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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


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!

Robert L. 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.”


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 gum 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 Germany.

After discharge 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 evenings. 


“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 (, 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 album.


The 9-track set titled Age Don’t Mean a Thing (BLM0534; was co-produced by Bruce Watson with Jimbo Mathus, a southern singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

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 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?” 

Robert is 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).


Special Night (BC021-CD) by Lee Fields & the Expressions was released on 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.

Using his 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  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 lost love.

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” (     


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.

Produced and 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;  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.

Sam was 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. 

Both Bad 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

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 (


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 senior group.

Theo is a great young soul singer and you can read his story at  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’ About You


  You can approach the text below as a sneak preview, because the release date of Chazz Dixon’s new CD is December the 20thMessage 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, (at 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.” (


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

The opening 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.” 

Both It’s 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 (  

MY TOP-10 in 2016

(full-length, new official releases)

  1. William Bell: This Is Where I Live
  2. Robert Finley: Age Don’t Mean A Thing
  3. The Bo-Keys (with Percy Wiggins): Heartaches By The Number
  4. Will Downing: Black Pearls
  5. Theo Huff: The New Beginning
  6. Eddie Levert: Did I Make You Go Ooh
  7. Lee Fields & The Expressions: Special Night
  8. Candi Staton: It’s Time To Be Free
  9. Charles Bradley: Changes
  10. Mighty Sam McClain: Time And Change

© Heikki Suosalo

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