Friday, April 08, 2011
When a Guitar Plays the Blues Beckons Mister Moonlight
Best known as the writer of two songs covered by revered Pop Artists, Mr. Moonlight (the Beatles), and When a Guitar Plays the Blues (Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan), guitarist-vocalist Roy Lee Johnson made some strong distinctive blues, soul and funk recordings that never crossed over. He member of Piano Red/Dr. Feelgood’s legendary R&B Band in Atlanta in the sixties that also included guitarist Beverly Watkins. Johnson made his own recordings , initially during PIano Red’s sessions, for Columbia and other labels compiled in the Bear Family CD, When a Guitar Plays The Blues. This CD compiles 28 recordings by Johnson along with four unissued ones by bandmate Curtis Smith, providing about 72 minutes of music. The music on this was properly licensed from the original record labels and comes in a digi-pack and includes a lengthy booklet with full discographical information, copious liner notes with biographical information, rare photos and discussion on the recordings.
There was plenty I did not know about Johnson including his association with the late Robert Ward and several of the recordings which is evident on the terrific Love is Amazing, which is a musical cousin of Ward’s Your Love Is Amazing, but is a celebration of love rather than a single person that the Ward recording is. On first listen, one might have think it is the same tune, but in any event Johnson’s guitar playing holds up to Ward’s and he is a spectacular vocalist. Much of the music on is representative of the transition from rhythm and blues to soul with a pop flavored Sea Breeze (the flip of Mister Moonlight) with a terrific vocal and nicely guitar that is both atmospheric and crisply delivered. Its followed by a funky groover, Black Pepper Will Make You Sneeze, followed by the searing blues-ballad, Too Many Tears. These early sides are with Piano Red/Dr. Feelgood’s band and were produced by Don Law, who some of you may recognize as the person who oversaw Robert Johnson’s recording sessions.
The soulful Nobody Does Something For Nothing would be probably labelled as soul-blues today and showcases Johnson’s impassioned singing, while the next session produced the title track, a truly classic performance that has been over looked because of Roy Buchanan’s interpretations and other covers, but Johnson’s original takes no back seat to anyone with sharp guitar and a terrific gospel-laced vocal. Another track from the same session, the previously unissued, I’m so Happy, is a joyous soul rocker with punchy horns and a tough groove. The previously unissued That’s All I Need, has him again playing through his Magnetone amp as he does on the blues-ballad, Slowly I’m Falling in Love With You, while Two Doors Down, is an instrumental romp that some might mistake for a Lonnie Mack recording. From this session is the ballad It’s All Over, which comes across as Sam Cooke meets Chuck Willis, with a sax solo from either Grady Jackson or Boots Randolph.
I wonder if So Anna Just Love Me was a response to the Arthur Alexander classic Anna. In any event, this medium tempo soul rocker, backed with Boogaloo No. 3, became a favorite on the English Northern Soul scene. Cheer Up Daddy’s Comin’ Home, and its flip side, Guitar Man, were recorded in Muscle Shoals at the legendary Fame Studio. The former number is a strong southern soul ballad while the latter is a short piece of Stax-styled funk. The last session that is represented here is the source for a terrific rendition of She Put The Whammy To Me, that stands up to the renditions by Tommy Ridgely and Freddie King. Four previously unissued sides by Curtis Smith are included to fill this collection out.
Roy Lee Johnson recorded for Stax in the late sixties, made several singles for sundry labels over the ensuing decades, and in the 1990s another CD entitled When a Guitar Plays the Blues, that was issued on a small label and displayed that he remained musically vital. For some reason, the blues revival of recent years has somehow not benefited him to the same degree as some of his contemporaries and that is criminal. In fact, according to Martin Goggin’s copious notes, Johnson has at least an album worth of top quality soul and blues ready to be issued. Bear Family CDs are not inexpensive, but the music and packaging makes this release one to anyone who calls themselves fans of contemporary blues and soul.
This was a purchase.