Tag Archives: Gospel

Ray Wylie Hubbard: The Ruffian’s Misfortune

RayWylieHubbard_TheRuffiansMisfortuneRough and raw and blue and country and rockin’

Hubbard picks up where he left off with 2012’s The Grifter’s Hymnal, bursting with creative songs that merge country, blues and rock into a seamless experience. Recorded in only a few days, mostly live in the studio, Hubbard came prepared with his songs done and his regular rhythm section (Rick Richards on drums and George Reiff on bass) complemented by the guitars of his son Lucas and Austinite Gabriel Rhodes. The preparation and familiarity clearly turned the players loose, as these songs have the patina of material that had been honed on the road, with deep grooves, rhythm guitars that interlock and leads that play off one another.

The band follows Hubbard with incredible ease as he moves from gritty electric blues to acoustic folk-country. There’s a poet’s sweat in his lyrics, born of life experience rather than academic construction. He calls out Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones on “Hey Mama, My Time Ain’t Long,” and both the Stones and other blues legends turn up regularly throughout the album. “Jessie Mae” was inspired by Mississippi blues legend Jessie Mae Hemphill, and “Mr. Musselwhite’s Blues” sings of the mentoring Musselwhite received from Little Walter and Big Joe Williams. Hubbard also pays tribute with some fine harmonica playing throughout the album.

At 68, it’s not surprising that mortality threads through several of Hubbard’s songs, including the gospel-soul “Barefoot in Heaven” and the redemption-seeking “Stone Blind Horses.” But even with the devil as a toll-taker on the blues highway, Hubbard’s not preoccupied with the hereafter. He illuminates the virtues of badass girls with guitars and recounts his own history of fast times. “Bad on Fords” is sung more slyly than Sammy Hagar’s amped up cover, and the rapid-fire delivery of “Down By The River” (which recalls the earlier “Coricidin Bottle”) leads to some terrific twin guitar leads. Hubbard’s a man who knows what he wants to say, how he wants to say it and how he wants it to sound, and that’s about all you can ask for. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Home Page

The Valentinos: Lookin’ for a Love

Valentinos_LookinForALoveGospel-soul gold from Sam Cooke’s SAR label

The goldmine that is the ABKCO vault continues to pour out its riches. Earlier releases from the Stones, Sam Cooke, Herman’s Hermits, and the Cameo-Parkway catalog, are now complemented by a pair of seminal compilations by the Soul Stirrers and Valentinos. The former launched Sam Cooke’s career, and he returned the favor by signing the group to his own SAR label. The latter, comprised of future solo-legend Bobby Womack and his four brothers, (Friendly Jr., Curtis, Harry and Cecil), wove their father Friendly Sr.’s deep faith into a soulful sound born of Cleveland’s meanest streets. They held onto the fire of their church grounding even as their material moved from gospel to secular, and the arrangements from harmony-laden worship to hard-charging soul.

The group’s transition from sacred to profane didn’t happen all at once, nor ever completely. The driving rhythm of their first single, “Somebody’s Wrong,” and the soulful croon of “Somewhere There’s a God,” were never really left behind. Their lyrics soon turned to a search for romantic love, but the vocal fervor continued to resound with a congregant’s search for heavenly connection. Having himself made the transition from gospel to R&B in the mid-50s, Sam Cooke well understood both the stigma and opportunities. But after failing to gain commercial traction with Bobby Womack’s original gospel “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” Cooke convinced the group to try R&B, commissioned his staff songwriters to rework the melodic hook of “Pray” into “Lookin’ for a Love,” rechristened the group as the Valentino’s, and scored their first and biggest hit single in 1962.

It wasn’t the last time that the Womacks and their songwriters would develop R&B material from gospel roots. The 1962 B-side, “Somewhere There’s a Girl” borrowed its melody and lyrical structure from 1961’s “Somewhere There’s a God,” and 1963’s “She’s So Good to Me” was based on the gospel standard, “God is Good to Me.” Curtis and Bobby Womack wrote the lion’s share of the group’s material, supplemented by songs from Sam Cooke, J.W. Alexander and a few others. “Lookin’ for a Love” was followed by the low-charting “I’ll Make it Alright” and the non-charting “Baby Lots of Luck,” putting the group’s commercial fortune in question. But two years after their breakthrough, Bobby Womack offered up a song that would top the charts. Just not by the Valentinos.

