Soul Survivors

How Classic Rhythm and Blues Has Become Vital Once Again

BY Jason SchneiderPublished Sep 24, 2007

It’s hard to imagine any music fan remembering the Christmas of 2006 as a completely enjoyable one after word slowly spread that day of the death of James Brown. Two years prior to that it was Ray Charles, and it seemed that the passing of these two monumental figures might ultimately close the book on the soul music they jointly helped create. Yet, 2007 in many ways has been the year of soul, with the mainstream breakthroughs of artists like Amy Winehouse and Corinne Bailey Rae, but also because many past legends of the genre, such as Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples, Al Green, Irma Thomas, and Sharon Jones, have all recently made some of the best music of their careers, and in the process, turned on a whole new generation. Of course, soul has never completely gone away, as die-hard fans around the world have tirelessly searched out and reissued treasure troves of long-forgotten 45s, or periodically revived the careers of semi-retired artists on a small scale with European tours. But the current deluge of incredible new material has in large part been the result of a handful of key players in the music business wanting nothing more than to hear these still-powerful voices presented in the most natural environment possible. Ironically, with hardly any emphasis placed on making a "hit record,” this approach has also led to many of these artists making money from their music for the first time in their lives.

The person at the heart of much of this story is Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti Records, the offshoot of punk label Epitaph that first gained attention by releasing Tom Waits’ latter-day masterpiece, Mule Variations, in 1999. From there Kaulkin appeared to have creative carte blanche, making such unexpected signings as Merle Haggard, and forming a short-lived partnership with Fat Possum Records, home to the late R.L. Burnside and other contemporary Mississippi bluesmen. In 2001, Kaulkin set his sights on signing Solomon Burke who, like Haggard, had been steadily marginalized into an undervalued cult figure since his heyday on the charts in the 1960s with songs like "Cry To Me,” and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.” Sensing another opportunity to rectify this situation, Kaulkin personally made Burke an offer at a show in Portland, Oregon. "He said, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and I thought I was on a TV show,” says Burke, the jovial father of 21 kids and grandfather to 87 more. "I made a bunch of crazy demands, like having a two-page contract and ten days to make the record, and he said, ‘You got it.’ The next day we met for lunch and he gave me the contract and a cheque. The label did exactly what it said it would do, and I ended up with my first and only Grammy, and my first real royalty cheque after being in the business for five decades. Isn’t that amazing?”

Yet despite the rejuvenation that came after the release of Don’t Give Up On Me, Burke was unsure about the creative direction the label initially wanted to take. Many L.A.-based producers were considered, among them Joe Henry, a name more commonly familiar to alt-country fans for his own landmark albums such as Short Man’s Room. However, beginning with 1996’s Trampoline, Henry began taking advantage of what the studio could offer his work, through the encouragement of his friend, famed producer T-Bone Burnett. Still, Henry was completely taken aback when asked if he could record Burke. "It was like someone asking, ‘Would you sleep with Marilyn Monroe if you were certain your wife would never find out?’ I said, ‘Of course, but what’s the gag?’” Henry says. "To be honest, I wasn’t even sure [Burke] was still alive, but I was a fan. But as the conversation progressed, I realised I was in no way the front-runner for the gig, so I kind of mouthed off about the kind of record I thought it should be. That led to more conversations, and somehow [Andy] decided that he had a better shot at making a unique record with Solomon if he didn’t follow a more typical path. So I found myself in that chair. I won’t say it was an easy experience, but it was a fantastic experience.”

Henry explains that the only real bones of contention with Burke stemmed from how stripped-down the studio set-up was. The producer says his main goal was to get away from any cliches by putting nearly all the focus on the singer, as well as utilizing current material. "Being that acoustic-oriented didn’t hit any of the touchstones for him that great soul music was historically,” Henry says. "I didn’t want all the accoutrements, like when he’d walk into Atlantic’s studios and there’d be eight horn players; those can be very powerful ingredients, but that’s not what makes it soulful. My point to him was that it’s about his voice, so anything we do is going to be soul music. His thing was so heavy that no matter what I did, he would overpower it with just his voice and charisma, so he eventually got it that the more stripped we made it, the bolder it would be. When we cut the title song, it was the second one we did on the first day, and when it started off with just the acoustic guitar and his voice, that’s all I really needed.”

