Johnny Rawls – Best of Johnny Rawls Vol. 1 | Album Review

Johnny Rawls – Best of Johnny Rawls Vol. 1

Catfood Records CFR-030

14 songs – 60 minutes

In a career that began in Southern Mississippi more than 50 years ago, Johnny Rawls has proven to be one of the most consistently entertaining performers in the blues. A two-time BMA honoree for soul-blues album of the year and a 10-time nominee, he’s spent much of the past two decades on Texas-based Catfood Records, and celebrates the partnership with this disc, a collection of 14 of the top tracks he’s issued across nine CDs for the label.

Possessing a silky-smooth set of pipes, Johnny was already a star in high school in Gulfport, Miss., where he was already playing guitar in support of a trio of superstars: Joe Tex, Little Johnny Taylor and Z.Z. Hill. A longtime bandmate of O.V. Wright, one of the greatest voices and tunesmiths the genre has ever known, Johnny served as his bandleader until his passing in 1980.

One of the tightest groups in the business, O.V.’s band remained together and worked steadily for the next 13 years with Rawls running the show, frequently serving as the opening act for B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Little Milton. Johnny’s recording debut as a front man came at age 44 in 1985 in partnership with vocalist L.C. Luckett. They releases a pair of 45s and two albums prior to Rawls going solo in 1996 with the album Here We Go on Britain’s JSP imprint.

Now approaching 70, he’s the current standard bearer of soul-blues. His two most recent Catfood releases, Tiger in a Cage and Waiting for the Train, spent a combined 23 weeks in the No. 1 spot on Roots Music Report’s soul charts, and his work appears frequently in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ best-of-the-year lists. Grammy winner Jim Gaines (Santana) produced 12 of the 14 cuts in this collection, 10 of which were penned by Johnny and/or label owner Bob Trenchard in different combinations. Three tunes from O.V.’s songbook and one from Motown heavyweight Jimmy Ruffin round out the set.

Rawls is backed throughout by The Rays, the stellar, skintight Catfood sessions band: Johnny McGhee on guitar, Dan Ferguson on keys, Trenchard on bass, Richy Puga on drums and a horn section composed of Andy Roman and Nick Flood on saxes and Mike Middleton on trumpet. Otis Clay shares the mic with Johnny on two tracks and 14 other artists contribute horns, percussion and backing vocals.

Fittingly, “Red Cadillac” — the title song from Rawls’ Catfood – opens and takes listeners from Mississippi to Beale Street with “two Arkansas girls in the back.” Their radio’s tuned to WDIA, Johnny’s dressed in a “brand new suit and Alligator shoes” and “can’t wait to get on down.” A propulsive cover of Wright’s “Into Something (Can’t Break Loose)” – delivered with Clay — follows before the autobiographical “Born to the Blues” admits that – even after 40 years on the road – he still misses his Mississippi home.

Despite the passing of so many of his music friends, Johnny insists “Memphis Still Got Soul” while “California Shake” confirms that the Golden State has the most earthquakes, but insists that, instead of being fearful, you should get into the groove. The love ballad “Eight Men, Four Women” — which hit the No. 4 spot on Billboard’s R&B chart for O.V. in 1967 — follows before things heat up again with “Tiger in a Cage,” a smooth, funky statement against pushing drugs and giving up hope. The Don Robey-penned “Ace of Spades” – a 1970 hit for Wright – precedes the horn-powered political statement, “American Dream,” which finds the city “moving to a hip-hop beat” while the driver of a limo is moving too fast to allow the homeless a peek inside to see a better life. The mood brightens dramatically for “Can I Get It,” a rock-steady, medium tempo blues that finds Johnny having just cashed his paycheck and checking out the talent at the local club at closing time.

The final four cuts deal with differing themes that combine for another powerful statement. Johnny announces he’s the “last of his breed in “Soul Survivor” before teaming with Otis for Jimmy Ruffin’s “Whatever Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” admits that he’s slowly approaching the end of his life in “Waiting for the Train” before assuring fans “I Won’t Give Up” to close.

If you’re a fan of soul-blues, this collection is a must-have. And if you’ve been living in a cave for the past 40 years and weren’t aware of Johnny Rawls before, this is a sensational place to start. Strongly recommended.

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