Going Back Home
The central question around many blues releases goes like this –“Is there anything new here?” Be careful. One quick view of these tracks from Benny Turner and Cash McCall such as “Spoonful,” ‘Built for Comfort” and “It Hurts Me Too” might cause many to quickly move on. Yet, the story behind these sessions, the joy of two old friends playing together, and raw, honest delivery of both blues standards and lesser known tunes makes this outing a must listen.
So, here’s the story and some background. Producer, bassist and vocalist Benny Turner (Freddy King’s younger brother) says, “A death in the gospel world inspired me to contact my old friend Cash. I had no idea about his health problems and wanted to do whatever I could to help. Getting him involved in a music project seems to have been the best medicine in the world for him, because he is really excited about it. I asked Billy Branch if he was available to be a special guest on the record and he didn’t hesitate for a minute.”
Benny is referring to his friend, guitarist and vocalist McCall, with whom he began a friendship in Chicago over 60 years ago. The idea was to revisit the songs they once played separately (never having been in the same band or even on stage together) in South and West Side clubs. So, remarkably, this is the first time the two have recorded together. Sessions took place in Memphis, New Orleans, and Chicago with top notch players including, in addition to Branch, pianist Joe Krown, harpist Johnny Sansone and drummer Rodd Bland (son of Bobby “Blue” Bland).
Turner, best known as bassist for is older brother, Freddy King, also played for Mighty Joe Young and then for Marva Wright of New Orleans. He also did gospel work with The Kindly Shepherds and with Otis Clay. He has an award-winning autobiography Survivor – The Benny Turner Story, published in 2017.
McCall is a native of Missouri, born Morris Dollison Jr., who later received his stage name from his 1966 recording “When You Wake Up.” He recorded as a solo R&B artist for the Thomas, Checker, and Paula labels and went on to work at One-derful! and Chess as a session musician and songwriter. He was a member of Willie Dixon’s band and co-produced Dixon’s Grammy winner Hidden Charms.
The horn drenched soul tune “Got to Find a Way” with Turner on vocals is special as it features his three daughters singing backup for the first time on record. The faithful reading of “Spoonful” has McCall on vocals (the two trade off throughout) and brings fond memories for Turner because his brother Freddie played on the original Chess Howlin’ Wolf recording in 1960. Turner has some fun with Willie Mabon’s “Poison Ivy” before McCall renders the album’s only original, his self-penned “Money,’ which is essentially a blues sermon. Afterall, money is the root of all evil. Four tracks in, the grooves are deep, and two masters are giving it their all.
Any mention of Chicago blues is incomplete without Elmore James. Turner takes the lead on the horn-driven, slide guitar infused “Shake Your Moneymaker” and then McCall takes his turn of Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too,’ popularized by James. This song may be overcovered but when you understand that McCall was battling stage four lung cancer while singing it, it takes on special meaning. Billy Branch lends his outstanding harp as well.
“It’s Man Down There” will remind most of the Allman Brothers doing “One Way Out” when, in fact, it was G.L. Crockett who had a 1965 hit with it, adapting it from Elmore James’ 1964 “One Way Out.” Joe Krown’s barrelhouse piano and Johnny Sansone’s harp give this one a double punch. The bawdy old blues “The Dirty Dozens” is better known as “Mother For Ya,” with McCall rendering it a Fats Waller kind of vein. Naturally, given their backgrounds, we get a Willie Dixon tune but it’s Turner singing “Built for Comfort, “again with Krown and Sansone. Billy Branch returns for the closer, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bring It On Home” and Branch is the vocalist here as well.
There’s a special energy and kinship that rings through this recording. Bill Dahl’s liner notes provide some rich history and observations like this one from McCall’s friend Mark Caldwell. “It was so cool to see all this energy that came back into Cash. He just started grooving. It really was special to see Cash and Benny together. It was a magical couple of days.” Label President Sallie Bengston offers, “There is something incredibly endearing about working with the bluesmen of their generation. They feel a bit forgotten in today’s music world and seeing their joy and enthusiasm in the studio together while recording some the classic they’ve played for decades was a beautiful experience. I couldn’t be more proud or honored to present this sentimental collaboration.” Listen in. You’ll fee their joy too.
- Jim Hynes