Burke, whose 2006 album Nashville successfully continued in the same vein as Don’t Give Up On Me, has nothing but fond memories of the sessions. "I thought, ‘This is incredible.’ If these are the songs you want to do, let’s do it. I loved ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ and ‘None Of Us Are Free’ because of the message quality. [Tom Waits’] ‘Diamond In Your Mind’ was so special to me, even though I had to change one of the lines. Everyone said, ‘Oh no he won’t do it,’ but he did, and I loved him for that. Then we had a song that was so incredible, that was Elvis Costello’s ‘The Judgement.’ The thrill of [Costello] showing up for the session and saying, ‘I just wanted to hear you sing the song,’ man, I was blown away. He sang it to me right there, and I recorded it right on the spot while he was standing there looking at us. It was an amazing album. Joe Henry will always be not only an outstanding producer, but a number one person in my life.”

In 2004, Kaulkin started hearing the name Bettye LaVette being brought up frequently in soul circles. With a long string of bad deals and missed opportunities already behind her, the Detroit native’s catalogue, stretching back to 1962, was only then being properly released through European specialty labels and earning her long-overdue acclaim. Kaulkin made her an offer similar to Burke’s, and in 2005 LaVette and Henry cut I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, a revelatory album consisting entirely of material written by a wide range of female artists, including Sinead O’Connor, Fiona Apple and Dolly Parton. Although Henry was now confident with his production method, he says that working with LaVette was entirely different. "Solomon hadn’t listened to a single song before the first session, even though I’d asked him to, that’s just how he operates. Bettye had done nothing else but get inside the songs, so when she showed up it was a bigger problem to hold her back a little bit until the band got in range of a take. But I still didn’t want Bettye’s record to sound like Solomon’s. I thought it should be more electrified and funky, just like she is.” Indeed, LaVette is painfully honest in assessing her career. "I’ve seen more sugar turn to shit, so nothing really has happened in terms of being ‘revived.’ I’m still in a different place than most of my contemporaries. They went on to be big stars, but I’m only at the beginning of people discovering me on a broad basis. I mean, one album I did for Motown had somebody else’s picture on it!”

LaVette likewise pulls no punches on her latest album, The Scene Of The Crime, which, in a brilliant conceit, brought her back to Muscle Shoals, Alabama for the first time since 1972, when the album she recorded then was shelved by Atlantic Records, one of the most crushing disappointments of her life. In an even more novel twist, this time production was handled by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, whose father David is a member of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, renowned for their contributions to dozens of classic tracks by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. The new album has a much different vibe than its predecessor as a result, although LaVette’s keen ear for the right song remains at its heart. Both Hood and LaVette’s husband, Kevin Kiley, assembled a lengthy list of songs, but the only criteria that mattered was whether or not LaVette could sing them with any conviction. Eventually, Hood began hounding her to write, something she had never done much of before, but which eventually produced one of the album’s standout tracks, "Before The Money Came (The Battle Of Bettye LaVette).” "Patterson kept telling me, ‘Nobody can talk as much as you and not be able to write,’” LaVette says, laughing. "I said, ‘I can’t write, but I can dictate,’ so he said, ‘Okay, I’m just going to start writing down what you say.’ He took all this stuff and turned it into a song, and when he showed it to me, I didn’t like it! So I changed it to how I wanted it to be. There’s a line about David Ruffin [of the Temptations] that came from something I said, and I actually quoted my mother a lot, who was the funniest woman who ever lived without even trying to be.”

LaVette’s memories also led to her poignant interpretation of "Talking Old Soldiers,” an early Elton John track. "It was one of the songs my husband kept pitching over the last four years, and when Andy saw it on the list, he wanted me to do it too,” LaVette says. "I didn’t want to do it. Then when I really looked at the song, I thought of this bar in Detroit called the Locker Room where a lot of the older musicians from the scene would hang out. I spent a lot of time there too, and once in a while someone would come in and say, ‘My aunt used to know you, didn’t you used to sing?’ That would just break my heart. So I started thinking of how many nights I spent at the Locker Room, either really drunk, or crying, or once in a while celebrating, and it turned the whole song into something else for me. The phrasing just started to pour out of me; I didn’t even practice or think about it. That song was exactly what had happened to me.”

While LaVette seems to have purged many demons with The Scene Of The Crime, she stops short of calling the album sweet revenge. "I think it’s more accurate to say that it was satisfying to play with those Muscle Shoals guys again,” she says. "I don’t think that anything you do is as emotional as being involved in [music]. I do it on a very natural basis, so the things that have hurt me in my career have hurt in a very natural way, like having someone you know get murdered. I’ve given music my youth, my entire life. There are a lot of things that people think I should be excited about at this point, but when I say I’m not excited, it does not mean that I’m not pleased at all. It means more than I’m pleased! For a change, I’m pleased with everything that is happening.”

