For Almost Three Hours, the World Was Stevie Wonder's

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Photos by Jack Gorman
Stevie Wonder
Toyota Center
March 20, 2015

Think about the running order on a few of your favorite albums, and consider the last song. Even on some of the biggest albums of all time, it's almost always an afterthought or throwaway. Though it's not unusual for artists to use it as a closing statement of some kind, it's virtually never a single -- Adele's "Someone Like You" being the exception from this decade that proves the rule -- and unless it's "When the Levee Breaks" or something, it's almost guaranteed to make for a lousy live finale.

So as the "full album" concert trend has really taken hold in the past half-decade or so, most artists skirt the issue by performing a second set of choice catalog cuts -- all the other songs fans expect to hear. But when it's a double album whose running time blows well past the 90-minute mark, and one of the 20th century's most beloved pieces of music to boot, it's a little trickier.

That's Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key of Life, and it would take almost until midnight Friday to bring the "live adaptation" of his 1976 masterpiece to a climax. But if there's anything the 64-year-old legend's multiplatinum multiple Grammy winner -- originally released in the fall of 1976 -- has to teach us today, it's that the journey can be as satisfying as the destination.


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Songs in the Key of Life Endures, Almost 40 Years Later

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Photo by Marco Torres
Stevie Wonder at the 2011 Austin City Limits Music Festival
Tonight Stevie Wonder will perform a "live adaptation" of his 1976 album Songs In the Key of Life at Toyota Center. The 64-year-old pianist/composer/performer is one of the undisputed all-time greats, Motown Records' answer to Muhammad Ali (sorry, Marvin), but on the surface this still seems like a risky move. Beloved as it is, it's hard to get around the fact that the album was released coming up on 40 years ago. What could Songs In the Key of Life possibly have to offer listeners in 2015?

It's right there at the very beginning, as it turns out. The 21-song, 76-minute double LP opens with "Love's In Need of Love Today," a gentle song of healing that Wonder treats almost like a modern spiritual. "I have serious news to pass to pass on to everybody," he sings. "What I'm about to say could mean the world's disaster, could change your joy and laughter to tears and pain." Imagine Kanye opening his next album by announcing it's about to be a total bummer...yeah, right. (Although you never know.)


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Jordan Donald Comes to "Lay the Funk on Heavy"

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Photo by Ron Coleman, Jr.
They don't call Jordan Donald "Chili Sauce" for no reason
Two years ago, Jordan "Chili Sauce" Donald came to our attention via TSU faculty member Dr. Horace Alexander Young and the great jazz pianist Joe Sample of Crusaders fame. Donald was one of the soloists in Sample's select orchestra, and even college president John Rudley, an avid jazz fan, mentioned Donald when I spoke with him about outstanding students in the TSU jazz program.

A few days later I witnessed Donald sit in with some of Houston's best players, seasoned veterans like pianist Darrell Lavigne and Horace Alexander Young, at Café 4212. He grabbed the crowd by the ears if not the throat with long, blistering, sexy sax solos. Chili sauce, indeed. I was sold.


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Sammie Relford Gives It One More Shot

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Photos courtesy of Leslie Waddy
Sammie Relford (center) and a few dozen of his fans at the Gallant Knight
Sammie Relford is making another comeback. The soul singer once enjoyed a long run as one of Houston's most recognizable and popular entertainers, drawing comparisons to past R&B greats from James Brown to Luther Vandross. Some of those were self-anointed, perhaps, but Sammie also had the crowds to back them up -- packed Saturday-night houses at the old Gallant Knight on Holcombe for years and years, and then more of the same at his own club, Sammie's at 2016 Main.

Now he's ready to do it all over again. He's not lacking in self-confidence, either.

"What I do is special," Relford says. "There's no more Marvin Gayes around. There's no more Otis Reddings around. And I'll take your mind mentally and make you think you're looking at these people. And make your day. If you're sad, I'm going to make you happy."


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Do One Kind Favor for Little Joe Washington

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Photo courtesy of Ray Redding/TexasRedd
Little Joe Washington tears it up at the 2008 Houston International Festival.
I'm sad and grateful with tears for Marion Washington, better known by his nickname "Little Joe." I am grieving more deeply than I would have guessed for what was obviously inevitable, given his 75 years and his frail and failing health in recent months.

If you want to understand where this talented musician was coming from -- sonically and otherwise -- listen to some early Johnny "Guitar" Watson, another late Third Ward phenom. Check out that guitar tone, the raspy vocals.

