Saturday, November 19, 2011

Music Reviews-Freddie King, Donnie Hathaway

 Freddie King
King in full effect
There are three great Kings of the Blues: Albert, BB and Freddie. Each man had his own unique musical fingerprint. BB's sound could be described as sweet, stinging and sassy while Albert's tone had all the implacable bassy menace of the trucks and tractors he used to drive. Freddie King possessed the aggressive fiery attack one would think proper for a man described as The Texas Cannonball

The youngest of the three men, Freddie King matured musically at the same time that people like Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and Bo Diddley were in the process of creating rock-n-roll. King's playing showed these modern influences. Freddie King was just as comfortable playing surf-rock, Chuck Berry style grooves, and other uptempo instrumental R&B as he was playing slower blues. King's early albums were attempts to cash in on the early sixties surfing craze. He was briefly on the same label as James Brown but unfortunately I don't think they ever recorded together. Maybe I'm wrong and there's some cut out there with Freddie King backing up Soul Brother Number One! King also spent a lot of time as a session guitarist for Chess and Cobra records during the day while by night he was making a name for himself as an up and coming blues guitarist on Chicago's competitive west side guitar circuit.

Like the other Kings of the blues he had a HUGE voice to go along with his guitar stylings.  Freddie King was among the last major blues guitarists with an instantly identifiable sound. He was not a great songwriter but was a talented improviser.
Freddie King eschewed a normal pick attack but played with a thumbpick and fingers, something which was quite common for the Texas country blues guitarists he had grown up emulating. He had a very distinctive and immediately familiar vibrato in his playing.  

King was also playing much more loudly than most other blues guitarists and quite a few rock guitarists in the early seventies. Unlike most rock guitarists though King had mastery of dynamics and tension. He wasn't just playing loudly ALL the time. As were many musicians of his generation, Freddie King was a direct influence on several rock musicians -most notably Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, the Vaughn Brothers, and Grand Funk Railroad to name a few.
"Up all night with Freddie King/I got to tell you poker's his thing" -We're an American Band -Grand Funk Railroad
King and Clapton
Freddie King was one of those musicians who could and did in the same concert venture from a slow traditional 12/8 shuffle blues, to straight-ahead rock-n-roll, to lumbering loud blooooze-rock (see Going Down), back to funk, stop in for a visit at soulsville, and end the night with some old time acoustic fingerstyle blues. Unfortunately King died too young (at 42) from stomach ulcers and pancreatitis. He left behind a fascinating diverse body of work. King also had an astonishing resemblance to one of my paternal uncles so I was always kindly disposed to him.
Ain't no Sunshine    Have you ever loved a woman  Ghetto Woman  Ain't that I don't love you
Hideaway      Going Down   Ain't Nobody's Business if I do   Gambling Woman Blues

Donny Hathaway
In my view Stevie Wonder did his best work during the seventies but Wonder wasn't the only keyboard prodigy around during that time. Although he's probably best known for his admittedly magnificent duets with Roberta Flack and of course the song This Christmas, Donny Hathaway was an excellent singer, songwriter, bandleader, arranger and musician-talents which are not often found together in the same person. To me, his versions of Jealous Guy, A Song for You and To Be Young, Gifted and Black are the DEFINITIVE versions-I was SHOCKED to find out he didn't write them. His live version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black takes the gospel call-and-response to a place of pure beauty-the audience should have gotten writing credit on that one.

Like Wonder, Hathaway excelled both live and in studio, but for me Hathaway's best work was usually recorded live. He was a very organic musician for lack of a better word. Hathaway, like Wonder, worked with some of the best soul, jazz, and R&B musicians around.  He demanded and received a very high level of quality of work from himself and from his fellow musicians. Luminaries such as Stanley Clarke, Phil Upchurch, David Newman and Cornell Dupree worked with Hathaway. 

Similar to many other soul musicians, Hathaway started out singing gospel as a child and took many of those abilities and influences into popular music. Hathaway was an educated musician, having attended Howard University on a music scholarship. At Howard, Hathaway was recognized as being so skilled that when he bothered to come to music theory and composition class, his teachers would often let him teach the class. For those of you who are into such things, Hathaway was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Hathaway and Flack
Hathaway was skilled in a variety of genres-jazz, soul, R&B, soft rock, blues, etc. He didn't seem to recognize boundaries. Unfortunately Hathaway suffered mightily from depression and evidently took his own life. I remember the tragedy when it happened. People didn't want to believe it. There were rumors about other things going on. I don't know about that. I do know that it's one of life's paradoxes that often the greatest music is made by people with quite severe personal problems. Hathaway was as talented as Wonder, Joel, John or any of the other pop pianists of the seventies.

When you listen to these cuts notice how well produced and mixed they are-the vocals are upfront but everything fits together. You can simultaneously pick out all of the individual instruments but no one instrument dominates the sound-with of course the occasional exception of Hathaway's piano. I really like these sounds. In my opinion production like this has become something of a lost art.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black   Giving Up    Be Real Black for me   
Jealous Guy    A Song For you    I love You more than you'll ever Know   Some day we'll all be free  Where is the Love  The Ghetto   Magnificent Sanctuary Band   We need you right now 
This Christmas    You've Got a friend  
blog comments powered by Disqus