mile In My Shoes and Black Balloons both fit nicely thematically, Get Ready and especially Come Together.. not so much). But the real treasures for me are these two originals – the title track and “Concrete Reservation”, yet more biting, acid social critique but also a seriously huge song.

Near the end of this disc there is a weird remake of “Is It Because I’m Black” that references Wu Tang Clan, KRS-One, and Michael Jackson, followed late with a line of “Gimme My Money… I want to get paid.” !!. Basically he is castigating the people who famously sampled him and presumably neglected to pay his royalties. It’s kind of funny and sad at the same time, like the liner notes described below.

A classic album in a dubious reissue from an artist who never got his due and seemingly won’t be getting it anytime soon…

(original post…)
So the first 8 tracks of this CD make up what is a stone-soul classic of an album, a lost classic of Chicago soul at that. It really is nothing short of amazing, so forget about Richie Uberbooger’s characterization of “minor soul singer” (edit: I’ve deleted that review that was in the original post, because AMG is staffed with idiots..) Originally released in 1970, this album is long overdue for a deeper critical assessment. It should have made Syl Johnson into a household name. Unfortunately this reissue, put out by the Twilight Label (which, I think, is Syl Johnson’s own) presents the music well enough, but falls short of doing it justice. The “liner notes” tell us nothing about this landmark album, such as who plays on it or where it was recorded. For some odd reason the songs ‘Kiss By Kiss’ and ‘Get Ready’ sound like they were sourced from Mp3s Syl found on the internets (not here, I promise!), or was just mangled by Sonic Solutions No-Noise for No-Good reason, but are sandwiched between ‘Black Balloons’ and ‘Talk bout Freedom’ which sound great. No idea what is going on here but probably somebody dropped a flaming roach on of the master reels or something along those lines. The CD also contains no information whatsoever on the TEN (that’s right, TEN) extra tracks appended to the album, which seem to have been recorded at various times and restored from even less-than-stellar sources that the two mentioned above, probably at least a few from worn-out cassettes. The song “Ms. Fine Brown Frame” appears to be the song from an album in 1982, although there is no info here to prove it… What we DO get in the insert is a rambling account of how Johnson has been cheated out of his royalties much like his grandfather was cheated out of his land. Which is all good and well and no doubt true, but he could have had somebody proofread the thing first — It’s poorly written and filled with misspellings and typos. In fact its kind of a disgrace, detracting from the seriousness and high quality of writing of the title song, which has been covered by more people than I can shake my stick at. As much as I’d like to give him my money rather than some label that’s ripping him off, this is a sub-par package for what deserves a memorial edition release.

From what I can tell, Willie Mitchell and the gang at Hi Records had a huge hand in some of all this. There are no specific credits besides what is listed in the image above. Songs from his first album (“Dresses Too Short”) are also thrown on here.. All in all, this CD should have been a celebration, instead it’s a mess. In fact, the liner notes almost make me think that old Syl (at 70 years now) may be a bit drug-addled or absent-minded or in need of some cash or all of the above, because the whole thing is a pretty shoddy product. I’m glad I picked it up, because the music is incredible when the audio fidelity lets it shine through, but I’ll continue my search for the original LP or the old Charly pressing, which usually have pretty amazing mastering in spite of their no-frills presentation.

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Gwen McCrae – Rockin' Chair (1975) & Something So Right (1976)

This one goes out to Agnieszka in Atlanta, may this record steam your windows up babe.


Gwen McCrae

Rockin’ Chair
1975 Cat Records (CAT-2605)

1 Rockin’ Chair (Reid, Clarke) 3:25
2 Move Me, Baby (Alaimo, Casey) 4:55
3 He Keeps Something Groovy Going On (Reid, Kitts) 3:02
4 Let Them Talk (Thompson) 2:55
5 For Your Love (Townsend) 2:58
6 It’s Worth the Hurt (Reid) 2:21
7 90% of Me Is You (Reid) 2:52
8 It Keeps on Raining (Reid) 3:09
9 He Doesn’t Ever Lose His Groove (Hale) 2:59
10 Your Love Is Worse Than a Cold Love (Reid) 2:44 [single, CD bonus cut]


Something So Right
1976 CAT Records (CAT-2608)

1 Something So Right (Simon) 5:24
2 Tears on My Pillow (Lewis, Bradford) 4:00
3 Love Without Sex (Reid) 4:50
4 Mr. Everything (Reid) 3:42
5 Iron Woman (Reid) 4:12
6 Damn Right It’s Good (Reid) 4:00
7 Let Nature Take Its Course (Reid) 3:30
8 I’ve Got Nothing to Lose But the Blues (Reid) 4:42

Florida-native Gwen McCrae is best known for disco club rug-burners from the early 80s, but her first few long-players were cut for the southern soul label CAT records (subsidiary of TK Productions). And Southern Soul doesn’t get much better than this. It was hard for me to believe that the first of these, ‘Rockin’ Chair’, was not conceived as a cohesive record but as a collection of previously-released sides and some new material hurriedly assembled to follow up on the enormous success of that boisterous single. Let me be your rocking chair, indeed. There is not a dull moment on this record but by anyone’s reckoning “90% of Me is You” stands out in jaw-dropping soul-dripping sonic viscerality. An earlier 1973 single that did not appear on the album, “Your Love Is Worse Than a Cold Love” is a blistering anthem for anyone who has found themselves loving somebody who doesn’t know what or who they want, perhaps dividing them with someone else, and all the ambiguity, frustration, and tension that ensues. Just a beautifully perfect soul cut.

‘Something So Right’ is a much more downbeat, mellow affair that was put together in a more traditional way as an album. Two cover songs — the Paul Simon title cut, and Little Anthony & The Imperials “Tears on My Pillow” – open the album. Following that is the revolutionary “Love Without Sex” which, while written by a man and not nearly as flamboyant as Betty Davis’s work, is still a pioneering cut as far as articulating an assertive female sexuality in an industry and society dominated by men. It’s also a bad-ass song. The track “Mr. Everything” may have been written by producer Clarence Reid but it owes a flute chart to Isaac Hayes “Rock Me Easy Baby” released the same year (it could perhaps have flowed the other direction, I am not sure of the exact release dates..). The fine liner notes from Tony Rouse in this CD reissue argue that “Something So Right” is Gwen at her best, yet I still find the hodge-podge of the “Rocking Chair” LP to be a more exciting listen, especially when the non-LP singles are included with it as on this collection. Both albums are stunning and phenomenal, so much so that they testify to the injustice embedded in the politics of the record industry and its dependence on sexual and economic inequality that would keep an artist like Gwen McCrae from having – without one exceptional exception – much chart success and being lauded as the soul sensation she should have been in the 1970s. Don’t miss this one, most of the world did the first time around.

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