Southern Soul Guide: Sweet Angel, Mel Waiters, and Luther Lackey

A pack of thoroughly modern throwbacks

A Memphis insurance agent and mother of two with a "sturdy build, big thighs, big hips," a feather boa, and minimal platinum-blonde hair was behind one of 2010's best singles, reminiscing about being 25 and having a crush on a big-time Southern Soul singer named Bobby Rush. For "A Girl Like Me," Sweet Angel borrows the incessant, repetitive, knee-deep funk vamp Rush once used on "Sue," a stuttering extended tease from 1982 about being deflowered as a teenager. Around 1990 or so, if her song is to be believed, Sweet Angel applied to be one of Rush's dancing girls. He told her she was too young, so she tried again 10 years later—at 35—"Ohhh, yeah, that's a good age." But 155 pounds? "Too little." Eventually, her singing career takes off instead. She opens for Rush in Mississippi. "You look like one of my dancing girls," he finally concedes. "You just ain't got no hair." Halfway through the song's six minutes, her talking switches to singing, and her register drops to a gloating growl.

Sweet Angel—real name, Clifetta Dobbins—is now 46. Which, in Southern Soul, still makes her a sweet young thing. Bobby Rush himself was born in Louisiana before World War II, played with Elmore James in the mid-'50s, and wields a deep-fried ham-hock drawl that's still going strong: "Night Fishin'," from 2005, even spawned a stack of answer records. Denise LaSalle is 71—her one pop hit, "Trapped By a Thing Called Love," came and went in 1971—but in 2010 she scored on Southern Soul's chitlin circuit with "Older Woman," about how aging improved her bedroom technique ("Like a Whirlpool, I got different speeds"), so now she's looking for a younger man who can keep up. Dirty old Bobby Rush, "over 72," actually gets the final word on that song. But 54-year-old, white-haired Texan Mel Waiters, probably Southern Soul's biggest name these days (he even plays up north sometimes), opts out of the competition on 2010's "I Ain't Gone Do It": "Ain't one of them young boys make you scream and shout/You gonna mess me around and make me throw my back out!"

That this self-branded "grown folks music" still flourishes, in an age when mainstream r&b has increasingly become the juvenile province of Beavises babbling about "boobies," is some kind of miracle. Black music, as Nelson George pointed out throughout his 1988 book The Death of Rhythm & Blues, was largely an adult commodity in the time of adolescent rock 'n' roll. But hip-hop changed that forever, and disco-era assimilation dreams had already begun to sever r&b from the local economics of black communities. When George wrote a 1983 Voice roundup of soul journeymen Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, and Z.Z. Hill—aged 45, 45, and 43 at the time—they were already considered anachronistic relics by major labels too coastal to care, even though raspy Texan Hill's indie label Down Home was then blindsiding Northeastern provincials by staying on Billboard's black album chart for almost two years. The piece was titled "Till the Day They Die," as George deduced that middle-aged black men "with no skills other than singing, dancing, and guitar picking" have few financial alternatives other than to keep plugging away until they're gone. And that's pretty much what this trinity did—Hill passed in 1984, Taylor in 2000, Davis in 2005.

Where they live on is in recent Southern Soul songs, where they're frequently name-checked as patron saints. Malaco, the grassroots Jackson, Mississippi, company that resuscitated all three singers' careers—and old-school soul itself—in the '80s and '90s, is still around, too, though it's widely diversified into Christian and catalog items. Daddy B. Nice, whose website at SouthernSoulRnB.com indispensably chronicles/reviews/aggregates the subculture from the inside, pegs the dominant imprints now, in terms of promoting new talent, as Ecko in Memphis (founded by Malaco expat John Ward, who produces everything and runs the studio) and Carlsbad, California, concern CDS, where New Orleans–via-Nashville vet and former Neville Brothers sideman Carl Marshall has become integral to the creative mix. Other, even tinier companies—in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana—fill in holes.

These labels will never challenge the overpowering studio bands of Deep Soul's heyday; Ecko albums inevitably credit Ward with "rhythm tracks," and the arrangements are consistently functional if infrequently ingenious. The spotlight is on the singers, who almost inevitably partake in a church-testifying richness and grit that r&b otherwise abandoned in favor of icy detachment and empty melisma decades ago. In eternal blues-and-country storytelling tradition, the songwriting can get formulaic, especially as themes rework into memes: Lots of cheating-with-your-best-friend's-spouse songs, advice from all fronts of the monogamy wars, easy oral-sex jokes way less shocking than they pretend (those the specialty of Marvin "Candy Licker" Sease, who died at 65 in early February), and slides/steps/shuffles/spanks for the family reunion. The CD packaging looks endearingly cut-rate, and quality control often yields to quantity-of-product—Alabama romancer Sir Charles Jones might be blessed with the millennium's most luscious late-night baritone, but his 2010 Mardi Gras Records all-covers set seemed mostly perfunctory.

