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Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown

Dialtone Records

12 tracks/41:38

Here is a refreshing project from two veteran performers with star-studded resumes. Guitarist Milton Hopkins got his career off to a memorable start when he joined the Tempo Toppers in 1950. Along with saxophonist Grady Gaines, they provided the fiery support that helped establish Little Richard as a star. The band later became the Upsetters and set standards for other bands to live up to for musical excellence and showmanship. Hopkins also spent nine years in B.B. King's band in addition to working with Johnny Ace and Big Mama Thornton. Jewel Brown starting her recording career in 1955 with a single for the Duke label. The highlight of her career was a nine year stint as the lead vocalist in the Louis Armstrong band in addition to working with organist Earl Grant and the legendary Texas jazz tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb.

Pairing up these two natives of Houston, Texas was an outstanding idea, made abundantly clear on the opener. Brown lets loose a shout over a strong riff from the horn section to start “Jerry”, then captivates you with lusty tale about a good-loving' man while Hopkins shows that the passing of time has not diminished his skills on the guitar. The good-time mood continues on “Daddy, Daddy” with a sound that recalls the New Orleans R&B sound of the Upsetters with some rollicking piano from Nick Connolly. Brown's boisterous rendition of “Cry Me a River” is another highlight with Kaz Kazanoff's sax pushing the singer before giving way to more of Hopkins' distinctive guitar.
Other tracks point out Brown's versatility as a vocalist. Her hearty voice sounds right at home on the big band-styled ballad “Can't Get Enough of You”, then she sings with perfect control on the traditional gospel tune “There's a Light”. Next, she raises the spirits over a shuffling rhythm on “How Can I Lose”. While the band's take on “I'm Shakin' “ doesn't break any new ground, Brown energized approach carries the day.

Two tracks find Hopkins switching to acoustic guitar with J.B. Lenoir's “The Whale Has Swallowed Me” venturing into a gospel vein that Brown crying out for guidance. “I'm Leaving You Now” was written by Lightnin' Hopkins. Milton shows that he has a deep understanding of his cousin's guitar style, rendering a stark backdrop for Brown's heavy-hearted singing.

Hopkins and the band share the spotlight on three instrumentals. Other musicians include Corey Keller and Jason Moeller on drums, Mike Keller on guitar and Johnny Bradley on bass. “Evening Breeze” is a pensive tune that finds Hopkins picking wistful lines while Kazanoff creates some smoky ambiance with a noteworthy sax solo. Even better is the gritty “Tater Tots” that recalls Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, another leader that Hopkins once worked for. Hopkins alternates between chords and single note runs that exude the hallmarks of the Texas blues guitar style. “Back to the Shimmy” gets off to a rocking start but never really takes off.

Hopkins and Brown may be well past the retirement age but they still have plenty to offer. Their vigorous performances often eclipse the offerings of musicians decades behind them on the road of life. Dialtone Records deserves accolades for giving this project the green light. It is good to know that there is still a place in the world for music that is straightforward, full of nuance and musical craftsmanship. This gem is definitely worth a listen! 

Reviewer Mark Thompson retired after twelve years as president of the Crossroads Blues Society in Rockford. IL. and moved to Florida. He has been listening to music of all kinds for over fifty years. Favorite musicians include Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Magic Slim, Magic Sam, Charles Mingus and Count Basie.

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