The Upshot: Soul-blues singer Johnny Rawls’ time has come. Born into a life of music, Rawls has earned his title of Renaissance Man earnestly – in the time-honored tradition. This release – his 16th – bears this fact out in spades.
BY ERIC THOM
If the world was a fair place, soul-blues practitioners like Johnny Rawls would get the recognition for keeping the flame lit today – not after he’s missed. Thankfully, the 65-year old Rawls’ isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon. But it seems like the workaday singer-songwriter-guitarist has been hard at it forever. First catching the music bug from his talented grandfather. Rawls following through on his own initiative, teaming with O.V. Wright back in the ‘80s and proudly waving Wright’s flag to this day. His recent toe-to-toe teaming with Otis Clay for ‘14’s Soul Brothers was a soulful explosion of how powerful this genre can be when leaning on seasoned, classic voices. Rawls’ latest continues this momentum, brimming with confidence and a clear demonstration of how powerful a progenitor he has become.
Listen to Rawls’ voice….steeped in that smooth, satiny soul that is only acquired the old-fashioned way – getting out and serving it up, tirelessly.
Slip into his 16th release since ’96, and savor the deep Southern groove of the title track – with a dash of Curtis Mayfield, embellished by the warm, rich bass-lines of (Rawls’ co-writer) Rob Trenchard, note-perfect backup singers and muted trumpet. The autobiographical “Born to the Blues” comes straight from the heart, providing Rawls a chance to convincingly explain what’s in it for him – and why. With plenty of spring in his step, “Red Cadillac” pits Rawls’ uptempo vocal against a funky backbeat and the tight horns of Andy Roman (tenor/alto sax), Mike Middleton (trumpet), Robert Claiborne (trombone), Nick Flood (baritone sax) – good luck getting this one off your latest playlist. This tight band weaves a steel-girded web around Rawls and this revisited original, matching his impeccable moves while underlining his lofty degree of comfort with the material.
These are tight, original compositions – and what Rawls & Co. does is nothing gleaned from Juilliard. This savvy groove is born of the road, acquiring that sixth sense only afforded the veterans who have long paid their dues, acting out of pure love and lifelong commitment. “Every Woman Needs A Working Man” is another jaw-dropping, foot-tapping, soulful life lesson that packs such a rock-hard groove as to render it indispensible, feel-good music. Propulsive guitar (Johnny McGhee) and spirited B3 (Dan Ferguson) add to “Keep it Loose” (which is anything but), which packs a solid punch, driven forward by the Rays’ horn section and Rawls’ all-powerful backup singers (Arlen, Jessica and Jillian Ivey). For the most part, a cover can never be any better than a cover tune – and Rawls chooses 3 of them here.
And while his treatment of Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party” proves a bit relaxed, his authoritative take on “Your Love Is Lifting Me (Higher and Higher), egged on by his slick horn section, is beyond uplifting. It positively soars with raw energy. Even the potentially overexposed “Beast of Burden” is, likewise, sent skyward based on the blended fuel of Rawls’ smooth, geared-down approach coupled with his killer combo of horns and backup singers. Rawls’ duet with Eden Brent on “Southern Honey, given a fresh zydeco kick, proves an interesting diversion, yet the two voices don’t gel as expected, dragging at times – Rawls’ vocal approximating Van the Man’s at times against Richy Puga’s crisp drumming as Dan Ferguson’s accordion and Tommy Sheen’s perky Cajun-fiddle add zest to the notion. As good as this record is, nothing prepares you for Rawls’ “I Would Be Nothing” – a showstopper if ever there was one and one of the few occasions where strings and soul work well together. All tender love songs should bite this sweetly, his band and back-up singers providing just the right degree of complementary accompaniment. It’s a song you wish could keep going.
Credit Jim Gaines for the overall crispness of this recording, if you will, but it’s Rawls’ moment to truly shine, revealing the full extent of his soulful inner Tiger without compromise. This is one ferocious front man deserving of a much wider audience for the simple reason that he’s in his prime and his band of team-players – a veritable force-field – mine a soulful groove the likes of which have not been mined in years.
DOWNLOAD: “Born to the Blues,” “Every Woman Needs a Working Man”