NIGHT TWO BRINGS THREE EPIC GUITARISTS AND A DAZZLING ARRAY OF BLUES, SOUL … AND PUNK?
Saturday Night, I return to Club Howlin’ Wolf, located in the central business district of New Orleans, for day two of the Ponderosa Stomp—America’s premier roots music festival. Gracing the festival stages tonight will be a galaxy of great soul music stars, three world class guitarists from three different genres and a tribute one of the greatest record labels in history, among many others significant, if often overlooked, artists forming the foundation of America’s rich musical history.
Day two of Ponderosa Stomp kicks off with another of the great queens of Gulf Coast Soul, Lavelle White. Born in Mississippi, White moved to Houston in 1944. Already a strong vocalist who had grown up singing gospel, White, then only in her teens, began performing in the clubs of Houston’s then thriving blues scene. She quickly came to the attention of producer Don Roby, who recorded White on his Duke and Peacock labels, which dominated the Houston blues, soul and R&B scene. In today’s musical parlance, White would also be dubbed a singer/songwriter, authoring many of the 14 sides she cut for Roby.
After her contract expired with Roby, White spent the 60s and 70s focusing on her performing career. Over two decades, she shared the stage with leading blues, R&B and soul artists of the era, including Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy, The Isley Brothers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, Smokey Robison and Junior Wells..
White later relocated to Austin, where she remains today, as a revered member of the city’s blues scene and broader musical community. She has avoided the anonymity of so many golden-age roots musicians in the modern world, having released three albums since 1994, all to considerable critical acclaim.
Throughout her career, White has refused to pigeonholed as a blues artist, soul artist or R&B artist. “I’m all of that,” she is found of telling audiences, adding that her vocal abilities also extend to country, gospel, jazz and even rap.
Taking the stage, White wears a long, elegant red dress accented with a red sequined headband. She joints her supporting band, a large ensemble including two electric guitars, standing bass, baby grand piano, drums, trumpet, trombone and saxophones of both the tenor and baritone variety.
White leads with “If I Could Be With You,” one of her early recordings with Duke Records. A slow, soulful and appropriately mournful R&B number (“I would be anything but blue, if I could only be with you”), the number is made by White’s strong, passionate warbling vocals and beautiful work by both tenor and bar saxes.
Her second song is “Why Young Men Go So Wild.” It is a jazzy, up-tempo soul number with a strong backbeat kick from the drums lending a dash of the ‘50s rock sound. In spite of the song’s upbeat ambiance, the lyrical mood is one of frustration and melancholy.
Tell me why so many young men, they go wild.
They’ve got a woman at home and two outside,
No matter what you do, girls, they’re never satisfied
Tell me why so many young men go wild.
White’s tough, sassy and brassy voice feels ideal for singing about love lost and hard-won wisdom. The song’s interludes feature great performances by the pianist and entire horn section.
Near the end of “Why Young Men Go So Wild,” White throws in some great scat and then gradually transitions back into the lyrics. At one point, in a feat I have never before witnessed, White is actually scatting the lyrics—pronouncing the actual words, but delivering them with the distinctive intonation and cadence of scat. It is a technically formidable and artistically impressive stunt that only a master musician could pull off.
Third in the set is “Those Lonely Nights,” another slow, delicious R&B song similar to “If I Could Be With You.” On “Those Lonely Nights,” however, the Texas soul queen tosses in a bit of New Orleans flair. The song’s sound is mournful yet glorious all at once. A long, strong instrumental solo by the sax player really makes the instrumentation pop out.
White introduces the next song, “Teenage Love” by telling the audience, “Everyone has been a teenage lover at one time.” The number features White offering a happier, or at least more optimistic, view of romance.
You’re what I desire
You know I love you baby
You set my soul on fire
“Teenage Love” has the sound and approach of ‘50s of rock and roll, even including some enjoyable doo-wop style back-up vocals. It also includes an impressive segment of White’s vocals and the tenor sax alternating lead melody lines. White throws some good old fashioned hip-shaking into her performance of “Teenage Love,” showing she’s still got it.
With the final number of her set, “Stop These Tear Drops,” White returns to pulling at the heartstrings of the audience with lines such as, “Every time you leave me baby, my pillow gets soaked” As White sings, the piano pounds out some great soul notes. The tempo, drum beat and trumpet work put more than a little funk on this number, with powerful undertones supplied by baritone saxophone.
Clifford Curry is a top-notch showman in the grand old style. Throughout his long career, Curry has made a name for himself in R&B, soul and rock-and-soul. He is also one of the leading figures in beach music. Not to be confused with surf, beach music is an R&B sub-genre centered in the Carolinas and flourishing during the ‘50s and ‘60s, which was fast-tempo, showed noticeable rock influence and optimized for the swing dancing styles then popular in the region.
Another Excello Records alumni, Curry was a member of notable groups such as the Bingos, The Five Pennies and The Fabulous Six. As a solo performer, he cut records both as Clifford Curry and under the vocally apt pseudonym Sweet Clifford.
On stage, Curry loses no time before building energy and getting the crowd involved with the music. His first number begins with blistering blasts from the horn section as Curry launches into “Let the Good Times Roll,” a song well suited to the NOLA audience. Curry’s voice is an energetic baritone that spices soul with a little bit of rock. The song’s first instrumental bridge is glorious, awash in sax, piano, guitar and bass, all firmly pressing down in a wall of roots sound and keeping up the song’s intensity and volume throughout the number. As high as the players crank the volume, Curry’s powerful voice remains equal to the combined instrumental ensemble.
