A version of this appeared in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Sept. 23, 2005
Nashville streets like 16th Avenue and “Lower Broad” (Broadway, that is, home of Tootsie‘s Orchid Lounge and just half a block away from the Ryman Auditorium) have been immortalized in song. But there’s another road in Nashville that nurtured a lesser known but amazingly vital world of music: Jefferson Street.
The Jefferson Street district, up to the 1970s, was an thriving business area for Nashville’s Black population. Among those thriving businesses, naturally were nightclubs where jazz, blues, R&B and soul music filled the air.
The musicians and the songs that roared on Jefferson Street in the mid 20th Century make up the core of the project known as Night Train to Nashville, Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970. The two-disc first volume was released last year -- and won a Grammy for best historical recording. The two-disc Volume Two was released just last week and it’s equally tasty.
While the Nashville R&B artists were undeniably exuberant, judging by the Night Train series, they were more derivative than original. On Volume Two for instance Little Ike’s “She Can Rock” sounds disturbingly similar to Little Richard. Roscoe Shelton’s “Strain in My Heart” is in the early soul style of Solomon Burke and Bobby “Blue Bland.” Johnny Jones & The King Casuals -- which at one point included a young Jimi Hendrix -- do an admirable take on the Stax-Volt sound with their 1967 instrumental “Soul Poppin’” (produced by Stax man William Bell), while you can hear mucho Motown in songs like Jimmy Church’s “Right on Time” or “That’s My Man” by Marion James.
Helen Foster covered the 1952 Jo Stafford hit “You Belong to Me” (“See the pyramids along the Nile/Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle …”) for the R&B market. The song was co-written by country bandleader Pee Wee King.
On the other hand, Volume Two contains songs recorded in Nashville (and some recorded elsewhere by Nashville singers) that later were big hits for others.
There’s a tune that Elvis Presley would later knock out of the park: Bernard Hardison‘s “Too Much.” (Volume One had Arthur Gunter’s pre-Presley “Baby Let’s Play House.”)
Night Train Volume Two includes Christine Kittrell’s gritty “I’m a Woman” (Peggy Lee had the hit); “Little Darlin’” by The Gladiolas, a South Carolina group who recorded this in Nashville before it became the signature tune for Canadian doo-woppers The Diamonds; and Freddy North’s “She’s All I Got” (co written by Gary “U.S.” Bonds and Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams), which later became a hit for country star Johnny Paycheck.
And Nashville was the home to a brooding soul man named Arthur Alexander, whose style didn’t seem to copy anyone. His song “Anna” (included on Volume One) became famous when The Beatles covered it. On this volume, Alexander sings a haunting ballad from 1962 called “Soldier of Love,” with the chorus “Lay down your arms and surrender to me …”
There are a couple of tracks here of R&B stars who came to Nashville to record with the famous C&W session musicians -- the boys who made the noise on 16th Avenue. Esther Phillips soulful voice cuts right through the strings and white-bread chorus of “Release Me” (a song previously covered by both Ray Price and Kitty Wells). Even better is Clyde McPhatter’s “Next to Me,” whose tenor soars over the gospel-style piano.
Among the standouts on Volume Two are Johnny Bragg’s “I’m Free (The Prisoner’s Song)” an autobiographical tale in which, following a spoken introduction that sounds straight out of a ’50s news reel, Bragg tells how he was “servin’ 99 in the penitentiary/but the governor came along and set me free.
Indeed, Bragg’s story is similar to that of Leadbelly, who in 1934 charmed Gov. O.K. Allen of Louisiana into releasing him early. (And some say the same scenario played out a few years before with Leadbelly and a Texas governor.)
According to the African American Registry web site, Bragg was serving six (!) 99-year sentences for rape when Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement heard him sing and commuted his sentence in 1959. Can you imagine the political poop storm Bill Richardson -- or any contemporary governor -- would face if he released a convicted rapist because he liked the guy’s music?
Bragg later went on to lead a group called The Prisonaires, who recorded for Sun Records. “I’m Free” is a home recording that sounds like a spiritual in which Bragg is accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. By the last he’s singing in a striking falsetto.
But I think my favorite song here is two minutes and 22 seconds of pure pleasure from 1963 called “You Better Change” by a duo called Hal & Jean. The song, sung by Hal Gilbert, is a basic take-off on Ray Charles’ “What I Say.”
What makes the song is the over-miked Jean Gilbert, who provides humorous asides (“you talkin’ through your head …”) and has one fo the sexiest giggles ever recorded in human history.
Basically this whole collection, like last year’s first volume, is one big sexy giggle.
Night Train on the radio: I’ll be playing songs from the Night Train to Nashville collections Sunday on Terrell’s Sound World, 10 p.m. to midnight Sunday on KSFR 90.7 FM (and streaming live on www.ksfr.org) (The Night Train segment will start at 11 p.m.)
Speaking of KSFR, the annual fall fundraiser starts in October. Get your checkbooks ready, because Santa Fe’s public radio station won’t last without the support of the Santa Fe public. And who else is going to play the crazy stuff I review in this column?
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