John and Sylvia Embry – Troubles
John and Sylvia Embry were purveyors of wild and wooly, screamin’ gospel-soaked blues in 1970s Chicago. Delmark Records has resurrected the only album they recorded together, originally called After Work and long out of print, recorded in ’79, now retitled Troubles. John Embry passed in ’87, Sylvia in ’92, but this compilation will keep their presence and influence alive for future generations to marvel at and emulate.
It’s still a stunner. John’s ability to mimic virtually any blues guitar virtuoso and Sylvia’s gospel wails and funky, flatpicked bass make for some of the most powerful soul music ever recorded. Sylvia was one of the first women instrumentalists on the blues scene, the vocalist/bassist with Lefty Dizz’s Shock Treatment before going solo in 1980, recording for Alligator’s Living Chicago Blues, Vol. 4.
Even though John Embry was a powerful voice in the Chicago scene of the ’70s-’80s, his presence has almost faded away. He was the lead guitarist with the loose knit organization The Ghetto Kings, played with Hound Dog Taylor, and was a regular on Maxwell Street on Chicago’s West Side, where from the 1940’s to the late’ 90s blues musicians were encouraged by local businesses to play on the sidewalk outside their stores to attract customers.
Embry said that Albert King and Jimmy Reed were among his influences. He adopts King’s style on the title cut, a string-bending demonstration fit for casting out demons while Sylvia wails like a lost soul in need of redemption.
Every cut here is treasure, but a few are so good you wonder why they didn’t get a wider audience. Their rendition of “I Found a Love” is every bit as powerful as Wilson Pickett’s ’62 version with the Falcons Sylvia’s churchy delivery as good a demonstration as any ever put on record as to why the crossover of gospel to soul worked so well.
Curtis Mayfield’s ’65 Gene Chandler vehicle “Rainbow” is spliced in, with Sylvia belting out the gospel like Aretha, John backing her with soulful moans, spewing out fountains of guitar praise.
The Embrys channel Pickett once again on “Mustang Sally,” stinging harder than Pickett’s ’66 version. John takes the vocal lead on the verses with Sylvia funkin’ hard on bass behind him, coming in screamin’ soulfully on the chorus with John once again bending Albert’s strings to the breaking point.
John Embry shows a more mellow side on guitar for “After Work,” the original title of the ’79 release on Razor Records this material was compiled from.
Brook Benton had a hit with “Lie To Me” in ’59. Benton’s version was smooth and creamy, but the Embry’s rendition is a bouncy, stinging rocker with Sylvia laying down an intimidating Koko Taylor style ultimatum.
This one is a real find, an archive that’ll make every soul fanatic drool from the opening bars, a churchy, blues-drenched expedition into the past that’s still as fresh and vibrant as the day it was recorded.
By Grant Britt