The next up is “Rock Awhile,” a hit from Curry’s years with the Fabulous Six. “Rock Awhile” is a great early rock and soul number, instrumentally driven by bass and drums and buoyed by high energy keyboards work. The number also showcases the range of Curry’s voice. As he soul-croons the song’s refrain, “Rock, rock awhile,” his natural baritone transposes to a higher, almost falsetto, register. At these moments it is easy to hear where the moniker Sweet Clifford comes from. As “Rock Awhile” unfolds, the instrumentation just gets better. Deke Dickerson gets of a great guitar solo, perfectly nailing a period-appropriate sound and style. The frenetic, intricate piano work by Armand St. Martin on the number is almost inhuman.
A crescendo of horn fury, punctuated by electrifying soul/funk guitar announces the third song in the set. Appropriately titled “Soul Ranger,” the song was a big solo hit for Curry.
As he explodes into the song’s chorus with “I’m a sooooooul ranger,” Curry appears visibly vibrating with intensity and the instrumental crash of funk/soul is irresistible.
After the second chorus, Curry brings the tempo and volume down. As the crowd instinctively and collectively begins to put their hands together, it is clear this master showman has us all in the palm of his hands. Following the final chorus, Curry howls like a wild cat before upping his vocals and being joined by a high-volume wave of instrumental fury from the band as the song concludes.
The final number of Curry’s set is “She Shot a Hole in My Soul.” This 1967 release was Clifford’s greatest commercial success, hitting #45 on Billboard’s R&B charts and cracking the Top 100 at #97.
“She Shot a Hole in My Soul” is definitely more of a straight R&B than the other offerings in Curry’s set. His singing is a bit more mellow and restrained, treating the audience to beautiful, fluid vocals with the barest hint of soul growl. The band, matching pace, dials their intensity back a notch, with some especially clear beautiful notes delivered on the trumpet.
LITTLE FREDDIE KING
After Clifford Curry, I run to the den stage for a rendezvous with a true maser of American music. Little Freddie King, now 71, is one of the elder living masters of blues guitar. That having been said, in the heavily taxonomied blues universe, King’s style is a distinctive one that defies easy classification. Born in the small town of McComb on the north side of the Mississippi/Louisiana border, there is clear Delta influence in much of King’s work. Moving to New Orleans in his teens, however, King has absorbed much of the distinctive New Orleans blues style. At the same time, King’s emphasis on aggressive guitar work smacks of Texas blues, a comparison underscored by his connections with two epic Texas axe-masters: King is a cousin of the great Lightnin’ Hopkins and his moniker refers to the influence Freddie King had on Little Freddie King’s early guitar style.
A veteran of New Orleans juke joints such as the notorious “Bucket of Blood” since his teens, King recorded his first full-length album in 1969. “Harmonica Williams and Little Freddy King” is widely credited as being the first electric blues album to be recorded in the Big Easy. Over the many decades of his career, Little Freddie’s guitar style diverged from that of the elder King, developing a style he calls “gutbucket blues” a country-blues style dominated by raw, raunchy guitar work.
On Howlin’ Wolf’s small, intimate den stage, King and his guitar are set up along with King’s longtime drummer/manager “Wacko” Wade. The pair opens with a cover of John Lee Hooker’s blues classic “Boogie Chillen.” King lets the opening line, “Mama told my papa,” in a deep, surprisingly smooth voice, thick with a Louisiana drawl.
Even compared to Hooker’s raw, primal original, King’s take on “Boogie Chillen” is stripped down to its blues essentials. His guitar work reflects the cool confidence of a master, putting his finesse rather than power or speed on display. Wade contributes some fast but light drum work, keeping the focus on King. As the song progresses, both artists get into really frenetic instrumentation, slowly building in energy and complexity until the sound with which they finish seems to come from a completely different song than the beginning.
The second song begins with a long, fast guitar intro into which King throws a healthy dose of twang on the strings. The intro really showcases King’s guitar virtuosity and, again, the focus is on quality not quantity. Lyrics on this number are definitely on the back-burner. This is welcome, in that it allows the audience to really focus on King’s guitar playing, but it also results in your journalist missing the title of the song.
The middle of King’s set is filled with pieces reflecting a variety of blues styles: a classic Delta blues, blues with a strong Chicago “session” style, King’s definitive gutbucket style, jazz blues and funky blues.
King’s seventh song, a long, rowdy instrumental, is one of the standouts of the set. It is driven by heavy Delta guitar playing, but with string work that owes as much to Chuck Berry as to Muddy Waters. King executes some delicious electric picking, his intensity and tempo building as the song progresses. He plays with smooth, smart motions, snapping himself into key notes as if he is playing guitar with his entire body. Throughout the piece, King’s face remains the restrained, impassive visage of a musician with absolute confidence in his craft. The Delta feel of King’s guitar is well reinforced by Wade’s cymbal work and irresistible base drum.
The eighth song in King’s set is a loose cover of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” King belts out vocals that are a cocktail of blues gravel and twangy Louisiana velvet. The number’s instrumentation is complex, segueing between Delta blues and Fats Domino-esque jazz.
His next song is one of the most memorable of the set. As he begins playing, King, whose stage presence has thus far been restrained, explodes into action. Flying off his stool, he begins strutting and bouncing behind the microphone. Head bobbing and titling along with the music, he is clearly enjoying himself as he shouts out the refrain of “Crazy, Crazy.” The music is much in keeping with King’s performance, dominated fast strumming and powerful vocals.
With his tenth number of set, King barrels into a delicious and elaborate reimagining/rearrangement of Chuck Barry’s Johnny B. Goode. King’s instrumental take on the rock and roll classic is as a fast, swinging Delta rock number. He concludes his set with a slower number which leans closely to a traditional R&B number.
