Ruby Johnson: A glorious (re)discovery
The twenty sides Ruby Johnson recorded for Stax/Volt in 1966-68 were finally released in something like album format in 1993, assembled under the title of the first track, I’ll Run Your Hurt Away. It appears to have been reissued subsequently — somewhere — with seven additional tracks performed by Pearl Reeves (about whom I know even less), only a single line of type updating the artwork.
I cannot speak for your downloading options, as I perform that magic only under the most extreme duress. But I would urge you to seek a used copy of this remarkable album at your earliest convenience. And then not to wait, as I apparently did, seventeen years before actually playing the thing.
Her backing band, see, is Isaac Hayes (piano, organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Al Jackson, Jr. (drums), with the Mar-Key horns. Produced by Al Bell. And Ms. Johnson, she can sing.
I have, these past months, been taking my ignorance for a long and humbling listen. And despite all the years spent listening, hours upon hours, and reading, and talking, and writing, and thinking, there is a great deal about music I do not and will never know.
Now, reclaiming my amateur status, I look backward. This is what older people do, and it is not necessarily a good sign. Perhaps it means that one’s best days are behind. Perhaps it means that one is no longer curious about the affairs of youth. I think it often means, with critics, that the new has overwhelmed us, that we are no longer willing nor able to keep up. The past doesn’t move. It stays still, can be found, sought out, assimilated. The present and the future…that is, perhaps, a young person’s game.
That’s one answer.
The other is that I have squirreled away dozens of CDs that I had no professional time to listen to, against the coming inevitability that I would fall off the mailing lists and need to continue to amuse myself.
These last few months I have poured the contents of a number of box sets into my iPod, and set it on scramble. This began as an attempt to program an hour-long radio show about Doo-Wop, but it quickly came clear to me that I know nothing about Doo-Wop, and don’t have much of it lying about. But what I do have is a trove of post-World War II African-American music. Some of it blues, some of it proto-rock, some of it soul, or gospel, or jump blues, or whatever hybrid the nomenclature folks wish to ascribe to it.
It has been immense fun, and it is nice for music to be fun again, even if I suspect my wife had hoped I would simply give up the whole foolishness and we wouldn’t have to move all this stuff into our new hours. (I am winnowing down, honest, but it’s slow work.)
I cannot tell you how Ruby Johnson’s album came to be in my hands, originally. I managed to weasel myself on a list receiving gospel reissues from Specialty for a few years when I helmed The Rocket magazine during the grunge years. This pissed off the woman who was officially our critic-in-charge of black music, particularly when I chose to write about some of the gospel. I am sorry about that, but not sorry enough. The music will have to do for my excuse.
What I can tell you is that it must have arrived toward the very end of my run at The Rocket, and well before the beginning of No Depression. This means it has been moved across Seattle at least twice, if not a third time, and then to Los Angeles, and then to Nashville (three places there), before finally finding its way into the CD player here in Eastern Kentucky. My best guess is that it ended up in a box of things I hadn’t listened to yet, and I finally gave up and filed it simply on the guess that because it was from Stax/Volt it was probably good, if ever I was in the mood for such a thing.
Well, I’m in the mood.
All this listening takes me down lots of rabbit holes (of course!), and often all a disc reveals is a single track of almost-magic. Or, though I’ve not played them in a few years, I will learn as I learned with the reissued Bettye LaVette albums that there was something missing, discovered only in her revival, in her maturing. (Parenthetically, am I the only one who thinks this new album of British Invasion hits is kind of…not right, somehow? Off? I mean, she’s a terrific singer, but…something’s wrong. Maybe another time I’ll try to figure that one out.)
So one of the points of this Ruby Johnson album is that every single track is terrific. Partly that’s because the backing band is beyond reproach, and in the pocket. Partly it’s because this is a sound one knows well, and yet the songs and the voice aren’t worn down by oldies radio or memory. Mostly it’s because Ruby Johnson could flat sing. If I have one caveat, and I’m not a musician, it’s a guess that almost every song is in the same key. Not the same arrangement, tempo, style, nor approach, but perhaps the same key. Somebody who knows better and hears more acutely may answer for that, but, in the end, it matters not. These were, after all, singles, not album components. They were shots at hits, taken by one of the best crews in the business, all young and full of muscle.
Lee Hildebrand’s 1993 liner notes are about all I’ve yet discovered about Ms. Johnson, and they reveal an unexpected biography. She was born April 19, 1936, in Elizabeth City, NC, “and raised in the Jewish faith of her great-great-grandparents [better to quote Mr. Hildebrand than to try to condense]. ‘It wasn’t well known among black people at that time, but that was my teaching,’ she says of Temple Beth-El, a century-old, predominantly African-American Jewish denomination headquartered in Suffolk, Virginia.'”
She moved to Virginia Beach, sang with Samuel Latham and the Rhythm Makers for two years, mostly around Camp Lejeune, NC. Moved to Washington, D.C. Cut a handful of singles for a Philadelphia label named V-Tone, and for Nebs, and fell into the Volt/Stax orbit. And despite the quality of her backing band, and the songwriting of David Porter/Isaac Hayes, the hits did not happen. When last seen, Mr. Hildebrand reported in 1993, she was director of Foster Grandparents, in Hyattsville, Maryland, and singing Friday nights at her temple.
I have put off describing her voice, because I seem inadequate to the task. It is, yes, in places like other voices. Aretha, sure, sometimes. James Brown, a bit, maybe. The stuff that was happening in the 1960s she certainly heard, and borrowed from. But she’s not just another unknown singer with a good backing band. She’s got the hurt in her voice, a rough edge that apparently the allergies of Memphis brought on whilst recording, but which she manages with great skill. She’s got an easy phrasing, a comfort at the microphone. A grace, and a yearning. She has the gift, but never quite got the song, I suppose. Even surrounded by all that talent.
I would draw your attention (beyond asking that the guitar players out there listen carefully to how Cropper plays…my guess is he’s easier to hear here, playing unfamiliar songs, than he may be on the Sam & Dave hits, or whatever other reference beckons) to a couple of songs. To the title track, sure, and to “It’s Better to Give Than To Receive” (partly because the opening guitar line is terrific), to “I’d Better Check On Myself” (a wonderful song about a woman trying to figure out why her man might stray), “Left Over Love,” and the closing “Weak Spot” (a 1966 recording, and a first-rate screamer). And one other, a bit of a curiosity titled “I’d Rather Fight Than Switch.” Those of a certain generation will recognize this as an appropriation of a Tarryton cigarette ad campaign that went on during much of the ’60s, best I can remember, and which featured smokers with obviously faked black eyes proclaiming their allegiance to this now-forgotten brand. It’s also a great song.
Like I said, they’re all great songs.
This, of course, is why I never throw anything out. My wife’s not happy about that, but I haven’t made her listen to this one yet. Might win her over, might not. Ah, well.