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Music Review: Johnny Rawls – Memphis Still Got Soul

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Johnny Rawls is a journeyman musician in the best sense–he’s out there playing, writing, and recording for the simple reason that it’s what he does. And he does it very well, indeed.

Rawls has certainly been around. Memphis Still Got Soul is his umpteenth solo outing, another finely-crafted collection featuring 10 originals and a smoldering cover of “Blind, Crippled And Crazy,” former boss O. V. Wright’s signature song. (Rawls got his start as Wright’s bandleader, keeping the latter’s band going after Wright’s death in 1979, touring behind Little Johnny Taylor before striking out on his own as a keeper of the true soul flame.)

Soul is indeed the name of the game here, with fat grooves cushioned by Hammond organ and punctuated by bold, brassy horns, all in support if Rawls’ gruffly, expressive vocals. It’s impeccably done, never a note out of place, yet while a few of the tunes themselves seem a little slight, there’s no shortage of heartfelt passion in either the performances or in Rawls’ delivery.

The title track kicks things off, paying tribute to the titans of soul who’ve fallen while celebrating those who remain and continue to make Memphis a musical mecca. Elsewhere the themes are more personal, most focused on either a longing for love or a burning desire for booty, with not much difference between the two. Rawls’ lyrics may not always be destined for immortality–“My Guitar” and “Blues Woman” are slight and border on cliché–but the music is strong enough to overcome any weakness in the words. Period-perfect arrangements mine classic soul sounds, designed to keep uptown audiences moving and grooving.

There are two different bands on tap, with sessions divided more or less evenly and delivered seamlessly; Rawls knows exactly what he wants and how to coax it out, and displays unerring assurance in crafting arrangements. There’s lots of scratchy rhythm guitar (from Rawls and co-guitarist Johnny McGhee), superlative organ work from both Dan Ferguson and Doug Skoogs, and punchy horns on every track. Rawls’ daughter, Destini, provides backing vocals on half of them, while elsewhere they’re provided by the team of Jessica and Jillian Ivey. Most of the tunes are upbeat, with the shimmery “Stop The Rain” the collection’s only real ballad.

Lovers of soul music will find it all familiar sounding, yet Rawls isn’t copying anyone or anything. He’s simply working with time-tested forms, adding to, rather than exploiting the genre with tunes that by the second spin sound like old friends. Good stuff!

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