Saturday, July 11, 2020

Shirley King - Blues For A King

As the daughter of BB King, Shirley King may have the blues in her blood, but her first career was as a nightclub dancer, and it wasn’t until 1990, when she’d reached her forties, that she took up singing.  And here she is on this latest release, predominantly comprised of covers, still showing some impressive vocal power as she’s backed up by a range of featured guest guitarists.

King’s preferred vocal setting seems to be the kind of R’n’B raunch she heard in her youth from Etta James, which is certainly in evidence on a reading of ‘That’s Alright Mama’, replete with high-revving guitar from Pat Travers.  But the songs on offer here range more widely than that.

The album opens with the retro soul sound of ‘All Of My Lovin’’, on which she captures the vibe

Shirley King - feeling' alright at the mic
Shirley King - feelin' alright at the mic
well against a backdrop of chiming rhythm guitar chords, a bumping bass line reminiscent of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’, and pinging guitar licks from Joe Louis Walker.  And highlights include the languid blues of ‘I Did You Wrong’, delivered with superb control by King and subtle guitar elaborations from Elvin Bishop that show off his terrific blues feel, and the Steve Winwood song ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, on which King ventures into soulful Shemekia Copeland territory to the accompaniment of fluid, deliciously-toned pinpoint embroidery from Martin Barre.
There are Latin undertones to another Traffic song, ‘Feelin’ Alright’, on which a stuttering piano motif also manages to swing with the assistance of the rhythm section, while Duke Robillard adds economical injections of guitar to complement King’s muscular vocal.  Meanwhile ‘Give It All Up’ brings strings and subtle horns to bear on a Motown-ish vibe that hangs on a poppy descending riff, augmented by some suitably neat guitar from Kirk Fletcher.  And ‘Johnny Porter’, a Temptations hit that comes over like an ersatz ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, is put across stridently with some effective call and response vocals between King and Arthur Adams.

Some choices seem over-ambitious though.  A straight reading of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ benefits from some tasteful guitar courtesy of Robben Ford, but while King’s singing is gutsy it doesn’t carry the assertive clarity of Simone.  The treatment of the old classic ‘Gallows Pole’ lacks the urgency and imagination of the Zeppelin version, despite some Ennio Morricone-esque guitar soloing from Harvey Mandel, while King’s vocal has a tendency to wobble at the bottom end of her range – and in truth there are several points across the album where she hits some wonky notes that should really have been fixed with overdubs.  She’s better though on ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’, inhabiting a suitably bluesy space while Joe Louis Walker delivers another crackling demonstration of electric blues guitar.  The oddity here though, is that Junior Wells also contributes vocally, notwithstanding his death in 1998.  Presumably his vocal track from way back when was exhumed for the purpose, though there’s no trumpeting of that approach.

The album closes with King’s take on Etta James’ ‘At Last’, another bold choice which she delivers adequately, though the sweet strings and simple piano chords aren’t quite matched by King, who remains more comfortable in rasping-Etta rather than yearning-Etta mode.

Blues For A King is an enjoyable album, if somewhat patchy.  Shirley King has been well served by the various guest artists, but I can’t help thinking that a little more care could have been taken over the production of her vocals, in order to show her at her best.  The blues feeling is there, but it could have been captured more effectively.

Blues For A King was released by Cleopatra Blues on 19 June.

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