Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where I'm Coming From... reviewed by Mark Thompson

Where I'm Coming From...
Dave Keller
Tastee-Tone Records
12 tracks/40:48

Writing a review is always a tough task. If the disc fails to move you, one still needs to find some positive attributes to counter your remarks about perceived shortcomings. If you are really excited about a recording, it can be challenging to find the right phrases that clearly communicate what makes the record great. But what do you say when the album under consideration has already been named the Best-Self Produced CD of the year by the Blues Foundation?

In the case of Dave Keller's award-winning project, you start by acknowledging that producer Bob Perry has put together a fine sounding disc. He surrounds Keller's emphatic vocals with expert backing from the Revelations – Wes Mingus on guitar & lap-steel, Gintas Janusonis on drums & percussion, Josh Werner on bass and Ethan White on keyboards. The horn section of David Steinberg on sax, Geoff Countryman on baritone sax and Joe Ancowitz on trumpet also make strong contributions. Keller plays guitar, taking the majority of solos.

You would expect a disc honored by the Blues Foundation to offer to honor or extend the blues tradition. In this case, you would be wrong. Keller and Perry selected an impressive batch of tunes from the soul genre – songs that pack a punch and, for the most part, are none too familiar.

Keller easily fills the role of the blue-eyed soulster, his voice crying out in anguish on “You Hurt Me For the Last Time” or soaring as he pleads for understanding on Phillip Mitchell's “That's The Way I Want to Live My Life”.

“Are You Going Where I'm Coming From” establishes a tougher groove. Keller gets vocal support from his brother Todd and Harley Hiatt. The lead singer for the Revelations, Tre Williams, joins Keller for a stirring vocal duet on “The Things We Have to Do”.

With the horn section riffing behind him, Keller sounds convincing as a man trapped by the love of a woman on “Too Weak to Fight”. The cheating song “Steppin' Out” finds Keller vowing to answer his lover's treachery with some of his own. His expressive singing on Robert Ward's “Strictly Reserved For You” highlights the positive aspects of love. The only weak moment occurs on “Pouring Water On a Drowning Man”. Keller fails to generate the emotional impact found on other versions of this classic tune.

This recording succeeds on several levels – strong material, sympathetic backing musicians, fine production, great sound and a singer who can get to the heart of a song. It may not be blues but it sure is some damn fine music!

Shawn Starski reviewed by Mark Thompson

Shawn Starski
Cook-top Music
10 tracks/39:06

Many of you are familiar with guitarist Shawn Starski from the series of memorable shows at Big Cities Lounge that he was involved with as a member of Jason Ricci's band, New Blood. Now Shawn gets the opportunity to step into the spotlight and he quickly shows that he is ready for the attention.

Starski wrote all of the songs and handles most of the lead vocals, with his wife Elle taking over on two cuts. The rhythm section is comprised of Todd Edmunds on bass and Steve Johnson on drums, also former members of New Blood. On three tracks Starski is joined by Geoff Newhall on bass and Jimi Foglesong on drums. Phil Wolfe handles the keyboards and organ parts throughout the disc.

The disc opens with “Sea of Faces”, a dark tune about a man with little hope left and desperately seeking love. Starski's measured vocal over his snarling guitar lines convey the appropriate amount of despair. The mood immediately improves on “Was It You”, complete with a funky backbeat and more of the leader's tasty guitar work. “Dirty Deal” finds Starski firing off lightning quick licks on a fast shuffle. The somber “For Us” is a late-night, slow blue instrumental that gives Starski plenty of room to stretch out with Wolfe on organ filling the space behind him.

“Cry Baby” is a rocker with Elle's sultry voice backed by Wolfe's keyboard wizardry and biting guitar from her husband. Her work on the ballad, “The Truth”, is equally impressive. Starski breaks out his slide on “How It Come to Be” and tears it up over his distorted vocal. Another highlight is the instrumental “Hallows Eve”, as Starski shows he has some serious jazz chops. Cole Bergus elevates the cut with his intense sax solo. “Means Nothing Now” is another up-tempo number with Starski expressing his feelings about the plight of people who have lost their jobs.

This is a very impressive first effort for Starski. He has delivered a strong batch of tunes and, no surprise, his guitar work is a consistent delight. A very well-done project that merits your attention!

A Better Man reviewed by Mark Thompsom

A Better Man
Billy Thompson
Papa Lee Records
13 tracks/58:53

Last November I volunteered to help Kate Moss with a benefit she staged in Chicago for the Blue Star Connection organization, which provides musical instruments to seriously ill children. During the evening, I had the pleasure of talking with Tony Braunagel, drummer for the Phantom Blues Band and an acclaimed producer. At one point I asked Tony what projects he was really excited about. He immediately mentioned several, particularly one by Billy Thompson. Braunagel encouraged me to check it out. So I contacted Thompson (no relation) to get a review copy of his latest disc.

After one listen, it was easy to see why Braunagel was so excited about this project. Thompson is a soulful singer and talented guitarist who also excels at songwriting. He delivers an all-original program with Kristen Trump helping with the lyrics on five tracks. The backing band includes Braunagel on drums plus two other members of the Phantom Blues Band, Mike Finnigan on keyboards and Johnny Lee Schell on guitar & vocals. Kenny Gradney from Little Feat and Hutch Hutchinson handle all of the bass parts.

Thompson utilizes a wide musical palette, shouting out his promise to change on the rousing title track and honoring a friend's memory on “Johnny Is a Cloud”, a funky blues with biting, Albert King-style guitar and the Texacali Horns – Darrell Leonard on trumpet and Joe Sublett on saxophone. “Born Again” is a heartfelt ballad with a strong gospel feel. Thompson's vocal will hit you deep in your soul. “Who Knew” shows Billy can wring plenty of feeling out of a slow blues. His knockout guitar solo is a treat.  Thompson channels the classic Little Feat sound on on “Noreen” and “Downside Up”, his slide guitar dominating both tracks. Mike Peed on clavinet and Miki Morrissette on backing vocals join Thompson in celebrating the elemental nature of love on “Oneness”. “Bleed” is a somber tune featuring some raw slide licks as Thompson assesses the state of the world. The closing track, “Up in the Morning”,  finds Thompson on acoustic slide and harmonica with only Braunagel and Hutchinson in support on a brooding song about a good woman's love.

The top-notch musicians and Braunagel's skills as a producer breathe plenty of life into every track. Billy Thompson's expressive singing and noteworthy guitar work bring all of the elements together in a sharp package that deserves to be heard. Help spread the word about this multi-talented musician. Take my word for it – you need to check this one out!

