New generation discovers R&B.
By Ron Wynn
APRIL 27, 1998: Thanks to reissue mania, few artists remain to be rediscovered or unearthed. This certainly applies to a number of blues and R&B performers, whose music is suddenly reaching a whole new generation of fans and listeners. The first few months of 1998 in particular have seen a flood of reissue discs. It bears saying, however, that even reissues don't guarantee any sort of permanence in the pop marketplace; in other words, pick up these CDs while they're readily available.
As we near the end of the century, even the '70s seems like a distant era. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we're able to see that it was a transitional time for black music. The arrival of funk and disco shifted the emphasis in R&B from horn sections and gospel shouting to synthesizers and thumping electric basses. Though the marketplace for traditional blues and soul artists didn't completely dry up until the rise of urban-contemporary formatting at the end of the decade, the handwriting was on the wall.
Arzel "Z.Z." Hill and Bobby Womack were among the many R&B artists with extensive gospel roots and blues/country influences who attempted to stay afloat as disco took over in the mid- to late '70s. Hill was never a huge success, but he had a loyal following among Southern soul fans who enjoyed his heartfelt vocals. When he signed with Columbia Records in 1977, hopes were high that he'd finally get the promotion and distribution that could make him a superstar. Instead, the two albums he cut in '77 and '79--which constitute Columbia/Legacy's new Z.Z. Hill--Love Is So Good reissue--were uneven, oddly produced affairs. They yielded two magnificent singles: "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" and "This Time They Told the Truth," both epic soul productions, sung with gut-wrenching, confessional power. Sadly, most of the Legacy disc's other cuts are disposable up-tempo pseudo-funk and embarrassing quasi-disco, with Hill vainly trying to duplicate Johnnie Taylor's "Disco Lady" success.
Bobby Womack faced tremendous commercial and personal turmoil during the '70s, battling substance-abuse problems and issuing woeful, erratic releases like B&W Goes C&W. He was dropped by United Artists in 1976, but quickly signed with Columbia shortly thereafter. Having worked during the '60s in Muscle Shoals, he decided to return there in an attempt to recapture his soul-era magic. Alas, Womack found he couldn't go home either. That said, there's some superb material on Columbia/Legacy's Home Is Where the Heart Is, which collects cuts from his two late-'70s projects for the company. "Something for My Head" is a thoughtful, if lyrically dated protest piece, while "Standing in the Safety Zone," "Stop to Start" (featuring former love Candi Staton), and exuberant covers of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" and Ace's "How Long" show that Womack hadn't lost his powerful, often exciting vocal abilities or his sizzling, bluesy guitar prowess.
By comparison, Freddie Scott was never more than a footnote in the history of soul music. A onetime songwriter for Columbia, he was simply the wrong person at the right time--an occasionally brilliant singer who lacked the charisma or voice to be noticed during a period when James Brown and Aretha Franklin were churning out masterpieces almost daily. Scott's one moment of fame, the demonstrative, dramatic "Are You Lonely for Me Baby," is one of 20 cuts on The Best of Freddie Scott (Columbia/Legacy), which covers his output for the Shout label from 1966-1969. There are a few other good selections, among them "Where Does Love Go" and "You Got What I Need," which was appropriated by Biz Markie in 1989 for his hit "Just a Friend." Close listening reveals why Scott never enjoyed another smash after "Are You Lonely," but he was still a competent writer and performer.
Stax was so successful in the '60s and early '70s with Albert King, Little Milton, and others that competing blues companies couldn't help but look on in envy and wonder; then the labels began trying to copy Stax's formula, albeit less successfully. Vanguard attempted a middle-ground approach with guitarist Buddy Guy and harmonica ace/vocalist Junior Wells. The label allowed Guy the freedom to include the frenetic, dissonant, looping guitar solos that Leonard Chess had always hated, but it also had him cut some occasional soul covers and tunes with large horn sections. Wells didn't veer from the Chicago path quite as readily, but even he made a record or two that featured jazz musicians or background vocalists.
