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Music All Ears



Soul, then and now

Last week saw the release of Pure Genius (Rhino), the seven-CD, one-DVD box that in content (the entire Atlantic recordings of Ray Charles) and packaging (a clever replication of an old portable phonograph) will have collectors salivating. It's a treasure trove of the pianist's best work, but it's far from the only new soul release in record stores today.

Other reissues range from the familiar - a trio of Sam Cooke discs on Legacy, including his laid-back masterpiece Night Beat and the key concert record (also from 1963) Live At Harlem Square - to obscurities from beloved artists: Even serious Al Green fans are probably unfamiliar with Back Up Train (Arista/Legacy), recorded before he teamed with Willie Mitchell and became a legend. It's a perfectly enjoyable record despite some seriously unambitious songwriting. (Only a third of the tunes are able to scrape past the two-and-a-half minute mark, and the single Green composition is a whopping one minute and 41 seconds.) Back on familiar territory, EMI is preparing to augment Green's Greatest Hits with DVD content of vintage TV appearances.

Bettye Lavette: Soul-music veteran who is now a label-mate of Tom Waites and Nick Cave.

Established kings of soul aside, this fall offers good looks at singers newbie soul fans may have overlooked. Next month, Legacy presents the first American CD of Bill Withers' debut album, Just as I Am. The well-known "Ain't No Sunshine" may convince shoppers to pick up the disc, but they'll be surprised by the disc's other standouts, like the Fred Neil-penned "Everybody's Talkin." And from the underrated Lou Rawls comes Live! (Blue Note), which would make a fine introduction for youngsters who only know Rawls as a telethon host. Yes, he's an often hammy entertainer. But he's so good at it, weaving childhood stories and stand-up monologues into songs like "Tobacco Road" that you might find yourself returning to this ham again and again.

The reissue wild card is Night Train to Nashville, Vol. 2 (Lost Highway), which despite a heavy R&B emphasis contains some unearthed soul treasures from a city known for other kinds of hits. The weird conflagration of musical worlds here is exemplified by tracks like "Release Me," where a stultifying backup choir (so white it could have been borrowed from Liberace) gives way unexpectedly to Esther Phillips' unchained lead vocal.

But a handful of new (or nearly new) soul albums are also in stores this season, by old-timers or young cats who clearly belong to this long tradition.

The pseudonymed Bobby Purify returns from retirement on Better to Have It (Proper), which boasts some persuasively weathered vocals but falls just short of satisfying; too few strong songs and too much slickness in the production add up to an album unlikely to win many new fans. Two of the vets behind the disc, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, get far better results by stripping their arrangements to the bone on Moments from this Theatre (Proper). In live tracks from 1998, the two men (with only their own guitar and Wurlitzer as backup) sing hits they wrote for other artists to record; from an achingly tender "I'm Your Puppet" to the optimistic "I Met Her in Church," they unearth a surprising amount of feeling in such familiar songs.

From its Prestige-style design to the classic '70s arrangements, you might mistake Earl Thomas' Intersection (Memphis International) for a reissue. In fact, he's a relative newcomer - recording but barely known since 1991 - who fits perfectly in the feel-good blues-soul style he's picked for himself. By the time Thomas gets around to covering T-Rex's "(Get It On) Bang A Gong" (!), he has earned enough authenticity points to justify the entertaining detour.

Although she cut her first record way back in 1962, I had never heard of Bettye Lavette until she was adopted by Anti- Records, home to Tom Waits and Nick Cave. The kind of rawness you might expect from those stablemates jumps out from her new I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, a disc sometimes funky, sometimes poignant, but always compelling. Lavette's comeback, like the recent return of Solomon Burke, was produced by the great Joe Henry, whose campaign to reintroduce sophisticated soul to America is just getting started. Next month he'll deliver the ambitious I Believe to My Soul (Rhino), a compilation teaming him with a slew of large and small stars.

Recorded in a mere six days, the disc has recent New Orleans evacuee Allen Toussaint playing piano on every track, accompanying such golden voices as Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Billy Preston, and fellow New Orleans icon Irma Thomas. Here's hoping Toussaint and Thomas are settled back into their homes by the time they have to make what seems like an inevitable trip (given Joe Henry's track record with soul) to the Grammys.

By John DeFore

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