Robert Finley – You’re Never Too Old

In 2019 Robert Finley was introduced to a national audience on America’s Got Talent – at age 65. That slipped by me until Helga tipped me off to the excitement surrounding the release of his new album, Sharecropper’s Son. Thanks, Helga!

As with most “overnight success” stories, Finley’s musical career goes back many, and in his case many, many, years. He played guitar while an enlisted man in the Army in Europe in the early 70’s. After his discharge, back home in Louisiana, he led Brother Finley and the Gospel Sisters in the 80’s. Fast forward a few decades, making a living as a carpenter, and Finley was heard busking at the 2015 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Arkansas by Tim Duffy. Duffy heads the Music Maker Relief Foundation that assists aging Southern roots artists. By September 2016 Finley released his debut studio album, Age Don’t Mean a Thing. Listen to the whole album or at least check out the first track, “Just Want to Tell You”, to get a listen to this classic voice.

Shortly after the release of Age Don’t Mean a Thing, Finley began working with Black Keys co-founder and uber-producer, Dan Auerbach. Finley’s second album, Goin’ Platinum!, was released at the end of 2017 on Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label. Here is the official video for “Medicine Woman”, co-written by Finley and Auerbach. In addition to Finley’s incredible voice, you can hear Auerbach’s influence on the arrangement and his unmistakeable guitar tone.

Here’s the video for the title track from Sharecropper’s Son. If you like what you hear, listen to Finley rock out on “Make Me Feel Alright” and feature his falsetto on “Country Boy”.

Roger Hawkins – Muscle Shoals Drummer

Roger Hawkins, drummer for the Swampers, the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section, died this past week at age 75. His work on seminal recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, and Percy Sledge in the 1960’s earned him #31 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time.

In the many obits written about Hawkins, his work on Top 40 hits like “Land of 1000 Dances”, “Chain of Fools” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” are most often mentioned. Click on the links in the last sentence to remember how central his drum beats were to the memorable sound of those songs.

The internet lists over 200 tracks credited to Hawkins, including a number of 1970s hits for a diverse set of artists. “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers was recorded in 1972. It lifted an intro from a 1969 reggae instrumental “The Liquidator”, and Hawkins brought the song an early reggae beat.

Paul Simon wanted the rhythm section from “I’ll Take You There” to play a track on his album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and was surprised to learn they weren’t Jamaican musicians. So he headed to Muscle Shoals, were he wound up using the Swampers for three tracks, including the lead single from the album, “Kodachrome”.

Hawkins and other members of the Swampers played on Traffic’s album “Shoot out at the Fantasy Factory”, and joined the band on tour. In this live performance, Hawkins and Traffic’s Jim Capaldi are both playing drums and Swampers David Hood and Barry Beckett are playing bass and organ respectively.

Jazz Guitar Greats of the Past 40 Years

A few months ago, Guitar World published its list of the 40 most influential guitarists since the magazine’s founding in 1980. The list included most every heavy metal and hair band guitarist, all the big time speed shredders, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eddie Van Halen, Edge and Prince. But tucked in there were two jazz guitarists, Stanley Jordan and Emily Remler.

I had the incredible experience of seeing Jordan perform when he was still a teenager in the 1970’s, several years before he was signed by Blue Note Records. His first album for Blue Note, 1985’s Magic Touch, spent 51 weeks at #1 on the Billboard jazz chart. Jordan is known for his two-hand tapping technique, really unique to him and unlike the Michael Hedges inspired style featured in my recent post on Acoustic Guitar Innovators.

Here is concert footage from 1987, a couple of years after the release of Magic Touch. Watch as long as you like.

And here is a more recent performance of “Over the Rainbow”.

The same year Stanley Jordan released his breakthrough album, Emily Remler was voted Guitarist of the Year in Down Beat magazine. She was 28 at that time. She would die of heart failure only few years later at the age of 32 while on tour in Australia.

Remler’s style was classic jazz, and in this clip she plays a piece called “Blues for Herb” she wrote for jazz legend Herb Ellis. Classic as her playing was, you jazz buffs will note that her choice of an Ovation guitar for this performance was decidedly non-traditional!

And here she is playing a bossa nova standard, “How Insensitive”, by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The notes in the YouTube comment thread for this video indicate that this performance was one of her very last. She makes that right hand work look so effortless.

In My Next Life …

In my next life, I want to be Al Schmitt. I didn’t know this until I read his obituary today. Schmitt, who passed away on April 26th at age 91, won more Grammys than any other recording engineer and producer – 20 – across six consecutive decades. He worked with Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, and the list goes on.

Five of Schmitt’s Grammys came in 2004 for his work on Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company, which won nine award that year, including Album of the Year. The album featured collaborations with many artists, hence the title. The duet with Norah Jones, reprising an early Charles hit, “Here We Go Again”, won Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals (that’s Billy Preston playing the Hammond B3). The duet with Gladys Knight, “Heaven Help Us All”, won Best Gospel Performance. That song was first recorded by Stevie Wonder.

Schmitt collaborated with another studio engineering legend, Roger Nichols, on Steely Dan’s album Aja, a masterpiece of recording. Schmitt mixed one of the album’s hits, “Deacon Blues”. At the same sessions Schmitt and Nichols worked on the song “FM (No Static at All)”, the title theme and only original song on the soundtrack of the movie FM. The work on Aja and “FM” won Schmitt two of his Grammys.mi

“I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long”

Perhaps Schmitt’s most moving piece of engineering was the “duet” of “Unforgettable” between Natalie Cole and her late father. Schmitt mixed the vocal track from Nat King Cole’s 1951 version of the song with Natalie’s 1991 performance. Apparently, some of the musician’s in the studio for the 1991 session had played on the original, too.

Jon Batiste and Celeste

Jon Batiste, who many of us know as musical director and band leader of Stay Human on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, just won and Oscar. Collaborating with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Batiste won Best Original Score for his work on Pixar’s Soul. In addition to writing original jazz pieces for the movie, Batiste arranged a number of covers. One of those covers, that plays during the end credits, was chosen for an additional rendition released as a single. “It’s Alright” features Batiste and singer/songwriter Celeste.

The song was originally written by Curtis Mayfield in 1963, when he was with The Impressions prior to launching his solo career. Here is Mayfield performing the song in 1989 with an all-star backing band that includes David Sanborn on saxophone, Omar Hakim on drums, George Duke on piano and more. If you want to skip past the interview by Sanborn jump to 2:25.

Celeste was in the running for her own Oscar, having co-written and performed Best Original Song nominee “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7. Here she is performing it on Academy Awards broadcast.