Like Jay Chevalier’s set the previous evening, King’s presents a fascinating surprise. Compared to previous times I have witnessed King perform live, this set was more instrumental and less vocal. Even more significantly, King offered a much more diverse range of sounds, if anything digging more deeply into his Delta roots for his performance style than his trademark faster and funkier gutbucket blues guitar. While disappointed not to hear the Little Freddie King I knew, I am delighted to encounter one that I didn’t.
I return to the main stage for a short set courtesy of one the great figures of early rockabilly. Born in the small town of Gretna, Louisiana, Joe Clay’s classic songs are not only great rockabilly, they are also time capsules—preserving the mood, attitude and concerns of America’s original rockabilly scene.
Getting his start in western swing, Clay soon tired of the slow pace of both western swing as well as the local hillbilly music scene. Questing for a newer, faster sound, Clay soon fell into the nascent rockabilly scene, were he initially appeared destined for great success, appearing on Ed Sullivan show and playing guitar on a few Elvis Presley records. Major success, however, eluded Clay and he gradually faded from public consciousness. With the first blush of the rockabilly revival, Clay was rediscovered in the ‘80s, working as a school bus driver back at home in Gretna.
Clay leads his Ponderosa Stomp set with “Don’t Mess With My Ducktail,” a song clearly exploring a vital theme of early rockabilly culture. And Clay can still delver hot-to-the-touch old school rockabilly. His vocals are beautifully accompanied by old-school rock and roll piano work. To be honest, the 72 year-old Clay does not look a man who would be able to jump off stage and strut around the crowd, but that is exactly what he does during the second-half of “Ducktail.”
Clay follows with another of his well-known numbers. “Sixteen Chicks” is a song about, well, a good problem to have. The song is a rolling, rollicking rockabilly number with a lot of golden age county music running through it. Again, Clay is a formidable performer—jumping behind the drums, picking up the sticks and pounding out powerful, aggressive rockabilly percussion and singing as he plays.
Perhaps Peggy Jones would have spent her entire life without a distinctive musical moniker (or perhaps not, her talent is formidable) if a chance encounter had not changed her life. The story goes that, following at 1955 show at the Apollo Theater in New York, legendary rocker and bluesman Bo Diddley encountered a 15 year-old girl playing guitar on the sidewalk outside the theater. Diddley was so impressed with her playing that he asked her to join his band. While she was with the band, Diddley took the girl under his wing and became her mentor. After years with his act, she earned her stripes as Diddley’s bandleader. Thus did Peggy Jones become known to the world as Lady Bo.
Bo leads off with “Aztec,” one of the first Diddley recordings to feature her string work. Her intro kicks off with gritty, gravelly and twangy guitar work that is strongly reminiscent of and every bit equal to her onetime mentor. The first verse is filled with vocals that sound like an ever-so-slightly smoother Tina Turner. Both guitar and vocals are magnificent and instantly command the crowd’s complete attention.
Her second number is “Hey, Bo Diddley!” Rather than an original ode to her mentor, this is another Diddley number (never let it be said the artist was immune to ego) on which Lady Bo played. Like the original, her rendition has a solid roots/rockabilly rhythm, in her case oddly reminiscent of The Champs’ “Tequila”
Bo, however, quickly makes the song hers. Her rendition includes plenty of echo and reverb, lending a more contemporary, slightly airy sound to her guitar. This is world class guitar work, still very much in roots rock territory but the contemporary edge is distinctive—leaving the audience with the impression that it’s only person preference which keeps her from wringing an inspiring “Smells Like Teen Spirit” “Layla” or “Cliffs of Dover” out of her axe.
Bo is not the only musician standing out in this number. The bassist provides a solid, sonorous accompaniment while the drummer beats out steady, driving percussion—lifting the music without distracting from the magnificent guitar.
This is followed with “Say that You Love Me,” Lady Bo’s reworking of the R&B classic “I’m Sorry.” While Bo has a version of “Say that You Love Me” that is a slow, sensual R&B—that is not the interpretation on offer tonight. Bo leads with a slow, thumping rockabilly intro. The guitar work features a bit of twang that would do Duane Eddy proud and Bo seems to enjoy leaning on her whammy bar a bit on the end of key notes.
The song’s lyrics are classic heart-break R&B,
I’m Sorry Baby, I’m Sorry
Forgive me, Forgive me.
I want to be your lover
Bo’s vocals are a beautiful, flowing spoken-word, punctuated by a long crowd-interaction segment in the middle. It is a hypnotic voice, one that can growl and slash decisively through words like a sword or accent vocals by pressing down hard on middle syllables.
The next number, “Thank You for the Beat,” starts off with some guitar runs full of rootsy “umph:” before Lady Bo blankets the venue in energetic Delta rock guitar rifts. Again, there is a bit of contemporary etherealness to her playing, but the song also contains some very Bo Diddley-esque flourishes that would have made her mentor proud.
For the fourth number in the set, Lady Bo pulls out “Mona,” another Bo Diddley number which she was instrumental in shaping. She leads off with slow, upper-register strumming before settling into a reverberating rhythm that touches the edges of prog rock. The vocals are remarkable, again strongly invoking Tina Turner. “Mona” includes a striking, if unusual, bit of humming from Lady Bo during one interlude and towards the end of the number she engages in a bit of call and response with the crowd before beginning a gradual fadeout to the conclusion of the song.