And I Still Rise reviewed by Harmonica Joe Poluyanskis

And I Still Rise
Heritage Blues Orchestra
Raisin’ Music
12 tracks/48:56

The Heritage Blues Orchestra takes a bold step defining African –American music and blues with the release of “And I Still Stand.” This recording is packed with 12 powerful tunes that hit upon what the blues are about. I will say that this CD is not for you that are looking for straight blues with guitar, bass, drums and vocals. This project is one that made up of something different.

HBO band features Bill Simms Jr. on electric and acoustic guitar, vocals and handclaps, Chaney Simms, his daughter, with vocals and handclaps, Junior Mack playing dobro, electric and electric slide guitar plus vocals. Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith takes on the roll of drummer and percussionist while Vincent Bucher does an outstanding job with the harmonica.  HBO also features a very outstanding horn ensemble including saxophone, trumpets, trombones, tuba and a sousaphone. This group adds a powerful plus to the dynamics of this recording.

The opening tune on “And I Still Rise” is Son House’s “Clarksdale Moan”. This version just jumps out and gets your attention right now. Junior Mack’s guitar work walks us into a powerful drum line from “Beady Eyes” Smith which sets the stage for Bucher’s steady chugging harmonica background. Junior Mack’s vocals are full and strong giving the song the true blues feel we are looking for. The addition of the horn section with the harmonica grabs at your ear adding a whole new dimension to “Clarksdale Moan.” This tune makes a real statement on where this recording is taking us.

“Go Down Hannah” gives an example of a work song – field song with the strong vocals of Chaney Sims. This tune really is a statement from this band. Next we venture into the world of gospel blues with “Get Right Church” which features slide guitar from Junior Mack and really strong three part harmonies. Also include on “And I Still Rise” “Big Legged Woman” with Matthew Skoller a fine harp solo and “Levee Camp Holler” which comes on really strong.

My favorite song on this recording is the rousing, Bill Sims JR’, rendition of McKinley Morganfield’s “Catfish Blues.” Featured though-out this track is the fusion of the horn section and Vincent Bucher’s harp playing. This combination just works to bring a unique full sound to song. Sims does strut his stuff on vocals here also.

The Heritage Blues Orchestra is a very unique group of musicians and vocalist that take us on a blues venture unlike most groups. Their presentation of blues and African-American music is true to the past but also is taken into a whole new direction. “And I Still Rise” makes a strong statement of blues history and at the same time infuses jazz, gospel, and funk into the world of root music blues. Take the time to listen to and find out about the Heritage Blues Orchestra and their CD “And Still I Stand.”

Pages of Paperwork reviewed by Harmonica Joe Poluyanskis

Pages of Paperwork
Levee Town
Self produced by Levee Town
14 tracks / 54:57

Levee Town is a hard hitting rocking blues band out of Kansas City. Since their beginning, in 2002, the four musicians have made quite a name for themselves. This is evident by the fact that they have released four recordings, play over 200 shows a year and also have been a finalist in the 2007 International Blues Challenge.

This band has very talented musicians dedicated to tight sound, great song writing and taking chances with their interpretation of the blues. This band includes full blown blues, funk, rock-a-billy, rock and boogie in the mix of their tunes. Brandon Hudspeth takes command and plays outstanding slide guitar, sings powerful vocals and also brings song writing to the bands mix. The harmonica ace for Levee Town is Jimmie Meade who also adds vocals and lyric writing. Joining these two to fill out the band are Jacque Garoutte on bass, vocals and writing tunes and a very strong drummer, Jan Faircloth, with his strong drum line and added vocals. This is one solid hard charging band.

“Pages of Paperwork” contains 14 originals penned by the band members. These songs feature a bunch of great lyrics about loves gone wrong which is after all what the blues are about. The opening tune, “Paperwork,” is just one of these songs. Jacque Garoutte wrote this song, a slow blues tune that showcases his vocals as well as his lyrics. He tells a tale of a love gone wrong and broken vows. “Ya say it’s not about the money but I’m not sure – it’s all over but the paper work.” are some heartfelt lyrics that Garotte really wraps his gnarly, gritty voice around. This tune showcases Jimmie Meade who plays some really mean harp and Brandon Hudspeth is left tons of room to show off his guitar licks. This is the way to open a CD. To me this is probably the best track on the recording.

Brandon Hudspeth’s tune, “Hurt But Strong” is a slow boogie that showcases his lyrics, guitar work as well as his vocals. This tune is filled with searing guitar soloing as well as more love gone wrong lyrics. Again Meade’s harp is very apparent here. He is really one fine harmonica player. With lyrics  like “ I’m hurt but strong, I weep and moan” and  “I called her honey and now she won’t pick up the phone” we have a real tale of the blues.
“Pages of Paperwork” is a great recording that really show all the talent that the Levee Town band possesses. This CD is packed full of a real variety of tunes showcasing all the players attributes. This band is powerful, entertaining and right on the mark as they present their music to us. Hudspeth’s guitar playing stands out as it highlights the vocals and harp playing.  Jimmie Meade is ever present blowing a whole mouthful of harp and also adds vocals well done. Garoutte’s bass playing is rock solid backing up his vocals. Jan Faircloth’s drums drive enhances the sound of the bands travels though out the whole CD, nice job here. I find “Pages of Paperwork” to be a very enjoyable recording with something offered for all us blues fans.

American Idle reviewed by Steve Jones

American Idle
12 tracks

This is the second CD I’ve reviewed by Mudcat.  While I once again would not  call this traditional blues, it hearkens to the roots of Americana, perhaps more folk than blues, but roots music with some flair it is.  They hail from Atlanta and play an interesting brand of music, ranging from sing song to psychedelic, with layers of horn, piano and other interesting sounds, multi-tracked a la George Martin..

Mudcat is Daniel Duceck, whose vocals, piano, organ, banjo, ukulele, Mayan bird whistle and glockenspiel grace this CD.  Eskil Wetterqvist is on drums and percussion, Lil Joe Burton is on trombone and Shannon Kirk is on bass.  Seven others join the fray from time to time, adding to this diverse and interesting CD.

The opening track is “Born Perfect”, with a lilting Caribbean beat yet it wanders from the Caribbean a bit with the trombone soloing. The band rocks it out a bit more on “Picking Up the Pieces” , yet plays a simpler, acoustic sound on “The Light” and “Dream of Green”.

“Mean World”  (an original cut, not the classic with “Old” in between) begins as traditional blues, but winds into a bigger and  more deep sound. “Never Done This Before” has a heavy does of the whistle making it haunting  at the start, but then it, too shifts.

This is interesting stuff.  It blends the blues with a lot of other sounds.  It was a fun listen– I bet they put on a helluva show!

