ANN PEEBLES / “I’m So Thankful”
Mtume done done it again - messed up my perfect plans for BoL. Y'all may not know it (and I’m sure some of our readers assume otherwise) but Mtume is the driving wheel on BoL. He’s like that good friend you catch a ride with going somewhere y'all both are supposed to be going except said friend always takes a little detour (“won’t take a second, I just need to…”) and 25 miles later there you are pissed about being so far away from where you intended to be but at the same time you’re thankful for visiting this wonderful somewhere you never intended to go. Hell, I ain’t even much had no Ann Peebles on my mind recently. But as Mtume slowed his roll pass her old crib I found myself somewhat interested in spite of being perturbed about going around the block just to cross the street. Slouched down in the front seat I pretended only a mild interest in this real estate while Mtume was holding forth and then he mentions old girl got a new pad. I said, “Yeah?” He said, “Yeah.” Went to talking about how it was sort of acoustic, made up of a lot of her old stuff but was just recorded, and… I was typing away the whole time, all up in iTunes. A long time before Mtume had finished telling me about the album I had already peeped the tracklist, purchased the downloads and had two thirds of it on my hard drive. You could say Ann Peebles was an old flame still embered in my chest. And that’s what had happened and how come I’m writing about Ann Peebles for some contemporary music. You see I know Mtume. The boy always been curious. Gets deep off into neighborhoods you wouldn’t expect a young man his age to frequent. Me, I made sixty on March 24, 2007. Guess who made sixty on April 27, 2007? I feel Ann Peebles in a lot of ways that go far beyond sharing 1947 as a birth year and springtime as a birth season. Y'all ever think about the major musicians who never made it atop the Top-anything? Shit, her biggest hit, the “I Can’t Stand The Rain” single, reached #6 on the R&B Charts/#38 on the Pop Charts. When it comes to commercial success as a performing artist, Ann Peebles had buzzard luck. Here this East St. Louis-born preacher’s daughter was headed backwards; instead of shooting north to Chi-town or Motown, the child hooks up with bandleader Oliver Sain who wrote her first recording. So one night in ’68 or thereabouts while visiting Memphis with her brother, Ann sits-in and sings "Steal Away" at Club Rosewood where trumpeter Gene “Bowlegs” Miller is holding forth. Now Miller, he know another Memphis trumpeter, Willie Mitchell, plus Miller knows that Mitchell is trying to get a label off the ground, so being impressed with Ann’s singing, Miller introduces Ms. Peebles to Mr. Mitchell. It’s no use speculating about what ifs, but think about this: what if Ann Peebles had hooked up with Stax instead of with Hi Records, hell, what if Al Green had not hooked up with Hi Records. Ann would have been the star feasting high off the hog instead of the afterthought nibbling on left-overs. I mean once Al Green started knocking them out, the whole Hi Records machine was built around his engine. So here she was playing Scottie Pippen to Mr. Green’s Michael Jordan slam dunks. She would have been the star on any other team at that time, especially over at Stax where they'd never been able to groom a major female lead vocalist. Moreover, not only could she sing, Ann Peebles was also a hell of a songwriter. On the other hand, there were some major compensations. Willie Mitchell paired her with his in-house, veteran Don Bryant, who was also a good singer/songwriter laboring in Green’s shadow. Ann and Don wrote some beautiful music together both in and out the studio. They hooked up legal style in 1974. They’re still together—in fact Don has a major, 7-minute long feature, “Spread,” on Ann’s new album, Brand New Classics. (Now, here I’m the one whose driving clear across town to end up one block over—listening to and writing about Ann Peebles does that to you. Go here for a thorough Ann Peebles biography/interview.) Her new album has 15 tracks, ten were recorded with a live studio audience and five regular, multi-tracked studio production. I was sure that I was going to prefer the live cuts, but, like most good blues, it’s a lot more complex than it initially appears to be. Brand New Classics is no simple-ass trip down memory lane, instead this is a genuine career summation by a genre-defining Soul singer. Ann Peebles remains a working-class, Southern Black woman; remains wrapped up in a blues view of both down and up. She be singing for the people who work over at the correctional facility and down at the chicken plant or round by the casinos, or, God-forbid, for