The chitlin circuit still lives on The Other Side of the Tracks--or, as an old friend of mine used to say, where the white man don't go, that's where the brothers know. Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth on the circuit before he used them to play the guitar, and it's where the venerable and the vestigial still juke their joints long after the charts have tired of their sweet soul music and replaced them with kids and comers who turned R&B into disco into pop. Without the circuit, without the Longhorn Ballroom or R.L. Griffin's Blues Palace II in Dallas or J.B.'s Entertainment Center in Houston or the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, Johnnie Taylor might have died long before May of last year; it was his water, his oxygen, his blood. The man always looked like he was ready to take the stage, dressed to the nines in silk, satin and patent leather even when he was just out for a bite in a local café. All those years of preaching to the faithful (and unfaithful, judging by the s/he-done-him/her-wrong songs on this compilation) in out-of-the-way places taught him that a great artist is one who can entertain when merely standing perfectly still; he was a superstar even when in a room where no one knew his name. This collection features but one of his best tracks, the lowdown "Cheaper to Keep Her," but it could have contained a dozen. He was the circuit's emperor, and he always had new clothes.
But there were other dukes and kings and queens: Bobby "Blue" Bland, Z.Z. Hill, Clarence Carter, Marvin Sease, Millie Jackson, Bobby Rush, Little Milton. For starters. Some crossed over for a song or two, some even topped the pops while sitting high on the blues and R&B charts, but all were long ago dropped by their big-time labels and forced to take refuge on small labels such as Ichiban, Dakar or the Mississippi-based Malaco, which moved product by the fingerful all things being equal. Take Bland, one of the greatest singers ever to sweat into a mike: Some say he peaked too soon--fading into the shadows during the heyday of Stax and Motown, abandoning his touring band when money became tight, drinking too much to tour in 1969. Some say he never became a name brand because he didn't play guitar, because he played it straight when Taylor and other contemporaries went disco, because he stayed on his side of the line when the traitors crossed over. One listen to 1985's wrung-out "Members Only"--the leadoff track here, coated in strings and piano and horns and God's own backup singers--and you might wonder why he's not a household name in your neighborhood.
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If nothing else, this comp's essential only to prove there's still an active soul scene bubbling well beneath the mainstream's surface: Five of the 16 tracks come from 1990 and later, and a handful were recorded during the '80s; those who would insist soul music died in the 1960s, in caskets marked "Stax" and "Atlantic," would be sorely mistaken. Bobby Rush's immortal "Sue," about loving the wrong woman, and Clarence Carter's 1990 ode to fucking, "Strokin'," may be nothing more than novelty songs--the latter comes complete with lyrics like, "If my stuff ain't tight enough/You can stick it up my [word deleted, but just guess]"--but they're funny enough and funky enough to sound like leftovers from the days of sixty-minute men and lemon-squeezing daddies waving their big 10-inch...records. Then again, Shirley Brown's hands-off-he's-mine "Woman to Woman" predates Jill Scott's "Gettin' in the Way" by some 16 years: "The man you're in love with, he's mine/From the top of his head to the bottom of his feet/The bed he sleeps in and every piece of food he eats," she sing-speaks till busting out like Aretha on a bad wig day. Best song on the set: Little Milton's blues-soul "Walking the Back Streets and Crying," featuring a guitar solo I'd trade for my entire Robert Cray collection. Second-best: Everything else.