Our Little Joe was original and unique; yes, he was, but he -- just like his mentor Joe "Guitar" Hughes -- was profoundly influenced by Watson. Little Joe was the last link in that lineage, the final articulation of a combination of sounds we will not hear again live on local (or other) stages.


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Soul Brother No. 1 Was a Complicated Dad, Says New Book

Categories: Books, Soulsville

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Chicago Review Press
Dr. Yamma Brown, whose Father was the Godfather. Got that?
James Brown was, of course, the Godfather of Soul and The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. But all that he worked to grab those titles over decades seemed to come crashing down through much of the '80s and '90s.

That's when he derailed into years of drug and domestic abuse, erratic behavior, weapons charges, a carousel of women, and questionable business deals. His name became more a punch line for comedians than a pillar for music writers, the low point being a crazy-looking mug shot and an actual stint in a South Carolina prison (remember the "Free James Brown" T-shirts?).

But his crash and burn was no laughing matter to some members of his family, especially daughter Yamma.


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Trudy Lynn Has America's No. 1 Blues Album This Week

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Photo by Marco Torres
Trudy Lynn at last month's HPMA ceremony
Trudy Lynn's Royal Oak Blues Cafe is entering its second week in the No 1 spot on Billboard's Top Blues Albums chart this week. She's pretty happy about it.

"Oh my God. Isn't that wonderful?", Lynn said by phone Wednesday morning. "I'm just floored. I don't know how I feel about it. I'm elated, I'm happy. Finally my ship has sailed in."

Royal Oak has had a relatively long climb to the top for the longtime Houston blues singer. It was originally released locally last November on Connor Ray, the label run by Lynn's collaborator Steve Krase, who receives under-the-title credit on the album. It has been climbing Billboard's chart since getting picked up by MDI Distribution earlier this summer. It became available on iTunes in July and first appeared on Billboard's blues chart the week of August 2, where it debuted at No. 11 as the "Hot Shot Debut."


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Debonair Lounge Mondays at Cafe 4212 Are a Must

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Photos by Marco Torres
Note: the following photos are from Marco Torres' visit to Debonair Lounge in February, like this one of hosts Tay Mitch and Brad Gilmore. See more at this slideshow.
People are spilling out the door of this little lounge on Almeda, a rare sight for a Monday night. Most bars in this area are ghost towns, closed for the night to avoid the dreaded weekday slump.

But not Café 4212 (4212 Almeda). On Mondays, the cozy lounge straddling the Museum District and Third Ward is packed.

"Hey man! Hurry up! We've been waiting for you for an hour now."


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The Force Is Strong With Mali Music's Conscious Soul

Categories: Soulsville

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Photos courtesy of RCA Records
The new king of conscious soul, Mali Music came to earth at No. 2 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart with his latest release, Mali Is.... It was pushed there by a first single, "Beautiful," that encourages us to "put our lighters up" in a nod to Lil Kim's Brooklyn anthem but with a smoother side of edification.

As we rapped, similarities in our musical career came out. My '90s band, Afroplane, got signed to RCA sub-label Kaper and, with family/church support, we saw a little shine before the industry's bureaucratic "dark side" reared its head. Thankfully, for Mali Music, "The Force" is still with him.

Today a ByStorm/RCA recording artist in full bloom, Mali was plucked out of the red clay of Georgia. The Savannah native was surrounded by his family and church, Faith on the Move Intl., and bubbles of euphoria erupted as we relished our shared roots.


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Charlie Wilson, Erykah Badu & the O'Jays at The Woodlands, 5/31/2014

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Photos by Jody Perry
"Uncle" Charlie Wilson (center, in shades) and friends
Note: Eddie Levert was originally identified as his late son Gerald. Rocks Off regrets the error.

Magic 102.1 Under the Stars
Featuring Charlie Wilson, Erykah Badu & the O'Jays
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
May 31, 2014

On a night of classic and modern R&B at a packed house in The Woodlands, with perfect summer weather of clear skies and temperatures below the 80s, Majic 102.1's Under the Stars concert was a powerhouse lineup with more No. 1 hit songs than you can shake a 2014 Free Press Summer Fest at. It was a night of baby-making music where those who had made babies, along with the babies they made, were out to make even more babies.

The night's performances jump-started with a defibrillator-like zap with Rock & Roll Hall of Famers and Sound of Philadelphia alums the O'Jays. The classic vocal R&B trio -- dressed in matching white suits featuring jackets with exposed chests, satin frills, fringe at the wrists and sequins -- came with a full band, complete with horn section. They launched onstage with the vigor of acts one-third their age with the 1975 hit "Give the People What They Want."

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