Earl Gaines - Nothin’ But The Blues
The history of music is littered with the damaged and neglected. Dreamers who received little or no payoff for years of commitment as they followed whatever muse to whatever level of hell they descended. James Carr, Little Joe Blue, Howard Tate, Little Sonny, Willie Brown, Walter Brown, they all show up on the radar, they bring something potent to the table and then they drop off that radar. Sometimes one is re-located by someone who gives a damn and, less frequently, they get a second chance. I knew Rock-a-billy singer Glen Glenn four years before I figured out who he “had been.”
This new CD by Earl Gaines marks such a second chance, actually a third. Having been a modestly significant artist in the Black community from 1955 until about 1975, Gaines faded from recognition while performers like O.V.Wright, Syl Johnson, Latimore, and the obscure Little Beaver nibbled on the leftovers as one more Soul Man fell away.
Now, by re-re-recording Ted Jarrett’s “24 Hours a Day,” Gaines surfaces for a third bite of the apple. Jarrett composed “You Can Make It If You Try” covered by the Rolling Stones in 1964. Buddy Guy did an excellent cover of this tune. I backed a young vocalist, Rob Donofrio, on a version in 1995. Producer John Ward was very canny to have recruited Harrison Calloway to arrange the horn parts. Calloway is one of the architects who helped create the genre of Soul Music.
Opening with the aforementioned “24 Hours” Gaines sets the tone of this outing with a nice, straight-ahead Memphis-style shuffle. The arrangement is from the Fame/Stax vocabulary. One can imagine that Gaines was a contributor to SRV’s vocal approach. I cannot figure why the horns are over-compressed here and on a couple of other cuts.
“Let’s Call a Truce” takes the mellow ballad approach, somewhere between Hi Records and the Muscle Shoals Sound Recorders of 1970. The synth strings are voiced authentically. The lyric is about tension in a relationship. You can feel the impending doom. This is termed ‘Deep Soul.’
Track #3, “Meat and Potatoes Man” is that not-too-subtle Tampa Red kind of song. You need some attention? I got some attention for you.” Z.Z.Hill’s “Down Home Blues” is the obvious model for the arrangement and rhythm pocket. The guitar work is predictable but good.
“Let the Past Be the Past” sounds like the kind of song that Isaac Hayes and David Prater used to write for Sam & Dave. It could even be something from William Bell. This is a great example of Memphis R&B. The strings and horns crossing textures is something that Memphis arrangers were brilliant at doing. I’m happy to hear this kind of song done in this way.
The fifth cut is If I Could Do it All Over Again.” More Deep Soul to express regret. You really don’t miss your water until the well runs dry.
In the #6 slot is a tune whose metaphor sounds risky and risque. Yes, this is automatically provocative. “You Better Know Your Hole From Mine” is a warning to other fishermen to stay away from a particularly enjoyable spot where the catfish bite. Oh, and should you trespass, the singer will be on you “like white on rice.” Not nearly as clever as the composer’s assumed, nor as ironic as the producer intended, much better “property access” songs are already written.
“Everything Sweet Reminds Me of You.” If you miss the Chi-Lites, this will serve as a Methodone substitute. In the hands of an amateur this would be saccharine crap. Delivered by a skilled Soul singer, it is totally believable. Kudus to producer Ward for writing it and giving it to one of the few people in the world who could serve the song.
#8 is “Good Old Country Boy.” Dating back to “Po’ Boy” and continuing still, the cycle of songs dealing with the character of the guileless and simple soul with his simple needs is an American tradition. Yeah, the simple, ‘overhall-wearing’ [sic] backwoods Alabama boy who can love a woman’s brains out. The determination of the producer to capture the Howlin’ Wolf monotonic riff is admirable, but Wolf never recorded those tunes as more than three-minute declarations.
The penultimate song is a distinct prequel to Z.Z.Hill’s “Down Home Blues.” This is what she said to him before she went to the party. It isn’t a blues despite its title, “Nothing But Party Blues.” I can hear the Hill song coming around the bend, but this composition is very near something Mel & Tim might have done “back in the day.” Yeah, it’s a nice addition to the story of the frailty of the flesh.
The promise of a title like “Cheat on Schedule,” is broad. The song is another solid shuffle and is a sequel of sorts. Remember Albert King’s suspicions about his woman going down to the Laundromat? Well, this is the guy she was cheating with. Yeah, sister, let’s get on with it. A good closing number.
Bassist Al Wilder gets extra points from me. Conscientious and constant, his attention to the essence of Duck Dunn, James Jamerson, Fred Thomas and Ray Brundidge’s work is laudable.
Calloway’s delicious horn-parts are not treated as well as they should have been in the mix of some of the tunes, but that’s a minor quibble in the context of this very satisfying CD.
Reviewer John Harrelson has been playing Blues since 1965 and worked in virtually every genre of music; Folk, Country, Jazz, R&B and Rock. He holds a Ph.D in Historical Musicology from Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology. www.johnharrelson.com