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DEEP # 3/2020 (June)

  In this article I was supposed to review at least four more CDs, but these days they swim very slowly across the ocean, or they’ve sunk altogether. Fortunately we have the lovely Wendy Moten, who tells about her new album, and two new biographical books - on James Carr and Denise LaSalle.

New CD release reviews & interviews:

Wendy Moten: I’ve Got You Covered


Book reviews:

James Carr, Jr.: Darkest End of the Street
David Whiteis: Always the Queen - The Denise LaSalle Story


WENDY MOTEN

  Last July Wendy Moten had just finished her latest album, I’ve Got You Covered – see at the end of https://www.soulexpress.net/wendymoten_part2.htm - and it was released on her Radio Eye Music label on February the 12th. Wendy: “I was just starting to promote it, when the Coronavirus stopped the world. On February 15, I played the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and on February 18, I had a release show playing the songs from the record live at 3rd & Lindsley, a popular and respected live venue house in Nashville. I’ve got some independent promotion guys trying to get it on indie stations. At the end of March, I released Walk through this World with Me in England and a few European countries. On June 10, we will release Til I Get It Right on indie stations globally. The markets are strained and I’m not sure how this will turn out. As far as shows, I don’t think live entertainment will bounce back as fast as we would like it to. It’s still not safe to be in large groups.”

  Both Walk through this World with Me and Til I Get It Right are really beautiful country songs. George Jones took Walk... into # 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country charts in 1967 and Tammy Wynette did the same thing with Til... five years later. As you can figure out by now, Wendy’s CD contains country music with a touch of soul. Produced by Vince Gill, and recorded at The House in Nashville, among the musicians you can spot such names as John Jarvis (piano, organ), Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Willie Weeks (bass), Richard Bennett and Vince Gill (guitar), Fred Eltringham (drums), Jeff Taylor (accordion), plus a 4-piece horn section. “Vince Gill came up with the title, I’ve Got You Covered. I think he nailed it, because all of these are covers. Vince chose these songs the day of the session and he said he was glad I had never heard most of them. He said because I didn’t know most of them, I would truly make them my own. This is more of a Ray Charles styled tribute to country music. It’s all about the Songs.”

  Among the nine songs on display there are four pretty country ballads, such as Hank Cochran’s Don’t Touch Me – originally by Jeannie Seely in 1966 – and Faithless Love, which Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1974 and which is done as a duet here with Vince Gill. The opener, the honky-tonky Driving Nails in My Coffin – first by Jerry Irby and his Texas Cowboys in 1945 – and Bobbie Gentry’s rhythmic Ode to Billie Joe (1967) push the tempo up, as well as the fast I Ain’t Never – co-written and recorded by Webb Pierce in 1959 – and the sing-along Each Season Changes You. Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper with the Clinch Mt. Clan were first to record this jolly number in 1955, and Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner covered it fifteen years later. Going away Party is a slow and jazzy lounge type of a song, which Bob Wills cut in 1974.

  Wendy was invited to join the Grammy-winning Time Jumpers as its 11th member. Vince Gill had joined in 2010. “The Time Jumpers is one of Nashville’s institutions. You’ve got the Opry, the Ryman (Auditorium) and the Time Jumpers. It has some of the greatest and most respected musicians in it. To be a member signifies that you have consistently and successfully worked hard on your craft and recognized in the music community as one of the best that music has to give.”

BLACK BOOKCASE

JAMES CARR’S DARK STREET

  In our music every now and then all the right components fall into place. One of these occasions took place in late 1966, when at Hi studios in Memphis a song called The Dark End of the Street was recorded. Produced by Quinton Claunch and Rudolph Russell, this song with a beautiful, haunting melody and wistful lyrics about forbidden love combined with perfect arrangement by its composers, Chips Moman and Dan Penn, has enormous emotional power and has become a milestone in the history of soul music. The most sublime and soulful element, however, is the very singer, the outstanding James Carr.

  The single, however, wasn’t an instant hit. It crept up to # 77 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts and # 10 in rhythm & blues. It wasn’t even James’ highest charting single – that honour goes to You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up – but it, if any, has stood the test of time and is included on many “desert island” lists. The magnetism of the record is still increased by many mysteries surrounding the singer’s life.