The Valentino’s country-tinged original “It’s All Over Now,” co-written by Womack and his sister in law, Shirley, was just starting to gain notice when the Rolling Stones rushed into the Chess studio in Chicago to wax their immortal cover. The Valentinos original still managed to climb to #21 R&B, but stalled out in the low 90s Pop as the Stones version rode to the chart’s upper reaches. Womack initially felt oppressed, like so many other African-American artists before him who’d been covered on pop radio, but his mood quickly turned. As he told Terry Gross in 1999, “Well, I didn’t like their version ’cause I didn’t think Mick Jagger – and to this day I say Mick Jagger can’t out-sing me. You know, but, when I saw that first royalty check, I liked their version.”

A final single for SAR, “Everybody Wants to Fall in Love,” was released in 1964, and with Cooke’s death in December of that year, the label folded. Bobby Womack, who’d been playing in Cooke’s road band, moved on to session work and solo stardom, and a depleted Valentinos finished out the decade with Chess and Jubilee. Of the nineteen tracks included here, ten appeared on the 2001 anthology Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story, but – incredibly – this is the first official reissue of the Valentinos’ full SAR catalog, including both sides of all seven singles, six previously unreleased masters (13, 15, 18, 19, 20, and 21), and a hidden bonus track of Sam Cooke giving direction in the studio. The 12-page booklet features session, chart and personnel data, photos, ephemera and extensive liner notes by Bill Dahl. This collection is decades overdue, but now that it’s here, you’ll find it was more than worth the wait. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

Paul Thorn: Too Blessed to Be Stressed

PaulThorn_TooBlessedToBeStressedOptimistic album of soul and funk

Mississippi singer-songwriter Paul Thorn returns with his first album of originals in four years. His previous album, What the Hell is Goin’ On?, was stocked with cover songs that essayed Thorn’s finely selected influences and showed off his talent for interpretation. Returning to his own pen, Thorn’s taken a broader tack in his songwriting. Where his earlier albums tended to autobiography, his latest collection makes a purposeful reach for more universal and upbeat themes. There’s personal inspiration in each of these songs, but rather than telling the story of a specific situation, Thorn’s dug to each story’s roots to express thoughts and feelings that resound easily with each listener’s own life.

These songs show Thorn to be an optimist, rather than a Pollyanna. His protagonists look to the sunny side, but they see storms and expect a cloud break rather than an endless stretch of clear weather. He anticipates the healing cures for loneliness rather than cataloging its pains, and he’s a clear-eyed romantic who sheds no tears with his goodbyes. As the album’s title states, Thorn is “Too Blessed to Be Stressed,” and he advises that you “Don’t Let Nobody Rob You of Your Joy.” That latter message neatly extends into a self-directed resolution as the moral lapse of “I Backslide on Friday” is redeemed by Saturday’s reprieve and Sunday’s repentance.

The optimism fades into the exasperation of “Mediocrity’s King,” as Thorn laments the commonness of superstores and oppositional politics, and in its unstated subtext, an apathetic electorate whose dreams of progress have turned into a voracious appetite for cheap prices and mindless entertainment. Thorn’s gruff, blue-soul vocals are weary but hopeful, and the album’s potpourri of soul, funk, gospel, country and rock recalls the hey-day of Memphis and Muscle Shoals, without ever imitating either one. The road-hewn band finds many deep grooves, and Thorn sings with a smile that shines on you with an optimistic glow. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Paul Thorn’s Home Page

Leo Welch: Sabougla Voices

LeoWelch_SabouglaVoicesPrimal Southern gospel-blues

It turns out that there are still howling, primal blues talents left to be discovered, and Mississippi native Leo Welch is one. After cold-calling Fat Possum’s Big Legal Mess label, he auditioned over the phone and reawakened the label’s interest in releasing blues records. Welch played guitar, harmonica and fiddle from a young age, but his opportunities to build a career in music were sacrificed to more mundane work. Now, at age 81, he’s brought together his church-bred gospel foundation with a love for the blues and produced music that recalls the electrifying call-and-response of preacher chants. Welch provides the rhythmic oratory, the guitar adds a soloist’s sting, and the piano, percussion and occasional backing singers provide the chorus. The spirit is lively and the testimony strong. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Various Artists: I Heard the Angels Singing

