Thursday, October 10, 2019

Billy Lawson

billyBilly Lawson grew up just outside of Muscle Shoals next door to Junior Lowe and, like Junior, he had a guitar in his hand by the time he was six years old. Lowe became sort of his mentor (and guitar hero), and would allow him to sit-in with his band at local State Line clubs before he was out of grade school.

peanuttHis Zip City neighborhood was also home to Earl 'Peanutt' Montgomery, the man whose career as a songwriter included a slew of top ten Country hits he penned for his main man George Jones... Billy was paying attention. The Music was in him, and he knew he had no choice but to follow where it might lead. While still in his teens, Billy and his band began working that same State Line dance hall circuit Junior had.

wishboneIn his early twenties he got himself a job at Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey's Wishbone Studios in Muscle Shoals, learning about songwriting from some of the best in the business. Billy and his band were still playing most nights out on the strip, which got them noticed by casting director Tonya Holly, who would hire them to appear in the Oscar winning film Blue Sky in 1994. Setting his sights on Nashville with stars in his eyes, it looked like he might have a shot at making it as a performer when he was signed by Epic Records... but Billy soon realized that wasn't going to happen.

trevinoHis unique way with words caught the attention of Tree Publishing executive Don Cook, who signed Billy on as a staff songwriter in 1995. By the Summer of '96 Learning As You Go, a song Lawson co-wrote with Larry Boone, would top the Country charts for Rick Trevino. Within a few months, Trace Adkins would take another Lawson composition (this time written with John Schweers), I Left Something Turned On At Home, straight to number one. In just a few short years, Billy Ray Lawson had become an in-demand Music City songwriter, placing dozens of other songs on the charts. As the nature of the music business began to change in Nashville after the turn of the century, however, it would become ever more difficult to make a living as a songwriter in the digital age.

Billy Ray decided to stay closer to home...

hallThe Shoals was his stomping grounds, and Lawson began hanging out with the man who had put the town on the map, Rick Hall. Over lunches at their favorite Italian restaurant, Billy just soaked it all in. He knew what he was called upon to do.

boardOpening his own Big Star Studio, Billy began producing a few records. After that, it seemed like things all began to fall into place. Wishbone Studio, which had been empty for years, became available and Lawson figured out a way to buy it. When Larry Rogers' Studio 19 was marked for demolition on Nashville's Music Row in 2015, Billy worked out a deal with Larry to install the studio's Trident 90 console at Wishbone. One of the first records cut there was Willie Hightower's great come-back album, Out Of The Blue. With the legendary Quinton Claunch on board as his executive producer, the album features some of the best songs Billy has ever written, like this one:

hallThe first time we met Billy was when Reggie and Jenny Young brought us to Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia so we could check out Johnny Belew's amazing cornbread salad. Billy invited us to visit Wishbone the next day, where he was in the process of cutting another come-back album of sorts, Darryl Worley's Second Wind: Latest & Greatest, with he and Darryl producing. The first single pulled from the album, co-written with the great Ed Hill, has become a breakthrough digital hit:

champysBilly Lawson and his band (now called 'Wishbone') are back out there performing locally in The Shoals area, to rave reviews. Performer, songwriter, producer, studio owner - it might seem like he had this whole music thing sewn up - but there was one thing missing... his own record label.

Not anymore. Along with partners Mike O'Rear and James Wright, Billy launched Muscle Shoals Recordings this past week with the release of their first single, Avalon:

A loving tribute to Rick Hall and all things Muscle Shoals, that's Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack on guitar there, folks and Clayton Ivey and Jim Whitehead on the keys, same as it ever was...

Billy Lawson's got it going on!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Every once in a while the forces of the Universe seem to align just right, and pull things together in unforeseen and miraculous ways... this is one of those times.
Willie Hightower, one of the truly great Soul Singers of our time, has just released his first album in FIFTY YEARS! As good as anything he's ever done, it was recorded in Muscle Shoals, and produced by none other than Quinton Claunch, the legendary Goldwax impresario who gave us The Dark End Of The Street. That in itself is remarkable enough, but the fact that Willie is now 77 years old and Quinton turns NINETY SEVEN in December makes this event truly extraordinary.

I had first met Quinton back in 2008, as we put together the O.V. Wright Memorial weekend, and I made it a point after that to go see him whenever I was in Memphis. Sharp as a tack, he's still got one of the best 'ears' in the business. After the passing of his wife of sixty nine years in June of 2013, this dyed in the wool 'record man' decided to return to the studio. When my partner John Broven and I visited him on our Soul D Road Trip the following August, he played us the tracks he had just cut in Muscle Shoals on a Kentucky guitarist named Alonzo Pennington. Although they sounded great, Quinton had trouble finding a distributor for the album when he released it on his own SoulTrax label in early 2015. Hold that thought...

