A stream-able party mix highlighting some of the talent we couldn't fit onto our 12th Annual Southern Music CD.
1. "Talk Back Trembling Lips" Ernest Ashworth (Huntsville)
This is what a mainstream country hit used to sound like: poppy, yes, but also twangy and moody—and a little weird. In 1963, "Talk Back Trembling Lips" topped both the country and pop charts. Ernest Ashworth, of Huntsville, never scaled as high again, at least commercially, but that wavery, forlorn voice of his, with its power to slip into your insides, can still be heard on a handful of other fine performances, including, "A Week in the Country," which was written by fellow Alabamian Baker Knight (who appears on our hard-copy CD).
"Talk Back Trembling Lips" by Ernest Ashworth (Courtesy of Gusto Records)
2. "I Can't Get No Hearin' From My Babe" Tom Bradford
From this mysterious prewar guitar picker, a plunking, plaintive apology mixing religious themes and worried notes into the sort of diffident, sneering song about forgiveness that only a bluesman can pull off. "I'm going down the road feeling bad/the Lord's the only jail that I have."
"I Can't Get No Hearin' From My Babe" by Tom Bradford
3. "Can't You Stop It Now" The Mixed Emotions (Coden)
The opening of this track from the Coden, Alabama group builds curiously like a Motown hit—only to rip into a buzzy, pop-digestible garage tune. From the only known 45 released by The Mixed Emotions (circa 1968), "Can't You Stop It Now" contains enough energy (after all these years) to serve masterfully as an apathetic-teen anthem even today.
"Can't You Stop It Now" by The Mixed Emotions (Courtesy of Gear Fab Records)
4. "I Can Feel My Love Comin' Down" Roszetta Johnson (Tuscaloosa)
Roszetta Johnson's buoyant voice hit the pop and r&b charts in the early '70s with tracks written and produced by the legendary Sam Dees. Grounded in gospel, Roszetta's effortlessly melodic sound rivaled that of The Supremes and she was even asked to audition to replace one of the members of the group. Alas, her career was stymied by marriage—her strict husband demanded that she sing exclusively in churches. Over time, admiring soul aficionados found and swapped her early recordings; in 2007, the Soulscape label collected those early tracks (some of which were previously unreleased) on PERSONAL WOMAN, which includes the sweet and slightly suggestive tune "I Can Feel My Love Coming Down." Perhaps the most uplifting aspect of Roszetta's story is that you can still catch her singing in Birmingham jazz venues.
"I Can Feel My Love Comin' Down" by Roszetta Johnson (Courtesy of Ginn Music Group)
5. "Alabama Lullaby" The Delmore Brothers (Elkmont)
"'We would give each and every original tune its own sound and we were very meticulous in this treatment,' Alton Delmore wrote in his autobiography about the country songs he performed with his brother Rabon from the 1930s–1950s. But that laconic description doesn't capture the seductiveness of the best Delmore Brothers recordings, where taste and care give original songwriting, taut guitar interplay, and intricate vocal harmony a lovely sonic wholeness."
"Alabama Lullaby" by The Delmore Brothers (Courtesy of JSP Records)
6. "Right Around the Corner" Boyd Bennett & His Rockets (Muscle Shoals)
Boyd is naturally talented, but he's like a player who jogs into second when, with a blazing effort, he could have slid into third by a hair. At its fiery best, like "Right Around the Corner," his music jolts past soda-fountain bobby-sox'd rock & roll into something more like unbridled r&b.
"Right Around the Corner" by Boyd Bennett & His Rockets (Courtesy of Gusto Records)
7. "Waiting for No One" Carnival Season (Birmingham)
Carnival Season formed in the mid-'80s in Birmingham, Alabama. Members Mark Reynolds and Ed Reynolds (no relation) came together with Tim Boykin and Brad Quinn, and together they played, toured, and worked with MCA until Ed left and the group and the quartet became a trio. In 1987, they released their EP entitled WAITING FOR NO ONE. The self-titled track is fast-paced rock & roll with a touch of pop-punk that epitomizes the sound of Carnival Season.
"Waiting For No One" by Carnival Season (Courtesy of The Arena Rock Recording Co.)