  As far as I know, nobody has published a book about James Carr prior to Darkest End of the Street (123 pages; ISBN 9798620176694), which is written by his son, James Carr Jr, a veteran of the U.S. Navy and these days a pastor. The book doesn’t deal so much with James’ music - creation of songs, recording sessions etc. – as it does with significant incidents in James’ confused life from the “inside family” perspective. It rectifies some urban legends, such as problems during a tour in Japan in 1978, but also delivers an unvarnished picture of a deeply troubled man.

  James Edward Carr was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the summer of 1942. His father, a passionate preacher, abused him continually and after his mother passed away when he was only nine years old, he decided to move to Memphis in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1950s he sang with the Harmony Echoes and met his future wife, Willie Lee Moore, in church in 1959, which two years later led to the birth of the author of this book, James Carr, Jr. The very same year James Sr. met Roosevelt Jamison, who became his manager and helper, and later those two visited Quinton Claunch, the co-owner of Goldwax Records.

  First symptoms of mental health disorder started appearing and stubborn behaviour didn’t improve the condition, and at some point James even started hearing voices inside his head. Add to that still marijuana, booze and outside affairs with women, and it’s inevitable that consequently also domestic dispute increased and it all led to a separation in 1967. In the early 70s James spent a couple of years in Kankakee, Illinois – 85 km southwest of Chicago – before returning to Memphis in 1973 after a period of serious hallucinations. In the 1980s and 1990s Quinton Claunch still kept in touch, recorded James and released albums. As if James hadn’t experienced enough humiliation, in the mid-90s in Memphis there was an incident, when a police officer beat him brutally. After many hospitalizations and a nursing home, James eventually found his rest in January 2001.

  The first half of the book - 55 pages - chronicles James’ life, whereas the second half comprises of 34 black & white photos on double-page spreads: on the left a photo – some quite familiar – and on the right the explanation, even a short story, and in many cases repeating what was already printed in the book. In those photos, among other things, we can see five out of James’ six children and their families.

  The author doesn’t restrict himself only to biographical facts, but at times lets himself loose to fictional spheres and lets his imagination flow. As a whole the book is a quick and easy read. My one complaint is that too often those early trailblazers in music are undeservedly criticized - to a degree, anyway. We are all aware that especially in the 1950s and 1960s they financially took advantage of their artists, but in this book I don’t like insinuations about shady dealings and constantly cheating James out of his money. It may have happened, but certainly not up to the level of millions of dollars. On the contrary, on some pages the reader may get the impression that Roosevelt and Quinton in fact protected James from himself, because he just couldn’t handle money, couldn’t help but spend it all at once on his vices. There are speculations that Quinton has picked up James to recording sessions from the nursing home and that in the 1980s he recorded James under the name of James Augustus. “That’s a big lie”, answered Quinton after hearing about it. Be it one way or another, you can also ask yourself the following question: would we be aware of James Carr and celebrate his talent, had it not been Quinton and those Goldwax gems that he co-produced in the 1960s? They created the legend of James Carr, (Acknowledgements to Debbie Dixon).

 

DENISE, ALWAYS THE QUEEN

  “The Queen of Soul-Blues” – that’s the epithet I would have chosen for Denise LaSalle of the ones listed in the book titled Always the Queen (256 pages, ISBN 978-0-252-08494-2; 37 b&w photos, index included; www.press.illinois.edu). I had a chance to meet Denise way back in 1993, interview and write a feature on her, when she was performing here in Finland at the Pori Jazz Festival, but little did I know that at that point she was only one year away from turning sixty. She looked and acted much, much younger. Her actual date of birth is July 16, 1934, so when she passed away on January 8 in 2018, she was 83.

  This book is co-written and put together by David Whiteis, a journalist, writer and educator from Chicago. He writes, among others, for the Living Blues and Downbeat magazines and has recently published a book called Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago and in 2013 a tome titled Southern Soul-Blues, where he had a 20-page chapter on Denise.  This book is written in the style of “in-her-own-words”, which means that Denise speaks in the first person, like in a literary monologue. David Ritz used the same method in his book, Aretha, From These Roots in 1999, but this time the story is honest and straightforward, more truthful and less self-contended. Mind you, David Ritz set things straight later in his 2014 book, Respect, the Life of Aretha Franklin.