Various_IHeardTheAngelsSingingExtraordinary collection of Southern black gospel 1951-1983

Ernest L. Young’s Excello and Nashboro labels have a creation story that would be tough to duplicated today. Young started as a successful jukebox operator in Nashville before adding a retail store that sold his customers the very records they’d been renting on a nickel-per-play basis. Further capitalizing on these two ventures, Young realized that starting a label and selling his own records would be even more profitable. Recording in a makeshift (and later, a purpose-built) studio in his store, he launched the Nashboro label in mid-1951 and the subsidiary Excello the following year. Excello initially picked up Nashboro’s excess, but became a blues and R&B label in 1955, releasing sides by Lonnie Brooks, Slim Harpo, Lightnin’ Slim and others.

Young’s businesses fed one another, with his retail shop sponsoring radio programs and offering its front window for live broadcasts. The label’s early productions were primitive by modern standards, but stripping down the arrangements to a cappella or voices supported by a simple guitar allowed the testimony to shine. There are splashes of piano, organ and reverb, but even as the productions became more complex over time, the focus always remained on the fervent vocal fire. Nashboro’s acts included soloists, duets and groups singing lead and backing, call-and-response and harmonies, and the label found both artistic and commercial success in all these varied formats. The material includes both gospel standards and newly written songs, each of which provides lasting echoes of the era’s civil rights struggles.

Highlights include the male-female duet testimony of the Consolers “This May Be the Last Time”(the refrain of which was repurposed for the Rolling Stones’ “Last Time”), the CBS Trumpeteers’ soulful “Milky White Way,” the Gospel Five Singers’ torchy “Love Deep Down in Your Heart,” and the pre-teen shout of Robert “Little Sugar” Hightower (of the Hightower Brothers) on “Seat in the Kingdom.” Many of the fifties and early-60s sides share vocal attributes with doo-wop, and the later entries branch into the blues of Sister Emma Thompson’s “You Should Have Been There,” the soul of Rev. Willingham and the Swanee Quintet’s “That’s the Spirit,” and the wild hand-clapping rock ‘n’ soul of Bevins Specials’ “Everybody Ought to Pray.” The productions finally become stereo with Hardie Clifton stirring soul vocal on the Brooklyn Allstars’ ballad, “I Stood on the Banks of Jordan.”

Though the sonics improve throughout the 1970s, the music remains mostly faithful to the gospel, soul and blues roots of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. It’s not until the end of disc four, with the Salem Travelers’ 1981 “Moving On,” that the sound of 1970s R&B is really heard. Gospel’s influence is easy to find in the popular music of the ’50s and ’60s, but listening to these Nashboro sides it becomes evident that it wasn’t only crossover stars like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin who made an impact. If you like the soul of Chess, Stax, Muscle Shoals, Atlantic or any number of vocalists and groups whose style was rooted in gospel, you’ll enjoy just about every track on this set. Providing a cherry on top, the 16-page booklet is stuffed with superb picture, graphics and detailed liner notes by Opal Louis Nations. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Doris Troy: Sings Just One Look & Other Memorable Selections

DorisTroy_JustOneLookThe album behind Doris Troy’s 1963 title hit

Doris Troy is locked into the Groundhog’s Day repetition of oldies radio with her 1963 Top 10 hit “Just One Look.” But there was more to her career than is encapsulated in that (albeit, superb) two-minute and thirty-one seconds. The daughter of a Pentecostal minister, she sang in her father’s church choir before being discovered by James Brown at the church of R&B, the Apollo Theater. Her signature “Just One Look” was released by Atlantic and led to this 1963 album, combining well-selected covers (including a gospel-powered take on “Stormy Weather”) with eight originals from Troy and her co-writer Gregory Carol. Troy smolders with anticipation on “Lazy Days (When Are You Coming Home),” grooves to the Latin-inflected “Bossa Nova Blues,” bends blue notes for “Draw Me Closer,” reads her mistreating mate the riot act on “Someone Ain’t Right,” and closes the album with the dramatic Ben E. King-styled “Time.” Troy went on to back the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, sign to Apple for an album in 1969, and mount a musical theatrical production of her life story (which was subsequently turned into the film Mama, I Want to Sing!), but she never again found the commercial success of her very first single. Luckily, the Atlantic archives testify to the breadth of singing and songwriting talent that took root in 1963. [©2014 Hyperbolium]

