DEEP # 5/2016 (December)
I started my August column by writing that
“certain recent releases have restored my faith in the survival of real soul
music”, and – guess what! – since then even more goodies have appeared, and
some of them are reviewed below. The interviewee this time is a fine
“newcomer” by the name of Robert Finley, and there are short comments
also from Lee Fields, Chazz Dixon and some all-important relatives, such
as Mighty Sam’s wife and Candi Staton’s daughter. As a bonus, at
the end you’ll find my top-10 for 2016.
Content and quick links:
An Interview with Robert Finley
New CD release reviews:
Robert Finley: Age Don't Mean a Thing
Lee Fields: Special Night
Mighty Sam McClain: Time and Change
Theo Huff: The New Beginning
Chazz Dixon: Message
Candi Staton: It’s Time To Be Free
INTRODUCING... ROBERT FINLEY*
It really is
surprising, how almost out of the blue comes a great new southern soul singer.
Actually in this case the 62-year-old vocalist with a raspy and seasoned but
strong and impressive baritone voice has been around and singing since the 1970s,
but it was only recently that he had his first album released... and what an
album it is!
Finley was born on February the 13th in 1954 in Winnsboro, which
is a town situated in the northeastern corner of Louisiana with a population
less than five thousand people. Robert: “We were poor, but we didn’t know it,
because we didn’t know the definition of poor. The name of the game was
survival. If there were problems, kids mostly didn’t recognize it. Kids only
know about being kids. We grew up picking cotton. My dad was a sharecropper.”
Later Robert moved to Bernice, Louisiana, where he’s still residing today.
“I grew up
listening to gospel. Reverend “B.J.” Franklin was my mother’s
brother.” Benjamin Jerry Franklin, Sr. was born in Mangham, Louisiana in 1918
and he passed away in Winnsboro in 2000. “My parents and grandparents all sang
in different groups, while I was growing up. I grew up around singing. My dad
didn’t allow any blues around the house, so I could listen to blues only when
he was gone to town.”
GUITAR INSTEAD OF SHOES
At the age of
eleven Robert was sent to buy himself a new pair of shoes. “That was my first
time to go to town and pick up my own shoes. It was about 10-mile walk. I had
a 20-dollar bill, and the guitar cost $ 19.95. I was with my friends and they
told me to buy the guitar and they would help me to get the money to buy me
shoes later.” The lady in the store gave Robert a discount by promising to pay
the taxes herself. “We went across the street to buy bubble cum for the 5 c
and that’s how we wound up spending the whole 20 dollars. I learned to play
the guitar and started writing songs.” The subject of Robert’s first song was
“Yes Sir Daddy, that’s what you say when you get a whoopin’.”
“I lost my dad,
when I was 17. After two years of trying to make it without him it wasn’t
really working out, because he had always been there for me. He always was the
backbone. So I went into the army on my 19th birthday, and I got
out of there at the age of 22.” Besides sharecropping, his dad, Joe
Brothers, was also known to be a skilful carpenter. Robert lost his father
in a car accident.
“When I went
into the military, I first got the basic training for one year in Maryland to
become a helicopter technician.” Arriving at his base in Germany (Storck
Barracks in Illesheim) the first day - on Friday morning - Robert was just
hanging out and picked up his guitar. “The guy in the military band playing
the guitar had just gotten out of the service and gone back to the States, so I
got a chance to perform that Saturday at a picnic for the battalion. That
kinda opened the doors for me in the military, because I got to meet everybody
that Saturday – all of the battalion and company commanders – so on Monday
morning I knew everybody. It just so happened that they let me become the
program director in the company and I put together the company band. That was
a golden opportunity for me.” Robert’s band toured various army bases in
in 1976, Robert continued playing and singing and even ended up leading one
gospel group in 1976-77. “My mom, Cornelia Franklin, was still alive at
the time and she was singing in a gospel quartet called the Harmony Five.
One member left so I wound up with her and other members and we called the
group Brother Finley and the Gospel Sisters. Winnsboro was a small
town. There were no cafes or such, so - what we mostly did - we went from
church to church. We also had a local radio show on Sunday mornings.”
Robert went solo
only in the 1990s. Prior to that – actually since the late 70s - he worked as
a carpenter, just like his father, and played music only on weekends and
MUSIC MAKER RELIEF
“I did a small
recording in a small studio in San Francisco, probably in 1999. It was a live
recording, nothing like how it’s done today.” That recording was never
officially released on any label.
