Monday, January 07, 2008

Aretha releases record of the year

Record of the year: Aretha Franklin’s “Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul,” a two-CD set from Rhino that discounters sell for about $15, which is a bargain.

The music is from her heyday at Atlantic Records, where she did her finest work. Many of the tracks are familiar — “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” “Fool on the Hill,” while others are less well known — “The Happy Blues,” “My Way,” “Suzanne” — but it’s all Aretha, and it’s all first-rate soul, even the rehearsals, demos and the false starts — especially the unreleased stuff that shows the queen hard at work because she’s a perfectionist, sounding youthful and enthusiastic, aware of her talents and always giving her best.

Aretha has performed in public for some 50 years — first as a singer in her father’s church in Detroit, then seeking fame and fortune at Columbia Records, where she floundered until Atlantic signed her in the mid-1960s and made her a superstar.
Aretha’s long run as the greatest soul singer of them all is especially remarkable in a field that’s been dominated by men – Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett — all of them dead, incidentally, while others have faded from the scene, but Aretha keeps on recording and selling out at concert halls, sounding as great as ever at 65.

St. Louis bluesman Big George Brock is much less famous and wealthy than Aretha, but he’s also one of our favorites. The septuagenarian harpist-blues shouter has been steadily recording in recent years — perhaps more often than any living bluesman — and his latest is one of the best of the year: “Live at 75” (Cat Head) was recorded last May at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss., before an appreciative audience.

Brock, who was born in Mississippi in 1932, and his band play deep blues, the kind Muddy Waters created in Clarksdale some 65 years ago. This is the sound that gave birth to rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll and soul. Big George rocks with the best of them, and here’s hoping he keeps playing and recording for many more years. Muddy would be pleased.

Jimmy Burns is another Mississippi-born bluesman who’s finally getting a chance to record. A decade younger than Brock, Burns recorded “Live at B.L.U.E.S.” (Delmark) in Chicago, where he’s lived for the last 50 years, and it’s another one of our favorites from 2007.

It’s solid Chicago blues by way of Clarksdale played before an enthusiastic audience (there’s also a DVD of the performance). Burns is a fine guitar player and singer whose rocking band proves blues is far from dead: With “Live and B.L.U.E.S.,” the spirit of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Dawkins, Robert Lockwood and others lives on into another century.

The harp player Carey Bell, another Mississippi transplant who moved to Chicago in the 1950s, made his last record for Delmark just months before he died.

“Gettin’ Up: Live at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Rosa’s and Lurrie’s Home” with his son Lurie Bell, who plays a mean guitar, is deep Chicago blues, performed the way it’s supposed to be played: Loud and unadorned and straight from the heart.

The personnel also includes Bob Stoger, another Mississippi bluesman from Chicago, on bass. You can see them perform on the DVD version of the CD, giving you a front-row seat in two well-known clubs and Lurrie’s apartment, played Windy City style as they have now for more than half a century.

Delmark has also reissued several important blues records from the 1960s and early 1970s, including the late Arkansan Robert Junior Lockwood’s “Steady Rollin’ Man,” Sleepy John Estes’ “Electric Sleep” (reissued as “On the Chicago Blues Scene”) and Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson’s “Kidney Stew Is Fine” with T-Bone Walker. These are essential recordings.

A small label, Broke and Hungry Records, continues to record Jimmy Duck Holmes, the Bentonia, Miss., bluesman who plays the haunting blues of the region popularized by Skip James. “Back to Bentonia” was Holmes’ debut record a couple of years ago, and his latest, “Done Got Tired of Tryin’,” is equally as good.

He plays a lot of James and other blues classics, including songs by the late Jack Owens, another Bentonia bluesman.
Now there’s only Holmes, who, at 59, is the youngest of the bluesmen under review. He’s keeping the Bentonia sound alive and could, if we’re lucky, pass on this rare art form to a new generation of musicians.

Another small label, Bluesland Productions, has issued a remarkable CD called “The Last of the Jelly Roll Kings” by two Arkansans, the drummer Sam Carr and the late harmonica player Frank Frost. They hung out together near Helena for many years with Big Jack Johnson of Clarksdale. (Carr, the son of blues legend Robert Nighthawk, still lives on a farm near the casino in Lula, Miss.) Frost and Carr were recorded for this CD in Helena in 1993 in 1997, including several tracks at the King Biscuit Festival.

This is Arkansas blues at its best: Frost was a great harmonica player (he also played guitar and organ), and Carr, before he suffered a stroke a few years ago, was the best drummer in the Delta.

“The Last of the Jelly Roll Kings” is as good as any blues made across the river in Mississippi. This is the kind of music that’s often overlooked and deserves special mention as one of the best of the year.

Enjoy the music.