Years back, Dr. Ike of The Ponderosa Stomp asked author Peter Guralnick (who knows a little bit about Soul Music) which Soul Singer he would most like to see perform at The Stomp. "Willie Hightower!" was his immediate reply. After a few false starts, Ike contacted us here at Soul Detective to see if we could locate him for Stomp #12 in 2015. As fate would have it, John Broven's intrepid friend Seamus McGarvey had spoken with Willie several times at his home in Gadsen, Alabama, and was happy to supply Ike with his number. Once The Stomp booked Willie, Ike naturally wanted Peter to interview him at that year's Music Conference... only he had a prior committment and was unavailable. "What about Red Kelly?" John Broven suggested (bless his heart!), and so I was invited to do an interview and presentation with Willie Hightower in New Orleans in October of 2015. I was just over the moon...

Like most people, I didn't know much about Willie beyond his amazing Fame singles, but as I began to do research for the interview, I discovered that he had recorded at Royal Studio in Memphis (the very studio that Quinton Claunch and his partners founded in 1957) in 1982, with Quinton handling the production. Although not released at the time, the album finally saw the light of day on a Japanese CD in 2007. I called Claunch to ask him about the sessions, and told him about Willie's upcoming Stomp performance. "Let me know how he sounds," he said.

Well, as anyone who was there that night can tell you, Willie Hightower gave one of the most solid and soulful performances I have ever witnessed, and proved to the world he had lost absolutely nothing off his incredible voice. He was back! I reported all this to Quinton, as requested, and went on to send him a video of the show to prove my point. I didn't know it at the time, but Billy Lawson, the Muscle Shoals studio owner and engineer who had worked with Quinton on the Alonzo Pennington CD had asked him "Don't you know of any old school Soul singers we could cut - that's what you do best!" There's those forces of The Universe now, folks... Quinton had his man!

Lawson had just recently taken over Wishbone, the studio built by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford after they left Fame in 1973. When Larry Rogers' Studio 19 in Nashville (formerly Scotty Moore's Music City) faced the wrecking ball, Billy bought the console and just about went insane re-wiring and installing it at Wishbone. "I'll never do that again!" he told me when we visited the studio last month.

With the equipment finally where he wanted it, Billy brought in studio veterans like the aforementioned Clayton Ivey, Travis Wammack and Will McFarlane, and proceeded to cut a record that is pure Muscle Shoals magic. As the tracks were completed, Quinton began sending them up to John Broven and I here in New York, and we were just knocked out. This was Real Soul, as good as anything Willie had ever recorded! John in turn played them for 
Roger Armstrong at Ace in the UK, who jumped at the chance to release this landmark album.

Out Of The Blue was officially issued on August 31st, and is now available from Ace in Vinyl LP, CD and MP3 formats. You need to own a copy!

...but the forces of The Universe weren't through. Old friend Noah Schaffer got in touch a while back and asked for Willie's number. His buddy Eli Reed wanted to throw a 40th birthday party for him, he said, and was hoping Willie would agree to sing with his band. I honestly didn't think they could pull it off but, lo and behold, Willie Hightower performed what may have been his first ever Boston area gig on September 7th at Club Sonia in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Along with Deep Soul songstress Thelma Jones and The Natural Wonders, this show just rocked the house! Peter Guralnick was there, John Broven was there and so was I. I wouldn't have missed it for the world!

...and as you can see, the show was truly amazing! Both Willie and Thelma Jones performances were an absolute revelation, and Eli's smoking band just tore it up! Life is Good!
- red kelly, September 2018

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Henry Henderson

I know we talk a lot around here about places like Memphis and Muscle Shoals, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Nashville, but somehow it seems I haven't paid enough attention to my own hometown. As the site of the premier Black entertainment venue in the world, New York truly had it going on throughout 'The Soul Era'.

The Big Town knew few rivals as a recording center in those days as, in addition to Bobby Robinson's Harlem empire, it was home to 'major independents' like Atlantic, Scepter, Big Top, Roulette, Sue, Jubilee and Bell, (to name a few), all of which cut at various 'hole in the wall' studios in and around Manhattan.
Home to such luminaries as James Brown, Don Covay, Gary U.S. Bonds, Roy C and Freddie Scott, Long Island enjoyed a thriving Soul scene all its own, with night clubs and lounges that featured live music springing up wherever there was a sizable Black community.

