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Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings: mellow fellows with a new twist

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When vocalist Larry "Big Twist" Nolan died of heart failure in 1990, a lot of people wondered what would become of his band. Twist was a legendary showman, a beefy R & B shouter with a booming baritone; he radiated an avuncular enthusiasm and specialized in both hard-driving R & B barn burners and novelty blues like "Three Hundred Pounds of Joy." His band, the Mellow Fellows, complemented him with unerring tightness and unwavering slickness.

Twist's fans were tenaciously loyal. Many had gone to school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale--the area where the band got its start in the 60s and early 70s--and seemed to go to his shows as much for the nostalgic communal celebration as for the music. Few could imagine the Mellow Fellows playing behind anyone else. Yet by the time of his death, Twist had been handing over the torch for several years. In the late 80s singer Martin Allbritton, who'd worked with the group downstate years before, rejoined the band. As Twist's health deteriorated, Allbritton's role became greater. When Twist died, Allbritton and the band continued, first as the Mellow Fellows and then as the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings.

The departure of a charismatic leader is always difficult for an established band. Many simply break up. Sometimes a new front man will emerge to keep the interest up and even prod the group into new or long-forgotten directions--think of Thad Jones taking over the Count Basie Orchestra. Often, though, even the best bands are forced into a nostalgic role, laboring under the memory of the departed master--Duke Ellington's band, under the direction of Duke's son Mercer, has never been able to escape entirely from the great man's shadow. Or else they become grim parodies of themselves, as the three remaining Doors did when they tried to stay together after Jim Morrison died.

Allbritton, though, has proved a more than worthy successor to Big Twist. He's got a much grittier voice, capable of a wider emotional range, from churchy, hard-soul testifying to deep balladry, and his onstage demeanor is passionately intense. He doesn't warm up a room the way the charismatic Twist did--Allbritton sometimes seems almost convulsively wrapped up in his own emotions, twitching and shaking like Joe Cocker used to do, pouring his energies into the song rather than concentrating on keeping the people entertained. But for sheer listening pleasure, he's got a depth and breadth to which Twist seldom aspired.

Perhaps more exciting is what's happened to the band. They've always been distinguished by tight arrangements and accomplished musicianship, but when fused with Twist's roaring exuberance on flag wavers their sound occasionally segued from brawn to bombast, and on less declamatory numbers professionalism sometimes overwhelmed passion. Allbritton seems to have lit a spark under the musicians: longtime tenor-sax player Terry Ogolini uses long, supple improvisational lines to complement his yakkety-yak puckishness, and trumpeter Don Tenuto coaxes growling imprecations out of his instrument with enthusiasm and wit. Guitarist David Mick lacks the nightclubby smoothness of his predecessor Pete Special and his solos too often descend into jazz-rock cliche, but his chording is crisp and on up-tempo numbers he's incendiary.

So when the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings took the stage at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera last week, they gave the sense that they'd been revitalized, though there were a few indications that the band is still in transition. Mick seems to be searching for the sound that will allow him to fit into the band's lithe arrangements; too often the old tension between passion and overkill resurfaces when he leads his compatriots through their paces with his harsh, metallic tone. But on instrumentals like "New York Mary," carried by drummer Kax Ratliff's fatback beat and overlaid by Ogolini's riotous New Orleans second-line burbling, the band found a joyful fusion of danceability and intensity. Their trademark tightness was especially evident as they riffed their way through the complex arrangement--they moved effortlessly through a funk-popping percussiveness like James Brown's to a swinging triplet bridge and then back into the original groove.

Allbritton, looking casual in shirtsleeves, ambled onto the stage and delivered a short spoken intro--and where Big Twist would have ingratiated himself with his smooth patter and easygoing charm, Allbritton spoke stiffly, almost as if he were reading from cue cards. But his singing on the rowdy "Teeny Weeny Bit" that followed achieved a harsh edge Twist seldom approximated; it set the stage for Mick's frenetically energetic solo.

