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Tucson Weekly Hardcore R&B

The real thing is still alive and kicking in Mississippi.

By Dave McElfresh

JUNE 8, 1998:  AT THE THEATER the other day, someone dumped into the top of the popcorn machine a jug of liquid gunk that read "Imitation Yellow Food Coloring Butter Flavored Additive," or some such frighteningly Orwellian disclaimer. Simultaneously, dripping down from the speakers onto the theater lobby crowd was the sugary balladry of Mariah Carey and Najee--which, shockingly, was allowed into our systems without any warning of it being Imitation Rhythm and Blues Even Further Diluted Through Studio Production. Be careful, y'all, this stuff will give you cancer of the ears.

Real hardcore rhythm and blues has seldom made its way onto the pop charts since Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Sam & Dave were radio names back in the '60s. Rhythm and blues is the marriage of the southern blues with gospel music, accounting for why the much lighter, highly polished and far more urban Motown sound was considered soul music instead. So, if you want to hear something current that's as gritty as Booker T's "Green Onions" or Rufus Thomas' "Walkin' The Dog," where you gonna look? Most R&B fans go out and drop a bundle on reissues from the Memphis-based Stax/Volt label from 30 years ago, or some equally archival purchase.

Well, believe it or not, the real thing is still alive and kicking. Two Mississippi-based labels, Ace Records (Pearl, Mississippi) and Malaco/Waldoxy (Jackson, Mississippi) are churning out stuff so solid you'd think that none of those slimeball-slick '90s studio R&B rapists had ever been born. No pristine production values to be found here, thank you, nor a replacing of the expected soulful guitar and organ with a bank of synthesized strings.

A recent Malaco/Waldoxy release, Cheatin' Is Risky Business, is a sampler of the label's artists singing diddlin'-the-neighbor's-squeeze tunes--a prominent (if not the most prominent) topic among rhythm-and-blues songs. Some of the singers hark back to the '60s Stax/Volt era (Johnnie Taylor) and the early Parliament Funkadelic's Westbound label (Denise LaSalle, then produced by Al Green's other half, Willie Mitchell) or even the '50s (Little Milton--discovered by Ike Turner and later recorded by Elvis-discoverer Sam Phillips--and Bobby "Blue" Bland, who, in spite of adopting a bizarre signature croak that sounds like he's gagging, is probably the best rhythm-and-blues singer ever). If you're expecting music that sounds older than your congressman, you'll be pleasantly surprised--you'd kill to hear anyone as funky as these warblers at your local hangout. It probably would have been best had the sampler been a box set including Malaco's other gritty crooners: Tyrone Davis, Shirley Brown, Bobby Rush, Mel Waiters, Artie 'Blues Boy' White--the list will go as far as your wallet will.

Those lucky Mississippians can also claim the Ace Records label as a state treasure. (London's Ace Records is a gold mine of the southern label's best reissues from its heyday in the '50s and '60s.) Like the Malaco bunch, the Ace roster is fraught with well-dressed loverboys who spend each weekend sweat-staining a suit while sandwiched between a horn section and an adoring bevy of aging mamas. Their pipes are fine, and their soul is in turmoil over no one to love/which one to love/can't love you enough. Ronnie Lovejoy, Lee Fields, Billy "Soul" Bonds and X Parker certainly sound like they're losing sleep over some darlin' who's not there, or, minus her jammies, most definitely is.

The big difference between buttery, warbling VH-1 wannabe-soulsters and the stuff of Malaco and Ace is a matter of roughage. The latter feature grassroots, struggling rhythm-and-blues singers who probably race from day jobs to the next spot on the club circuit; who've grown up in Mississippi or somewhere awfully close and sound like it; who get a free meal at their favorite roadhouse for being the local legend; who have a tight circle of lusting fans who'll even follow them to gigs in Alabama and Georgia. Yeah, other bands encounter the same, but not in support of a musical form as rare as this, nor at grandfather age. That fuck- social- security- introduce- me- to- your- daughter mentality that we love in the Stones has been available here all along, in a state we thought was important only in spelling bees.

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