Blues purists may not think fondly of the material on As Good as It Gets, which focuses on Guy's output between 1965 and 1968. Several of the more produced numbers are tepid, and Guy's remake of The Coasters' "Poison Ivy" is hardly memorable. But when unrestrained, he delivers some dazzling guitar work; his version of Guitar Slim's "The Things I Used to Do" breathes fresh life into an old chestnut, while "Slow Blues" and "You've Got a Hole in Your Soul" overcome the limp backing with defiant singing and whiplash chords.
Anyone who's heard Junior Wells' seminal Delmark releases knows that those records contain his finest material; therefore, they might look askance at Best of the Vanguard Years. But the disc actually contains some outstanding material. Wells augments his swirling, biting harmonica solos on "Messin' With the Kid" and "Stormy Monday Blues" with effective, sometimes menacing vocals, while "Vietcong Blues" and "It's So Sad to Be Lonely" show that he could do much more than just wail and moan.
Few duos in any genre performed together longer than Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry did; from 1939 until their partnership degenerated in the mid-'70s, they were inextricably linked. While the pair incorporated sizable doses of folk and country into their repertoire, they were such a delightful and versatile duo in their prime that audiences embraced everything they did--even "Rock Island Line." But by 1969, not even they could beat the soul/blues juggernaut. Their wonderful LP Long Way From Home, newly reissued by MCA with bonus cuts, was virtually ignored and quickly disappeared.
Thanks to the miracle of digital remastering, the interaction between Terry's swooping harmonica, McGhee's flickering guitar, and their alternately resolute, joyful, mournful, and celebratory vocals can now be heard more clearly and effectively. There's little here they hadn't done before, but much of Long Way From Home is a timeless and welcome listen, particularly for those who witnessed firsthand the souring of their longtime relationship.
MCA continues to tap the Chess blues catalog, having recently reissued sets by The Dells and John Lee Hooker, along with a two-disc guitar sampler. The Dells were that rarity among doo-wop groups. Though they started out as a traditional harmony unit, they experienced far greater success as a soul group. They came into their own in the '60s, when robust baritone Marvin Junior took over as lead vocalist and angelic falsetto stylist Johnny Carter moved up to featured background vocalist and second lead.
Oh, What a Night--Great Ballads offers 13 marvelous numbers that prove only the Temptations among soul era groups ever surpassed the Dells at their peak. On tune after tune, especially "Always Together," "Stay in My Corner," and "Can't Do Enough," Junior's immense voice rises and soars, hitting emphatic highs and roaring with verve; Carter's soft answering cries add just the right teary-eyed assurances. The disc contains several bonuses, including the complete version of "Open Up My Heart" and the anti-war "Does Anyone Know I'm Here."
Not so essential is the two-disc set John Lee Hooker--Early Performances. Only completists unsated by last year's Best of Chess Recordings will value hearing tracks that sound one step removed from demos, or tunes with the audio quality of acetates. Granted, John Lee Hooker is a certified giant, but not everything he's done merits being issued--certainly not the alternate version of "Walkin' the Boogie," complete with meandering vocal and muddled guitar. Recommended only to those who must have every sigh, complaint, groan, and cough ever heard in a studio; everyone else will benefit from a more reasoned approach.
The same criticism might be applied to some of the 45 cuts featured on Two Decades of Killer Fretwork, but the two-disc sampler does feature some outstanding moments. Among them are Blue Smitty's seldom heard "Date Bait," which was lyrically ahead of its time, as well as Otis Rush's raucous "I'm Satisfied" and Johnny LittleJohn's innuendo-laden "She's Too Much." There are also plenty of songs you can find elsewhere, although Jimmy Rogers' "Rock This House" is always worth hearing one more time.
MCA, for the most part, has lived up to its mandate in managing the massive Chess blues legacy. Perhaps the label will someday get around to doing the same with the equally vast Cadet and Argo archives that it controls.
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