Courtesy Freeport Historical Society
Calling themselves 'The Showcase of Talent', the Celebrity Club on Sunrise Highway in Freeport was one of the most celebrated of those clubs, and when they brought in Leo Price to put together their 'house band' in the early sixties, he decided to stick around. As he told Seamus McGarvey in Now Dig This, "I stayed up there... playing around those clubs, and backing up groups. In those days [most] recording artists didn't have their own bands, and the Jimmy Evans Booking Agency - I was his band - he had the acts... we played behind."

It was his connection with Evans that made Leo a favorite with Long Island club owners, as he was able to bring in national level acts like Wilson Pickett and The Shirelles to keep the cash registers ringing. Price soon had more work than he could handle, and helped install a young singer named Henry Henderson as the leader of the house band at another popular club named Mister C's in Roosevelt.

Henderson had grown up in Jackson, Mississippi, and by the time he was a teenager he was fronting his own group that was represented by Tommy Couch's Malaco Attractions. After cutting a few sides for them that were never released, Henry took off for the bright lights, and wound up here on Long island in 1964.

This was right around the time that Little Buster's phenomenal Lookin' For A Home was garnering some airplay on local radio. Henry met Buster shortly after that when he was performing at Brownie's Lounge in Lakeview and the two transplanted Southerners hit it off, following each other around the Long Island club circuit from The Freeport Yacht Club and The Steer Inn to Club 91 and The Bluebird Cafe way out in the sticks.

In a scenario truly remiscent of Animal House, in the late sixties notorious bar owner Robert Matherson hired Little Buster to play for his all-white clientele every Sunday at The Oak Beach Inn. When Buster wasn't available, Henry took his place and, between the two of them, they introduced an entire generation of essentially clueless caucasians to the Real Soul music that was happening all around them.

As the sixties gave way to the seventies, The Highway Inn in Uniondale eclipsed the Celebrity Club as ground zero for Long Island Soul, with Leo Price's band once again providing the back-up. When Leo decided to move on, he called on Henry to take his place as leader of the house band, backing up everyone from Big Mama Thornton to The Ohio Players.

In the early seventies, Henry got together with producer Clyde Wilson and cut a single for a Long Island label named Interstate 95. As Henry recalls it, the studio was located in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, and they were all set to release the 45 when the label owner, Daniel Yudow, died suddenly, and that was the end of that. Sir Shambling calls the L.L. Milton release that Clyde Wilson produced for the label "a real throwback to the 60s,"
and that's just what Long Island Soul has remained all these years.

As disco began to take hold in the mid-seventies, Henderson had the good sense to lay low for a while, and returned home to Jackson for a few years. By the early eighties he was back on Long Island, starting up a new band, 'The Honey Holders' that would help him carry on in that soulful tradition...

As you may know, I was a huge fan of Little Buster and, as I've said before, I'd seen him perform "more times than anyone else, ever."
When Buster passed on in May 0f 2006, I was devastated. It was at a tribute to Buster held that June that I first met Henry Henderson. Once I heard him sing, I knew he was the real deal. We would become good friends, and his stories about the scene in those days have never failed to fascinate and enlighten me.

When Sir Lattimore Brown was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, we flew him up here to New York for treatment, and began arranging what we thought might be his final performance. I asked Henry if he would be willing to get The Honey Holders back together to back him up, and he jumped at the chance.

Once the two Mississippi natives got together, they were thick as thieves, and I knew that Real Soul was in the house. As anybody who was there that night can tell you, it was a performance we won't soon forget. After Lattimore tragically passed in 2011, both Henry and I decided to keep his memory alive by bringing back his Honey Holders every year to what has come to be known as the CLUB 91 SIR LATTIMORE BROWN MEMORIAL NOFO SOUL BASH.

Although the personnel may vary from year to year, Henry has never failed to deliver the genuine article. Featuring veterans like Saxy Ric, guitarist Sam MacArthur (who was a member of Leo Price's Celebrity Club band), bass player Fred Thomas (of The JB's), sax man Bobby Gaither (who played on Joe Haywood's Warm and Tender Love), drummer Joe Mannino, bass player Douglas Jackson, and many more, The Honey Holders are the place where Long Island Soul lives!

Embedded below is a short video of Henry & the Holders at this Summer's Soul Bash shot by The New York Times' own Corey Kilgannon:

Like I said, Henry Henderson is the real deal... I love this man.

- red kelly, September 2015

And now it is my sad duty to inform all of you of the passing of Long Island Soul legend Henry Henderson. According to his good friend Mary Forehand "He passed on January 18th... he was having chest pains and drove himself to the Hospital. He was found sitting in his car the next day."

