SOUL OF THE BLUES
Black Top BT-1095
MISSISSIPPI BURNIN' BLUES
Sweet Miss Coffy, Cadillac George Harris, George Jackson
Mardi Gras Records MG-1017
Not many years ago, soul-music aficionados often disdained traditional blues as lower-class, simplistic music embarrassingly reminiscent of an earlier, more oppressive era. Many blues fans, for their part, turned up their noses at R & B and soul as commercial bastardizations of "authentic" African American culture.
These days the distinctions are a lot more vague. Artists as diverse as the Neville Brothers, Latimore, and Tyrone Davis have graced the main stage of the Chicago Blues Festival in recent years. I personally heard Al Green refer affectionately to his "Let's Stay Together" as a "blues song" during a sermon at his church in Memphis last summer. Listeners have finally come to understand that soul music, R & B, and the blues come together at the crossroad.
Such turf battles have always mattered more to intellectuals and critics than to the artists, anyway. Performers have made careers out of straddling styles much farther apart than R & B and blues. Solomon Burke's first big hit, for instance, was a pop-soul version of a country-and-western weepie, "Just Out of Reach"; since then he's had success on the charts with R & B ("Cry to Me"), gospel-drenched soul (a heartripping remake of Little Richard's "Send Me Some Lovin'"), and straight-ahead rock ("Everybody Needs Somebody to Love"). In 1982 he even managed to make a soul classic out of "Silent Night." In fact until now the blues was about the only thing Burke hadn't touched.
Burke's roots are in gospel, and despite the much-vaunted historical connection between the two, gospel and blues require markedly different approaches. For all the frenetic emotionalism gospel singers often display, the good ones always remain in technical control. Gospel melody lines can be complex, and there are subtle dips, melismatic trills, and myriad other tricks a vocalist must master. Listeners respond as enthusiastically to brilliant displays of virtuosity as they do to manifestations of an elevated spirit.
The blues, on the other hand, often succeeds best when it sounds the least studied. Many of the greatest blues artists developed vocal styles that sounded one slip away from dissonance or chaos. Muddy Waters would hurry his lyrics, insert odd extra measures, or drop a syllable before completing a phrase; Howlin' Wolf bellowed ferociously, sometimes apparently paying little attention to timing, intonation, or even lyrical content; Elmore James sang like a man on the verge of strangling on his own hysteria.
One might wonder, then, how a gospel singer would fare in a style that depends, at least in part, on an illusion of artlessness. But as Burke once told Peter Guralnick about his early years as a soul superstar on Atlantic: "You must remember, I was capable of singing anything." He shows he still is on Soul of the Blues, demonstrating from his first note a mastery all the more astounding for its apparent effortlessness.
I'd prefer it if that first note had been the kickoff to "Good Rockin' Tonight," the disc's second selection, rather than the opening "My Babe." Burke's singing is enjoyable enough--he rides lightly atop the pounding four-four cadence, finally fading away into a whispered finale. But the song is an overwarm chestnut with a ponderous tempo; even Burke's bravura falsetto toward the end can't really add anything new to it.
"Good Rockin' Tonight," though, is outrageous--flat-out secular soul saving. As the band churns along in a full-bodied shuffle, Burke comes roaring in with all jets full blast. His deep baritone ascends into a hair-raising gospel scream, and he shows every octave he passes through to be layered with textures and subtleties all its own, displaying virtually an entire separate repertoire of nuances for each level of intensity.
One of the most impressive things about this disc is that Burke never takes the easy way out, as so many blues singers do: no chopped-short phrases, no difficult passages resolved in grunts or shouts instead of notes. He brings every musical idea to full realization--yet never at the expense of emotional immediacy.
It's on steamy, slow-grinding ballads like "Sufferin' Mind" that his artistry is clearest. He sings with an exquisite fusion of longing, sensuality, and strength--evoking, like the master gospel singer he is, sorrow and hopelessness without eliminating the possibility of transcendence.
