The human voice has the potential to be one of the most expressive musical instruments around. Yet you couldn't tell that by listening to the majority of women on the pop charts these days. Sometimes it seems like they're equally divided between those sounding like squeaky dolls and those who equate volume with emotion. It certainly makes you wonder what's going through the minds of those behind the scenes in the pop music industry that would inspire them to keep foisting one or the other on us year after year.
It's especially galling putting up with either of this type when you know there are singers like Zora Young out there who sing circles around anybody you hear on radio today. Nominally a blues singer, one only need listen to Young's newest release, The French Connection, to hear not only how good she is, but how her talent extends far beyond the one genre. The fourteen tracks on Young's latest recording range from a cover of a Dylan tune to her renditions of classic blues songs and everything in between.
As for the disc's title, it was recorded entirely in France with Zora being accompanied by a band made up of the creme de la creme of French blues musicians. African American musicians have been migrating to Europe and France since the 1920s when they formed the jazz bands that played in clubs throughout Paris. For blues musicians in the 1950s and 1960s not only did Europe mean an appreciative audience, it also meant the opportunity to be in a non-segregated society and allowed them to be free from a great deal of the racism they faced back home. Some of them were so enamored of the change that they took up permanent residence in the countries which treated them the best, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
So when Young first started touring France in 1981 she found an audience who was not only appreciative of her talents, but who were far more knowledgeable about her music than the average North American crowd. As a result she's toured France twenty times, and, unlike in North America where she's a virtual unknown, she's widely known and treated with the respect she deserves. Therefore, while it might seem odd to us that a blues singer from Chicago would chose to record a CD in France with French musicians, for Zora Young it makes perfect sense.
For The French Connection her regular pianist, Bobby Dirninger, put together three different bands to play behind Young; one for the five live tracks included on the disc, an acoustic band, and a second electric band for studio work. The result is three separate sounds to showcase Young's vocals and her variety of styles. However, while all three bands are equally skilled and provide the appropriate environments for her signing, I don't think it would matter who accompanied Zora Young and you'd still be blown away by her singing.
It's not just a matter of her having a strong enough voice to handle belting out electric blues on par with anybody else out there, as there are any number of vocalists with power to burn. No, what really distinguishes her from the pack is what she can do when she turns down the voltage. There are two songs on this disc which show off this aspect of her voice, her cover of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and her rendition of the traditional gospel tune, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee". From the moment she begins singing "Tonight" her voice captured my attention and I couldn't ignore it if I tried. The strength of emotion you could hear as she bares her heart to the person the song is addressed to sends shivers down your spine it's so potent. She actually recorded the song as a duet with Dirninger, and while he can't match her for intensity, having him as focal point for her words makes them all the more poignant.
In some ways "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" is as much a declaration of love for another as the Dylan tune is, and Young is able to convey that love with every word she sings. The Sufi poets and songwriters of the middle ages used to write love songs to the divine in much the same manner as they would write ones expressing mortal love. Love was love as far as they were concerned and whether you were talking about your love for a woman or your love for the creator it didn't really matter. Young has captured that sense in her rendition of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" as the impression you are left with after she's finished singing is how genuine her love for her God really is. She's not trying to impress us with how religious she is or anything like that, she's singing to express the love she feels in her heart for her creator, and it's beautiful.
There was one song on this disc that I must confess I was dreading having to hear, the old Mac Davis, Elvis Presly chestnut "In The Ghetto". Maybe it was the thought of a guy who epitomized conspicuous consumption like Elvis did that made him singing about the life of inner city black people in the US nauseating, maybe it was the maudlin lyrics, or perhaps a combination of the two, but I've always hated that song. Zora Young hasn't re-written the lyrics, so it's still a little much, but she is at least able to bring genuine understanding and compassion into play when she sings it. It's a reflection of just how talented she is that she's able to make this piece of dreck almost bearable, and if you just listen to the sound of her voice and ignore the lyrics, it's even better.
Other highlights of this disc are her wonderful renditions of the Muddy Waters tune "Honey Bee" and a great version of the old classic "Mystery Train". What impressed me the most about both those tunes is how she makes them her own and doesn't try to simply imitate the originals, and not just because she's a woman singing songs that were originally composed for men to sing, but because she does that with ever song she sings, and makes them all her own.
Zora Young is a great vocalist who reminds you of just how pathetic the majority of today's female pop vocalists really are. This is a woman who's voice can fill an auditorium, but at the same time she can whisper so soulfully that you'll stop everything you're doing in order to listen to her. Now that's what I call singing the blues.