Jazz and country aren't the only genres in which authenticity questions have raged for decades. There's been a sizable gulf within the blues universe ever since Muddy Waters' and many Mississippians' arrivals in Chicago electrified their sound, accelerated the groove and ushered in a new approach toward 12-bar sagas of turmoil, survival and resilience. But while Muddy, Howlin' Wolf and others among the Chicago crew had hits into the '60s, other performers took a different direction. They embraced the changes that emerged when traditional R&B was displaced by soul. A prime example was harmonica player/guitarist/vocalist Bobby Rush, one of the most popular artists in the genre some call bluesy soul —others call it soulful blues or just Southern soul. Rush virtually eliminated guitar and harmonica solos in his recordings. His shows became a mix of heartfelt ballads, sexually explicit pieces and novelty/comic numbers. The blues-rockers and some traditional blues types denounced this move, but a new, mostly black audience quickly embraced it.
While a few performers in this school — Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge and James Carr, for instance — were equally celebrated by rockers alongside guitar heroes, most of the others were mainly welcomed by soul fans, several with an affinity for country as well. For a brief moment in the '80s, when ZZ Hill's "Down Home Blues" cracked the Billboard Top 20, this hybrid style got some national attention. But Hill's tragic death of a heart attack en route to a New York performance derailed the momentum, along with urban radio's shift from musical sounds viewed as demographically undesirable. These artists eventually found homes on such labels as Malaco, Ichiban and currently Memphis-based Ecko. Their songs were (and are) relegated to a patchwork radio underground consisting of "heritage" stations and the few black-owned AM outlets still playing music such as Music City's WVOL 1470-AM. Their fan base remains older blacks, some of whom never enjoyed funk or disco, and universally have little interest in hip-hop and other urban sounds.
Such events as Sunday's Nashville Blues Festival underscore that divide. Most blues and even a lot of rock and pop fans are familiar with Bobby "Blue" Bland and Shirley Brown. Bland was once known as "The Sepia Sinatra," and his robust shouting anthems backed by sparkling big bands were featured on a host of spectacular Duke albums in the '50s and '60s. He teamed with longtime friend B.B. King for a pair of successful '70s duet LPs that defied that era's embargo on blues at major labels. He later had a long career on Malaco, with his hit "Members Only" even becoming a crossover country success. Brown was a Stax mainstay for several years, with her scorching testimonials like "Woman to Woman" (later covered by Barbara Mandrell) becoming celebrated anthems. Bland and Brown no longer make records, but remain popular as headline attractions.
But other featured performers, such as Mel Waiters, Sir Charles Jones, Theodis Ealey, O.B. Buchana and Sheba Potts-Wright, are only known on this circuit. Waiters, a onetime San Antonio DJ who's been making albums and singles since the late '90s, is one of the deceased Marvin Sease's prime replacements among kings of regional novelty hits. Such tunes as his recent "When You Get Drunk" blend a satirical bent with quite specific language regarding alcohol's impact on the senses. Waiters includes plenty of sultry (and graphic) love tunes on his albums, and he's perhaps the biggest star among the others on the bill.
Sir Charles Jones epitomizes the genre's survival aspect. Sease was Jones' mentor and teacher when he was developing his style in Birmingham, and his 2000 debut LP Sir Charles Jones got plenty of exposure in the Mississippi/Tennessee/Alabama area. A versatile stylist able to credibly explore traditional blues as well as jazz, gospel and even fusion, Jones' second LP, Love Machine, peaked on the Billboard blues charts at No. 28 in 2002. The scorching single "Is There Anybody Lonely" even found its way onto late-night urban radio specialty shows. But a 2003 motorcycle accident nearly ended everything. Jones bounced back with a compilation LP in 2008 and the entertaining music DVD Sir Charles Jones: His Life & Times — Undisputed King of Southern Soul in 2009.
Other acts on the bill have enjoyed varying degrees of success. Sheba Potts-Wright, the daughter of onetime time Chitlin' Circuit mainstay Robert "Dr. Feelgood" Potts, has issued some explosive singles since her 2001 debut. Her specialty is risqué tunes that are sometimes comic pieces, other times borderline X-rated outings like "I Can Hear Your Macaroni," "Lipstick on His Pants" and "I Need A Cowboy To Ride." She has a brassy, authoritative style reminiscent of Millie Jackson in her prime, except she's yet to equal her crossover appeal. Theodis Ealey had a big record in Atlanta with It's a Real Good Thang in 2002, and is one of the few in this genre whose instrumental ability (guitar) rivals his vocal talents.
While some purists grumble this is more a soul than a blues date, these performers invoke the identical dramatic intensity and performance motifs as those customarily identified as blues. Given the struggles anyone doing this music encounters in getting exposure and recognition, it's time for at least a truce, if not a ceasefire, in the genre wars.
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