Doris Troy Tribute Page

Greg Trooper: Incident on Willow Street

GregTrooper_IncidentOnWillowStreetExtraordinary country, rock, folk and soul

If you didn’t know better, but you knew enough to have heard both Greg Trooper and Bob Delevante, you might swear they are brothers from different mothers. Their voices can sound so similar as to really complicate the actual brotherhood of Bob and Mike Delevante (a/k/a The Delevantes). Both Trooper and Delevante trade in country-rock, and each brings twang to the roots rock of their shared native New Jersey. Trooper adds a helping of folk and soul to the equation, giving him a range that encompasses the roots rock of Willie Nile, the heart of Arthur Alexander, Willy DeVille and the Hacienda Brothers, the emotional perception of Richard Thompson, and the character-driven stories of Nashville.

The opening “All the Way to Amsterdam” is a perfect example of Trooper’s songwriting talent, juxtaposing a drunken father with a child’s dream of escape. The song’s heart-rending hope is renewed in the quiet of night and dashed in the light of morning; but that same light illuminates the hope fostered by the ice of Amsterdam’s canals. The melody draws its own tears, but it’s the tone of Trooper’s voice (an instrument Steve Earle has said he covets), both concerned and stalwart, that gives the song its emotional punch. The country-soul of “Everything’s a Miracle” offers up a perfect combination of steel (Larry Campbell), organ (Oli Rockberger) and soulful guitar (Larry Campbell again!) to back a vocal whose heartbroken misery stems from an inability to accept happiness.

The album moves effortlessly between country, country-rock, country-soul and folk, with the richness of Trooper’s voice pairing easily with Lucy Wainwright Roche’s backing vocal on the acoustic “The Land of No Forgiveness.” Trooper’s songs aren’t as squalid as the album’s pulp cover art might suggest, nor is there a deep streak of noir’s irredeemable fatalism in his stories. Instead, he writes of troubled people, peels away at the layers of their problems and studies whether their obstacles are external or self-imposed. Some of his protagonists blame the world for their own shortcomings, but others internalize outside turmoil as if it were of their own making.

There’s salvation in the album’s gospel notes, but redemption is hard-earned rather than given. The self-loathing protagonist of “This Shitty Deal” need not apply, while the kindred spirits of “The Girl in the Blue” may just salve each other’s loneliness. It’s something of a mystery how an artist of Trooper’s artistic depth and peer respect (he’s had songs recorded by Billy Bragg and Vince Gill, and albums produced by Garry Tallent, Buddy Miller and Dan Penn), has built such a solid catalog (this is his twelfth album in a quarter century) in such relative quiet. With Stewart Lerman returning to the producer’s seat (he first worked with Trooper on 1992’s Everywhere), the results are a reward for the faithful and a treat for the uninitiated. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Greg Trooper’s Home Page

Brian Wright: Rattle Their Chains

BrianWright_RattleTheirChainsCountry, folk and more from Nashville-transplanted Texan

Waco ex-pat (and recent Nashville immigrant by way of Los Angeles) Brian Wright garnered many positive reviews for his 2011 Sugar Hill debut, House on Fire. His second album for the label (his fourth overall) not only avoids a sophomore slump, but shows tremendous growth in his music, performing and style. Wright is more of a writer than an entertainer (though he is indeed quite entertaining), with music that strives for more than meter-fitting rhymes and a pleasant way to pass three minutes. His latest opens with a soulful electric piano that brings to mind Ray Charles, a jaunty drum beat and a declaration – “never made a promise that I thought could not be broken” – whose wry tone is in league with Randy Newman. It’s a compelling combination, with Wright’s Dylanesque catalog of never-haves stoked by hard-shuffling drums and a driving bass line. The effect is both cool and hot, like a smoldering attitude amid flammable emotions.