  Ora Dee (aka Denise) Allen’s reminiscing about her childhood days in the farming town of Sidon, Mississippi, is quite disarming and nostalgic...and detailed. There were eight children in the family and only Denise and her baby brother Nate graduated. Nate is better known as Na Allen, a soul music recording artist in his own right, who passed a year before Denise. The town of Sidon today has a population of about 500 people and is located in Leflore County, between Memphis, TN, and Jackson, MS.

  Denise began not only singing, but also writing songs, short stories and poems at an early age. Her first gospel group was the Sacred Five. She was still a teenager, when she got married for the first time, and the only purpose of that marriage was to get out of Mississippi, to Chicago. The second marriage took place seven years later and it didn’t last long, either. I must admit that at times it was difficult for me to read about all these episodes during the first two decades, because I was desperately trying to find correct years and timeframe for all those twists and turns, but luckily at the end of the book David explains it all, gives the right sequence and probable years. He has done a profound research in terms of chronology, omitted incorrect information and at the same time tried not to interrupt Denise’s “monologue” in the main text.

  In the 1960s we meet Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who became Denise’s manager, which led to her signing with Chess Records (no recording sessions, though), establishing her own publishing company, doing solo gigs since 1964 and three years later releasing her first record called A Love Reputation on Tarpon. On these pages – as well as throughout the rest of the book – it was fascinating to read about Denise’s impressions about some of her fellow artists and musicians. She loved Nat King Cole, Otis Redding, and for a brief spell James Phelps was her boyfriend. On the other hand, “Johnnie Taylor was snotty back then” and Aretha Franklin shook Denise’s hand so ugly, “like her hand was dead.” Among good people there were still Tyrone Davis, Otis Rush, Jimmy Johnson, Bobby Rush, Joe Simon, Millie Jackson, Bill Withers and the Dells. Denise says that she actually wrote I Wish It Was Me You Loved for the group, although the song was credited to Jackie Avery. One more bad boy: David Ruffin was mean.

  Denise didn’t get along too well with snobby Chicago session musicians, which was one of the reasons, why she went down to Memphis, to Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios and cut for Armen Boladian’s Westbound label her first and biggest hit, the golden Trapped by a Thing Called Love in 1971. Don Cornelius on Soul Train broke the record. Denise moved permanently to Memphis in 1974 after she had divorced one of her husbands, Bill Jones.

  One thing that almost always comes up when discussing Denise is the murder of Al Jackson, a highly praised Memphis drummer, on October the 1st in 1975. Everybody’s hinting that Denise must know something. Here she tells unambiguously that neither she, nor her ex-boyfriend Nate, who was also a bank robber, had anything to do with it.

  Eventually Denise married the love of her life, James Wolfe, in 1977. They ventured into many fields of business: radio stations, record labels, nightclubs, restaurants, a boutique, but most of them didn’t last very long. Denise also tells about charity and such organizations as the National Association for the Preservation of the Blues, the Unity Project and Blues Academy for keeping the music legacy alive. Considering her initiative and optimism for the future, it’s quite uneasy to read about her health problems – a triple bypass, amputation of a leg etc. – towards the end of the book.

  In some cases music lovers are disappointed with these biographies, because the creative side - the making of music, recording sessions, concerts and promotion activities - is overshadowed by other aspects of personal life. Luckily Denise doesn’t forget to evaluate her music, too, and tell about her later recorded output on ABC/MCA, Malaco, Ecko and her own labels. I’m not sure if it’s sufficient for her long-term fans or do they long for more talk about the very music. Also, since it’s only Denise speaking, in this book we don’t get objective outside opinions, or a qualitative analysis. But for those, who want to get acquainted with the human being behind the music, this is a good “X-ray” book. It brings Denise alive again. She speaks openly about all the issues, problems and also the good sides of her genre. One more thing: Denise prefers ballads and on this we agree. Her own favourite is her 1994 recording of Child of the Ghetto. (Acknowledgements to David Whiteis and Heather Gernenz).

© Heikki Suosalo


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