Someone who is able to relate to all the struggles LaVette has endured is Sharon Jones. Born in Georgia, she languished in even deeper obscurity than LaVette through soul’s darkest period in the 1980s, to the point where she was forced to take a job as a prison guard upon relocating to New York City. However, she never gave up singing gospel in her church, and when hearing of a local contingent of young soul enthusiasts in need of a vocalist, Jones jumped at the chance to get back in the game. "They were looking for three background singers for a session they were doing,” she explains. "My ex was in the horn section and he recommended me. When I talked to [bandleader and principle songwriter] Gabe Roth, I told him I could record all the parts in harmony, so why pay three girls? That’s how I met those guys, and we all eventually became like a big family.”

"Those guys” — already active in several other Brooklyn bands such as Antibalas and the Mighty Imperials — soon made the decision to put Jones front and centre and become her band, the Dap-Kings. Writing and recording original material in their own Brooklyn studio and releasing it on their own Daptone label, the group’s devotion to the old school R&B aesthetic has made them one of the most popular live acts in the world. Their third and latest album, 100 Days 100 Nights, is poised to cash in on all the hype generated over the past five years, and Jones is grateful for every moment of it. "I think back now to the ’80s when people were telling me I didn’t have the look, I was too fat,” she says. "I was even told to bleach my skin. But I always felt that God gave me a gift, and one day people were going to accept me for who I am. I took me until the age of 40, and I’m still the same short, dark-skinned, pleasantly plump woman. I’m just so thankful that my light is finally shining, and I don’t have to go on stage looking a certain way or doing a certain dance.”

Jones’s unique advantage compared to her peers is that she has Roth and other Dap-Kings writing songs tailored specifically for her. Hence the moving gospel numbers "Humble Me” and "Answer Me” on the new album, as well as the more down-to-earth messages of songs like "Be Easy.” "They bring songs to me, and the first thing I do is look at the words because I have to see the story,” Jones says. "Once I get the story the song’s trying to put across, then I can start figuring out the way I should sing it. Like with ‘Be Easy,’ it’s about a girl telling her young man to stop getting all up in her face. Give her a little break — she’ll come to you. Once I broke it down that way, the song made sense.”

Jones and the Dap-Kings’ reputation is such that they are now constantly in demand for other unlikely projects. Jones herself was tapped by Lou Reed to sing back-ups for his current show, built around his Berlin album, although she recently had to drop out when she won a small role in the upcoming film The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington, in which she plays a Depression-era juke joint singer. "I had to turn [Lou] down, and that was such a big mess,” she says. "I met him a few weeks ago and he ignored me. I had to run him down and tell him again I was sorry. Then he hugged me and it was okay. There are no hard feelings, I hope.” However, what’s really raised the Dap-Kings’ profile has been their work on Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, and specifically the ubiquitous single "Rehab.” Since then, the band, as a whole or in part, have received offers to work with Al Green, Boyz II Men, and even Bob Dylan. Jones speaks with total approval of the band’s outside work, noting that some media outlets have tried to incite a feud with Winehouse. Instead, she speaks of the young Brit in almost motherly tones, expressing concern over allegations of a serious drug problem that has affected Winehouse’s performing ability. "If it hadn’t been for Amy, no one would be watching me — no MTV News, because they came to ask me questions about her,” Jones says. "I won’t say anything bad about her, but honestly, what she’s been doing lately has been worrying me. I regret now when I was in my 20s and I did cocaine for a while. When you get off stage and you want to get into something, that’s up to you. But when you’re on that stage, that’s business, and you don’t mix business with pleasure. I will never go on stage high or drunk or slurring my words. That don’t make sense to me. I get high off the band and the audience.”

The deceptively simple approach of Jones and the Dap-Kings has certainly redefined the term "keeping it real” for many industry observers, but from his vantage point, Henry merely sees a shift back to recapturing the indefinable qualities that made soul music great in the first place. His own new album, Civilians, may not sound much like any of the artists he has produced, but he says it contains the main lesson he’s learned from those experiences, namely maintaining the purity and integrity of the song. "I’m forever referring to Ann Peebles’ [1974] record I Can’t Stand The Rain,” Henry says. "It’s a masterpiece of soul, but first and foremost it’s a great singer-songwriter record. It’s free of so many of the cliche trappings, and in fact it helped create a lot of what became cliched because people referenced it so heavily. The fact that it is so small, yet powerful, is a great challenge for any of us. It’s fantastic that people are going back and looking at the mechanics of how that music worked. But to me, right now soul is closer to jazz in that it should be allowed to interpret anything: pop, gospel, standards. Nobody bothered to tell Miles Davis that he shouldn’t be covering Cyndi Lauper because that’s not what jazz is. Whatever he did was Miles Davis music, and I think the great soul artists are the same way.”

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