“Mona” is followed by “My Name is Lady Bo” a joyous, self-referential shout-out in the style of her mentor’s “Hey, Bo Diddley.” The number leads with the line, “Bo Diddley told me 65 years ago, just play it funky and go with the flow.” And it seems as if Lady Bo has taken those words to heart. “My name is Lady Bo” is a funky, free wheeling celebration of guitar rock and good old-fashioned rock and roll. Lyrically, the number also throws in a long spoken-word section with a strong, rhythmic cadence that stops just short of qualifying as hip-hop. Instrumentally, the song is a delight, one of the strongest performances of the entire festival, well crafted to showcase all of Lady Bo’s axe wizardry.
She closes her set with a chance of pace. “Cracked” begins with a nice mid-tempo R&B beat before moving into more of a ‘60s pop sound, showing a softer, mellower and less edgy side of Lady of Bo.
As a music journalist, you quickly become resigned to the capriciousness of the Music Gods. Fame and fortune all too frequently elude the deserving and are bestowed on the merely lucky. But, no matter how jaded you become, every so often you encounter an artist who brings back your sense of incredulity and injustice. An artist who plays guitar like Bo Diddley and sings like Tina Turner? Why the hell isn’t this woman a household name?
STAX RECORD SHOWCASE
The Ponderosa Stomp may specialize in celebrating those who have not received the recognition they deserve, but the festival is not averse to celebrating the lucky ones who have received recognition—and deserve every bit of it. Memphis’s Stax Records stands along with Sun and Motown as America’s most-widely known and universally revered roots labels, and for good reason.
Established in 1957 as Satellite Records and changing its name to Stax in 1961, before closing its doors in 1975, the label built an unsurpassed catalogue of R&B, soul and funk, with some noteworthy blues and rock output along the way. A short selection of artists who owe their success, at least in part, to Stax include superstars such as Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram, Albert King, Little Milton, “Wicked” Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Johnny Taylor.
Even the studio’s two house bands, the Bar-Kays and Booker T. and the M.G.’s were filled with world class musicians that were fully the equal of many studio’s feature artists. These “session” musicians produced instantly recognizable roots anthems such as the Bar-Kay’s “Soul Finger” and Booker T.’s “Green Onion.” For readers familiar with “The Blues Brothers” films and Saturday Nigh Live sketches, comedian/musicians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who clearly knew what they were doing, recruited three Stax house band alumni for the The Blues Brothers Band: guitarist Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer “Too Tall” Willie Hall.
Like its peers, Sun and Motown, Stax is celebrated for the role it played in integrating American music and, in turn, serving as catalyst for broader integration in American society. Sun was recognized for its, originally controversial, practice of recording and promoting both White and African-American musicians. Motown gave the world a label that not only brought African-American musicians to national and international prominence but was also African-American owned and operated. Stax, on the other hand, took the equation one step farther, recording an promoting a number of world-class and racially integrated acts.
Part of the secret to the success of Stax, beyond an unmatchable artist roster and legendary house bands, was maintaining a stable of in-house songwriters who were unsurpassed in the business. Two of these songwriters, also superb musicians in their own right, are on hand to open the Ponderosa Stomp tribute to Stax Records.
SIR MACK RICE
Born in 1933 in Clarksdale, Mississippi (ground-zero for blues music), Rice got his musical start in the Motor City, singing with R&B groups including the Five Scalders and the Falcons. The later was an incubator of great roots talent that, in addition to Rice, included Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd and Joe Stubbs.
Rice, however, would find his greatest success and influence as a songwriter, penning a variety of R&B, rock and soul hits for both Stax and Motown. Among Rice’s most celebrated creations are “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her,” “Money Talks,” “Respect Yourself,” and the immortal “Mustang Sally.”
Appropriate to the rich, full ensemble-driven Stax sound, at the Ponderosa Stomp Rice plays with a large backing band including a powerful horn section with two trombones/trumpet players as well as tenor and baritone sax, an electric bass and expansive drum kit. The most notable addition to Rice’s band, however, is guitar player Skip Pitts, perhaps the most accomplished funk guitarist of all time.
Rice leads his set with “(Baby I’m) Coming Home,” a number written and performed by Rice, which was recorded in 1964 at Stax Studios. The record was originally issued on Lu Pine Records, a small Detroit label, and later acquired by Atlantic. “Coming Home” is a medium-tempo R&B on which it’s easy to imagine just a hint of blues influence from Rice’s Mississippi origins. Really nailing the classic R&B sound, the horn section is a constant presence in the song alongside Rice’s rich, warm vocals. There is also remarkable instrumentation supplied by the drums and guitar, with Pitts adding a effective bit of ‘70s intensity to the song.
His second song is a loose cover of the blues classic, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” first recorded by Big Joe Williams in 1935 and covered by almost every blues artist from Lightning Hopkins to B.B. King. While there is a definite anchor to the primordial blues sound of the original, Rice takes his interpretation of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” well into R&B territory—this is soulful, easy flowing, smooth and slow music. Rice’s vocals make his R&B interpretation of the song work, a perfect blend of blues intensity and R&B melody.
Rice ends his set with his greatest contribution to music, “Mustang Sally.” Written and first recorded by Rice in 1965, the song is almost universally known through fellow-Falcon and Stax alumni Wilson Pickett’s rock-heavy cover issued a year later.
For his Ponderosa Stomp performance, Rice returns to the song’s original character. It is less bombastic and hip-shaking than the Pickett version, slower and gentler in style. But it is delightful all the same, performed as if the singer understands the smallest nuance of the song—and he does. After all, he wrote it. As part of the song’s transposition from rock to R&B, the electric organ steps up to drive a lot of the melody handled by electric guitar in Pickett’s version. And the organist is full up to the challenge, delivering the glorious thunder even a mellow version of “Mustang Sally” requires, with an especially delicious solo mid-song. One of the greatest pleasures of Ponderosa Stomp is the opportunity to hear some of the greatest songs in American musical history delivered by their original artists. This is truly such a moment.