The Big Payback Recorded Live reviewed by Rick Davis

The Big Payback Recorded Live
Big James and The Chicago Playboys
Blind Pig Records
10 Tracks

The Chicago Playboys began as the back-up band for Chicago blues and soul singer Little Johnny Christian.  Big James Montgomery and Charlie Kimble first teamed up around 1990 and joined Johnny Christian throughout the early 1990s. Before joining Christian, Big James worked with Little Milton and Albert King. After Johnny Christian passed in 1993, they continued to keep the band together and went on to back legends like Phil and Buddy Guy, Nelle "Tiger" Travis, Eric Clapton, and Otis Rush. When they take the stage they explode with funk and Chicago style blues.

Their latest CD The Big Payback Recorded Live is a collection of music recorded live at the legendary Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in Paris on November, 2010. Big James and the Chicago Playboys are led by trombonist and vocalist Big James Montgomery, Charles Pryor on trumpet and flugelhorn, Joe Blocker on keyboards, Mike Wheeler on guitar, Larry Williams on bass, Cleo Cole on drums, and The Chicago Playboys on backup vocals. They start the show with the original Montgomery tune "The Blues Will Never Die," delivering all the heart and soul you will ever hear in a live performance! It is understandable why they have been compared to the James Brown band as they perform Brown's funky hit, title track "Big Payback." They continue with another original tune they frequently play, "Coldest Man I Ever Knew." The Wilson/Barker/Davis R&B classic "Jody's Got Your Girl And Gone," done by the legendary Johnny Taylor, is superbly performed by the entire band. This live show also includes the tunes from the immensely talented Chicago blues guitarist Magic Sam "All Your Love" and "That's Why I'm Crying."  Next on the set list is the Eugene Williams tune "Tryin' To Live My Life Without You" made popular by Otis Clay and Bob Seger. Another song covered live by Big James and the Chicago Playboys is "I'll Stay" written by Clinton/Hazel/Cook made famous by George Clinton And The Funkadelics. They conclude this short set with their original Chicago blues number "Low Down Dirty Blues" and an unexpected short funky finale with the classic rock guitar song "Smoke On The Water" written and performed by Deep Purple.

If you could go back in time, this is one live show you wouldn't want to miss! If you have never experienced Big James and the Chicago Playboys live, they are one high powered, horn-driven, Chicago style blues band unequaled anywhere. Big James Montgomery has a soul-fired voice comparable to the late great Luther Allison. Make it a point to hear this celebration of the low down funky blues!

Isaiah B Brunt EP reviewed by Rick Davis

Isaiah B Brunt EP
Isaiah B Brunt
6 Tracks

Isaiah B. Brunt has been a top production person and studio owner for a number of years in Australia. He writes, sings and plays: guitar, slide, lap steel, piano and ukulele. His early influences came from hearing his father play the ukulele, blues harp, and lap steel. By the end of 1979, Brunt had formed a Rhythm & Blues band. Since then, he has collaborated on both blues & gospel recordings as well as various other styles of music,  working with some well known International artists. Isaiah won the title as 2010 Sydney Blues Society Performer of the Year and was talented enough musically at last year's IBC to be one of the few to be reviewed in the Memphis Daily News.

On his new CD EP, he captures the early traditional sound of the roots of blues dating back to the early 1900's similar to tunes like "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by "Blind" Willie Johnson, reminiscent of the bottleneck blues style on the resonator guitar. All six tunes on the CD were written by Isaiah Brunt, drawn his own personal experiences. He plays harmonica, slide guitar, does all the vocals, arranged the first five numbers and collaborated with Sean Choolburra on the last song. "Pathway Home" was a song written about him returning home to the blues. "Shadowy Place" was written about a close friend who suffers from bipolar disorder. "Ain't No Rolling Stone" is a song about him reminiscing about his mother. The special woman in the his life was inspiration for the next cut "Whispers In My Head." "Great Ocean Blues" was a song with a haunting overtone about the 2009 Tsunami that hit American Samoa. The CD concludes all too soon with studio jam entitled "Where Is Your Man" with Sean Choolburra joining Isaiah using an Australian wind instrument (Didgeridoo). 

Isaiah B. Brunt is relatively new to the blues scene but has all the experience needed to produce a first class traditional roots blues CD. Each song is expertly written, arranged and performed.

Otis Taylor’s Contraband reviewed by Steve Jones

Otis Taylor’s Contraband
Otis Taylor
14 tracks

Otis Taylor continues in his quest to take the blues to places no other man has gone before.  This is not traditional blues  for the straight up blues fan, but if you like your music hot, trendy and making a statement, then come on in.

Otis opens with “The Devil’s Gonna Lie”, a driving cut with a vocal chant and heavy organ and cornet making it sound full and tribal in nature.  Otis warns that the deveil wants evil where there is good and war where there is peace.  The pedal steel comes in devilishly and one just can see the devil working his badness amidst the good.  Looking for lost love, Otis sings next if I “Yell Your Name”.  Simple yet haunting with acoustic guitar and cornet.  “Blind Piano Teacher” is a lament of a black blind women who lived with an older white man.  One never learns why they live together near the sea, but it makes one question and think as  to the possibilities.

“Banjo Boogie” is just that; a boogie but so much more.  Eroticism all wrapped up in melodies via banjo and pedal steel.  The tile track tells of the plight of slaves captured by the Union army during the Civil War and held as contraband.  The song is another whirling, surreal voyage, but quite cool.  “Lay On My Delta Bed” is a southern man trying to entice a northern woman.  The electric and acoustic banjos here are spectacular as Taylors moans and groans.  “Ten Dollar Bill” offers more banjo and pedal steel where Taylor will give his lover whatever she wants and “Yellow Car, Yellow Dog” is more of the nice, big banjo sound Taylor is known for with Anne Harris fiddling in back.

“Open These Bars” is another lamentatious song, this time of the Jim Crow era when black men could be lynched for even looking at a white woman.  The lead guitar here is very effectively used in the mix.  Taylor closes with “I Can See You Lying”.  Jon Paul Johnson has another huge guitar track here, driving and wailing as Otis sings.

Room does not allow mention or every song, but suffice it to say there is more of the haunting, driving, melodic, tribal stuff here.  I love Taylor and his approach to music.  Whether it is a statement for others or therapy for himself and his conscience, he is a marvelous musician who keeps things interesting. I loved this CD!

