Surely most musicians have at least some notion of making their father proud of their achievements. One suspects that the youngest daughter of the legendary B.B. King might have at least a twinge of apprehension in this regard when she recorded what is, essentially, her debut album. There is plenty of reason for B.B. to nod in approval, because Claudette King has released a pretty darn good album of blues, jazz, and soul.
Claudette King's We're Onto Something
Unlike her father, who has spent most days of most years of his long life out on the road, Claudette King chose to wait until after she raised her children to begin pursuing a music career in earnest. There was an aborted recording session in the late 1990s with members of Etta James' touring band, and apparently a European record that is virtually impossible to find, but We’re Onto Something is the announcement of a talented and mature vocalist with gifts of nuance, expression, and soul.
Actually, King chose to use four of the backing tracks from the '90s here, re-doing the vocals to match her greater stylistic fluency of today. The album opens with two of these cuts. Keyboardist Tim Brockett's "Can I Walk You To Your Car" bears more than a passing resemblance to Claudette's father's "Let The Good Times Roll." She sings it with panache and punch, but it's essentially a warm-up song that should probably have been left in the can. Guitarist Bobby Murray, long-time associate of James, wrote "Whole Lotta Nothing," which is a much better song, and allows King to be a bit more playful and relaxed with her vocal.
Songs of Heartbreak
Nothing against the earlier rhythm section (which also includes bassist Sametto James and drummer Donto James, sons of Etta James who undoubtedly shared stories of being offspring of incomparably great musicians), but the newly recorded cuts are sparked by the nucleus of Robert Cray's band, and they jump out immediately with more open arrangements, more rhythmic variety, and more emotional connection. The great songwriter/producer Dennis Walker teams with guitarist Alan Mirikitani (as they did on Bettye LaVette's fantastic A Woman Like Me a few years back) to give King some meaty original material, too.
Walker and Mirikitani don't let King sing of a lot of happy relationships with men. Invariably, with one exception, they put her in places of regret and sorrow, and King nails the mixture of confusion, anger, sadness, and independence called for in these songs. "Too Little Too Late" is the first song here that reveals her as an exceptional singer; every time she sings the chorus, she subtly changes the emotional emphasis through her delicious ways of teasing out consonants and drawing out vowels. She sounds like a woman inhabiting the lyrics, wrestling with the feelings which come up when she has made up her mind to refuse her man's plea for one more chance.
A Dog Like You
"We're Onto Something" is the exception which proves the rule, an infectiously upbeat Stax-sounding soul song which gives King a chance to revel in the joy of love for a few moments. After a detour for an older recording of Walker and Cray's "Playing With My Friends" which, despite an engagingly greasy guest vocal by Frankie Lee, isn’t going to replace her father's classic version, Walker strikes back again for "This Ain't How I Planned It." Here we inhabit a jazzy soul space in which King reminds us of a cross between Esther Phillips and Carla Thomas. Jim Pugh's liquid organ and Mirikitani's subtle guitar fills give King a warm space to express her unexpected regrets.
"A Dog Like You" is a more aggressively playful riposte to a man who doesn't live up to his original billing. King coos, belts, seduces, slaps, weaves and growls her way through this admittedly lesser song. "Boogie Some" is a very convincing invitation to mutual pleasure, with a slow, deep groove and stinging guitar wrapped around mostly a one-chord vamp. "Rock My Soul" is another Murray composition, and the best of the four older recordings included here. It has a real Stax feel to it, and King sells the somewhat trite lyrics. Walker co-wrote "Isn't Peace The Least We Can Do" with Pugh. It's a ridiculously fast but tight jazz-blues number with a gospel message. The band should have been given more of a chance to stretch out here, but in only 3:16, the song sort of disappears before it can really grab hold.
That's not a problem with "Easier Alone," the album closer, a slow, mournful jazz ballad which gives King one last chance to reveal a trick she hasn't used yet. Two of the verses are sung here in the female equivalent of falsetto; it turns out Claudette King can cover quite a range of notes. But she's not showing off; the higher register allows her to tell us more about the mixed emotions contained in the song's message of moving on with her life after the end of a relationship. She's not really convinced it will be easier, but it will be necessary, and she's going to do what she has to do.
Steve's Bottom Line
Claudette King shows no signs of following her father's path of near-constant touring. In fact, she doesn't have a website, and her record label doesn't even have information about her on theirs. But she is a singer of remarkable ability, and We're Onto Something lives up to its title. (Blues Express Records, released September 21, 2010)
Editor's Note: A page has since been created for King on the Blues Express website.
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