His inventories continue with the demons enumerated in “Haunted,” cleverly turning the phrase “I’m trying to right my way out of all I’ve done wrong” and then transforming ‘right’ into ‘write’ by finishing the couplet with “trying to pay off my sins, and pay back my friends, song after song.” There’s another catalog in the experiences of “Weird Winter,” reading like a third-person cousin to the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Wright’s new music spans folk and country, with flavors of pop, rock (highlighted by a heroic 70s-styled guitar solo on “We Don’t Live There”), blues, soul, gospel and brass-band jazz. Wright leads his backing band (itself a switch from the self-played arrangements of House on Fire) with aplomb, but the folk styles of “Red Rooster Social Club” and “Can’t Stand to Listen” leave extra room for the emotional edges of his voice. This is a finely-crafted step forward from his previous album, showing off both Wright’s ever-sharpening songwriting and growing reach as a performer. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Brian Wright’s Home Page

Sly & The Family Stone: Higher!

SlyAndTheFamilyStone_HigherCareer-spanning box with mono singles, rarities and unreleased tracks

Sly and the Family Stone’s catalog has never been difficult to find. In addition to dozens of compilations (one of which, 1970’s Greatest Hits, was their first album to top the charts), the band’s original albums have been remastered and reissued with expanded track listings. The remastered albums have themselves also been anthologized as The Collection. But there’s more to Sylvester Stewart than the Family Stone and there’s more to the Family Stone’s catalog than the albums. Pulling together pre-Family obscurities, hit singles (many in their punchy mono single mixes), album cuts, live performances and previously unissued material creates an arc of musical discovery that paints a wholly (or holy) different picture than hearing the material in separate installments.

This box set opens with five sides Stewart (not yet Stone) recorded for San Francisco’s Autumn label in 1964 and 1965. Stewart served as a staff producer for Autumn, helming sessions for the Beau Brummels, Mojo Men, Great Society and others (see Precious Stone, Listen to the Voices, The Autumn Records Story and Dance With Me for more of his production work), and his first sides riff on the hit single, “C’mon and Swim,” he’d written and produced for Bobby Freeman. The B-side, “Scat Swim,” cut a deeper groove than the plug side, and his next single, “Buttermilk (Part 1),” was a catchy blue-soul instrumental, with Stewart playing all the instruments, including organ and harmonica leads. The unreleased “Dance All Night” and his last single for Autumn, “Temptation Walk,” show how early (and easily) Stewart began mixing pop, soul, blues, R&B and jazz into his original stew.

After leaving Autumn, Stewart quickly assembled what was to become Sly and the Family Stone, and waxed the 1967 demos that would land them a contract with Epic. In the wake of the group’s later success, two of the tracks, the original “I Ain’t Got Nobody (For Real)” and a cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Lose,” were released on the Loadstone label. The former is powered by Larry Graham’s insistent bass line and topped by the Family Stone’s trademark trumpet-sax combination of Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini. The group began recording for Epic (at the same Golden State Recorders at which Stewart had produced for Autumn Records) in mid-1967, and the fruits of these initial sessions fill out disc one, starting with their first A-side, “Underdog,” and its two B-sides, “Higher” (from early promo singles) and “Bad Risk.”

Despite a fresh sound that crackled with the energy of its multiple roots, neither the single nor the album A Whole New Thing made a commercial impression at the time; it wasn’t until “Dance to the Music” was recorded in September that the Family Stone had their first hit in the can. Launched in January 1968, “Dance to the Music” quickly established the group’s revolutionary combination of pop, rock, soul, funk and gospel, and shifted the course of pop music. Other acts quickly latched onto elements of the sound, but none could match Stewart’s output as a songwriter or the band’s approach as a unit. The group was sufficiently prolific as to leave fully-finished masters in the vault, including the four that end disc one. Here you’ll find the band trying out previously unheard original songs, experimental vocal arrangements, and repurposed lyrics and melodies.

The July-August 1967 session tracks continue on disc two, showing the wealth of great material produced before the band finally hit with “Dance to the Music.” Two of session tracks (“What Would I Do” and “Only One Way Out of This Mess”) were previously issued on the expanded edition of A Whole New Thing, but three more are included here for the first time: an inventive cover of the pop-folk song “What’s it Got to Do With Me,” an early take on the autobiographical “Future and Fame” and the Freddie Stone-sung deep soul ballad “I Know What You Came to Say.” All five session tracks are as good as the material that made the original album, but the lack of early commercial success doomed this extra material to a long stay in the vault.

