Let’s Have a Party
Chicago soul singer Gerald McClendon, the “Soul Keeper,” makes a quick return from 2020’s Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now, a major statement, which he now quickly follows with Let’s Have a Party. McClendon first got a lift from 2019’s Delta Roots release, Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs. Oakland, an album that revealed city favorites that didn’t have much national exposure. While McClendon had appeared on other projects and compilations, until then his last album under his own name was 1999’s Choose Love. McClendon is one of the few real soul singers left although we’ve seen a slight resurgence of the genre lately with releases from artists such as Sonny Green, Robert Finley, and the late Wee Willie Walker, to name a few. Soul music gets in your blood and is the kind of ‘feel good’ music that these times desperately need. Maybe that plays into this recent wave as well.
McClendon has a voice with tremendous range that draws instant comparisons to other great singers. His smooth style evokes Ben E. King and Marvin Gaye. He doesn’t have the gritty rough voice of his mentor Z.Z. Hill, or quite as much fire as Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding but he’s in the same conversation. McClendon is a master storyteller and provocateur, who will entice and entertain with both typically salacious material like Hill and the conventional love and R&B dance tunes, all of which appear again on this effort.
McLendon, smart enough to not mess with a winning formula, again teamed up with the renowned producer, drummer, and songwriter Twist Turner (worked with 40 Grammy winners) to record at Delta Roots Sound Studios in the heart of Chicago. The duo employed a team of elite session men that included Johnny B. Gayden, Art Love, Dave Forte, and Harlan Terson on bass, four guitarists – Melvin Taylor, Rico McFarland, Rusty Zinn, and Joe Burba, and four keyboardists, Jim Pugh, Tony Llorens, Sumito Aryioshi and Brian James, along with Skinny Williams and John “Boom” Brumbach on saxophone, and the Delta Roots horns. Turner did string arrangements on two tracks and played drums throughout, having penned all dozen songs.
McClendon opens with a cry for resilience in “Keep On Keepin’ On” punctuated by Skinny Williams’ saxophone. He then delivers a series of well-worn phrases in the shuffle “If It Ain’t the Blues.” Gayden’s sturdy bass line drives the horn section in the title track, carrying obviously a similar theme as his mentor Hill’s classic “Down Home Blues” although it’s much more generic and unlikely to achieve such revered status. The sweet doo wop “Pretty Girl” moves squarely into vintage soul territory evoking a sound somewhere between Chicago’s Tyrone Davis and Philly’s Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.
The album centerpiece is “Pack Your Bags and Go,” the typical story rendered in a romantic slow dance mode with lyrics that are anything but because the man has found his lover cheating. McClendon delivers a stern series of lecturing lines, determined that she leave the premises as soon as yesterday – “You can pack your bags and go, and don’t forget your hat.” Skinny Williams is terrific in support. “Ghetto Child” paints the forlorn picture of street life with classic R&B backing. “You Got To Be Strong” reflects the album theme of resilience, using even some of the same lines as the opener in the choruses, driven by Akiyoshi’s solid piano and Brumbach on soulful tenor sax this time. It’s one of McClendon’s best vocals, as he’s especially strong in the upper registers.
Rico McFarland’s stinging guitar introduces the slow burning blues of the Fenton Robinson-like “Throw This Dog a Bone” and returns in similar fashion for another slow burner, “I Just Can’t Help Myself,” (“my body says yes, my mind says no”) another Hill-like treatise on cheating. Sandwiched in between is the string bathed “Start All Over Again,” the kind of sweet soul tune you’d swear you’ve heard before, reminiscent somewhat of Tyrone Davis and even the previous album where McClendon sang the similarly titled “I Start Over.” Guitarist Joe Burba steps forward with a highly emotive solo on the deep soul of “I Just Can’t Take It Anymore,” the standard breakup lament. From these dejected depths comes the uplift of “Funky Stuff,” the closer that features Chicago guitar great Melvin Taylor.
As this writer commented on McClendon’s previous release, you will indeed be transported back to the golden era of soul music but this one offers a more balanced mix of soul and blues as Turner calls on A-list musicians who live and breathe this music. There’s nothing here that you haven’t heard before but pairing these masters with one of best singers alive, proves to be an infectious winner once again.
- Jim Hynes
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