On October the 7th
in 2015 Robert performed at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena,
Arkansas. “After I finished the set, Tim Duffy approached me and asked
me if I’d be interested in getting wider recognition. They called me
afterwards and I went to North Carolina, where they recorded me for two days.
Then they sent me to Memphis and we did this new recording over there.”
Tim is the
founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation out of North Carolina (www.musicmaker.org), a non-profit
organization to support mainly southern artists and root music. During their
22-year existence they have assisted and partnered with over 300 artists. One
of their corporate partners is Fat Possum Records out of Mississippi, and it
was their manager Bruce Watson, who got all excited over Robert and
arranged those recording sessions. Fat Possum is distributing Robert’s debut
AGE DON’T MEAN A THING
The 9-track set
titled Age Don’t Mean a Thing (BLM0534; www.biglegalmessrecords.com) was co-produced
by Bruce Watson with Jimbo Mathus, a southern singer-songwriter and
Jimbo is also
one of the musicians alongside such Bo-Keys members as Howard Grimes on
drums, Joe Restivo on guitar, Marc Franklin on trumpet, Kirk
Smothers on sax; plus Stuart Cole on bass and Al Gamble on
keyboards. The three background voices belong to Harold Thomas (of the
Masqueraders fame), Reba Russell and Daunielle Hill. The
album was recorded and mixed at www.electraphonicrecording.com
in Memphis, Tennessee, by Scott Bomar, the leader of the Bo-Keys.
The CD kicks off
with the driving and rocking I Just Want to Tell You, which is almost
like a dead ringer for the Parliaments 1967 hit, (I Wanna) Testify.
“I didn’t realise that. The song was about something personal that I had
experienced. It just happened to be a coincidence that there’s a similarity to
that other song.” On the uptempo front there are still the blasting You
Make Me Want to Dance, the funky Come On and the light Let Me Be
Your Everything, which is almost like a pop song with a bit of a cha-cha
feel thrown in.
If you’re into
old-time southern soul ballads, you’ll find as many as five of those on this CD.
Snake in the Grass is taken at a very slow tempo, while the title track,
Age Don’t Mean a Thing, is a soul-blues song that Bobby Blue Bland could
have cut during his heyday and it’ll probably be picked up for the first
single. It’s Too Late is another highly emotional and melancholic
song. “That’s one of my most requested songs.”
Robert wrote all
the songs with the exception of Make It with You, a gold record for Bread
in 1970. “It’s just a song that I like. I often sing it, and I thought it
would be a good idea to put it on this album.” On the closing ballad Robert
asks the age-old question Is It Possible to Love 2 People? “All the
songs on this CD are dealing with personal experiences, from different times in
my life. They are all my favourites, but if I’d have to choose one, it’d be Is
It Possible to Love 2 People?”
suffering from glaucoma, but he’s not going to let that slow him down. Age
Don’t Mean a Thing is a timeless southern soul album with a full production
and touching, authentic music. The closest comparison I can think of is Charles
Bradley and his recent output, and actually - besides music - there are a
lot of other similarities in the careers of those two artists.
Robert has just this autumn visited
Belgium, France and Spain in Europe. In some of his recent concerts he’s
backed up by the Bo-Keys and on other shows he uses pick-up bands. Currently
he’s in Nashville, Tennessee, putting finishing touches on his second CD. “I’m
just taking it as it comes, one step at a time. It’s a day-by-day process, but
– as my mom said – ‘quitters never win’!”
interview conducted on October 28 in 2016; acknowledgements to Robert, Aaron
Greenhood and Tim Duffy).
LEE FIELDS *
Night (BC021-CD) by Lee Fields & the Expressions was
released on https://bigcrownrecords.com
out of Brooklyn. It’s a new label established this year by Leon Michels and
Danny Akalepse, who interestingly were the founders of Truth & Soul,
Lee’s previous label, as well. Lee: “From a business stance, it put them in a
more equitable position.” Recorded in Queens, NY, the set was produced by Leon
and Thomas Brennick, and Lee is backed by a 5-piece rhythm section plus two
on horns and five on background vocals, so the sound comes with a guarantee. The
set has been released both on vinyl, and as a CD.
characteristic, pleading and at times even half-crying style, Lee’s singing is
as soulful as ever. You can read about his past career at www.soulexpress.net/deep5_2012.htm.
