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The soul side of country from black country singers

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., June 18, 1998

By Jeffrey B. Remz

SOMERVILLE, MASS. - Blacks in country music? That may well sound like an oxymoron to the uninitiated.

Especially in the late Nineties with the like of Charley Pride - by far the most successful black country artists - fading into the background.

But the excellent, recent three-CD set, "From Where I Stand," put the spotlight on blacks in the genre.

And with a big thanks to Johnny D's booking agent Flo Murdoch, three of the artists on the compilation - Barrence Whitfield, Bobby Hebb and Big Al Downing - shared the same stage Thursday.

The three - all Massachusetts residents - showed the involvement of blacks in country is heavily laced with a soulful, R&B element (although Downing mentioned afterwards the club wanted more of an emphasis on the R&B than country side).

No matter what the genre, the evening proved immensely satisfying.

The set of Whitfield, primarily known as a soulful singer, leaned heavily towards his strength. He reprised Merle Haggard's "Irma Jackson," a tale of interracial love, from "From Where I Stand." Whitfield picked up the pace after an easy going start to nail the song.

Gram Parson's "Brass Buttons" received a soulful reading from Whitfield with a good dose of harp from Chris Brown, who was a force all night as all three artists used the same backing band.

The 40-minute set climaxed with Pops Staple' "Freedom Highway" about the Sixties Freedom Marchers. The very funky song showed Whitfield at the top of his powers, getting into it big time.

Hebb doubtlessly will be forever linked with one of the best known songs of all time, "Sunny." But there is far more to the Nashville native than that although he did turn in a strong performance on the 1966 hit.

With a tender voice that still holds up, Hebb reprised "A Satisfied Mind, a big hit in 1955 for Porter Wagoner, Red Foley and Jean Shepard, from the compilation.

Most of Hebb's set was given towards the R&B side of his music.

Big Al mixed rockabilly, soul and country in his lively hour-long set. Playing keyboards, Downing offered bouncy versions of "Bound For Baltimore" and "Boogie Woogie Saturday Night" which had the crowd out on the dance floor.

And Downing, who had most of his success on the country charts, certainly proved more than capable covering that turf as well as tributes to Fats Domino, Elvis and Ray Charles.

Clearly enjoying himself onstage, the evening closed with Whitfield and Downing joining forces on "Georgia Slide," a rockabilly cum R&B song.

At the end of the evening, Whitfield, who served as emcee, stated, "This has been a special night."

And how!

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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