What's amazing is how much of this music transcends its limitations: Gerod Rayborn's October release Call Before You Come!!!—backed by what sounds like a full band, and featuring several men and women sharing Rayborn's last name—is as intense a marriage-soul battle as any since mid-'80s Womack & Womack. Who's Rockin' You, the new Ecko 10-songer from 51-year-old Texas smoothie Donnie Ray, as soakable a quiet-storm-throwback bubblebath as the latest (quite good) albums by El Debarge or R. Kelly—neither of which is any more verbally distinctive, neither of which can touch Ray's most sugar-sweet beach-soul hooks. That Thang Thang, out in late 2010 from Ray's more huskily shouting and alcohol-obsessed Clarksdale, Mississippi, labelmate O.B. Buchana, is funkier, funnier, and even catchier, with an excellent Bobby Womack cover and a focus track where a couple expend equal energy fighting and fucking.

The Preacher's Wife, last year's unusually lovely and thoughtful album by Buchana's brother, Luther Lackey, who writes his own songs and clearly draws inspiration from country and gospel as well as Sam Cooke, made my Pazz & Jop Top 10; belatedly, so did the self-released mid-2009 Jerri Curl Muzik by Bigg Robb, a prolific graduate of Ohio's talkbox-funk scene who Southern Soul partisans have accepted despite the fact that he doesn't exactly sing—guests like Carl Marshall and Shirley Murdock and "Larry from the Floaters" mostly do that for him—and his deluge of lengthy albums revolve around a Gap Band/Cameo default setting. That's as trendy as this genre gets: Robb learned his trade from Zapp's Roger Troutman, and Kurtis Blow raps on Jerri Curl. So caveat emptor, if "datedness" bugs you.

Give or take the occasional flicker on lower rungs of the blues or "urban adult" chart, this stuff barely registers on Billboard anymore. But to me, it still feels like 2011 anyway, and presumably it also does to the primarily working-class, baby-boomer Southern black crowds who pack outskirts-of-town roadhouses and Elks Lodges every weekend—and arena package tours and state-park picnic spots every spring and summer—to watch these artists. Mom-and-pop record stores and local radio (some stations, like WMPR in Jackson, Mississippi, now Web-streamable) get the word out. And if the national recession and music-biz depression have wreaked havoc on both small neighborhood businesses and the lives of the fans who rely on them, Southern Soul doesn't whitewash hard times, either. Luther Lackey croons about clipping coupons and shopping at yard sales and shining shoes when unemployment turns permanent. Bigg Robb, who like Lackey sometimes comes off like a small-town minister consoling his down-and-out flock, keeps the party going even when he can't afford to go to the mall. Mel Waiters does "Everything's Going Up (But My Paycheck)"; Sweet Angel does "I Like The Money But I Don't Like the Job," about keeping her daughters fed. "I Lived It All," Carl Marshall's 60-years-on look back at his impoverished youth, will tear your heart a new ventricle. One of my favorite 2009 singles was the hilarious plea-to-Obama "I Need a Bailout," by Austin's CDBaby-distributed Larry Shannon Hargrove. This ain't no VIP Room—the action takes place at holes in the wall, or even VFW halls. Somehow, the singers stay good-humored about it.

And I'm sorry, but Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar"—to pick a better-than-average example of the alleged retro-soul typically embraced in indie-adult-alternative circles these days—sounds, in comparison, like the tastefully antiseptic HBO theme it is. And if the museum embalmers at Anti- Records hadn't Anglicized them into arugula suitable to dour and delicate Wilco sensibilities, Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette could maybe still sound half as alive as, say, the call-in-advice-show title-talker on Rubenesque raunch queen Ms. Jody's doubly horny new Ecko album, Keepin' It Real. If you're into Sharon Jones or Cee-Lo dressing up vintage, that's your choice. But if so, you really owe it to yourself to acknowledge a thriving world where soul music, as originally understood, never stopped being vital—where it's something more than mannerisms reverently simulated from a distance. A place where, as Bigg Robb would say, you can still smell chicken, catfish, and pork chops all cooking in the same grease.

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