Johnny Rawls – Where Have All the Soul Men Gone | Album Review

Johnny Rawls – Where Have All the Soul Men Gone

Third Street Cigar Records

10 songs – 40 minutes

Soul-blues giant Johnny Rawls has always had a deep love and respect for his peers and elders. After all, his most recent release was entitled I Miss Otis Clay. And, certainly, he knows the answer to question he poses in this one. Many of his peers have gone on to their Great Reward. But fans of the genre have reason to rejoice. As this disc shows, Johnny’s still with us and the torch they lit is still burning strong in his songs.

A Mississippi native who was born in 1951 and grew up on the Gulf Coast, Rawls initially made his name as a guitarist, working behind several of the top artists the South has ever produced: Joe Tex, Little Johnny Taylor and Z.Z. Hill before becoming band leader for one of the biggest names and best songwriters ever, O.V. Wright, too.

After O.V.’s passing in 1979, Johnny kept his band together, eventually forming a partnership with singing partner L.C. Luckett and finally making his debut as a front man with You’re the One on Canada’s Touch Records in 1989 and following it up with Can’t Sleep at Night on Rooster Blues five years later. He’s been on his own since 1996, when he released Here We Go on Britain’s JSP Records.

One of the smoothest and richest voices in the business in addition to being an outstanding tunesmith, Rawls has released about two dozen albums in the years since, compiling dozens of awards in the process, including 19 Blues Music Awards nominations and two wins. His most recent release, I’m Still Around, captured soul-blues album of the year honors from both the BMA and Living Blues magazine.

Where Have All the Soul Men Gone is Johnny’s third recorded under the auspices of Third Street Cigar Records. It was captured at Heyman Street Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, prior to the coronavirus outbreak in February and Bigfoot Studios in Waterville, Ohio, this past June.

Johnny handles all vocals and contributes guitar and keys backed primarily by a lineup of veteran sessions musicians. Alberto Marsico delivers keys with Kenan Ӧzdemir on guitar, Levent Ӧzdemir on percussion and Erkan Ӧzdemir on bass. They’re augmented by Larry “Entertainment” Gold, who provides guitar solos on two cuts, as well as The Waterville Horns: Travis Geiman (trombone) and Mike Williams (alto sax).

Rawls composed the entire ten-tune set, all of which is fresh but jam-packed with traditional feel, beginning with the rock-steady “Where Have All the Soulmen Gone,” which strings together memories of his friends and heroes singing their biggest songs as he wonders where the years have gone and “why am I here all alone?” while noting that it’s his responsibility that “even when I look tired…to keep the dream alive.”

The pace picks up slightly and the feel continues, but the mood brightens for “Bottom to the Top.” It’s the celebration of a love affair that’s turned Johnny’s life around from a constantly feeling sad to joy in the knowledge that he’ll always have his lady to lighten his blues whenever they return. The message continues in “Can’t Leave It Alone,” which dovetails perfectly as it describes having tried to get away, but finally realizing that her “hook was in too deep” and that he wants to be with her always.

If you have any fear that Rawls might be thinking about retiring, fear not because he going to “Keep on Doing My Thing” until he drops — something he relates in the tune that follows. The mood shifts for the ballad, “Love, Love, Love,” in which his lady’s kiss makes him feel brand new, before quickening once more for ironic “Money,” which acknowledges that it’s the root of all evil, but you need it anyway.

Propelled by a driving rhythm, “Town Too Small” offers up a complaint about living in a world where things are so strange that he wants to scream, but can’t. The cycle of life always features prominently in Rawls’ work, and comes to the fore once again in “Time,” a reminder that no matter how things are now, things can – and will – change and that all you’ll be left with is photos of yesterday. “Baby, Baby, Baby” – an unrepentant love boast – follows before Johnny takes you to church with “Calling on Jesus” to close.

Johnny Rawls may be the senior member of today’s senior soul-blues community, but he shows no sign of slowing down. Pick this one up. Like Johnny, it’s a treasure!

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