Eddie Floyd is the Kris Kristopherson of R&B and soul music, a first rate performer whose performance skills have been overshadowed by even more formidable songwriting abilities.
Like Rice, Floyd is a former member of The Falcons. Family connections helped both Floyd and the Falcons find early success, as Floyd’s uncle owned two Detroit-area labels, Lu Pine and Flick. In 1965, Floyd found his true calling as a producer/songwriter for Stax Records, often working closely with fellow songwriter/musician Steve “The Colonel” Cropper. Among the classics for which Floyd was responsible, in whole or in part, are “Comfort Me,” “I Love You More than Words Can Say,” “Knock on Wood,” and “634-5789.”
Starting the second part of the Ponderosa Stomp tribute to Stax, Floyd opens with perhaps his best known and most influential songwriting credit, “Knock on Wood.” First recorded by Floyd in 1966, his version hit #1 on the Soul charts and #47 on Billboard’s Top 100. A cover version by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas more successful, hitting #30 on the Top 100 and became slightly better known.
“Knock on Wood” is a song that comes with an interesting back story. It was co-written by Floyd and Cropper at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. While the Lorraine would later go on to infamy as the location where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in the mid-‘60s its connotations were much more positive—as a frequent hang-out for Stax songwriters because it was one of the city’s few integrated hotels at the time.
Working on “Knock on Wood,” Floyd and Cropper found they were stuck on writing a refrain for the piece. As they worked, Memphis was engulfed in a fierce thunderstorm. Both artists confessed their dislike of thunderstorms and, running with that thought, came up with the now immortal R&B line “It’s like thunder, lightning … the way you love me is frightening.”
Leading into his version of “Knock on Wood,” it is apparent why it is such a shame that Floyd’s abilities as a performer have been overshadowed by his songwriting magic. Floyd’s voice is magnificent, like a constant, carefully controlled but powerful roar. And, with the back story now in place, the song’s refrain is now more delightful that ever. As Floyd belts it out, shaking, sweating and swaying with fists tightly clenched, he sounds and looks like nothing so much as thunder and lightning. .
Floyd follows his greatest hit with “Raise Your Hand,” a commercial and critical success for Floyd that has gone on to have a long multi-genre cover career, including versions by Tina and Ike, Bruce Springsteen and Janis Joplin, who played “Raise Your Hand” as part of her set at Woodstock.
As the band launches into the song, Floyd’s gravely R&B voice penetrates the entire venue. His stage presence on “Raise Your Hand” is magnetic. He has the classic show band knack for making every person in the audience feel Floyd is singing directly to him or her. A broad, kid-at-Christmas grin lets the crowd know that this is a performer who truly loves being on the stage. Floyd is not quite as hyperkinetic as many performers from the genre, moving around relatively little and focusing more on his vocal than physical performance. But the man clearly has rhythm and gift for punctuating the music with hand gestures.
Next on the roster is “634-5789” (remember the name of this song, it has been a useful bit of party trivial for me more than a few times when someone asked, “Hey, are there any songs named after phone numbers other than ‘867-5309?’”). Also known as “Soulsville USA,” the song was another hit for Wilson Pickett written by Floyd and Cropper. It hit #1 on what was then known as the “Black Singles” chart and #13 on the Pop Singles Chart.
“634-5789” is a fast-moving and ebullient soul and R&B love song, the singer telling the object of his affections:
If you need a little lovin’, call on me
If you want a little huggin’, call on me, baby
Oh, I’ll be right here at home
All you gotta do is pick up the telephone and dial
634-5789, that’s my number
Floyd clearly relishes the opportunity to perform this song. Indeed, seeing this classic soul number so artfully and energetically brought to life by its creator, with his impassioned soul wails (and great guitar work by Skip Pitts) is one of the highlights of The Stomp. For one evening, even the great Wilson Picket may have had to take back seat.
This is followed by “Big Bird,” a song Floyd wrote as a tribute to friend and colleague Otis Redding shortly after the latter’s death in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. According to Floyd (this journalist would disagree), it is the only rock and roll song he has ever pinned.
Of all the songs in Floyd’s set, this is the one in which he injects the most passion. His vocals unfold slowly, with Floyd seeming to relish each note and building it to a barely controlled scream. Instrumentally, it is one of the strongest numbers of the entire festival, as powerful playing bridges Floyd’s vocals with pure unadulterated crescendos of soul— a furious bass line, screaming trombones, electric organ and horn blasts all add to a powerful soul sound. The guitar solo features some truly epic funk, full of power and distortion even while maintaining perfect precision. This is Truly Stax guitar work at its finest. And why not? This is the great Skip Pitts. The keyboard player supplies some truly impressive power funk, his fingers rushing up and down the keyboard like bullets. The bassist, while generally providing supporting lines, still delivers an unflappable, sonorous classic funk bass line remarkable for such a young player.
As the echoes of Floyd’s intense vocals slowly echo away, the song closes with 20 seconds of pure distortion supplied by Pitts.
EDDIE FLOYD AND MATT RICE
Friends since 1955, former Falcons and Stax veterans, it would be a shame to have these two great artists in the same venue and not put them on stage together. The Ponderosa Stomp is not about to miss such an opportunity.
Standing at twin mics, preparing to performing, Floyd and Rice dedicate their performance to, “Those who are no longer with us … but they’re really still with us.”