That hard edge served Allbritton well on numbers like Gene Barge's "Me and My Woman," a rough-edged blues in the Albert King mold. Barge's horn arrangement popped and lurched all over the place as Allbritton testified roughly over the top; this was the kind of tough-minded playing that originally put these guys on the map, and they seemed to be reveling in the opportunity to indulge in it again. The anthemic "Don't Turn Your Heater Down," a highlight on the band's recent Street Party LP, proved equally exhilarating in performance. Again the band tore into a pounding funk arrangement behind Allbritton's impassioned hoarseness; Ogolini's solo booted and slithered in turn, and the band sang the refrain in tight, meaty harmonies.

That's not to say that everything about Allbritton and the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings is rough-and-ready. "Rainy Night in Georgia" featured Allbritton's voice at its most lovely--a gritty baritone croon that gradually ascended into pleading soulfulness. The arrangement showcased the horns in a meld of lusty power and moody resignation, with sparkling harmonies that offset the lyrics' romantic desperation.

Distinctive arrangements have always been a forte of this band; through the years various members have contributed charts, but these days Gene Barge does the lion's share, at least for the horns. Barge didn't play at the B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera gig, but his presence was strongly felt: he's an R & B legend, a prototypical R & B tenor man with the passionate commitment of the true believer and the musical sense of a sophisticated studio musician. His arrangement of "Let the Good Times Roll" was especially arresting: fierce guitar chording punctuated by a horn riff borrowed from Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train."

Allbritton's voice on "Good Times" achieved a bellowing fierceness almost worthy of Howlin' Wolf; he milked the well-known break--"Hey everybody, tell everybody / The Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings are in town!"--for all it was worth, inserting ribald asides and squeezing his voice into outrageous contortions. It's a measure of this band's talent and commitment that they can take a set consisting primarily of standards like "Good Times" and give most of the material a new vitality.

As the evening wore on, the band became more adventurous. The second set kicked off with a roaring instrumental version of the "5" Royales' "Think" that transformed the jaunty classic into a no-nonsense R & B testimonial. On this song the band's evolution over the past few years was especially evident: there's less slickness to their presentation, fewer easy hooks for a listener. It's up to the music to carry the show, not vice versa.

Allbritton not only fits into this newfound approach, one gets the feeling he's largely responsible for it. He sings with the declamatory intensity of the great southern soul vocalists, with just enough roughness of phrasing to add some back-alley primitivism to the slick arrangements. He maneuvers his voice through an impressive array of timbres and shadings, playfully modulating from a bull roar to a constricted croak, stopping just short of self-parody.

Like many soul men, though, Allbritton seems most in his element when he gets the chance to wrap himself around a lush romantic ballad. John Hiatt's exquisite "Feels Like Rain" was the centerpiece of his performance at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera. Again Allbritton slid effortlessly from a smooth baritone croon to a throaty, pleading cry, as Ogolini came in with a gently ascending tenor solo that rippled its way through the changes with a haunting sense of introspection. The band built the ballad slowly, finally culminating in an extended, soaring climax--Allbritton screamed the refrain full-throttle over the horns' swelling harmonies, even inserting a series of yodels reminiscent of jazz singer Leon Thomas (as on Pharoah Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan"). Yet despite that bravura performance, the song never became overwrought, and they took it out on a tender, sustained chord.

That knack of wringing every drop of emotion from a tune without resorting to histrionics or crowd-pleasing gimmicks is what sets the current Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings apart from many contemporary R & B outfits. The Kings still have a way to go before they can claim the mass adulation they enjoyed with Twist: Allbritton's lack of stage polish may be charming, but it leads to too many empty spaces in what should be a fast-paced show. And it seems to me the band's selections are still a bit heavy on the standards. Yet there's something refreshing in an outfit ballsy enough to take on both the harshest soul imprecations and smooth ballads, intersperse it all with the blues, and still retain a healthy dose of street-level rawness. That raw edge is what Allbritton has brought to the band--these fellows are no longer mellow, and the music is all the better for it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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