Just So Sad...

May He Rest In Peace.
- red kelly, February 2019

Monday, June 29, 2015

Quinton Claunch

Back in 2008, when we were working on the O.V. Wright Memorial Weekend, Quinton Claunch (then 87 years old) agreed to join us for lunch at what we billed as the Goldwax Rendezvous, where he would be reunited with Roosevelt Jamison, the man who introduced him to O.V. (as well as to Goldwax mainstays James Carr and The Ovations). A last minute illness forced Claunch to cancel, but we never gave up.

In 2012 (thanks to Quinton's wife Nell, his son Steve and Roosevelt's wife Linda), John Broven and I were finally able to bring them together. Over the course of a lazy August afternoon spent at Leonard's Pit Barbecue, we were enthralled by these two men as they shared their stories about the very dawn of Memphis Soul.

We didn't know it then, but this would be the last time they would see each other. Roosevelt would pass away the following Spring, falling victim to the cancer that had ravaged his brain. Just a week after Jamison's funeral, Quinton and Nell were involved in a serious automobile accident - an accident from which she would never recover. She passed away from injuries sustained in the crash in June of 2013. After being married for sixty nine years, Quinton was suddenly alone.

He would find solace in his music and began writing songs again. Incredibly, at 92 years of age, Quinton returned to Muscle Shoals (where it had all started for him some seventy years before!) to produce an album on an artist he had discovered that just 'knocked him out', a young guitar player and singer from Kentucky named Alonzo Pennington.

Released on his own revitalized Soul Trax imprint, Claunch had dedicated the entire project "to the Memory of my Beloved Wife Nell," and invited John and I back to his house this past August to listen to the song he had written about her for the album, Taste Of Heaven.

To sit there in that place, in the same room where Quinton had sat on the floor with Roosevelt, O.V. and James Carr and listened to that mythic demo tape they had cut with Earl Forest fifty years before, was an experience we will not soon forget. Incredibly, even though Claunch was recently listed in Who's Who, even though his place in American Music History is secure as one of the greatest songwriters, label owners and producers of all time, he has been unable to find a record company willing to distribute the album.

Last I heard, he was still waiting for some of the friends he thought he had in the industry to return his phone calls... he deserves better.

- red kelly, June 2015

Thursday, May 15, 2014

John Németh Testifies

Testify My Love

Soul Blues, that's what they call it. Although I'm not quite sure how they make the distinction, it's a category at The Blues Foundation's annual Blues Music Awards, and one that the myopic and increasingly irrelevant Grammys should look into. In 2011, when the only place the Grammys could figure out to put Solomon Burke's phenomenal Willie Mitchell-produced last album was in it's 'Contemporary Blues' designation, it lost out (understandably so) to Buddy Guy's Living Proof which, lo and behold, actually was a Contemporary Blues album. Back in Memphis, Buddy Guy's great record won as well, but there was still room for Nothing's Impossible to win as the Soul Blues Album of the Year, and for Solomon to be named (albeit posthumously) as the Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year.

This year's round of nominees for best Soul Blues Album included Otis Clay's truly wonderful Truth Is (Putting Love Back In The Music) and the cool Dave Keller CD we talked about last time out, Soul Changes, neither of which garnered any Grammy recognition at all (despite our man Darryl Carter's involvement in both of them). Although it was Bobby Rush who took home the award for his inspired Down In Louisiana, the fact that there is this 'grey area' between Soul and The Blues where records like these can find a home does my heart good, and has greatly increased my appreciation of the work that The Blues Foundation is doing.

So, who won Soul Blues Male Artist of the Year at the 2014 awards?

John Németh. "Who?" you might ask... I know I did when I first heard the name. Well, as it turns out, Németh is well known in 'Blues Circles' not only for his big fat harmonica, but for his albums with folks like Junior Watson and Elvin Bishop. To us guys over here on the 'Soul' side, not so much. When I heard that Németh was recording at Electraphonic with our friends The Bo-Keys, it didn't ring any bells, to say the least.

I think you already know how I feel about the work Scott Bomar is doing, work which I've referred to in the past as "...the place where Memphis Soul lives."

Németh (judging from the fact that he patterned his back cover photo after the famed Ernest C. Withers shot of the B.B. King bus) is apparently a student of the music, and 'gets' that too. Not only did he choose to cut this latest CD there in The Bluff City, he moved his wife and family there as well. Just like in the days he spent with his Elbows on the Wheel, Németh's in it for the long-haul.

