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The soulful blues of Malaco

By Ted Drozdowski

JUNE 29, 1998:  Thirty or 40 years ago, the Jackson-based Malaco Records would have been called a "race" label. That was the tag for outfits like Specialty, King, Aristocrat, and even the fledgling Atlantic -- companies that were then making records performed by and for sale to African-Americans. Today, the mainstream press and radio are too politically astute to refer to Malaco as such. But it's still treated that way outside the South and pockets of African-American migration like Chicago and Detroit.

Even after achieving a million-selling hit in the early '80s with Z.Z. Hill's Downhome Blues, Malaco's R&B rarely reaches playlists or the printed page in northern urban centers like Boston and New York. Which is why you might not know that the great blues artist Little Milton has a new CD, as do his enduring soul/blues compatriots Johnnie Taylor and Bobby "Blue" Bland. And you've probably never heard of the Aretha-inspired Shirley Brown, whose The Soul of a Woman is a slow, smooth R&B delight. All these artists are on Malaco, and like their peers Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, and Lattimore, they sell albums down South by the truckloads.

Little Milton may be the Malaco artist most familiar to the international community of blues fans. His history dates back to the final glory days of Chess Records, where he cut "Grits Ain't Groceries" and "We're Gonna Make It." He's also the author of one of the blues' most overplayed chestnuts, "The Blues Is Allright." Milton's new For Real finds him superbly vital at 64, hot-footing it on his occasional guitar solos and vocalizing about love, loss, and joy with church-rooted fire.

Like everyone on the label's roster, Milton values soulful singing and storytelling over hot solos. It's an attitude that sets Malaco apart from the guitar-slingers who dominate the blues recorded by major labels and big indies like Alligator. Perhaps that's what keeps Malaco's artists from penetrating the blues mainstream. But it should be noted that the music's first stars -- artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey -- were singers and storytellers. Even Robert Johnson solo'd on only one of his recordings. Despite the guitar prowess of Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and many other classic bluesmen, the trend toward guitar-driven blues started with the white (except for Hendrix) blues-rock guitar heroes of the '60s. And the more rootsy, song-oriented tack taken by Malaco's roster plays well enough down home to draw tens of thousands to the Southern festivals where Milton, LaSalle, Rush, and others play the blues for their mostly African-American audiences.

Like Milton, Bobby Bland and Johnnie Taylor have had their share of classic hits. Bland was the prince of the Peacock Records roster in the '50s and '60s with singles like "I Pity the Fool" and "Stormy Monday." Taylor is indeed the same man who sang the 1976 pop-hit ode to screwing, "Disco Lady," after a string of '60s soul bestsellers for Stax, including 1968's "Who's Making Love." Both men stick to the past on their latest efforts. "Live" on Beale Street finds Bland plumbing his catalogue and classics ("St. James Infirmary," "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone") to good effect, bracing his soul shout with his trademark from-the-belly growls and "ughs" and a crack band. Taylor unfortunately hasn't left the disco era, and his hot-silk voice suffers under the weight of the stale by-the-numbers dance production of Taylored To Please. There's little breathing room within the performances, no interaction between Taylor and his players.

The much younger Shirley Brown's The Soul of a Woman is the CD in this bunch that fits on contemporary R&B radio in places like Houston and Memphis. She breaks down songs for woman-to-woman advice, plays the bad girl in the rap-inspired "Female Player." But what's best about Brown -- besides her warm, testifying voice -- is the way she combines classic blues themes in numbers like "You Left a Good Woman for a Good Time" with contemporary beats and arrangements, without damaging the spirit of either. Her heavy rhythms share space with real guitars; her voice always rides over the music, never sacrificing melody, never anchoring her melismatic syllables to the tattoo of the drums.

For a fresh smorgasbord of Malaco's soulful style of blues, listen to the compilation Cheatin' Is Risky Business on the label's Waldoxy subsidiary. Cheating songs are long a staple of the music, and here -- from Taylor, Artie "Bluesboy" White, Milton, LaSalle, Lee Shot Williams, and others -- are some of the finest and funniest in recent memory. Malaco's gospel artists regularly score well on Billboard's charts for inspirational music. But Cheatin' is packed with the kind of songwriting that's inspired good-time Saturday nights in the heart of African-American Dixie for decades. And that's what Malaco does best.

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