Johnny Rawls,
Remembering O.V.
(Catfood, 2013)

For some reason, not long ago several new recordings of old-fashioned soul music showed up in my mail within a span of two or three weeks. As I listened, I found myself wishing I'd paid more attention to such things when they were pouring out of every radio and jukebox in the land back in the 1960s. In those days this young man -- idiotically, I know -- heard them only as watered-down blues, and thus of little interest to one of his vast musical sophistication. I was embarrassingly oblivious to a lot, not least the black gospel music that shaped the great soul singers.

I learned better long ago, of course, but too late, with so much else to listen to, to fill on a whole lot of gaps in soul-music education. The new arrivals, however, are uniformly pleasureful, lovingly recorded on blues labels such as Catfood and Severn, in each instance arranged with the imprint's terrific house bands.

As its title suggests, Remembering O.V. honors O. V. (Overton Vertis) Wright (1939-1980), whom you may or may not recall from soul's heyday. Wright was second to nobody as a purveyor of fierce, heart-baring expression. If he did not achieve the fame of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and some others, he was surely their peer in the ways that mattered. Johnny Rawls, who served as Wright's musical director and guitarist, knew him as well as anybody. He was with him in his Cadillac in Mobile, Ala., when Wright was stricken with the heart attack that killed him.

A sufferer from the standard musician's ailments (one of which, drugs, landed him in prison and otherwise afflicted his career), Wright always found his biggest audience among African Americans in the Deep South, which is perhaps why those of us who aren't defined by that racial and geographical identity may not know more than his name. From the evidence of this solidly accomplished CD, that's too bad, and maybe something that Rawls, a respected soul-bluesman in his own right, will be able to help correct.

Nine of the 10 cuts are taken from Wright's repertoire. The exception, "Blaze of Glory," stirringly celebrates Wright's short life; it's written by Rawls and Catfood head Bob Trenchard. Only one song bears Wright's byline (a co-write), the sly, sexy (ostensible) train song "Don't Let My Baby Ride." It's likely to be anybody's favorite song on the first go-through. Blues shows up in one form or another just about everywhere, but it's particularly prominent here, not just in the snaky rhythm but in the sensibility, if that's not too fancy a word for a performance so gleefully -- one might say lewdly -- grounded. Among its other virtues, it's hands down Remembering's funniest number.

"Blind, Crippled & Crazy" -- not literally about any of these afflictions -- thrillingly evokes what might be termed romantic insecurity ramped up to borderline hysteria, even as it quotes prominently from the slave-era spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Soul music, unlike its cousin the blues, is not noted for its emotional understatement, and that is undeniably at the core of its charm. Another case in point: the lurid "Eight Men, Four Women," in which the narrator recalls a disturbing dream in which, so the lyric goes, "The jury found me guilty of loving you." Rawls remembers the impact that one in particular had on Wright's fans. One can only imagine what a soul singer of Wright's gifts did with it in live performance, namely rise above the corn and render its sentiments overwhelmingly real and immediate. Rawls's version, entertaining as it is, can give only a hint of what that may have been like.

No question, Rawls proves himself again to be a worthy carrier of the soul tradition. In particular, probably no one could do a better job of Remembering O.V. and resurrecting the spirit of a neglected master of American roots music.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 January 2014

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