a hair above minimum wage up in Walmart. People who are on deeply intimate terms with hard times, know all about a dollar pieced-together a nickel and a dime at a time, a quarter or two on a good day but it’s got to be a real good day. Janitors and clerks, yard workers and school bus drivers. I’m not being funny nor am I putting people down. These are the people who rear children, make them go to school and do better than their parents did; who pay taxes (and fines, late fees, exorbitant interest rates, etc., etc.). The sufferers. The ones America been profiting off for 500 years. The blues people. The people who fully and without any further need for explanation or justification throw two arms all up around songs like “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” “Tear Your Playhouse Down,” or “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love.” Blues people. For you see, sometimes seriously singing out the hurt is the only way to survive, not to mention to heal, once you been hurted all up. I love the rain, but there have been times when I hated it, when playing Ann’s song over and over seemed to make a lot of sense. They say misery loves company but what they ought to tell you is that misery is picky about what company it wants to keep—when you feeling bad not just anybody can make you feel good. Ann Peebles is a pick-me-up tonic for when I’m feeling down. She may not be the all-time greatest but she’s damn good at what she does. Which all brings me to a few words about her new album. By the way, any of y'all ever heard of Track Records? They're an English label. Recorded Jimi Hendrix and the Who back in the day. Sort of like Ann Peebles, Track Records is more legendary than commercially successful, which, if you think about it, is really a commentary on the business side of the music industry and has nothing to do with the quality of the music. So Track offers Ann the opportunity to toss the drum machine, forget about using a band made up of three keyboardists, a turntablist, a beat-boxer and a drummer who doubles as the background singer. She even did a successful 2005 European tour with her “acoustic band.” That’s Paul Brown on keys; he’s the musical director and Ann’s manager. Harold Smith on guitar. Pete Mendillo on drums. Randy Middleton on bass. Russ Wheeler on Hammond B3 organ. This was Ann’s first international tour in over ten years. What I like most about that album is that they don’t try to re-create the old Hi sound but they do play in an old Soul style (and also in a Nu-Soul style). “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” and the medley of “Steal Away/I Still Love You” are smack dab in the Southern soul pocket. On the other hand there’s an innovative churning version of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” which is both satisfying and at the same time completely different from the original. And then there is a remake of “Chase These Blues Away” which verges on blues opera. Both are bonus cuts and as such they are true bonuses, truly different, and truly satisfying to my ears. The song I’m most impressed with however is “I’m So Thankful,” a joyful blues—yes, Virginia, the blues can be joyful. This song may sound autobiographical but it's only partially true to Ann's life story, instead "I'm So Thankful" is a 100% spiritual statement about growing up to become a mature, straight-up, taking-care-of-business adult. Unfortunately, we don't hear too many songs like this nowadays. Ann Peebles is one of the few Seventies artists who has found a way to update a classic approach to satisfying Soul music. I’m thankful. Very, very thankful that Ann Peebles is a Soul survivor of the highest order. —Kalamu ya Salaam Better than nice These are nice versions of Ann's classic material. Honestly, if I had to pick, I'd go with the classics, but these are definitely worth having. No doubt. The best thing about them is, as Kalamu mentions, Ann neither tries to copy her old arrangements, nor does she try to artifically modernize them. She simply sings and the band plays as though they are simply trying to express a feeling. It's the kind of thing that sounds easy, except that if it was so easy, more people would be doing it. Some of these remakes are better than nice. The new versions of "Tear Your Playhouse Down" and "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" are fantastic, even rivaling the originals. Given that the original versions of those two records are about as classic as classic Soul gets, that's saying a lot. I'll have more to say about Ann Peebles next week, but for now, let's just say the woman is bad. —Mtume ya Salaam
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