Johnny Rawls is one of those great singers who emerged from the Southern Soul Tradition. If you think of some of the great voices that came out of STAX or even Goldwax, you know what I’m talking about. I’ll put his voice up there with the likes of Otis Redding and Booker T.
For some that may seem blasphemous, but that’s only because you haven’t listened to him sing yet.
Rawls and his CD, TIGER IN A CAGE, came on my radar through the help of a publicist that we’ve only recently started working with, and she was right on the money as far as telling me how much Henry and I would enjoy listening to the CD. So it just goes to show, sometimes it pays big dividends to listen to publicists.
(Trust me, I always listen. I may not always agree, but they have steered me onto some very good artists and I’m always on the prowl for more.)
After a quick listen to the first couple of songs on a road trip, I was hooked. I pulled it out of the CD player so that I could concentrate on listening in the studio. Believe me, this is not an album you want to have playing casually in the background the first time you hear it, it’s one you will want to savor like a fine Southern Wine.
Nine out of the twelve songs on the album were written or co-written by Rawls. His backing band, The Rays, consists of Johnny McGhee on guitar; frequent co-writer Bob Trenchard on bass; Richy Puga on drums; Dan Ferguson on keyboards and accordion; Andy Roman on alto and tenor sax; Mike Middleton on trumpet; Robert Claiborne on trombone; and Nick Flood on baritone sax.
Special guests on the album include The Iveys (Arlen, Jessica, and Jillian) providing background vocals; Jon Olazabal on percussion; Tommy Sheen on violin; and Norma Martinez on cello.
The sociological title track, Tiger In A Cage, starts off the album with Rawls soulful voice telling the story of young men kept in cages for long periods of time only to be let out and committing new worse crimes. It’s a bold choice, and is underscored by the picture on the CD of a tiger’s eyes above jail bars and frustrated hands holding on to them. This is a powerful song that will haunt you for some time to come.
A little autobiography from the next song, Born To The Blues, explores Rawls destiny and how he approaches dealing with life’s ups and downs. It traces his life from Mississippi and his place in the world of music. You better believe this will be showing up very soon on Time For The Blues.
Showing a more jovial side, Red Cadillac (Rays version) tells the story of driving around Memphis in a convertible Red Cadillac feeling like you own the world. In just a few songs, Rawls has shown that he has one of those great voices that can handle just about any style and his deep resonant tones are a great joy to listen to. This is a great song in the STAX tradition.
Rawls turns up the funk factor on Every Woman Needs A Working Man. It’s an homage to women everywhere and how they can use a good man as a partner and what they really care about. Every woman needs that man who can be an equal partner instead of a parasite draining them of all of their resources.
Showing his softer side, Rawls then croons Reckless Heart, a tender soulful ballad. The song is one of those that lures you in with his silky smooth voice and is the kind of late night music you want playing on the radio when you just want to be alone with that special someone.
Rawls and The Rays kick it up a notch with Keep It Loose, a story of getting together, heading to the juke joint at the county line, and cutting up. It’s a good old fashioned party song that covers some of the fun that they did with Red Cadillac. Nothing wrong with having a little fun, is there?
After half the album of playing nothing but originals, Rawls breaks out his first couple of covers including the Sam Cooke classic, Having A Party and Your Love Is Lifting Me (Higher and Higher) made famous by the legendary Jackie Wilson. While Rawls’ version of Having A Party starts off with a slower tempo than Cooke’s, it is still a powerful song, and it quickly speeds up and lightens the mood. Your Love Is Lifting Me starts out with the horns in full swing and Rawls’ vocals soar over them. It’s a masterful rendition of a classic song.
With these two songs, Rawls demonstrates that he can cover classic songs and add his own signature sounds to them and help us hear them as if we are hearing them for the first time.
He returns with originals with the Zydeco sounding Southern Honey. Utilizing an accordion and washboard, he steps out into an area that he hasn’t yet explored on this album and makes it all sound fine. It makes you want to put that Po’ Boy Sandwich down and get up and dance.
Lucy is a fun straight ahead song about a lovely woman that the singer is interested in. It fits in nicely with the other party songs on the album and once again Rawls shows off some impressive vocal chops supported by a strong horn section.
The Rolling Stones classic, Beast Of Burden, gets the soul treatment, which is only fair since the Stones started out as a blues band. This has always been one of my favorite Stones tunes and I’ve wondered when someone was going to bring it solidly into the blues and soul arena. This is a great interpretation and a lot of fun.
Rawls and Company end the album with a beautiful ballad, I Would Be Nothing. It sums up his gratitude nicely and caps this delightful album that takes its audience on a great trip through the soul tradition.
This has become one of my favorite albums of the year and it has sent me scrambling to find more of Johnny Rawls’ music. In the meantime, you can find your own albums, along with information about Rawls at his website: http://www.johnnyrawlsblues.com/.