If you follow the music press, you've probably read that soul is dying. The line goes something like this: Rap, house, hip-hop, pop and other bouncy forms have made soul and funk less relevant today. But based on what has been crossing my desk, I tend to disagree. What I am noticing is that there's much less junk in the soul and funk categories—since junk now is costly. Instead, I'm seeing more superb releases of both new and older soul.
Here are four recently issued favorites—two new ones and two historic gems:
Betty Wright: The Movie—Betty Wright & The Roots (Ms. B/S. Curve). This has to be one of the oddest album titles of the year—and among the most misleading. There is no movie. But there is a Betty Wright. You probably know her best for her recording of Cleanup Woman, which was she recorded at age 17 and peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1971. Her new album has terrific beats, and Wright remains a significant voice—insistent, groovy and loaded with female messages. Here she's joined by The Roots, the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Dig Old Songs (with the perfect use of the wah-wah pedal), In the Middle of the Game and So Long So Wrong. Aw, heck, the whole album is perfect and beautifully produced by Wright and Ahmir ?uestlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) [pictured], The Roots' drummer. You'll find Betty Wright: The Movie at iTunes and Amazon.
The Lost Album: Featuring Watermelon Man—J.B.'s & Fred Wesley (Hip-O Select). Back in the early '70s, Fred Wesley was funk's jazziest trombonist and star sideman of James Brown's band, the J.B.'s. This aborted LP was recorded in 1972, and Brown attended only one session for only one of the album's tracks (Watermelon Man). As the tapes were being mixed, Brown directed the engineer to put the project on hold. "We're going in a different direction," Brown reportedly said. Which is a shame, since the largely instrumental album is superb all the way through. Interestingly, this is as much a jazz album as it is a soul disc, which may be the reason behind Brown's decision to deep-six it. You'll find The Lost Album Featuring Watermelon Man at iTunes and Amazon.
Back to Love—Anthony Hamilton (RCA). This is classic soul by a singer who knows his stuff. There are duets and solo tracks that show off Hamilton's intonation and power. It's impossible not to be sold on Hamilton's sincerity. Sample Writing on the Wall, Woo (love that instrumental touch from David Ruffin's Walk Away From Love), Best of Me and I'll Wait (to Fall in Love). You'll find Back to Love at iTunes and Amazon.
Woman to Woman—Shirley Brown (Stax). This one was recorded in 1974 by singer Shirley Brown, who had a strong gospel feel along the lines of Aretha Franklin. The big hit was the title track, which spent two weeks at #1 on the
Billboard R&B chart and peaked at #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. The single sold over one million copies by the end of 1974, but it would be the final major hit record for Stax. By 1975 the label was experiencing financial strains. Brown is still on the scene today. Sample the title track, I've Got to Go On Without You (with the Memphis Horns) and So Glad to Have You. It's all good. You'll find Woman to Woman at iTunes and Amazon.
And here are a bunch of other soul albums that were released this year that also are sterling examples of the genre:
- Darondo: Listen to My Song, The Music City Sessions 1973-74 (Omnivore).
- Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get—The Dramatics (Stax/1971-72).
- Do the Funky Chicken—Rufus Thomas (Stax/1968-74).
- West Side Soul: Magic Sam Blues Band (Delmark, 1967).
- Wasa Wasa: Fabulous Rhythm 'n' Blues Shakers on the Dance Floor 1952-1968 (Sub Rosa).
- Wheedle's Groove—Seattle's Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-76 (LightInTheAttic).