Appropriately, their number is “You’re So Fine,” a Gold Record hit for The Falcons in 1959, released on Floyd’s uncle’s Lu Pine and Flick labels and hitting #17 on the Pop Singles chart.
“You’re So Fine” is a classic American R&B number, without the funk, soul and rock influences the pair would later pick up at Stax. Vocals alternate between duet and dueling solos from Rice and Floyd, two great rhythm and blues voices concurrently and in conjunction.
As has already been seen, the phenomenal talents at Stax Records were not limited to songwriters and vocalists. Few people may recognize Skip Pitts’ name but almost everyone has heard his music. The grand master of funk guitar, Pitts is the instrumentalist behind the waka-chika-waka-chicka guitar intro to Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft” one of the most instantly recognizable guitar lines in American music.
By all accounts a modest man and a true team player on stage and in the studio, Pitts has never acquired the cult following that accrues to many guitar legends, but his talents are fully the equal of any of his peers.
Having expertly supported Rice and Floyd, the Stomp gives Pitts his moment to shine. He knows exactly what the audience wants to hear and does not disappoint them – smoothly launching into the riff that, for three decades, has epitomized funk guitar. Pitts and the rest of the band hammer out a performance of Shaft that would have done Isaac Hayes proud.
Pitts is a true joy to watch perform. Playing guitar under the spotlight, his face is blissfully, radiantly happy. Watching his fingers effortless coaxing world class funk out of his instrument, one has the sensation of watching a true artist at work. His vocals are profoundly memorable, a soul and funk version of the Oakridge Boys’ Richard Sterban – a deep, resonate bass that seems to send the entire venue trembling.
The young bass player again lends impressive support to an elder of soul of and funk. In a more surprising move, Deke Dickerson joins the ensemble on backup guitar and backup guitar – with the rockabilly and alt-country mainstay displaying a considerable knack for funk.
Perhaps strangely, I believe it was even more thrilling to see Pitts perform “Shaft” than seeing Isaac Hayes perform it. Watching Pitts, there is the feeling of being part of a small, secretive clique that is in on the real secret of the song’s success.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Skip Pitts passed away on May 1, 2012)
It has been said that the definition of true soul music is music that you can’t possibly imagine being sung with open eyes. If that is the case, then Otis Clay is true soul music. Clay is a leading master of what has been dubbed “deep soul,” an especially passionate form of soul with strong Southern roots that also incorporates elements of blues and gospel.
With that in mind, Clay has perfect credentials for deep soul. Born in the deep Delta country of Bolivar County, Mississippi and ultimately settling in Chicago, in his early career Clay toured the country with a variety of gospel groups. In 1965, he began trying his hand a secular music, specializing in a strongly gospel-influenced style of soul and R&B. Two successful recordings, “That’s How it Is” and “A Lasting Love” led to his contract being purchased by Atlantic Records in 1968. One of his Atlantic sides, “She’s About a Mover” cut at the legendary recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, allowed Clay to crack Billboard’s Top 100 at #97.
Moving to Hi Records in the 1970s, Clay began worked on perfecting his own brand of deep soul as well as forging a strong bond with the label’s house ensemble, the Hi Rhythm Band. While none of his Hi Records output equaled the mainstream success of “She’s About a Mover,” throughout the ‘70s, Clay turned out a string of soul songs which, along with his strong draw as performer, helped cement Clay’s legacy on the soul and R&B scenes.
Tonight, the Ponderosa Stomp has added an extra thrill to Clay’s set. To provide backing for the soul master, they have reunited Clay with the Hi Rhythm Band.
Clay opens his set with an exemplar deep soul number. The number’s soul credentials reflected in the title “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” and was Clay’s most successful song from his period with Hi Records.
This is the first time I have ever seen Clay perform and I admit, prior to The Stomp, having had only a passing familiarity with his recorded material. But, from the first note, his voice pure gold, as good or better than everything I have ever heard about it. When Clay sings, “Trying to live my life without you babe, it’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do,” he makes me believe it—utterly and without question.
Clay’s vocal ability is nothing less than amazing, with precision and control that are remarkable in a voice so loud and intense. Clay has a way of pumping raw power into the beginning of the high notes of his lyrics and the gracefully tuning downwards that is especially pleasing.
Before leading into his next song, Clay takes a moment to greet the crowd and say a few words about the festival, “It’s so great to be here with all my good friends, This must be what heaven is like.”
Clay follows “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” with “She’s About a Mover,” the artist’s closest brush with mainstream success. A cover of a hit song for rockers The Sir Douglas Quintet, “She’s About a Mover” may seem like an unusual choice for an up and coming soul man, but Clay makes the song distinctly his own, souling it up while still leaving a bit of The Sir Douglas Quintet’s rock stamp on it. Again, Clay’s commanding vocals are irresistible, the entire audience seems to feel his energy as he holds this long notes with a steady vibrato. The song also features great guitar work, more soul and less rock than Clay’s original recording.
His third number is “That’s How it Is.” If I thought I had seen Otis Clay really sing soul music before this moment, well, I was wrong. The number draws an all-consuming fire out of Clay, even compared with earlier numbers in his set. “That’s How It Is” is a soul balled of tortured love in the classic style. As he shouts out lines such as, “Listen Baby, I know I’m just your fool. Please don’t look down on because I’m weak. The Thrill is Gone, the thrill is gone away,” his eyes are shut, his hands clenched and his vocals can be described only as a tender roar.