He brings the same spiritual power to "Letter From My Darling," which features an opening sermonette, delivered in a sexy murmur over the strains of an organ. Burke tells of receiving a letter that "smelled good, it felt good, I read it, and I want to share it with you--may I?" The singing that follows is pure hymn--open-throated, melodic, alternately pop-smooth and gospel-gritty, with a high-pitched timbre that harks back to Burke's glory years with Atlantic. In almost anyone else's hands this could have been treacle ("I'll kiss this letter I'm writing you tonight / But I wish I was kissing you all over instead"), but Burke elevates it to the level of a classic. Laced with an undefinable sadness despite its optimistic paeans to the invincibility of romantic love, "Letter" evokes a longing that borders on the prayerful--the essence of soul music's fusion of the secular and the sacred.
Some of Burke's most profound artistry is delivered on the most subtle level. "Don't Deceive Me" is another slow-rolling ballad, but Burke gives a sly nod to the song's roots. It's an R & B chestnut, a hit for Chuck Willis in 1953 on the Okeh label, and Burke abandons artifice to sing it in a vibrato-free street-corner croon.
Unlike many soul artists, Burke has never seemed to struggle with the contradiction of being both a man of the cloth and a secular entertainer. But he does mostly stay away from the salacious or the down-and-dirty (as opposed to the seductive, which he revels in). On "Street Walking Woman" he gets as deep in the alley as I've ever heard him. Even here, though, the arrangement resonates with uptown sophistication--the music alone makes you think this streetwalker probably wears furs and diamonds (despite the fact that "She's always got whiskey to her mouth / And her face full-a ugly, ugly frown").
With this song Burke is solidly in the tradition of T-Bone Walker, Cleanhead Vinson, and the great Kansas City blues shouters (whose power he approaches, especially on those thrilling ascents into high-tenor testifying)--he brings a dash of elegance to even his nastiest imagery. Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff blows in with a lovely tenor sax solo, and Clarence Hollimon's guitar has the taste and tone of T-Bone, but with his own ideas inserted into Walker's groove.
Not everything on this disc is fully realized. For some reason Burke can't quite wrap his voice around the moody, easy-jazz changes of "Candy." His phrasing and enunciation sound uncharacteristically stiff, and his patented vocal swells evoke Las Vegas more than anything sanctified. Meanwhile Sammy Berfect's glittery, cocktail-hour piano solo sounds like something straight out of the Jackie Gleason songbook. Burke's falsetto flights are breathtaking, however, and it won't surprise me if he eventually harnesses the song's grandiose romanticism and turns it into one of his showstoppers in live performance--especially the molar-rattling final ascent.
On the other hand Burke rescues "Pledging My Love" from bathos through the sheer power of his sincerity. I can't think of another artist who could fuse sentimental romantic tenderness so effortlessly with hard-bitten soul wisdom, who could inform such pedestrian lyrics with such vision.
It might be argued, in fact, that soul music is largely about just that kind of meld of opposites--the profane and the spiritual, the bondage of oppression and the dream of freedom, the ambiguity of real-world relationships and the romantic ideal. On Sonny Boy Williamson's "No Nights by Myself" Burke's voice is as blue as it gets anywhere on this disc--occasionally even bordering on the mannered--but again he redeems his sorrow with a sense of uplift. Kazanoff's sax wails desperately over the noodling introspection of Berfect's piano and the lazy lope of the rhythm section; Sam Mayfield's guitar solo is a piercing blast of urban string bending, and the background harmonica warbles--Kazanoff again--are solidly in the Williamson mold.
The force of Burke's singing and the determined way he digs into the nooks and crannies of the melody-the blue notes at the end of his phrases, the subtle dips and accents that he hits straight on and manages to make sound like afterthoughts--make it clear that no matter how blue this man gets, he's got the key to a highway that'll lead him to both love and redemption.
If Burke is crossing the line from soul and finding a home in the blues, the artists on Mississippi Burnin' Blues are going the other way. Don't be deceived by the label (Mardi Gras Records is a New Orleans-based company that specializes in rollicking reissues of classic Crescent City R & B; their address is 3331 Saint Charles Ave., New Orleans 70115). There's no Fat Tuesday here--this is rough stuff, even when it's tender.
Chicagoans might remember Sweet Miss Coffy from her tenure with Willie Kent a few years back. She's both a keyboardist and a vocalist, although here she limits herself to singing. The opening cut, "Piston, Knife & Razor Too!," sets the tone for the disc: "I done bought myself a pistol, a knife and a razor too / I'm gonna shoot, stab, and cut all the hell outta you!"