The band’s commercial breakthrough is finally heard six tracks into disc two, with the ecstatic three-minute mono single mix of “Dance to the Music.” The song is, quite literally, a brilliantly catchy tutorial on the sound being created before the listener’s very ears. As memorable as are the mono singles, stereo album sides like “Ride the Rhythm” more expansively show off the band’s inventive arrangements and tight musicianship as they explode across the soundstage. Disc two finishes out with album tracks from Dance to the Music, the previously unreleased “We Love All,” the obscure mostly-instrumental French-language single “Danse a la Musique” (and it’s even stranger Chipmunk-voiced B-side, “Small Fries”), the unreleased B-side “Chicken,” and exuberant sides from Life, including mono single masters for “Life” (with a different lead vocal track than the album cut) and “M’Lady.”

Disc three opens with the band’s second smash single, the #1 “Everyday People” and its charting flipside, “Sing a Simple Song.” These tracks, along with “Stand!” (offered here in a live recording) and “I Want to Take You Higher,” powered the commercial success of the band’s third album. As with their debut, the band recorded a lot more material during the album sessions than they could issue, and disc three includes another helping of previously unreleased bonuses, including unused instrumental backings. The group became a hot live act, essayed here with performances from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, and scored in 1969 as singles artists with “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody is a Star” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” all heard here as mono singles.

The final disc open with the band’s next album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, including album tracks and all three of its singles. Ironically, though the album yielded the hit “Family Affair,” it was recorded in large part by Stone alone, with overdubs by Family members and other hired-hands (including keyboard player Billy Preston). The album hasn’t the organic sound or joyous mood of the band’s earlier material, and the sonics of 1971 overdubbing and the use of a drum machine on several tracks subdues the group’s underlying funk. By 1973 the group’s membership was beginning to change, including new drummers, a replacement for the departed Larry Graham, and the addition of a third horn player. The group’s singles (including “If You Want Me to Stay” and “Time for Livin'”) continued to chart in the Top 40, as did their final two albums Fresh and Small Talk.

By 1975 Sly had disbanded the Family Stone and begun to record as a solo artist backed by hired musicians. His album High on You, expands beyond the musical boundaries of the Family Stone, adding steel guitar and other touches that hadn’t been heard on the band’s releases. Disc four closes out with selections from Stone’s solo work, from the then-newly formulated Family Stone’s Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, and a pair of previously unreleased tracks, “Hoboken” and “High.” The box set lingers a bit more over the first-half of the group’s career, rushing through the latter half in a single disc, but that’s in balance with the band’s rise to fame, the peaking of their invention, and the view most listeners will have of their career.

This is a well thought out anthology, touching on Stewart’s pre-Family solo work, the Family’s rise to fame, their chart domination and fire as a live act, their eventual end and Sly Stone’s return to solo work. Along the way there are iconic hit singles, B-sides and album tracks, seventeen previously unreleased tracks and a large helping of original mono single mixes. The only real omission from this set are the studio versions of “Stand” and “I Want to Take You Higher!,” each of which are included among the live tracks. The mono mixes will be greatly appreciated by fans who have already completed their collection of the expanded stereo album reissues. For those without any of the group’s catalog on-hand, your surround sound-trained ears may find the stereo hits more immediately satisfying; check out the album reissues, or the anthologies Greatest Hits or Essential.

In addition to the mono mixes and unreleased tracks, the set’s 104-page book is its own star. The book includes finely written liner notes, an informative timeline, rare photographs, reproductions of labels, sleeves and posters, and revelatory track-by-track comments from the Greg Errico, Larry Graham,  Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson, Sly Stone and many others. In addition to the standard 4-CD set, there are several variations: an Amazon exclusive that adds a fifth disc (and parallel MP3 downloads), a vinyl LP edition (with its own Amazon exclusive variation) and a single disc highlights. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Sly Stone’s Home Page

Elvis Presley: At Stax

ElvisPresley_ElvisAtStaxElvis at Stax in 1973 – masters and outtakes

Starting with his ’68 Comeback Special, a reawakened Elvis conjured a remarkable late-career hot-streak that included 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis, the revitalized Vegas stage shows documented on That’s the Way It Is and On Stage, and a return to his country, blues, gospel and rockabilly roots on 1971’s Elvis Country. In January of 1973, Elvis stormed the airwaves with Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite, and soon after signed a new seven-year contract with RCA. In July and December of that year he booked himself into the legendary Stax studio on McLemore Avenue, adding to a string of Memphis studios that had been good luck charms: Elvis had launched his career at Sun, and revived his sense of self at Chip Moman’s American Sound in 1969.