I miss the name of the next song in the set, but it’s about Clay going back to Memphis. He introduces the number with a story about last Thanksgiving at the Clay house, “I looked at my wife and said, ‘To Hell with the turkey, I’m going to Memphis.’” It’s a lighter soul that most of Clay’s fare, presented with a little R&B and even rock influence. Standing on its own, it’s a fine song—but leaves me hungry for more of the deep soul with which Clay has packed the rest of the set and at which he is nothing short of a wizard.
The final number in Clay’s set is “Got to Get Back (To My Baby),” a more upbeat sound than much of Clay’s repertoire and more properly R&B that soul. While lacking the fire and ice of Clay’s deep soul numbers, it is an enjoyable song that lets the backing band shine with great horn work and Pitts having some fun noodling on the guitar.
William Bell is another Stax vocalist and songwriting veteran. Like Stax itself, he is a native of Memphis, cutting his teeth with vocal-driven R&B group The Del Rios. While, as a songwriter, Bell focused on the Stax specialties of soul and R&B, one of his best known works is the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign,” associated most closely with Albert King. Bell’s output has found fans in other genres, his songs being covered by artists ranging from The Byrds to Billy Idol.
As a solo performer, Bell’s output showcases considerable range as well as strong ear for composition, including the Memphis soul anthem “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” the soul-heavy “Everybody Loves a Winner,” the rhythm and blues hit “Forgot to be Your Lover,” and the racy R&B “Tryin’ to Love Two.”
Bell’s opening number is “Easy Coming Out (Hard Going In),” a smooth, up tempo number about how easy it is to break love and how hard it is to fix it. It is a perfect vehicle for Bell’s strong soul voice. A 1977 release that was part of a post-Stax comeback for Bell, its instrumentation reflects that era’s light, sweet soul strains more so than the grittier, tear-filled soul of earlier decades. Bell is clearly a performer who loves to work the crowd, even working it into an interlude in the song.
With the second number in the set, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” Bell brings the tempo down a notch for this classic soul and R&B ballad. When Bell belts out lines such as “Have I told you lately that I love you? If I didn’t darling, I’m sorry,” you can feel the pain of the lines. His stage presence is more subtle, less bombastic and kinetic than many of his counterparts who have already been on stage at the Ponderosa Stomp. Somehow, this heightens rather than diminishes Bell’s sense of intensity. There is a feeling of latent power as he sings, as if he is dam holding back a raging river of raw emotion. As the song nears its end, Bell explodes into a high volume, slow and sensual conclusion. It is also a strong number for the band, featuring some righteous sounds from the horn section, especially the saxophone.
Next in the set is “Hold on this Time,” which Bell sings in a graceful, personable fashion, artfully sliding up and down on his pitch and driving the audience wild (especially, it should be noted, the female members of the audience).
With the fourth number in the set, Bell goes blues. “Born Under a Bad Sign” is a song that Bell wrote about T-bone Walker and for Albert King, becoming one of King’s signature songs. It has found a solid place in blues cannon, being covered by artists from Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton, the latter in a blues rock version. King’s version of the song was as a hard core guitar blues.
The songwriter’s interpretation of his creation is more nuanced. Bell’s vocals aim in the classic blues direction he intended for King, while the supporting instrumentation mixes blues, R&B and soul elements.
It is little wonder that “Born Under a Bad Sign” has become a blues standard. In some ways, it may be the ultimate blues song. While most blues chronicles hard times and bad luck, “Born Under a Bad Sign” revels in them, wearing the artist’s travails as a badge of honor:
Hard luck and trouble is my only friend
I been on my own ever since I was ten
Born under a bad sign
I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all
Bell appears to enjoy himself during the song, actively throwing in a lot of the fancy footwork and smart gesticulating absent from most of his show. After a great couplet in the fifth verse, “Wine and woman is all I crave. A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave,” the instrumentation begins coalescing into a powerful wave of piano and guitar.
After “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Bell returns to form with a number that, in Bell’s words, “Set him off down the road to stardom.” Recorded during Bell’s period with The Del Rios, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” epitomizes the Memphis soul sound. It is a slow, soulful piece with some fancy R&B spin on the instrumentals, especially the excellent electric organ, and brimming with lyrics full of longing and heartbreak “You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.” It is a slow, rolling piece, at times almost jazz in its musical temperament. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” showcases one of Bell’s great strengths as a performer, a cool confidence that allows him to never hurry his music. Bell’s songs take as long as they take, no more and no less.
Bell introduces his next song by talking about the despondency he felt after the closing of Stax in 1975. Deeply disillusioned, he all but withdrew from for a time. Then, Bell got a call from a friend at Mercury Records, asking him to do four songs for the label. Bell decided if he was going to stage a comeback, he was going to do it right. He reached out to elder statesmen of New Orleans music, Allen Toussaint, and said, “I’ve got songs, I’ve got a band, but I need a big rhythm section.”
With songs, band and top-notch rhythm musicians, the latter courtesy of Toussaint, in place, Bell and his ensemble went into the studio. Of the four resulting songs, the most memorable offering, commercially and critically, was “Trying to Love Two.”
Both on the Mercury Recording and on the Ponderosa Stomp stage, “Trying to Love Two” opens as a smooth, well-polished soul number that reflects the aesthetics of its particular era in soul music. Alongside Bell’s fierce soul croon, the first part of the number is dominated by Pitts, giving the crowd a beaming smile as he picks out great soul and funk guitar lines with a hint of rock, and then dialing it back to old school soul during his solos.
Then Bell does something unexpected, using “Trying to Love Two” as a framing device for weaving in a medley of great soul songs from other artists, including David Ruffin’s “Walk Away from Love,” Otis Redding’s “Sad Song,” Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” and (I think) Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.”