Old Man In Love reviewed by Rick Davis

Old Man In Love
Travis Moonchild Haddix
CDS Records Entertainment, LLC
12 Tracks

Travis "Moonchild" Haddix began his music career playing the piano at the age of seven. He was so inspired by B.B. King when he played daily at the studios of WDIA in Memphis, that he soon abandoned the piano for the guitar. After his family moved from Mississippi to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he continued to develop into an accomplished musician. In 1959 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he joined the D.L. Rocco Band which later earned him a spot with the Little Johnnie Taylor group. He has made contributions to the albums of Artie "Bluesboy" White, Dickie Williams, Jimmy Dawkins, Michael Burks, Charles Wilson, the late Son Seals, and Lee "Shot" Williams.  In 1999 Travis received Best Male Blues Artist, Best New Blues Artist, Best Blues Entertainer, and Contemporary Blues Artist Of The Year.
Old Man In Love, the latest CD from Haddix, is cleverly written with the interjection of humor especially on numbers like "She Hit A Grand Slam" and "Cialis Before I See Alice." Travis produced and has wrote all the music. His experience playing lead guitar and well as his seasoned vocals are backed by a full all-star band with the line-up consisting of Ed Lemmers on bass, Brian Hager and Mike Calhoun on guitars, Gil Zachary on piano, Don Williams on organ, and Jeremy Sullivan on drums. The horn section making a strong contribution to the album, are Jeff Hager, trumpet and arrangements, David Ruffin on tenor sax, and T.J. Fortunato on baritone sax. "She Hit A Grand Slam" is the opening number with a funky twist and a superb horn arrangement not to mention solid guitar solos and soulful vocals from Haddix. The title track "Old Man In Love" tells the story of such an intense love for a woman that she "can tell me to go to hell in such a way that I’m looking forward to the trip." I believe this song captures the many years of experience on guitar as well as any cut on the album. He really cuts deep with the soulful guitar licks on the slower blues tune "Stankin' Thankin." The age old concept of trust seems to be the issue on "Two Steps From A Lie." "Break A Habit With A Habit" is another soulful blues tune dealing with a woman who, according to Haddix, can't break and old habit with a new habit. "Stiff Stuff," another funky tune, explains the process of aging in great detail. In his up tempo, funky tune "Too Narrow," everything in his world it seems is "Too Narrow." His guitar expertise once again takes center stage as he shares his subconscious thoughts in "Dreamed I Was Dreaming." The B.B. King style guitar is heard throughout the next tune "Let Me Owe You One." Haddix can't buy into the lies he hears in the tune "Stop Lying About Your Age." He brings in more funk and a full horn arrangement, along with fiery guitar solos, to conclude this new collection of blues gems with the tune "Cix Spells Six."

I highly recommend Old Man In Love. This CD deserves to be on a major blues label.

Roy Trevino reviewed by Rick Davis

Roy Trevino
Roy Trevino
Troubadour Records
10 Tracks

Roy Trevino, the new Texas based blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter, has just released his first self-titled album produced by Grammy winning producer Jim Gaines. Just starting, Trevino cites musical influences ranging from Led Zeppelin to Santana. His career started at a very young age in South Texas playing electric guitar. He studied with one of the best, Ronnie Earl, before forming the band Kingpin. Recording two albums they toured with bands like Three Dog Night, Marcia Ball, and Chicano bluesman Randy Garibay. Lazy Lester would use his band when he would come to perform in Texas. They recorded two albums and toured with the groups Three Dog Night, Marcia Ball, and Chicano bluesman Randy Garibay. After learning his trade and establishing himself as an electric guitar celebrity, he began his career as a solo artist.

While playing with Kingpin, Trevino had the opportunity to work with harmonica player Tim Gonzalez who suggested he contact Jim Gaines producer for artists like Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Luther Allison to name just a few, to produce his self-titled album. He sent Gaines some music and Gaines agreed to produce the album. Trevino has written all the material with the exception of  Bob Marley’s "Lively Up Yourself." He is joined by musicians J.J. Johnson on drums, bassist Chris Maresh, and keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist David Boyle. From the opening blues/gospel tune "Gloria," be prepared for a musical experience! You will find it difficult to continue past the guitar masterpiece "The Boy Can Play." Combine Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Carlos Santana, and Pete Haycock and you have the explosive guitar style of Roy Trevino. This song is a tribute to all who inspired Trevino to play the blues like legends Robert Johnson, Son House, B.B. King, Clapton, Beck, Page, Green, Gibbons, Winter and the Vaughan Brothers. He tears into "Hurricanes" with some incredible slide guitar solos much like Australian blues artist Dave Hole. Trevino shifts gears with songs heavily influenced by his Latin and Mexican roots with "Sin Ella" and the romantic tune "La Luna." The only instrumental, "Trinidad," and the other two Latin tunes could be pages right out of the Carlos Santana songbook with Roy's guitar solos and vocals unequaled. He combines his blistering guitar solos and a funky reggae sound on the only cover song "Lively Up Yourself." "Going Away" revolves around a soldier leaving for war. Travino laments about a relationship in "Going Away" as he cries out  "things don't have to be this way." He concludes the CD with the song "Little Girl" who is but a distant memory in his mind, saturated with haunting guitar solos.
Roy Trevino has written and performed a monumental creative artist achievement with this his new self-titled album. It is the type of CD you simply can't stop playing!

Hellfire reviewed by Rick Davis

Joe Louis Walker
Alligator Records
11 Tracks

Growing up in San Francisco, Joe Lewis Walker was exposed to both the blues and '60s rock. The San Francisco’s music scene was quickly becoming a melting pot of blues, jazz and psychedelic rock, with Walker caught up in that epic music scene. By the time Walker had reached the age of 16, he was backing blues groups on guitar as they came to play local clubs. Throughout his early career, he accompanied blues legends Fred McDowell, Ike Turner, Albert King, Freddy King, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lightnin’ Hopkins, was introduced to Willie Dixon, Michael Bloomfield, Sly Stone, Carlos Santana, Steve Miller, Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonen (of Jefferson Airplane), and jazz legend Wayne Shorter.
Walker performed gospel music for 10 years as a member of The Spiritual Corinthians. While performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1985, he decided not to limit himself only to gospel, so he expanded into R&B, blues, and rock music. After sending a demo tape to Hightone Records, he landed his first contract and released his debut album in 1986. With experience in blues, gospel, R&B and rock, he gained recognition from fans around the country.  Since then, Walker has released 23 more albums, two DVDs and toured internationally. He has taken four Blues Music Awards, including the 2010 Album Of The Year Award, and has received 43 other nominations.

