King Louie and LaRhonda Steele – Rock Me Baby
Shoug Records – 2015
11 tracks: 49 minutes
King Louie (Louis Pain) is a Hammond B3 player based in Portland, Oregon who has worked with many fine blues artists from the Pacific NW including Curtis Salgado, Lisa Mann and Karen Lovely. LaRhonda Steele is a gospel-influenced vocalist also based in Portland so their collaboration makes geographic as well as musical sense. The album is all covers from a wide variety of blues and soul influences and takes in Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, BB King and Carole King. Other musicians include Renato Caranto on sax, Dave Iula and Doug Lewis on guitar, Brian Foxworth and Edwin Coleman III on drums; all bass parts are played by Louie on the organ.
The album has plenty of soul, gospel and jazz touches but throughout LaRhonda’s vocals are outstanding, nowhere better than on a great cover of “Phenomenal Woman”, the Maya Angelou poem put to music and previously recorded by Ruthie Foster. This version is just as good with James Mullen adding piano and Sarah and Lauren Steele on background vocals. Equally superb is “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”, LaRhonda’s vocal taking the Tapestry track even further into pure gospel territory than Aretha did, Renato’s sax work here being a particular feature. The jazzier tunes include “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday”, an obscure hit by a late 60’s band called Spiral Starecase and Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon”, both of which have some fine sax work to support the vocal performance. “What A Difference A Day Made” was a hit for both Dinah Washington and Esther Phillips but here Louie and LaRhonda slow it right down to a sultry ballad which frames LaRhonda’s voice in a gentle wash of Hammond and sax.
Turning to soul tunes the band tackles Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” in a fairly straightforward cover and the oft-covered “Walking The Dog” in a funky version that Rufus Thomas would probably have enjoyed! The Isleys’ “It’s Your Thing” is blended with some jazz-funk influences, particularly in Doug Lewis’ rhythm guitar work. The more conventional blues tracks include Paul Gayten’s “For You My Love” which features an excellent solo from Louie, “Twenty-Nine Ways” (erroneously credited to Big Joe Turner rather than Willie Dixon) which has plenty of ‘cool’ Hammond work and the title track which builds into quite a sultry take on the BB King classic.
Overall this is an album that grows on you. LaRhonda is an excellent vocalist who is bound to gain exposure beyond her Portland base through this release; all credit to King Louie for providing this platform for her vocal prowess and his own keyboard skills.