Very well done, Grady Champion – as in, a good job well done, and also a pat on the back. Because Steppin’ In is a thoroughly enjoyable album.
It’s also billed as a tribute to ZZ Hill, the Texas bluesman who died in 1984 at the age of 48, due to complications following a car crash. Hill is regarded in some quarters at least as having given the blues a shot in the arm by blending the blues with more modern soul stylings. To be honest, I knew next to nothing about him before this album came my way, so I couldn’t say if that’s true. But it makes listening to Steppin’ In a slightly odd experience, because I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I’m actually listening to Grady Champion in
|Grady Champion - justifiably happy in his work|
Either way, what you get here is a collection of archetypal blues stories – the guy having a day where if it can go wrong it does (‘When It Rains It Pours’), double entendre-laden occupations (‘Shade Tree Mechanic’), self-assertiveness (‘I’m A Bluesman’), and the guy whose woman is giving it away to the neighbourhood (‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’) – delivered with a modern sheen but with a nod to Hill’s own influences such as BB King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.
Opener ‘Down Home Blues’ sets the tone, with a laid back groove, a classic bluesy melody, and a straight ahead guitar solo from Will Wesley. Think of Little Steven’s version of Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, then imagine a stripped back, cooled off tune that’s about kicking back when business is done, and you get the picture. There’s not a lot to it, when you get down to it – and none of the horns that decorate subsequent tracks – but it works just fine.
Champion’s voice appears to be a reasonable emulation of Hill’s - from a quick exploration on YouTube - a soulful, bluesy growl that’s well suited to the leering lasciviousness of ‘Bump And Grind’, which does exactly what it says on the tin. But he can still bend it to smoother soul space on the likes of ‘Cheating In The Next Room’ and ‘Three Into Two Won’t Go’, which both offer a nod to the likes of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, the former displaying some tasteful piano and organ from Sam Brady, as well as some crooning horns. The horns go on to provide some vibrant punctuation across the album, notably on ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’, where they follow a very BB King guitar intro from special guest Eddie Cotton, who proceeds to pepper the track with single-note guitar licks.
‘I’m A Bluesman’ – not the BB King song, it should be noted – offers variety in the form of a declamatory statement of intent, like a less spiky take on ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, fitted to a great bass line from Frederick Demby Sr that’s shadowed by the horns. And Denise Lasalle’s ‘Someone Else Is Steppin’ In’ is a funky groove that makes good use of female back vocals and the horns as the main man shifts from victim to swaggering his way out the other side.
Contrary to what the album cover suggests, Champion doesn’t play guitar on this outing. He provides the on-the-money soul-infused vocals though, and some harp. But most importantly, as producer he’s succeeded in creating a warm and rich sound that captures the soulful vibe. Like I said, well done.