His latest CD Hellfire, his first on Alligator Records, was produced by songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (producer of albums for Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood, and others). Walker wrote or co-wrote seven of the eleven tracks. Joe Lewis Walker is joined by Tom Hambridge on drums, Reese Wynans on keys, Rob McNelley and John D'Amato on electric guitar, Tommy MacDonald on bass, Wendy Moten and The Jordanaires on backing vocals, and Matt White, Roy Agee, and Max Abrams rounding out the horn section. The CD opens with the title track delivering Hendrix style guitar solos combined with his raspy, gospel, soulful vocals. "I Won't Do That" once again brings his fiery guitar solos center stage along with superb piano support from Reese Wynans. "Ride All Night" is hard drivin', fast pace rock and blues tune with focus on some slide guitar. "I'm On To You" is an up-tempo traditional blues tune with strong harmonica throughout. "What's It Worth" starts as a slower, deep, soulful blues tune and rapidly builds to a high-energy explosive crescendo over and over again. His experience as a gospel singer takes you to the mountain on the tune "Soldier For Jesus." Walker follows up by bringing in a touch of Dobie Gray on the original R&B cut "I Know Why." "Too Drunk To Drive Drunk" is a no holes bared, rowdy, hard poundin', Texas roadhouse number all the way. Walker really delivers some first class slide guitar and vocals to match on "Black Girls." He even blends some funky soul and gospel into the self-penned number "Don't Cry." His guitar-driven arrangement and deep powerful vocals will take you on a journey as he concludes the CD with the Hank Snow tune "Movin' On."

Joe Lewis Walker covers a lot of territory from traditional blues to his gospel roots on this his first recording on Alligator Records. He has truly become a leader in contemporary blues.

Hearts Are Wild reviewed by Rick Davis

Hearts Are Wild
Debbie Bond
Blues Root Productions
12 Tracks

Debbie Bond began performing with traditional Alabama blues artists like Johnny Shines, Eddie Kirkland, and Willie King. She shared her band with Johnny Shines performing together at many Southern clubs and festivals until his death in 1992. She continued to work with Alabama bluesman like Jerry Boogie McCain, James Peterson, Eddie Kirkland, Sam Lay, Little Jimmy Reed, Willie King and more. She has toured Europe with and without Johnny Shines, co-founded the Alabama Blues Project to promote and preserve the state's blues heritage in 1995, has performed in blues in the school programs, and in 2002 she restructured the award-winning Alabama Blues Project (ABP) into an educational non-profit.

All of the tunes on her latest release Hearts Are Wild were written and co-produced by Debbie and her husband Rick Asherson the band's keyboardist, with the exception of  "You're The Kind Of Trouble" which was written Shannon and Adam Wright and Paul Kennerley and "Baby I Love You" written by Ronnie Shannon. Bond's vocals have been compared to a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin. Along with Rick Asherson on keyboards, harmonica, and background vocals, the other band members are James "Mr. B." Brown on bass as well as lead and rhythm guitars, Dave Crenshaw on drums, Brice Miller and Rob Alley on trumpet,  Brad Guin on sax, and Chad Fisher on trombone.

The CD is a contemporary sounding blend of music, incorporating soul, blues, rock, jazz and even some country influences. Her vocals are soulful, sultry, and at times raw.  Her guitar licks are not overpowering but incorporated well into the overall band performance. "Dead Zone Blues" offers nice subtle background from the sound horn section delivered with Bond's intoxicating vocals and a hint of funk. The title track "Hearts Are Wild" is hot, slow, steamy blues tune. Asheron opens with a smooth a piano solo followed with nice soulful guitar solos blended with Bond's sweet soul vocals. "My Time" is whimsical blues tune with contemporary based lyrics. "Drama Mama" delivers a jazz saturated lounge tune reminiscent of the old piano-bar era. "You're The Kind Of Trouble," the first cover tune, is probably closer to the Holmes Brothers version of the tune. "Still Missing You" is slow tune with a little country flavor showcasing Debbie's vocals. "Rick's Boogie" has a boogie woogie/New Orleans style influence in the delivery of the song. "Baby I Love You," the other cover song, has all the soulful, funky qualities of Aretha Franklin's 1967 hit with strong sax complimenting well throughout. "Nothing But The Blues" pulls in a nice muted trumpet and showcases a little stronger guitar riffs. "Falling" in love with you is a slow, traditional, extremely soulful blues tune demonstrating just how versatile Bond sings. Some Jerry Lee Lewis honky tonk, rock 'n' roll style piano and harmonica really combine well with Debbie's vocals on the tongue-in-cheek number "I Like It Like That." The CD concludes with the soulful gospel sounding "Since I Found Love," with Bond declaring, "I thank heaven above, since I found love."

I think you will find Debbie Bond and her charming southern style blues vocals along with a very seasoned group of blues musicians very entertaining when you hear Hearts Are Wild. It is hard to believe it is only her second solo disc! Hearts Are Wild is a grand slam home run!

The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With the Blues reviewed by Steve Jones

The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With the Blues
An Audio Play by Guy Davis
Smokeydoke Records
2 CDs, 18 & 13 tracks

Guy Davis has a rollicking good time with his audio play.  He plays guitar, harp, sings and speaks on this solo work, with four covers wound up amidst 27 original cuts that make up this play, the story of Fishy Waters.

This is not really a blues CD to sit and appreciate a song or two; it is a masterful tale of the hobo Fishy Waters  where Guy uses his inherited and learned skills to tell the story of the poor vagabond who has been around the South, hopping on trains and spending time living life on the road.  Davis tells of Fishy’s life and  tales, from being the son of religious sharecroppers who want him to be a farmer and a preacher, to his life on the road and desire to be a musician.  He plays the various characters he speaks and sings of;  this is quite the enjoyable ride.  The CD closes with Waters telling us of Water’s decision between going to Chicago or going west.  I won’t tell you how it works out– you’ll have to listen yourself.

Davis is a talent and bluesman with quite a talent.  He takes us from scene to scene and tells us of Fishy and his family and associates, from relatives to hobos in a camp together.  This is really a great CD set with a story told masterfully by a man who is at the top of his craft.  Guy is an exceptional acoustic guitar and harp player with a great set of pipes.  I recommend this to all acoustic fans who love a fantastic story teller and musician!

The Blues: An Evolution reviewed by David Stine

The Blues: An Evolution
Sampler from Electro Glide
Eeectro Glide Records
12 tracks

This sampler of music from the artists on the Electro Glide label, starts off with Joliet’s Big Dog Mercer and his heavy guitar riffed “Some Other Fool.” Well, is it blues? Is this an evolution? No, on both counts. The lyrics are simplistic and Mercer, like so many, thinks he must dirty up both his voice and guitar to play the blues authentically. Not true. Mercers’ next outing “Helpless,” benefits from Mercer singing in his natural voice and keeping the guitars in a jazzy quasi Allman Brothersesque song about addiction. This is the best Mercer track. Next up is “Big Dog Blues” where Mercer seems to struggle to get the lyrics delivered in the tight rock frame established by the, again, heavy guitar riff. As the last tune seeped Allman Brothers, this tune owes a lot to band like Savoy Brown. My final analysis is that Big Dog Mercer probably puts on a good live show that didn’t really translate to this disc.