On Special Night he presents ten new songs – “a joint
collaboration between the Expressions and myself” – which are mostly down-tempo
ones, but for variety there are three fast numbers: Make the World is a
hard-hitting, funky item with a social message, How I like It is a tough
scorcher and finally Where Is the Love is a quick-tempo lament about
The title tune, Special
Night, is a slow, 6-minute long declaration of love, and I’m Coming Home
and Never Be another You are built in a similar way. Both Precious
Love and Lover Man are more punchy, the latter even slightly
experimental in arrangement. The cream ballads, however, for me are the aching
Let Him In and Work to Do, which is like a nostalgic throwback to
the 60s Memphis sound.
They have shot
videos of the two single releases so far, Special Night and Make the
World. “Work to Do and Never Be another You also may be
released as singles. On this CD each song has its own particular story. As I
have stated before we sing about what people do in their everyday life” (www.leefieldsandtheexpressions.com).
MIGHTY SAM McCLAIN
Before he passed
away in June 2015, Sam was musically heading in a new direction. Or as his
wife Sandra puts it: “Sam was always reaching for different ways to express
himself and he felt he had found it here.” Heavy and brassy and at times even
blasting blues-inclined music and sweeter and deeper soul sounds prior to that
had given way to more experimental and to a degree lighter approach.
arranged by Sam together with his long-time music companion, Pat Herlehy,
the twosome also wrote eight of the eleven songs on Time and Change (FXCD
424; www.kkv.no). Pat is also one of the five
rhythm section musicians, strengthened by a 3-piece horn section. Sandra: “Sam
and Pat had so much fun recording this CD over the past few years.” The CD was
recorded in New Hampshire.
humanitarian also in his writing, as the loping opening song Let’s Talk shows.
It has an interesting structure by way of a tight bass riff interrupting the
flow of the song a couple of times. Similarly the title tune has an
unconventional arrangement, and it leaves you with the impression of being both
relaxed and hurried at the same time.
The two funky
tracks – Let’s Do Something and Around Every Corner – would have
been more convincing with a little more drive and heavier input from the backup
band, although the latter one is nicely pepped up with a sax solo in the
middle. Praise is the third funky item, this time heavy enough and
sweetened with an inspirational message.
Dreams and You Broke My Heart are rather complex and slightly jazzy
mid-tempo numbers – not smooth, but in a way angular. They are also the two
most experimental cuts on the set. Sweet Love is a mellow ballad,
almost acoustic, and I guess this soft song was written for Sandra.
Sam alone wrote
the two bluesiest songs on this CD, a slow beater titled Touch Somebody and
the melancholic Here I Come Again, which remotely echoes Bobby Bland’s
style. The third blues ballad, You Worry Me, was written by Melvin
Underwood, and Little Melvin himself had recorded the song for his Dealin’
with the Feelin’ album in 1998. It’s the closing song, and in a way it
also closes the circle, since Sam started his career with Melvin in the late
50s (for the complete story, please visit http://www.soulexpress.net/mightysam.htm).
It may take a
while for you to get used to this CD, but I’ve grown to like it. There are
still two more in the pipeline, one acoustic project and one live recording
from 2013 (www.mightysam.com).
THEO HUFF *
This is just to
inform you that Theo’s second full-length album, The New Beginning,
has been available for many moons by now, but currently you can only download
it – and, as a rule, I don’t review downloadable only music. I’m aware that the
physical CD format is on the decline, but Theo Huff is the kind of artist whose
music appeals also to elderly, long-standing classic and deep soul music
fans... and they prefer physical CDs! His most loyal fans belong to this
Theo is a great
young soul singer and you can read his story at http://www.soulexpress.net/theohuff_interview.htm.
This 11-track set offers eight new songs – Just Enuff Rope and Wet
Pannies (also with a remix here) – have been available earlier. The
Tyrone Davis type of an easy dancer called Soul Swing was tested
as a single, but for me Theo’s forte lies in pleading, deep soul ballads, such
as Rewind, the impressive I’m So Sorry, the melancholic It’s
Over Now, the hooky Nothin’ You Can Do and the moody Somethin’
You can approach the text below as a sneak
preview, because the release date of Chazz Dixon’s new CD is December
the 20th. Message is released on Timeboy Music, Inc.,
and the producers and main arrangers are Chazz and Dj Payday, who
actually is Chazz’s son. Recorded at Rhythmaddix Studios, the twosome also
wrote ten songs for the set with some outside help on the rest three tracks.