8. "The Walls Fall" Jo Jones & Milton Hinton (Birmingham)
Dig this chilling minimalist jazz number—a duet between the Alabama Jazz Hall-of-Famer Jo Jones and the Mississippian Milton Hinton. If Hinton's sub-audible humming bass isn't enough to get your heart rate going, Jones's anxious percussion should lift your blood pressure. Regardless of what you're doing, with this playing behind you, you'll be doing it faster.
"The Walls Fall" by Jo Jones & Milton Hinton (Courtesy of Essential Media Group)
9. "Everybody Let's Dance" Jimmy Hughes (Florence)
It takes about three seconds of this track before it's party time. If you're not lulled to the dance floor by your helpless toe-tapping, then maybe you'll be swayed by Florence native Jimmy Hughes's flawless vocals. Failing that, some horns will sweep in after about thirty seconds blasting a come-hither kind of refrain—plus a hot sax solo doesn't hurt.
"Everybody Let's Dance" by Jimmy Hughes (Courtesy of FAME)
10. "Your Love Is Real" Ray Agee (Dixons Mill)
Raised on gospel in Dixons Mill, Alabama in the '30s and bedridden by polio, Ray Agee had plenty of time to sing as a child. Later, he turned to blues and r&b, put out records on little-known labels like Mar-Jan, Check, and Krafton, then disappeared from the music scene in the 1970s. He's said to have died in obscurity sometime before the millennium. Who knows what really happened to him?—but when he tells you he's "just a soul man," he's easy to believe.
"Your Love Is Real" by Ray Agee
11. "Primitive Love" Tom Reeves (Monroe County)
This isn't your average walloping rockabilly. For one, it's less electric than you might expect. Reeves's speak-singing rolls out a litany of curious animal comparisons—a giraffe? a rattlesnake? a "great big ape"? The wild-animal similes (and noises!) are offset adorably by the melodic, nursery-rhyme guitar picking. But the whole tone changes when you hear that final verse...and begin to understand the circumstances.
"Primitive Love" by Tom Reeves (Courtesy of Rock Star Records)
12. "Why Don't We Try" Cleveland Eaton (Birmingham)
"You never can tell who that older, bearded dude playing bass at your local jazz club might be. If you're at Old Car Heaven or MAFIAoZA's in Birmingham, Alabama, he just might be Cleveland Eaton, a true road warrior who spent ten years contributing to a series of gold albums and touring with crossover soul-jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis during his mid-'60s heyday, and another seventeen traveling the world and recording Grammy Award–winning albums with Count Basie."
From John Kelman's feature on Eaton. Read it here.
"Why Don't We Try" by Cleveland Eaton (Courtesy of CeeMe Productions)
13. "Seven Sister Blues" Edward Thompson
There's probably no other single blues comp of Alabama artists than ALBAMA BLUES 1927–1931 (Yazoo) that can challenge this one for sheer greatness. And while modern ears will at first balk at the piercing roughness of most of these performances, be patient. If you can, you'll end up addicted.
In "Seven Sister Blues," guitarsmith and prewar bluesman Thompson uses his thumb like he's hitchhiking: with its strong bass beat, the song keeps plodding along and, eventually, takes you places. Where? Well, away from Thompson's "coal black woman" who won't "fry no meat," for starters. By the last bar, when the wagon rolls by with his dead gal inside and Thompson's hands are furiously working on the fret-board, we don't exactly know what happened—but we can be sure the singer is already gone.
"Seven Sister Blues" by Edward Thompson (Courtesy of Yazoo Records)
14. "Completely Lose Control" Linda Manning (Cullman)
Linda Manning's voice rings clear as an alarm clock in this bedroom ballad. The vocal melody floats atop the backing oohs and ohhhhs, faint moans in the background as she moves in close and whispers to her lover, "I'm so afraid if I touch you / I'll completely lose control." Sixties pop at its best.
"Completely Lose Control" by Linda Manning (Courtesy of Ace Records)
15. "Mind Over Matter" Nolan Strong & the Diablos (Scottsboro)
Before he fell prey to the doo-wop enticements of the Diablos, Nolan Strong started off in Scottsboro, Alabama. Founded in Detroit, the Diablos were best known for the song "The Wind"—a comparatively effete ballad better suited for teenage sighing. The Diablos suffered several setbacks throughout their existence, including an ever-changing cast of characters—even fellow Alabamian Andre Williams held up the bass line for a while. But they've left behind an impressive bundle of doo-wop would-be classics, including this little ode to psychological seduction.