Memphis’ Brandon Santini is next up with his Rufus Thomas like “You Ruined Poor Me.” Where Big Dog Mercer’s drummers pummels us “Mercilessly,” , Santini’s band is smoother and more refined. Shades of The Fabulous Thunderbirds echoes in Santini’s “What Can I Do.” This enjoyable songs get points taken off for not properly micing the background vocals during the call and response. From the harp to the Jimmy Vaughan type solo, this tune is clearly indebted to the T-birds. Guess what, so is the next tune: “She’s Sweet Like Honey.” Although there is nothing new here, Santini does what he does admirably and, like Mercer, I’m guessing puts on a pretty good live show. Those missing the sound of the early T-birds might want to check him out.

Danny and The Devils (urgh) are next up with “Don’t Come Back This Time.” The start-stop rhythm and super heavy guitar may be an evolution whose time hasn’t come yet. This song is saved by the lyrics and delivery. “Jealousy,” is still heavy but heartfelt. Again, if rock guitar is an “evolution” didn’t Stevie Ray Vaughan start it almost 30 years ago? More notes don’t necessarily mean more emotion. Yes, MOST blues guitar players think that this is the way to get their point across, but I’d still like to see someone break this bad habit. Urgency can be delivered any number of ways. At just shy of seven minutes, this song is over half guitar solo. Maybe I should blame Jimi Hendrix then. The swinging “Mama’s Boy” is a nice break on the ears, with its B3 intro and restrained guitar. Aside from my criticism, Danny Baron is a slightly better tunesmith than the previous two artists. “Mama’s Boy” delivers a much-needed break from the bad-treating women them of too many bloose (you know) songs.

The final artist captured here is Tom Holland and The Shuffle Kings. Another lefty, like Big Dog Mercer, Holland’s approach is more traditional and less hit-you-over-the-head. “Keep On Playin’” is and Elmore James like that tracks over seven minutes and is about half work. I’m thinking, finally a band that is not trying to deliver a knockout punch. So far, Holland’s band is the most enjoyable – maybe because it’s not an “evolution.” ”S.A. Blues” is another restrained ballad and maybe the most enjoyable track on this disc. Holland has a soulful voice and augments it with a laid back R&B approach to his guitar here. The Last cut is another “slide-to-single-note instrumental called “Zeb’s Blues.” If Holland is attempting to establish himself as a guitar player and not singer, this tune will take him a long way. Very nice.

My final analysis this that these bands probably deliver a good-to-great live shows. Holland and his band are the stand outs. There is really nothing new or evolutionary here. Some of it is more solid than others. All the bands merit venturing out for a show or two, but as far as buying the music, on its own, I hesitate to recommend unless you just can’t own enough 

Back Porch Dogma reviewed by David Stine

Back Porch Dogma
Blind Pig Records
13 tracks

The Contino name may only be familiar to those old enough to have seen Dick Contino on The Ed Sullivan Show back in the day. Here Pete Contino (the son) takes the reigns of his band producing a nice mix of blues, jazz, country, latin, rock, Cajunesqe, roots music. It’s kind of a nice break to hear full accordion rather than the somewhat limited Cajun style one key accordions. Contino is: Pete Contino on vocals and accordian, Rob Edwards on upright bass, Al Ek on guitar, Jim Lovgren on drums, AND Billy Truitt on keyboards. Too many keys you think? No –  it works very well. Admittedly, I’m one of those people who runs when he sees an accordion, from MANY nights forced to watch The Lawrence Welk Show, but thank you Pete Contino for making me face my prejudices here.

The CD kicks off with a rockin’ good time tune “Rotgut Run.” While the piano and bass move the song along at a highway pace, the bridge at first seems like it was pulled out of a 60s psychedelic tune. When the harmonica-to-accordion solo hits, it all seems to come together. This song works well on many levels. The shave-and-a-haircut beat of “Big Tent” quickly becomes a revival meeting with the aid of Maria Muldaur, Omega Rae, and Suzan Z. as the “choir.” Here, we have some nice slide guitar from Al Ek as well as piano from Truitt. No “blues” yet, but my toes are tappin’. This changes with song three, the Hoochie Coochie Man approach to Willie Love’s “V-8 Ford.” Pete Contino doesn’t have the biggest blues voice but he makes the most of here. The Latin beat on Tom Waits’ “Temptation” really benefits from the accordion on cut 4. Everyone gets to solo on this song and they do they stay within the feel without showboating. “Zydeco Train” is, as the name implies, a Zydeco meets country tune that will have you dancing. Things slow down a bit for the Van Morrison sounding “Dog Days.” Is this a tribute to laziness? Perhaps, but you’ll be singing along. The standup bass-driven “One Thing” is hard to categorize and that’s the point of this CD, I believe. The harmonica here wails like Chicago blues but the song is entirely genre less. “Thee Cool Cats.” addresses a lesser-known Leiber and Stoller tune and blend, again, a Latin feel with Contino’s accordion riffs. “Taint” is somewhat familiar, riff-wise, but the cleverness of the lyrics and the musicianship make this tune stand with the others and not become filler. Look out Mose Allison, here’s your replacement! On “Nothing You Can Do,” the tremolo-laden guitar and electric piano aid Contino in this end-of-a-relationship ballad. Jim Liban’s “I Don’t Want To Know,” is maybe the closest Contino comes to a standard blues tune on this disc. Here, it is delivered without straying from standard blues instrumentation: piano, harp, guitar, bass, and vocals. “Monkey” is, like so many songs here, genre less. A dreamy 70’s sounding song, it still fits with the whole of the album. “Dino’s,” a ragtime meets traditional jazz bends us again into the realization that Conino’s (the band, that is) aspiration to write “outside the box” has been met. Most of the songs were, indeed, band penned and arranged. While not really a blues CD, roots music and music fans looking for something fresh will enjoy the eclecticism of this CD. You may even want to dig out grandma’s accordion.

The Vagabond King reviewed by David Stine

The Vagabond King
A Kindle ebook by James Conway

Crossroads Blues Society, from time to time, gets sent books about the blues or fiction with a strong blues theme.  The Vagabond King came to us as a "blues" themed novel. There is a slight element of blues music here, but in actuality it is a coming-of-age story as old as the Prodigal Son story, upon which this novel relies. More than anything, The Vagabond King is a study in comparative religions and a search for the meaning of life. Blues fans won't find much here to latch on to.