The July sessions produced ten masters, eight of which were released on 1973’s Raised on Rock, and two held back for 1974’s Good Times. Four were also issued as singles, with “Raised on Rock” climbing to #41 on the Hot 100, Tony Joe White’s “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” peaking at #4 country, and “Take Good Care of Her” making the Top 40 AC. All ten of the masters were solid, though by no means extraordinary. Elvis was in good voice, but neither the material nor the band assembled from road regulars and Memphis guests sparked anything really deep. Elvis connected well with bluesier material like “Just a Little Bit” and Leiber & Stoller’s “If You Don’t Come Back,” and gospel-tinged backing vocals add weight to a few ballads, but the sessions never lift off in the way of his earlier work at American Sound. Two tracks – “Girl of Mine” and “Sweet Angeline” – swapped in players from the Stax house band, including the MG’s rhythm section of Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, but you’d barely know it from the final outcome.

The December sessions were a great deal more productive, both in final output – 18 finished masters – and in musical vitality. The results were split across 1974’s Good Times and 1975’s Promised Land, further dissipating the sessions’ unity and squandering the marketing value of “Elvis at Stax.” But even with the inept marketing, the sessions turned out three Top 20 hits on each of the pop and country charts, and a country chart topping album in Promised Land. Elvis sounds much more deeply engaged than he had in July, and the material and arrangements are a great deal stronger. Highlights include a fiery take on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” the strings, horns and deep bass of “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” the gospel-funk “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body,” Jerry Reed’s revival-charged “Talk About the Good Times,” and feeling covers of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” and “You Asked Me To.” Two ballads, “It’s Midnight” and “Loving Arms,” feature deeply touching, standout vocal performances.

Beyond the twenty eight masters, this 3-CD set includes a generous helping of alternate takes and one unfinished track. All of this material has been released before, but scattered across a number of posthumous collections and expanded reissues. Augmented with bits of studio chatter, the outtakes give a more organic view of Elvis’ presence at Stax than did the dispersed master takes. What you’ll hear is an artist who’s really committed to most of the material, and though the master takes were chosen for their commercial viability, the alternates are filled with vitality. Unlike the many soundtrack sessions through which Elvis often sleepwalked, and despite the Stax sessions being the product of a contractual obligation, Elvis was ready to make great music of his own volition. Freed from the confines of Hill & Range’s catalog, Elvis drew from both longtime suppliers and contemporary songwriters, recording songs with which he felt a personal resonance.

That personal resonance also applied to the assembled players, who were drawn from Elvis’ road band and key Memphis and Muscle Shoals players such as guitarist Reggie Young and bassist Norman Putnam. But the results weren’t as deeply impacted by Southern soul as were the earlier sessions at American Sound; Stax, it turned out, was more of a conveniently located venue than a sound with which Elvis wanted to engage. The label’s legendary musicians were barely involved in the July sessions, and not at all in December. By the time the later dates came around, even the Stax recording equipment had been swapped out in favor of RCA’s mobile unit, leaving the converted movie theater studio as Stax’s only real participation. Still, Elvis was home in Memphis, riding the crest of a remarkable career resurgence, and mostly (modulo the Colonel’s lingering machinations) in control.

The 3-CD set is delivered in an 8×8 box that includes a deluxe 42-page booklet stuffed with photos, ephemera and notes by Roger Semon and Robert Gordon. The discs are screened with images of tape reels, and slid into the pockets of a tri-fold cardboard insert, from which fans will likely want to relocate them to jewel cases or other appropriate storage. Collectors who already own Rhythm and Country and the FTD reissue of Raised on Rock, Good Times and Promised Land will have most of the tracks in this set, though having them all together in one (affordable!) place produces a uniquely coherent view of the sessions. One thing that becomes clear is that Elvis had a great album in him, but a contract that demanded two albums and multiple singles per year dug deeper than the sessions could support. What’s great here is really great, and what’s good is still passable. Though he’d record more in 1975-76, these Stax sessions are the last major sessions in his remarkable comeback. [©2013 Hyperbolium]