After the medley, Bell reverts to the final verses of “Trying to Love Two” before the number ends with a blistering 60s/70s soul horn crescendo.
For the final act of Ponderosa Stomp 2011, after two days of blues, soul, R&B, garage rock and swamp pop, the festival does a 180 degree turn. Dave Turgeon is a Louisiana native who got his start in the Pelican State’s fertile garage rock scene but is musically best known as his alter-ego, Dee Slut, vocalist and front man for seminal NOLA punk rockers The Sluts.
Breaking on the New Orleans musical scene in the early 80s, The Sluts are generally held to have been the city’s first noteworthy punk act, often the opening act of choice for bigger name acts such as The Butthole Surfers when they came to town. In 1982, the band released a 12” populated by tracks with picturesque titles such as “Head Hunter,” “Hey, Hey, We’re The Sluts,” “I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend, Baby” and “Nuke the Whales.”
While The Sluts never broke nationally, the were well enough known to tour both coasts and Turgeon received an invitation to audition for vocalist of iconic punk rock band Black Flagg (a position that, of course, ultimately went to Henry Rollins).
With a lack of forward momentum for The Sluts, set against the larger backdrop of the general ennui facing the punk scene in the late ‘80s, Turgeon drifted away from music and ultimately found a career selling seafood. In 2010, the erstwhile punk front man found himself in the unusual position of a public spokesman and public face for the damage caused to Louisiana’s seafood industry by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. At about the same time, Turgeon again began performing with a reconstituted version of The Sluts (anger and economic malaise, of course, both being great catalysts for punk music).
As has been mentioned, Turgeon has some background in Louisiana garage and there is certainly garage influence on some of The Sluts’ songs—so there is at least a tentative connection to one of the Ponderosa Stomp’s signature genres. The Sluts and festival organizers, however, make few bones about The Sluts coming here to play anything but punk.
For a festival known for catering to softer (if not necessarily gentler), smoother and more venerable genres, the inclusion of The Sluts on the festival lineup appears to be a controversial decision. As the band roars into their first set, it is clear that many festival attendees not approve of their presence and some even depart the venue.
Your music journalist, however, believes that the inclusion of a band like The Sluts in the Ponderosa Stomp was not only a bold decision—it was an appropriate and ultimately necessary one. I will save that, however, for the end of this review.
With long blonde hair, wearing a string tie, ratty jeans, tuxedo shit and black blazer, Turgeon, aka Dee Slut, could be the poster child for southern punk. He takes center stage with his guitar in one hand and the microphone in the other. An electric bassist and drummer account for the remainder of The Sluts in their reconstituted form. After a brief introduction, the trio explodes into action.
While, on a critical level, I could tell you about the elements of garage rock that occasionally show through in their performance, in the big picture The Sluts are belting old school punk in its finest form—furious three-chord guitar work, screaming vocals and a manic flurry of percussion. By the second number in the set, Turgeon jumps off the state and begins running through the crowd, screaming in people’s faces as he sings.
While the aggressive strains of punk seemed to have driven off some of the festival guests, many of those who remain are clearly enjoying, perhaps even reveling in, the extreme change of pace (both literally and figuratively). Some are even clearly well versed in Punk show etiquette. While no mosh-pit errupts (indeed it is hard to imagine such a thing ever occurring at the Ponderosa Stomp), a few fans fulfill their expected duties by tossing empty cups and bottles onto the stage.
So, why does your music journalist think The Sluts belong at the Ponderosa Stomp? As roots music fans, we need to face a hard truth—if we cling to a definition of roots music as a specific set of genres (ideally performed by a specific set of performers), the march of time will take an inevitable toll and roots music will become static, little more than an acoustical museum.
If roots music is to remain alive and vibrant into the future, we need to move to a definition of roots music that allows the goal posts to be moved. A definition is needed that isn’t just a list of genres, but rather is set of common criteria that define “roots” genres. In truth, this already happened: from a tight original definition that focused on genres such as blues, old-school country, Cajun, rockabilly and Zydeco, the walls have been pushed outward to include genres like garage rock and soul that are already well represented in the present day at roots festivals such as Ponderosa Stomp.
Looking at the essence of punk rock, it is not so terribly different from blues or country. Before any of these genres were part of a billion-dollar music industry, each was the music of an alienated underclass. Like the early iterations of other roots genres, early generations of punk musicians brought with them a strong do-it-yourself aesthetic and a thematic focus on injustice, the struggles and concerns of working men and women as well as songs of love and love lost.
And, like those seminal roots genres, punk has gone on to have a profound influence on (to be the root of, if you will) popular music. Listen to the radio today, and it is impossible not to hear the influence of Black Flagg, The New York Dolls, The Ramones (themselves clearly reflecting earlier roots influences) or The Stooges, just as we hear can hear the influence Buddy Holly, Lightning Hopkins or Hank Williams. And, perhaps it is just the music journalist in me talking, but punk also seems to share with classic roots genres a penchant for larger that life artists with stories which are as fascinating as their music.
With all those commonalities in mind, from my perspective, punk is a natural, perhaps the ideal, candidate for the next roots genre. As I watch The Sluts perform on the Ponderosa Stomp stage at Howlin’ Wolf, the bassist furiously shredding with a dollar bill crammed into his nose, drummer banging away on his kit with a blindfold over his eyes, and guitarist/vocalist Turgeon flipping-off the crowd as he roars into his microphone, I can’t help wonder, “Is this the future face of roots music?”
As a coda to The Sluts performance, I spent a few minutes speaking with Turgeon after the show. He was, perhaps, a little in his cups but as polite and eloquent as could be—and genuinely interested that people were taking an interest in the music.