The Vagabond King is a story of sixteen year old Christopher Columbanus (yeah, I know) who leaves home after his mother's death from cancer to escape his overbearing father and find his way.  It’s an old story and there isn’t enough action or dialog here to make this a page turner. Conway knows his world’s religions and each nation’s quest for freedom. Yet his Holden Caufield-esque character fails to find the answers and realize his true worth. Like his namesake, he begins his journey in search of a new world that has meaning to him and encounters Magda, a waitress, and her aging father, an escapee from Hungary after the Russian invasion. Christopher’s seeking shelter for one night turns into months of living with Magda and her father. Llazlo (the father) teaches Christopher to drink beer and hear the suffering emanating from his scratchy collection of rummage sale blues records. Only a slight reference to one of Muddy Water’s bands give any indication of what is in the box. Like the narrator’s name, Conway’s metaphors sit heavy on the reader, and does the numbing repetition of certain lines and themes. We don't know much about Christopher’s family, initially, except that his mother was an avid reader of religious tomes, as is Magda. We also encounters a black man, Atman O'Dey who befriends Christopher at the printing plant where drug to find work to "earn his keep" by llazlo, "The Old Man." O’Dey is also somewhat of a prophet with a Socialist bent. There are, indeed, shades of Catcher in the Rye, Siddhartha, A Confederacy of Dunces, and biblical stories throughout the novel. Yet there seems to be no denouement. Christopher is finally seduced by Magda, who has been the object of his young desire for months, yet their relationship seems unchanged and she disappears from the narrative. The Old Man who becomes a replacement father to Christopher die eventually leaving him the medal (talisman)he has worn around his neck for ages. However at the end of the book Christopher is seems to have learned little, nor is he saved. Antman commits suicide as “the world” bears down on him day by day. At the end of the novel, Christopher, who finds out he is adopted at a young age, learns, as well,  upon the return home to his father, that the father, was adopted. What has plodded for 300+ pages ends in a flurry of cleanup as we learn from an old Christopher, that Magda has died, left him a son, and that his father named Joe is really also a Christopher. Whatever internal conflict Christopher has been fighting seems not to have been addressed. Much is made of names, searching, travel, and deliverance in this novel, yet Christopher dies of caner, like his mother, we don’t know whether he has learned anything from all the “teachers” he has encountered. We don’t know what, where, or how his adult years have played out. For all of the pondering of mankind seeking salvation, the similarity of all religions, the cycle of time, we are left without answers. Even the blues seemed valueless at the end.

Conway repeats lines from an untitled blues song “can’t you hear me callin” in parts of the novel, as well as the refrain “seek yourself a deeper question.” Here and there pages are interrupted with lines designed to be poetry that sometimes rant and sometimes preach but rarely reach poetic. There are moments, however that make The Vagabond King readable: Christopher being discovered by the Old Man holding Magda’s under garments to his face, and paragraphs like the following:

"In shotgun shacks and general stores throughout the south, shirtless boys in coveralls, the sons of sharecroppers and the grandsons of slaves, learned their licks on old harmonicas and single string guitars. Lazy, no good, useless musicians, they hid from the cotton fields in graveyards and back water bayous well into manhood just to get, I said, just to get some time to play. Then, one day, wanderlust took hold of them and they abandoned wives and meaningless lives behind a mule and plow to travel, like the troubadour poets in the days of old. Moving up and down the riverside, they played in the juke joints of road gangs and lumber camps where plow boys and prostitutes gathered at the crossroads of their working days to get drunk and curse their maker. From town to town, they adapted and augmented the musical ideas of others until they raised a simple down home musical form to the level of soul stirring art. Their lyrics and guitar licks chased each other like stray dogs from the plantations to the prison yards. Through back street brothels and levee camps, in the big cities of St. Louis and Chicago the music left its mark upon the scratched, the scratched, the scratched and spinning grooves of time, and flowed through my psyche like the mighty Mississippi itself. "

As this was sent as a PDF file, I have no idea whether Conway has published other books or what the intent of this novel was. If it was instruction or enlightenment, for me it failed. The subtitle on the accompanying artwork reads: “in a world such as this what more can a man ask for?” Well, for this man, more details, fewer heavy-handed metaphors, more answers and more BLUES.

Reviewed by David Stine

(Editors note...James Conway has  published several e-books for Amazon, including this one.)

Stuck in the Middle reviewed by Mark Thompson

Stuck in the Middle
Jimmy Burns
VelRone Records
13 tracks/54:25

This project marks several changes in the career of one of Chicago's finest blues singers. For starters, after four acclaimed recordings on Delmark Records, Jimmy Burns has opted to start his own record label and this is the inaugural release. He also decided to record songs that have appealed to him over the years. Burns found solace in the music of others after the death of his beloved wife, Dorothy, in 2010. The setlist reflects the broad scope of his musical interests as well as his talent for fashioning fresh interpretations of familiar songs.

That is readily apparent on the title cut as Burns turns the Stealer's Wheel classic into a surging, guitar-driven rocker with Burns' urgent vocal giving the song a harder edge. Ariyo Sumito Ariyoshi, on loan from Billy Branch & the Sons of the Blues, adds depth to the performance with some fine organ playing. John Hiatt's “Feels Like Rain” has been covered many times. Burns delivers a touching vocal over the solid rhythm established by E,G, McDaniel on bass and Bryant “T” Parker on drums. The band really tears into the Beatles “Get Back”, upping the tempo over a powerful beat as Burns wraps his soulful voice around the Lennon/McCartney lyrics. Even more dramatic is the reworking of Foreigner's hit “Cold as Ice” which Burns does solo on acoustic guitar, his voice soaring into the upper register as he warns that his woman will pay some day.

Burns takes on “Halo”, a Matt Powell tune from co-producer Dave Herrero's first album, his voice ringing out while Anthony “Tony” Palmer adds an exclamation point with a spirited guitar solo. Ariyoshi's pumping piano is a delight on “Cadillac”, a high energy rock & roll number that features Herrero on guitar. Things get scaled back on “Reach for the Sky”. Felix Reyes wrote the piece as a tribute to the late Sean Costello. Burns sings with simmering passion in memory of his wife, backed by Herrero on acoustic guitar and Parker on congas. Richard Hammersmith's “Incidental Lover” finds Burns at his finest, pouring his heart out over accompaniment that reaches the point where soul and rock intersect. The band stretches out on the instrumental, “Feelin' Kind of Bluesy”, with Burns on guitar. Ariyoshi lays down another scintillating solo on piano before Palmer's solo kicks things into overdrive.

