In the world of rhythm and blues, singer, songwriter and guitarist Johnny Rawls is one of those unsung heroes, a musical M.V.P. who has continued to carry the torch for a soul-blues style steeped in the Southern tradition of Stax Records and Muscle Shoals studios. Rawls' efforts have not gone without recognition – his 2009 album Ace Of Spades won him a Blues Music Award, while his annual nominations as "Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year" have placed him in heady company alongside greats like Bobby Rush and Curtis Salgado, and the late Solomon Burke.
Rawls comes by his blues roots honestly, teach himself to play guitar at the young age of 12, later expanding upon his education by touring with legends like Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex. Rawls honed his craft at the side of soul giant O.V. Wright, however, playing alongside the singer and continuing as an integral part of the O.V. Wright Band, which toured for over a decade after Wright's death, playing his songs and keeping his name alive. By the time that Rawls stepped into his own solo spotlight in the early 1990s, he had opened for such names as B.B. King and Little Milton, both of whom can be heard in the grooves of Rawls' Memphis Still Got Soul.
Johnny Rawls' Memphis Still Got Soul
Rawls doesn't mess around, opening the album with the title track, his passionate ode to the Bluff City, "Memphis Still Got Soul." Above a regal keyboard hum and soulful blasts of horn, Rawls name checks Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Stax Records, and other people and places that have helped make the city the center of the R&B universe during the 1960s. It's a fitting tribute to both the city and the talents that forged its legend with blood, sweat, and tears, Rawls' subdued vocals nonetheless lacking nothing in power or reverence. Andy Roman's beautiful sax solo adds a cherry on top, bringing another dimension to the song's wonderful dynamic.
Rawls' "Give You What You Need" is a rollicking mid-tempo R&B love song that evokes both the sound of classic 1960s soul as well as the '90s-era retro-soul era. The horns provide a steady rhythm above the drums, but it's Rawls' smooth-as-silk vocals wrapped around the mesmerizing lyrics that drive the song to greater emotional territory. The hauntingly beautiful "Stop the Rain" is a pure soul-blues tearjerker, backing harmonies echoing Rawls' heartbreak vocals, the subdued soundtrack creating an emotional vibe without overwhelming the performance.
On the other hand, "Burning Bridges" is a fierce, blistering blues/soul hybrid with a bit of rock and funk that showcases both Rawls' more raucous vocal abilities as well as his underutilized six-string skills. While in lesser hands a song like "My Guitar" may have become a mindless novelty, Rawls uses his clever wordplay to impart not only the importance of music in his life, but also in the life of many. Threaded throughout the song, his stellar fretwork breathes fire into the muted arrangement, his wiry string-bending met by his enthusiastic vocals.
The deceptively-named "Blues Woman" conceals a slight island rhythmic tilt, the drums and bass swinging in a mild Jamaican vamp while the spirited hornplay displays sweet classic R&B demeanor. The song's lively meter forces Rawls to be a bit more gymnastic with his vocals, but he rises easily to the challenge, channeling emotion and yearning into the lyrics. "Don't Act So Innocent" may be the pinnacle of Memphis Still Got Soul, however, the song an old-school R&B tune of love and betrayal, Rawls' laying down bruised vocals as the song's protagonist, hurt by romance, lays it all on the line. It's a great song and a damn fine performance.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
There's no denying Johnny Rawls immense talents as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist who manages to walk the fine line between 1960s soul and R&B and contemporary soul-blues. My complaint with Memphis Still Got Soul is that the performances always seem to dance on the edge, never jumping over it into pure raw emotional release. With a couple of notable exceptions – the title track, "Don't Act So Innocent,""My Guitar" – Rawls never seems to really cut loose, most of the songs seem muted and never rise to their full potential.
There's nothing wrong with the lyrics on Memphis Still Got Soul, and anybody who has seen Rawls onstage knows that he's a great singer and dynamic performer. The production, while skilled, lacks in vitality and electricity, two things that Rawls provides in a live setting. I'd like to pair Rawls up with somebody like Southside Johnny Lyon or Steve Van Zandt, who loves and understands soul music, and could potentially draw a big performance out of the singer. Without that edge, Memphis Still Got Soul is a good, entertaining soul-blues album that could have been great. (Catfood Records, released April 1, 2011)
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