"Mind Over Matter" by Nolan Strong & the Diablos (Courtesy of Fortune Records)
16. "His Hands" Candi Staton (Hanceville)
In this track (a previously unreleased version of "His Hands" from an early practice session), written by no-folk troubadour Will Oldham and performed by the "First Lady of Southern Soul," Staton sings an extended double entendre about the hands of abusive men and the hands of God. "There were a lot of things in his touch," she begins, in a voice that's weathered but never blustery. "Sometimes the slightest whisper—ooh, it could hurt so much." It's Staton at her best: taking the raw material dished out to her by too many men and turning it into something beautiful.
Read our December 2010 interview with Staton here.
"His Hands" by Candi Staton (Courtesy of Honest Jon's/The Beech House/Candi Staton)
17. "Now She's Gone" Felt (Arab)
You might not believe this, but a group of teenagers materialized in North Alabama in the early 1970s and recorded a downright virtuosic, proto-prog-rock masterpiece. This elusive self-titled album goes for over $600 in various Internet markets, and its value doesn't lie in its novelty alone. It's the dynamic song structures, fabulist lyrics, and technically inventive guitar work that make this album a collector's item, and "Now She's Gone" may give you a taste why.
"Now She's Gone" by Felt (Courtesy of Mychael John Thomas)
18. "Love Is All Right" Cliff Nobles (Grove Hill)
At just under three minutes, "Love Is All Right" is the sonic equivalent of a tide pool: How can anything so small sustain the energy it does? The horns and vocals trade back and forth in intensity as this forgotten master of soul croons, "Love is all right!" Though Nobles eventually left the music industry to work construction in Pennsylvania (where he died in 2008), this track from 1968 captures him at the height of his talents.
"Love Is All Right" by Cliff Nobles (Courtesy of Jamie Record Co. Available on iTunes and on the CD "Cliff Nobles: The Phil-LA of Soul Singles Collection 1968–1972")
19. "The Light Across the River" Wanda Wayne (Jasper)
"Some of Wayne's most successful sides, like 'The Light Across the River,' are those she sang with a thorn in her heart. Jilted lovers, unwarranted betrayals, the dark vise of love. They're affective performances, though stripped back and bare. You hear real, simple pain in there and it makes you wonder: was that earnestness hard won or was she simply a talented singer?"
From Sarah A. Strickley's piece on Wanda Wayne, available here.
20. "Wake Me Up Sweet Jesus" Jimmy Murphy (Birmingham)
In the tradition of the best '50s country-bluegrass, Jimmy Murphy—today a cult hero among rockabilly enthusiasts, but initially a failure whose label dropped him when his singles didn't sell—offers up a rollicking hoedown soundtrack for dancing at the end of days. "Wake me up, sweet Jesus," he crows with verve in his throat, "when this old world is burning down."
"Wake Me Up Sweet Jesus" by Jimmy Murphy (Courtesy of Gusto Records)
21. "Memphis Blues" James Reese Europe (Birmingham)
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1881, at nineteen, Europe moved to Harlem, formed a ragtime group called The Clef Club, and helped announce the coming Harlem Renaissance when his (almost) all-black band came blaring into Carnegie Hall. Later, he saw combat in World War I as a lieutenant in the "Harlem Hellfighters" and led a military band around Europe, playing tunes like "Memphis Blues" to swooning French audiences. Back from the war, one night, he got into an argument with one of his drummers. The drummer stabbed him in the neck with a penknife. When Europe died, W.C. Handy eulogized him at the first public funeral ever held in New York for a black man: "The man who had just come through the baptism of war's fire and steel without a mark on him had been stabbed by one of his musicians.... The sun was in the sky. The new day promised peace. But all the suns had gone down for Jim Europe, and Harlem didn't seem the same."
"Memphis Blues" by James Reese Europe (Courtesy of Inside Sounds/Memphis Archives)
22. "Down by the Riverside" Charlie Louvin (Henagar)
This is how country should be sung: with a warble in the voice, a fiddle matching it nearly note for note, and a bass line tugging the whole thing along like a boat down a river. The gentle contrarianism and rebellious streak running through the track is oddly jubilant. "Ain't gonna study war no more," the Henagar, Alabama native sings, echoing his own development from WWII enlistee to acting grandfather of Alabama's country music heritage.
"Down by the Riverside" by Charlie Louvin (Courtesy of Steele Management)