This project is a departure from the blues-oriented originals Burns cut for Delmark. For some, there may not be enough straight-ahead blues songs to satisfy their tastes. For those willing to take a close listen, you will hear a talented band of veterans laying down energetic performances without any regards for musical styles. At the center is Jimmy Burns, lifting up his voice in celebration of music that has touched his soul. This one is well-worth a listen.

Preachin' The Blues reviewed by Mark Thompson

Preachin' The Blues
The Life & Times of Son House
Daniel Beaumont
Oxford University Press
193 pages

Often referred to as the father of folk blues, Eddie “Son” House is one of the giants of the early days of blues music. His 1930 Paramount recordings have long been accorded classic status. But, as author Daniel Beaumont painstakingly documents, House remained conflicted throughout his life over the path he chose.

Born in 1902 near Clarksdale, Mississippi, House was “churchified” at a young age and he started preaching when he was fifteen years old. House escaped the back-breaking labor in the plantation fields by virtue of his skill at spreading the word of God. During this period, House was steadfast in his condemnation of the Devil's music. But the road turned rocky as House developed a taste for liquor and a fondness for women.

Life changed one evening as House strolled around the streets of Mattson, MI. Passing a house-party in full swing, House was awestruck by the sound of a bottleneck slide on a guitar. In some tellings, House credited Willie Wilson as the musician entertaining that night but later in life he would mention James McCoy as his prime influence. Both men have been lost in the mist of history. House quickly purchased a guitar and began teaching himself how to play, relying on music knowledge acquired from church.

House soon became skillful enough to play with Wilson. But his career was interrupted in 1928 when he shot and killed a man while protecting a friend. Convicted and sentenced to time on the infamous Parchman Prison Farm, House managed to get released after serving a short time on the condition that he leave the are for good.

Soon House encounters another legend-in-the-making, Charlie Patton, starting that leads to House making his first recording sessions for Paramount Records in Grafton, WI where House is accompanied by another great, guitarist Willie Brown. They record “My Black Mama” and “Preachin' the Blues”, both in two parts. These tracks are the foundation of House legacy. Brown and House form a partnership that lasts for more than a decade, during which time they have a profound influence on Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Author Beaumont spent a lot of time pouring through public records and interviews with House to verify information. He examines how Alan Lomax secured House's participation in the Fisk College – Library of Congress recordings in the early 1940's while Lomax was under investigation by the FBI for subversive activities. Even more impressive is the work Beaumont did to uncover details of House's life once he leaves Mississippi in 1943 and settles into obscurity in Rochester, NY for over twenty years. The author details the search conducted by Nick Perls, Phil Spiro and Dick Waterman that eventually leads to House being “rediscovered”, gaining him elite status during the folk blues revival. Beaumont does not shy away from discussing House's drinking problem and the onset of dementia. He also speculates on the impact that the conflict between religion and blues music had on House's artistry. This biography stands as a well-researched and fair portrayal of a legendary musician and his profound influence on blues music.

Fever reviewed by Mark Thompson

Little Willie John – A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul
Susan Whitall with Kevin John
Titan Books
210 pages

In this fascinating book, author Susan Whitall makes a convincing case for recognizing singer Little Willie John has the pivotal performer who started the transition from the rhythm and blues music of the 1940's to what is now consider soul music. A former editor of Creem magazine, Whitall gets an assist from Willie's oldest son, Kevin, for this authorized biography.

William Edward John was born on November 15, 1937 in Detroit. As a child, Willie was quite active even though the stress of constant motion sometimes triggered epileptic seizures. Among Willie's childhood friends were future stars like Levi Stubbs, lead singer for the Four Tops, and Willie's older sister Mable, whose career include a stint as one of Ray Charles' Raelettes and records for the Tamla and Stax labels. Willie started singing in the church at a young age but soon he was sneaking out of the house to head down to the action in the clubs along Hastings Street. Small of stature, Willie possessed a magnificent voice that could hit any note over a span of several octaves, even in the upper registers.

Whitall writes about one magical evening when Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke were in Detroit for shows and got together for some informal singing with Willie, Stubbs and another Detroit native, Jackie Wilson. One can only imagine the glorious sounds raised by this awesome collection of talent. The legendary Johnny Otis claimed to have discovered Willie but it was a local impresario,  Harry Balk, who helped Willie start his recording career after Willie's parents refused an offer to let Willie go on the road with Count Basie and his band. Just shy of his sixteenth birthday, Willie cut his first record, a holiday tune titled “Mommy What Happened to Our Christmas Tree”, which immediately became a much-requested local hit. Eventually, Willie does hit the road with the Paul Williams Band, touring on the strength of their hit, “The Hucklebuck”.

Willie dreamed of the bright lights and soon answered the siren call of New York City, where he soon captured the attention of Henry Glover of King Records. Glover felt that Willie was a natural blues singer. He gathered a stellar backing group that included Mickey “Guitar” Baker and tenor sax player Willis “Gatortail” Jackson and turned Willie loose on Titus Turner's “All Around the World (Grits Ain't Groceries”. Within a month, the record was a huge hit, reaching #5 on the Billboard charts. Next up was “Need Your Love So Bad”, another performance for the ages. Not yet eighteen, Willie sings with a maturity and sense of worldliness far beyond his actual experiences. The song made such an impression on B.B. King that he recorded his own version on several occasions.

Then came the tune that will forever define Willie's career -”Fever”. He didn't care for the song and it took him all night in the studio to finally get comfortable. Once he got the song figured out, Willie's vocal combined the joy of love with a deeper carnal lust and made it all sound swinging and cool. The record hit number one on Billboard's R&B chart and became the sixth most played jukebox song of 1956. Soon Willie gets Little Richard's band, the Upsetters, to back him and the combination of show-stopping talent dazzles audiences across the country

The following years find Willie trying to deal with the demands of constant touring with his longing to be with his wife, Darlynn, and their two sons, Kevin and Keith. The stress of life on the road causes more seizures, as does Willies consumption of alcohol and drugs. Despite the acclaim of his peers and sales of over seven million records, Willie's fast living and fancy clothes left him struggling to get by financially.

Then, in November of 1965, Willie's world came crashing down around him as he was accused of stabbing a man to death after a night of partying. Poor legal counsel ignored the self-defense plea even though the victim was physically much larger than Willie and had struck the first blow. Convicted and sentenced to prison, Willie did not fare well. After two years in prison, he died suddenly at the age of thirty, leaving Whitall to speculate on what really happened .

The book includes several sections of pictures and a discography of Willie's singles and albums for King Records. More importantly. Whitall is able to really flesh out the life of this magnificent singer and place his artistry in a wider context to firmly establish Willie's importance. This is one of the best musical biographies I have read   - well worth checking out!