Decades of change in idiomatic and radio-programmer preferences have seen the blues mostly relegated to specialty stations and the festival circuit. In the process, an interesting split has developed among its remaining audience, as witnessed by the demographic slant of those who've made Gary Clark Jr.'s new LP the focus of glowing reviews in Rolling Stone and The New York Times (predominantly young, white and rock-oriented).
The constituency that attends such events as this weekend's fourth annual Nashville Blues Festival at Municipal Auditorium tend to be older, mostly working-class blacks who still remember the days of classic soul and R&B radio. It's a crowd that savors gritty confessional tunes and borderline raunchy comic love tales, and they've remained faithful supporters of many artists who haven't had national hits since the '70s and '80s. Yet these acts continue touring and recording, issuing singles, and getting airplay on a tiny network of regional heritage stations like Nashville's WVOL 1470-AM.
Keyboardist-vocalist Benjamin "Benny" Latimore is a prime example. Best known only by his last name, Latimore's a fine pianist and robust, explosive vocalist whose sole No. 1 R&B hit, 1974's "Let's Straighten It Out," remains enormously popular — the same holds true for "Keep the Home Fire Burnin' " and "Somethin' 'Bout Cha."
Though born in Charleston, Tenn., Latimore got his start in the Miami area backing such artists as Joe Henderson and Steve Alaimo during the '60s. What 21st century exposure he's gotten outside Southern soul circles has been for excellent playing on the Joss Stone albums The Soul Sessions and Mind, Body & Soul.
Because he hasn't had a charted single since 1995, even some of the faithful probably haven't heard such recent Latimore releases as 2009's All About the Rhythm and the Blues or 2011's Ladies Choice. Both reaffirm his visceral impact, powerful sound and impassioned delivery, and he's still a huge crowd-pleaser and powerhouse performer despite being in his mid-70s.
Likewise, Denise LaSalle and Shirley Brown, two dynamic female vocalists, have each had anthemic tunes detailing romances gone bad. LaSalle's "Trapped by a Thing Called Love" was not only a 1971 No. 1 R&B hit, but also a million-seller that peaked at No. 13 on the pop charts.
LaSalle has never again met that pop plateau, but throughout the '70s and '80s, she released such outstanding and saucy hits as "Married, but Not to Each Other," and mid-'80s LPs like Lady in the Street and Right Place, Right Time remain excellent. She even enjoyed a late '90s resurgence, when new fans joined old ones to make the 1997 release "Smokin' in Bed" a regional hit. Her most recent LP was the 2010 Ecko release "24 Hour Woman." A 2011 inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame and a restaurant owner in Jackson, Tenn., LaSalle works when she chooses, but enjoys being part of the festival circuit.
The same is true of Brown, who earned a Grammy nomination for the 1974 gold single "Woman to Woman," also a No. 1 R&B and No. 22 pop hit. Brown learned her craft during nine years on the road as one of Albert King's backup vocalists. She might have been bigger if Stax hadn't collapsed just as her debut LP Woman to Woman was issued on their Truth label.
Like former Texas DJ turned record label executive and performer Mel Waiters, the mercurial Bobby Rush and others on the festival lineup, Latimore, Denise LaSalle and Shirley Brown are icons to generations whose musical tastes are ignored by the cultural gatekeepers, but whose support for the sounds and artists they love stays strong.
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