Coffy presents the most straightahead blues set of the three artists on this anthology; the arrangements are a bit sprightly for such deadly serious signifying, but it's refreshing to welcome another woman into the patriarchal blues ranks. Coffy's invectives against a man who "mistreats his good woman for some lowdown, filthy ho's" neatly takes the misogyny of rap and turns it on its head.
Coffy sometimes sounds constrained, as if she's reigning herself in to maintain control of her voice; to succeed at this kind of blues you've got to show some wild abandon. There's a delicious declamatory swagger to her vocal style, though, that always comes through. "Broken-Hearted Woman" finds her in a tender mood as she searches for a man "with scars on his back from the way he's been abused / He's been so used to bein' misused." Such material is usually the province of men, who love to boast about their quest for a girl who'll please them in the sack without asking too much in return. Coffy's approach is both more poignant and more fun.
On a few numbers--a labored remake of Little Walter's hit "My Babe" entitled "I've Been Watching You," a revamped version of the blues standard "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water"--Coffy seems unable to overcome the cliches of her vintage material. Her showpiece, though, is the ballad "If It's Love That You're Trying to Fight." She's sexy and soulful, but she also exudes a self-reliance that rescues her from sex-kitten cuteness.
Just in case anyone misses the point, she signs off with "Back in the Streets Again," rough-breaking blues with an angry, grinding rhythm section and an arrangement that echoes both "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" and Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time."
Coffy's labelmate Cadillac George Harris has a voice largely devoid of nuance but succeeds nonetheless, largely because of his sincerity and the strength of his material. "Using Me to Hurt Him" is B.B. King/Bobby Bland-style blues, complete with catchy vocal hooks and fat horn backing. But the guitar solo is back-alley dangerous, primitive and shimmering with amplified vibrato. Harris seems most at home in contemporary soul-blues styles. On the rougher "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" he can't summon either the sexiness or the anger to make this tale of frustrated cuckoldry work.
"Dangerous Woman" is more successful; Harries voice finds an edge that works well with the material ("When she's not loving me she's got murder on her mind....She's got a tombstone in her bedroom / She's already carved out my name!"). But I wish he'd lay off the B.B. King vocal mannerisms; he can succeed at this kind of material without them.
My favorite tracks are the ones by George Jackson. Jackson is an unheralded lyric genius of modern blues; he penned "Down Home Blues" for Z.Z. Hill, "Too Weak to Fight" for Clarence Carter--the list goes on and on. Here he reveals a pleasant but none-too-strong voice that's nonetheless appropriate for the kind of romantic, urbane material he's chosen.
Not that he's a softie. In "I Want That Love Back," after finding his girlfriend out with another man, Jackson warns her in his sexy croon: "You better leave his table while you're still able....I don't wanna hear none of this, I don't wanna hear none of that / Grab your coat as I get my hat....I wanna get you alone when we get home....Just give me that love back / I want that love back."
One wonders whether or not to believe Jackson's promise not to "get that girl and jump on her" because "I'm not that kind of person"; the following cut, "Strugglin' Lady," reveals a much more reassuring persona. Jackson's tender portrait of a proud, down-on-her-luck ghetto woman (recently recorded, by the way, by Little Milton), is heartfelt and timely; a few years ago it would have been a hit on every black-oriented pop radio station in the country. These days, though, solidarity and respect for perseverance through hard times seem to have taken a backseat to gangsta posturing and intergender warfare.
"Heart to Heart Collect" is another winner; it's got a great hook--the chorus croons "Heart to heart collect, ain't givin' up on her yet" as Jackson comes in over the top murmuring, "Try that number one more time..." His voice, as thin as it sometimes gets, evokes a desperate vulnerability in its very tremulousness. The arrangement likewise fuses sadness with hope--a propulsive bass line, that gospely backup chorus laid over the band's moody 2 AM chords of sorrow and desperation.
This disc should give encouragement to those who wonder if the blues will survive the various commercial and psychic onslaughts that threaten to rob so much popular culture of dignity and hope. Most of these numbers seem tailor-made for live performance at a club like Mr. G's or East of the Ryan; that's the type of venue where this music and its indigenous audience can still meet and celebrate community, the human condition in all its flawed beauty, and the ever-evolving tradition that is the blues.