Memphis Grease has been holding its own near the top of the Blues Charts since its release in March, and Németh and The Bo-Keys have been out touring in support of the record. Who was this guy that now had the best of Memphis behind him? Who is it that could possibly have Percy Wiggins singing background vocals for him? I didn't know what to expect when I attended a sold-out show here on Long Island last month, packed with the usual 'Blues' crowd.

Well, I'll tell you what folks, this guy can sing! Between those impressive pipes, his top-shelf songwriting skills, and the best possible backing band on earth, there, right in front of me, was the real deal. I think you can hear that in this obvious O.V. Wright tribute we're featuring here today. With the whole front-line (even Kirk Smothers!) joining in on the vocal harmonies, and Joe Restivo's shimmering Telecaster, this is the Sound of Memphis, baby!

After the show, as the Blues boys lined up to buy CDs and T-Shirts and stuff, you could tell that Németh and the Bo-Keys had gotten their message across: Long Live The Soul Blues!

Don't miss your chance to see Németh, Percy Wiggins and the gang from South Main this Summer:

May 17: The Doheny Blues Festival w/ John Németh. Dana Point, CA
June 11: W.C. Handy Blues Festival w/ John Németh. Henderson, KY
June 15: Long's Park Summer Music Series w/ John Németh. Lancaster, PA
June 16: Hill Country Barbecue Market w/ John Németh. Brooklyn, NY
July 4: Waterfront Blues Festival w/ John Németh. Portland, OR
July 11: Ottawa Blues Fest w/ John Németh. Ottawa, ON Canada

Tell 'em Red sent ya!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dave Keller's got Soul

17 Years

Dave Keller's last album won the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge Best Self-Produced CD Award in 2012. Backed by The Revelations and produced by Bob Perry, Where I'm Coming From wasn't a Blues album, it was a Soul album. Obviously a huge fan of the music, Dave sings his heart out on covers of some of the greatest Southern Soul tunes of all time, no doubt introducing songs originally performed by the likes of O.V. Wright, James Carr, and Clarence Carter to a whole new generation of listeners. His take on one of my own personal favorites, Darryl Carter and Bobby Womack's classic More Than I Can Stand, stays pretty close to the Chips Moman produced original until Perry and The Revelations bring things into the present day and funk things up towards the end... very cool stuff!

So how do you follow an award winning album that had also climbed to #2 on the Blues charts on Sirius XM?

Go to Memphis, of course.

Bob Perry, who had co-produced the Revelation's last album, Concrete Blues, with our friend Boo Mitchell down at Royal Studios in 2011, knew it would be a perfect fit for Dave Keller as well. Dave liked the idea so much he launched his own Kickstarter Project to fund the journey, and cut six tracks down on Willie Mitchell Boulevard this past February.

Assembling a Dream Team of musicians that included Charles, Teenie and Leroy Hodges, Bobby Manuel and Lester Snell (along with a horn section led by old pals Marc Franklin and Kirk Smothers), Perry managed to re-create that patented Hi 'Sound of Memphis' and bring it to five of Keller's original compositions about Love and Loss.

The coolest thing he did though, in my opinion, was to bring in our man Darryl Carter to co-write this great song we have here with Dave. As I said about Darryl last year: "In a way, perhaps that has been his greatest strength, the rare ability to truly collaborate with other people, and create something greater than the sum of its parts." Which is something (he informed me just last week) that he learned from his mentor Chips Moman.

After talking to Keller about the recent break-up of his marriage, Darryl proclaimed "There's the song right there!" and - just as he told me he had done with O.V. Wright and Charles Hodges on Blind, Crippled and Crazy at Royal some forty years before - he and Dave "wrote that song together... in about 25 or 30 minutes, and we cut it that same day." With a horn chart that could have been written by James Mitchell, Dave's own stinging guitar work, and all those Hodges in the house, "This one," as Darryl said, "is a hit!"

In a truly once-in-a-lifetime Memphis moment, Dave told me that while they were cutting 17 Years, photographer Thom Gilbert (who would also provide the cover photo for the album) brought Bobby Bland down to Royal for a photo shoot as part of his Stax Records Memphis Music Project "Soul Men". After he helped Bobby make his way back to the control room, Dave sat there pretty much in awe as Bobby listened to the playback, then gave him a few pointers on how best to go about singing it. How very cool is that?
The rest of the album consists of five more worthy covers of great Soul tunes (including one that I called the "absolute best record" I ever put up on The B Side) cut with The Revelations back at their home base in Brooklyn, making Soul Changes an all-around must have that reflects the incredible talent of all involved.

In the liner notes, Keller quotes the great Louis L'Amour; "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning."

I am right there with that.