If you go back and listen to some of the great rhythm and blues (R&B) singers from the sixties and compare them to what's called R&B today, with very few exceptions, you can't help notice how the genre has lost touch with the blues segment of its name. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find anything even resembling something that passes for rhythm in most of the dreck they try to pass off as R&B. I have no idea what happened, but what used to be the music Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye burnt the house down with is now mainly associated with adult easy listening stations.
R&B was always a more polished and refined take on the blues with some of the rougher edges smoothed out. However it still used to be able to get people out of their seats and dancing and tug at your heart strings. Disco has a lot to answer for, but I think the worst casualty of that era was what happened to soul and R&B music. If there were ever a couple of genres that needed a heart transplant it's these two as they've been on life support for the last couple of decades and in desperate need of some sort of resuscitation. While it still might be too early to take R&B off the critical list, there's at least a sign that somebody is willing to attempt to give it the transfusion it needs to stabilize its vital signs.
When Quintus McCormick started playing guitar he wasn't particularly interested in the blues. It wasn't until he left his native Detroit and came to Chicago that he found his way into the blues. Even then it was only by accident, as he was taking gigs playing guitar to help pay for his schooling, he has a bachelor's degree in music from Columbia College in Chicago, and it wasn't until he was doing a stint with Chi-Town Hustlers in 1990 that he and the blues found each other. From there he took gigs as a sideman for the likes of James Cotton that took him deeper into the blues. However, you don't need to be told any of this to know that he's tapped into the heartbeat of the blues, all you have to do is give a listen to his new release, Hey Jodie! on Delmark Records to know that he might have started late with the blues, but he's sure made up for lost time.
So, okay you say, what's any of this have to do with R&B? Well, the very first song on the disc, the title track "Hey Jodie" (a Jodie is defined on the cover as a noun meaning a back door lover), is one of those sweetly aching R&B songs that I thought had ceased to exist some thirty years ago. To be perfectly honest I wasn't expecting anything of the sort when I put the disc on, so I was somewhat taken aback and not able to appreciate what it was I was listening to on the first go round. It was only after a second listen that I caught how McCormick and the rest of his band have infused the song with all the subtle nuances that are the hallmarks of great R&B tunes.
First of all the music has a gentle flow that carries the lyrics like a boat on smooth waters running before a gentle breeze. However, where most of the modern versions of R&B don't go beyond that, McCormick injects an extra little bit of chop into the song, giving it an emotional edge and making it interesting to listen to. What really impressed me about "Hey Jodie", and the other soul/R&B type songs on the disc, is although they are all tightly scored and arranged, they are also played with an amazing amount of emotion. While most players seem to rely on improvisation to allow them to get in touch with the emotional content of a song, McCormick has been able to write it into the music. All the various players have to do is open themselves up to the music, let it speak through their instruments, and it comes through loud and clear to the listener.
Of course there are also some really great blues numbers on this disc as well, and McCormick proves that he's no slouch in that department too. His doesn't go in for the big flashy solos of some of his contemporaries, but that doesn't stop him from being any less potent or effective a guitar player. His credo seems to be the song takes priority over individual players in the band, whether its him or anybody else. As a result there is nothing distracting the listener from appreciating the songs as an entity instead of their various parts. You might not remember any specific solos from any one song, but you will remember the songs.
McCormick's vocals walk the fine line between sweet and soulful with great skill. He sings primarily in a soft tenor, that could easily fall over the line into sweet and ruin his material. However he has just enough of an edge to his voice on the softer songs to give them the emotional honesty required to keep you believing in his sincerity. At the same time when he sings one of his tougher blues numbers he not only has the grit to make them work, he retains enough plaintive soulfulness that the songs aren't quite as harsh as the blues normally are. Therefore, when he sings about a woman treating him wrong, the accusatory tone you'd normally find in a blues tune is replaced by feelings of regret and genuine sadness.
Hey Jodie has to be one of the most diversified blues recordings I've heard in a long time. Musically McCormick has pushed and expanded the genre in such a way that it allows the listener to appreciate just how flexible it can be. Far too often musicians get stuck in playing the same formula over and over again, but McCormick has taken the basic building blocks of blues and broadened its horizons. Oh it's still the blues all right, there's just more to it in his hands than you'd normally find with most people. It's like he's filled in the empty spaces that are normally left in a blues song and in the process has given it more emotional depth. If he's managed to inject the blues, which have been too long absent, back into R&B, he's also added a little extra rhythm and soul into the blues to build up its sound as well.
While one person probably can't save a genre on his own, Quintus McCormick and his band have at least given people a great example of what R&B can sound like. If you've been missing the blues of rhythm and blues as much as I have, than you should take as much pleasure in this album as I did. Here's hoping a lot of others are listening and learning.