By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
According to Ernie Johnson's legend, as he recounted to the Observer last year, the 44-year-old soul singer recorded his first track 27 years ago ("Lovin' You," by Fats Washington), performed with Texas guitar slinger Lowell Fulson, and was encouraged to sing by none other than B.B. King. He's the youngest veteran on the old-school R&B circuit--born again by Bobby "Blue" Bland in the '60s, a contemporary of local hero Al "TNT" Braggs, now recording for the legendary soul-R&B-gospel-only label Malaco out of Jackson, Mississippi. Which makes him a rhythm-and-blues anachronism, preaching the refined gospel taught at Muscle Shoals during a moment in history when horns have been replaced by keyboards and soul has been homogenized to mean "dance pop."
Like Z.Z. Hill (Malaco's last great blues singer and big-seller, his 1981 album Down Home gone gold) before him, Johnson's a soul man whose voice is generic enough to sound like so many others (Otis Redding in some spots, Bobby Bland in most others) but good enough to make the interpretations his own. Add to that top-notch assistance from a steadying rhythm section and the always reliable and undeniable Muscle Shoals Horns, layer that upon a collection of songs penned in large part by Johnson and Malaco's unsung hero George Jackson, and you've got a collection of lovetakers and heartbreakers lifted straight from the textbooks and history books.
His voice somewhere between a sweet rasp and a low-down moan, Johnson finds the desperate core in the sappy filler ("Share You With Someone Else"), the understated humor in the bitter cliché ("Don't Waste My Time"), and the profound pain in the dead aphorism ("I Love You"). He's low even when his voice goes high, sad even when he sings through a smile, in love even when he tells his woman he'd "rather be six feet in my grave" than spend one more second with her. Which actually makes him more of a bluesman than a soul man, but don't tell him that.
Aaron Avenue Records
This Arlington-based band plays up the involvement of '70s rock casualty Rick "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" Derringer, who'll work with anyone whose check doesn't bounce. But desperation is no substitute for inspiration, and these boys offer more proof it's too easy to release a CD these days: It's second-rate bar-band rock and roll played to empty rooms on Tuesday nights, sophomoric odes to Texas girls and cover girls and "Beach Fluff" that wouldn't even sound bearable after a dozen happy hours. And they think they're the next Beatles, poor bastards.