Much of what I
wrote in my interview and review of Chazz’s preceding CD, Emotional Therapy,
can be repeated here. The sparse instrumentation gives a lot of room for
Chazz’s singing and makes melodies breathe. Besides Dj Payday (on keys and
drums) and Chazz (on keys and bass), you can spot such musicians as Sonny
Garr on keys and Brandon Frizzal on guitar.
A melodic dancer
called You Saved Me and a clip-clop mid-pacer with an old-time feel
named Come Look My Way are actually older songs. Chazz Dixon: “They
were first written and recorded in 1980 with Sonny Garr. We recreated and
recorded using the same arrangements used then.” Chazz and Sonny co-wrote with
Barope Dixon also the slow and romantic How Does It Feel.
Again we are
treated to many hooky dancers (including the single Get It and Come
Dance with me) and melodic mid-tempo steppers (It’s Your Night, for
one), but the cream cuts for me are such slow and tender serenades as Say
Alright (another single), Message, KuKoo and Let Someone in,
because Chazz’s beautiful tenor voice – remember those Smokey Robinson comparisons?
– suits them best.
Chazz: “This CD
was recorded for red light party steppers (young hearts). It’s a bridge
between AM gold, romantic soul and dreams of when songs were romantic pictures
a word smith would croon, swoon, to a mini skirt on her way to the moon. I’m
not a music purist, just a singer and songwriter with stories to tell.” (www.chazzdixon.com).
For the closure,
let’s get inspirational. It’s Time To Be Free (Beracah,
BRI-13108) is Candi Staton’s first inspirational album since I Will
Sing My Praise to You in 2008. Produced by her son, Marcus Williams,
all the songs were written or co-written by Candi with the exception of the
remixed club hit, You Got the Love. On eleven tracks out of the fifteen
on this set we can enjoy genuine music by real live players. Candi’s career is
shortly covered at www.soulexpress.net/candistaton.htm.
dancer, Shout out Hallelujah, is like a contemporary inspirational chant.
The track was produced by David Penn, a Spanish tech house DJ and
musician. I Wanna Holla is another progressive quick-tempo number, and
the one who’s doing most of the hollering is Alfreda Gerald. Candi’s
daughter, Cassandra Hightower, is another voice on the track.
Cassandra: “Cheri Merri is also contributing a lot as well. I am
singing at the very beginning.”
Candi had cut It’s
Your Season in 2006 for the first time, and on this busy remix the
programming and instrumentation is done by Brandon Williams, Candi’s grandson
– nepotism in a rewarding way. What You Don’t Master (Will Master
You), Put It back and Cleaning out My Closet are all heavy
gospel beaters, and especially the lyrics to Closet seem autobiographical.
Cassandra: “You could say that some tracks - It’s Time to Be Free, Cleaning
out My Closet, I Have a Dream- are in a way autobiographical, but not only
to Candi, but for most of us. We all want to be free, we all need to clean
some things out of our lives, and we should all have a dream that this world
will and can be a better place to live in not only for our sakes, but for the
sakes of our children and generations to come. We should all have a dream that
no matter what colour our skin is, or our sex or religion, we should all be
treated with dignity and respect.”
Time to Be Free and I Have a Dream are slow and touching ballads, as
well as the dramatic Behind the Veil of Silence and the growing – from
tender to big-voiced - That’s All I Can Do. The heartfelt Can’t You
Hear Him Calling? is dedicated to the memory of Donna Ritchie Johnson,
a TV host and inspirational singer, who passed away in 2015. Cassandra: “Donna
was like a daughter to Candi. She was the praise and worship leader, when
Candi co-pastored a church by the name of Upon This Rock in the 90’s.
Unfortunately Donna lost her battle with breast cancer.”
There are still
two joyous tracks: a mid-tempo and melodic song called I Love You More Today
and another mid-pacer, Some Call It Mercy, which has a Caribbean
feel to it and which remotely reminds me – believe it or not - of Herb
Albert & the Tijuana Brass, which in fact can be considered as a recommendation.
It’s Time to Be Free was released in July (www.candi-staton.com).
MY TOP-10 in 2016
(full-length, new official releases)
- William Bell:
This Is Where I Live
- Robert Finley:
Age Don’t Mean A Thing
- The Bo-Keys
(with Percy Wiggins): Heartaches By The Number
- Will Downing:
- Theo Huff: The
- Eddie Levert:
Did I Make You Go Ooh
- Lee Fields &
The Expressions: Special Night
- Candi Staton:
It’s Time To Be Free
- Charles Bradley:
- Mighty Sam
McClain: Time And Change
© Heikki Suosalo
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