Gospel music is often cited as the root of soul music, and there is plenty of truth to that. After all, Ray Charles put secular words to gospel songs and came up with hits. Aretha Franklin was raised in the church, and she brought what she learned there to whatever material she sang. Many of the most important soul singers of the 1960s cut their teeth singing in choirs or gospel quartets.
Don’t forget, however, that the music to which we refer was originally known as rhythm and blues. The rhythm is obvious, of course, but the blues influence never really left. An entire strain of soul singers came more from the blues world than the religious one. Little Milton, Johnny Adams, Bobby Bland, and a host of others put their blues feeling into forms outside the traditional 12-bar approach, and made unforgettable music.
Johnny Rawls' Soul Survivor
Johnny Rawls, 60 years old, cut his teeth playing guitar behind O.V. Wright, and waited until his late 40s to begin releasing albums that carried on the legacy of his former employer. Wright was unusual among soul blues performers in that he actually began his career singing gospel, but his music was firmly in the deep groove, horn and guitar driven blues-based camp. And that is the tradition Rawls has kept alive on roughly a dozen albums since 1996.
His latest, Soul Survivor, is another simmering pot of tasty material. A warm, bubbly organ and some punchy horns put us immediately in the mood for that soul blues groove on the title track, as Rawls claims to be the final artist working in this style. (It’s possible his path hasn’t crossed that of Bobby Rush, but this is more likely hyperbole which doesn’t allow for mentioning the real king of this sort of thing these days.) At any rate, the band settles into a deep mid-tempo groove, and Rawls plays with the rhythms, pushing and pulling at syllables to easily convince us for the moment that if he isn’t the only one, he’s certainly a master of the genre.
Eight Men, Four Women
Rawls himself wrote “Hand Me Downs,” a faster and infectious number which introduces the backing vocals of Jessica and Jillian Ivey, whose presence on the record provides several instances of stunning counterpoint. Unlike most soul backing vocals, these two don’t sound bluesy or gospel-influenced; instead, they most resemble the angelic tone of the Webb Sisters on Leonard Cohen records. The song itself concerns Rawls’ desire to have something that didn’t belong to somebody else first, whether that is a guitar, a car, or love. It’s funny and yearning at the same time.
“Eight Men, Four Women” was originally done by Wright back in 1967, but Rawls eats it up in this new version. The silky vocals of the Iveys lay down with the minor-key triplets of the organ and the punchy guitar and drums as Rawls cries for mercy from the judge and the jury. “True love is not a crime,” he intones, but, in the dream being described, it really is. “Could you imagine in your mind if you could go to jail for loving somebody?”
King of Hearts
“King of Hearts,” like many songs here, is co-written by bassist Bob Trenchard, and it invariably brings to mind Wright’s “Ace of Spades.” An original idea it’s not, but it is certainly a pleasurable, danceable romp which gives Rawls a chance to display his braggadocio at the limits of his breath control. “Long Way From Home” is a Rawls solo composition, one which could have used some input from another lyricist, as it’s not much more than a reiteration of loneliness on the road away from his baby. Still, he conveys the joy at knowing he’s coming home, and the urgency of desire is palpable.
“Bad Little Girl” is a Trenchard/Rawls song that is enjoyable enough, but possibly the least memorable of the bunch. “Drowning,” written by Trenchard with someone whose last name is Carroll, is much stronger, a slow descent into sorrow and misery as no matter where he looks, Rawls cannot find his woman. “She was so hard to handle, oh, she was so good to hold/her love burned red hot until her touch turned cold.” Believe me, Rawls makes this sound devastating.
Don't Need A Gun To Steal
Perhaps the most interesting cut on the record is the Trenchard/Rawls cut, “Don’t Need A Gun To Steal,” in which Rawls calls out bankers, lawyers, politicians, TV preachers, rich Texas oilmen and, most mysteriously, plumbers for their sins against the ordinary populace. It’s a song that’s utterly contemporary, as we grapple with the results of the latest scandals on Wall Street. And Rawls makes sure to point out that armed robbery without injury of a 7-11 can result in much worse punishment than stealing millions of dollars in a white collar crime. He does bring up plumbers and their bills more than once, but other than that, the song is focused and important.
With two songs to go, the record changes completely. Give Rawls a bass guitar, and he leads the band in a killer instrumental romp called “J.R.’s Groove” which sounds looser and funkier than anything else on the album. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear as a warm-up for the headliner appearing on stage, but it really does depend on the sinuous, elastic feel of Rawls on bass. A whole different group of players takes over on “Yes,” the album closer. Here Rawls overdubs his own bass and guitar parts, and Michael Kakuk adds a gorgeously soulful Dobro part. Walking the thin line between soul/blues and country, and including a magically delicious hook which repeats the title several times, this song deserves to be in the pantheon of soul classics. It’s that remarkably irresistible.
Steve's Bottom Line
Johnny Rawls has no intention of changing his musical approach after all these years. But when you’re this good at doing what you’ve always done, you might as well keep it up. Soul Survivor comes highly recommended. (Catfood Records, released June 19, 2012)
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