Black history is American history. Black Americans helped shape this country; and made us question our ideals and look back on our history with both pride and shame. The music that we love evolved out of the Mississippi Delta, cotton fields of Alabama, inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, New York, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Jazz, soul, gospel, blues, rock ‘n roll, rap, R&B, and hip-hop have been the soundtrack to the American experience for over 140 years. Artists like Sam Cooke, Lee Morgan, Jon Batiste, and Curtis Harding allow us to celebrate both the past and present.
Sam Cooke – Night Beat
When he was tragically murdered, Sam Cooke was at the apex of his career. Blessed with talent, and a voice that was unlike anyone who had come before him. Sam Cooke was irreplaceable and when he died, he took some of the soulfulness he possessed with him. I don’t think it’s ever really been replicated since. He was larger than life when he performed and his music broke through racial barriers. What makes Night Beat so special is the intimacy of the recording; it all feels rather up close and personal with Sam in the same room. One can only imagine what a young Sam Cooke sounded like singing alone in his father’s church growing up – it was probably something like this. The 45 rpm version is rarely in stock, and it will run you almost $60 with shipping. The first time you listen to “Lost and Lookin” you may order a second copy – just in case. – Ian White / Buy at Amazon
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Goin’ Away
John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Lightnin’ Hopkins recorded enough blues records to fill a wall unit. They each had their own distinct style and the late-Sam Hopkins carved out his own space as a Texas country bluesman with quick fingers and powerful and dirty growl. Hopkins was adept at improvisation with his lyrics and he was a natural in front of a crowd. His solo work is where he really shines and Goin’ Away finds him in rare form. Hopkins was no one-trick pony; his playing showcased remarkable dexterity, a gift for connecting with audiences, and a raw energy that made you sit up and tap your feet. A master of the blues for almost 4 decades. – Ian White / Find at Discogs
Lee Morgan – Search For The New Land
I remember finding a decent used copy of Search For The New Land in a record bin in Paris in 1993 and I wore it out rather quickly. Lee Morgan was new to me at the time but 27 years later, he’s a huge part of my jazz listening, and I use this title and The Sidewinder with every piece of equipment under review. Morgan’s trumpet playing illuminates all five tracks, and he is joined on this stellar recording by Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), and Grant Green (guitar). Morgan crafted and recorded this challenging record in Englewood Cliffs and that must have been some ride down the Palisades Parkway post-session. – Ian White / Buy at Amazon
Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear
This was playing as I browsed the bins at Turn It Up Records last fall (on my birthday), and I just had to have it (a present to myself). Harding had a nomadic upbringing that included touring in a van early in life with his mom, an itinerant gospel singer. In the early 2000s, he backed up CeeLo Green on several projects and toured with the likes of Outkast and Lauryn Hill. There’s a Canadian connection, too, as he spent a year in Toronto in his late 20s learning guitar and honing his craft. His music is a blend of genres including psychedelic, gospel, soul, rock and others (what he calls “slop ‘n’ soul”), with a classic mid-‘70s vibe; imagine Leon Bridges meets The Lighthouse Family meets Charles Bradley meets Lenny Kravitz.
Favorite tracks: The energetic, driving “On And On” and slow groovin’ “Welcome To My World” and “Ghost Of You.” – Eric Pye / Buy at Amazon
Dominique Fils-Aimé – Nameless
First heard this 2018 EP at a small gathering at a friend’s house, and was blown away by Fils-Aimé’s voice: beautifully textured, sultry, expressive and penetrating; think Roberta Flack, with a hint of Nina Simone (in her mellower moods). Her music is vocal-centric, with an almost acapella feel to it; instrumentation is almost incidental. Nameless, her debut, explores blues, silence and sorrow as the first installment in a trilogy on the history of African-American music. Her 2019 follow-up, Stay Tuned! explores jazz and the civil rights movement (it won a Juno – Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Award– for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in 2020). Her third album, Three Little Words, with a more pop-ish feel, embraces soul and was released Thursday (pre-order vinyl in the mail, and digital download currently on replay).
Favorite tracks: “Birds,” a slow, sultry, layered number, and two covers, “Strange Fruit” and “Feeling Good.” – Eric Pye / Find at Discogs
Jon Batiste – Hollywood Africans
Most people who are familiar with Jon Batiste likely know him as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader on “The Late Show,” but he’s had a long and inspiring musical career outside of the show. His recent work for the film Soul has seemingly brought in a lot of new listeners, and I hope that will only continue as he is an incredibly talented pianist, singer, and composer. His last solo studio album released in 2018, Hollywood Africans, is a beautiful collection of instrumental piano songs and jazz numbers. Since its release, he’s put out two live albums and a project with Cory Wong of Vulfpeck in addition to the music for Soul. And he’s got a new album coming in March. Start with Hollywood Africans and then jump headfirst into the deep end of all things Jon Batiste. – Lauren Halliday / Buy at Amazon
The Legendary Son House – Father of Folk Blues
When I get asked for delta blues recommendations, this is usually the record I note first. I often think the importance of Son House gets overlooked as he did not achieve notoriety until being rediscovered in the 1960s. His influence in Mississippi in the 1930s on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters played an integral role in the evolution of blues music. His incredible slide guitar style and passionate singing can be found on this great compilation album that is usually pretty easy to find. – Lauren Halliday / Buy at Amazon
The Meters – Cissy Strut
I found this album much too late in life — don’t make the same mistake. My wife said “what!? You’ve never heard The Meters?” The album came in the mail a week later. The Meters are a New Orleans band perfecting the “second line” uptempo blend with funk and rock. The “hype sticker” states this is a “The Best of The Meters” and I totally agree! The hits span from 1969 to 1975. Put on Cissy Strut and turn it up! – Jeremy Sikora / Buy at Amazon
Harry Belafonte – Calypso
This album drew me in with the popular song “Day O,” but I learned quickly that this was a record you listen to from start to finish. It was recorded in 1955 and released the following year being the first LP to sell over a million copies. It also features “Star O,” another version of the traditional work song “Day O.” Harry Belafonte went on to release 30 studio albums over his storied career and has always been an important voice in the civil rights movement. – Jeremy Sikora / Buy at Amazon