Just where do you start with a 'Best Of' Maggie Bell collection? Maggie’s remarkable career stretches back an incredible forty plus years and includes some of the greatest female blues vocals ever recorded on the UK side of the Atlantic. To attempt to narrow that down is a headache of huge proportions.
Angel Air has somehow succeeded in doing just that. Their double disc Best Of Maggie Bell Sound And Vision includes twelve tracks largely drawn from Maggie’s solo career and a full length DVD of her live concert with Midnight Flyer recorded in July 1981 at the world renowned Montreux Festival.
The informative album notes tell of Maggie’s rise to fame after getting up on stage with the legendary Alex Harvey in their native Glasgow, being introduced to Alex’s younger brother guitarist Les, and of being spotted by none other than Peter Grant.
At the time the larger than life Grant was managing the Yardbirds and would of course go on to secure his place in the hierarchy of rock history with Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and of course Maggie Bell.
Legend has it that when he first heard Maggie singing with the band Power all he could say was 'stone the crows’. Adopting that name Maggie and Les Harvey were joined by drummer Colin Allen, bass player James Dewar (later the voice of the Robin Trower Band), and keyboard player John McGinnis.
Stone The Crows’ first two albums, Stone The Crows (1969) and Ode To John Law the following year immediately attracted attention and resulted in Maggie regularly being compared to Janis Joplin. The band's hard work was really beginning to pay off and despite losing McGinnis and Dewar in 1971, to be replaced by Ronnie Leahy and Steve Thompson, their reputation continued to grow.
After a third, and highly successful album, Teenage Licks, tragedy struck and Les suffered a fatal electric shock during a sound check in Swansea. The band carried on, releasing Ontinuous Performance, but in truth they never recovered from Les’s death. When the band called it a day, Maggie set out on a solo career.
The set opens with the funky “Cado Queen” and the beautiful blues of “As The Years Go Passing By” both taken from her 1974 solo album, Queen Of The Night. Arguably it is the latter that revive those Janis comparisons. Maggie’s remarkable ability to inject raw and genuine emotion through her voice is fully captured.
“We Had It All”, from the same album, continues the theme with another heartfelt and tender performance. Never over stated and always genuine, Maggie literally breaths life into every song she performs.
A cover of Free’s “Wishing Well” proves the perfect platform for a voice such as Maggie’s. Not many singers can take on a song performed by none other than Paul Rodgers and add a new dimension to it. This track and the next “Suicide Sal” are taken from album of the same name released in 1975.
The superb “Suicide Sal” would be a highlight on any album. It was written about Maggie’s aunt, Doris Droy, a famous music hall singer from long ago. She tells the story which includes the line ‘her spirit lives on in me’ in one of her finest ever recordings. Just listen to the last section of this song and tell me that Maggie isn’t the British Janis Joplin.
“I Was In Chains”, from the same album, is a moving Sutherland Brothers song and is given the full Maggie treatment complete with bagpipes and passionate Scottish atmosphere. Another track taken from Suicide Sal, “Coming On Strong” was written by band mates Colin Allen and Zoot Money.The rather inevitable Taggart television series connection is next with “No Mean City”.
As a live performer she was out on her own. A superb live version of the smouldering “Penicillin Blues” is followed by an on fire “Danger Money” and a wonderful “Bring It On Home To Me” recorded live with Midnight Flyer and featuring Taj Mahal.
An impressive “Respect Yourself” comes from a performance with her latterday British Blues Quintet and rounds off a well chosen dip into this incredible singer’s career.
If that isn’t enough the DVD includes superb live versions of the explosive pairing of “Hey Boy” and “Danger Money”. “Sweet Lovin’ Woman”, “Poor Little Jimmy”, “French Kisses”, and “Too Much Love” all have the band literally smoking. It all mellows down superbly with “Rough Trade”, the perfect stage for Maggie’s unique power and emotion.
Maybe it’s “Penicillin Blues” that really grabs you by the throat. Smouldering guitar from Ant Glynne and trademark blues queen vocals make this a must have moment. This is followed by the encore with guest appearances from Taj Mahal and the amazing, late, great, Albert Collins. His and Maggie’s version of “Stormy Monday Blues” leaves me near speechless, or in this case, wordless.
An up to date and informative interview with Maggie has her discussing the legendary figures she has known and worked with. That and the biography of Midnight Flyer completes a more than generous set.
If you have seen or heard Maggie Bell then I don’t need to convince you that you need this album. If you haven’t, well, now’s the time to put that right. After all, it’s not every day you can catch a living legend. Angel Air have delivered precisely that.
Catch up with Maggie on her official website.
Don’t forget to drop in on Angel Air’s catalogue on their website.