Johnny Rawls and Otis Clay

Johnny Rawls and Otis Clay

Blues and southern soul men Johnny Rawls and Otis Clay are two self-aware artists. Both men have been in the music business for a long time, and they’ve seen a lot of performers come and go. Rawls titled one his recent projects Soul Survivor and another honored his mentor, the great vocalist O.V. Wright, who died at a young 41 back in the late 1970s.

The duo’s new album, Soul Brothers is another look back that has Rawls and Clay covering tunes from the blues, R&B and southern soul songbook. The two men realize that they are closer to the end than of their collective musical and life journeys, and that comes through in the decision to include tracks such as “Living On Borrowed Time” and “Waiting for Dreams.”

The former is a blues/swing number that features blaring horns and sports a narrative of two old dogs looking back on their lives with a mixture of gratitude for their longevity and amazement that they’ve made it this far – because both spent their younger days playing hard, fighting hard and loving hard. Clay and Rawls sing the tune with the feel of two men who realize that the Good Lord gave them something denied to some of their buddies – time to change. And when Rawls declares “It’s alright honey/Cuz I’m playing with the house money,” we know these two view life as a gamble and long life as the prize.

“Waiting for Dreams” is a melancholy mid-tempo southern soul cut that honors those who were dealt a band hand by life – the lonely, dispossessed and the sick – who can only hope to receive their reward in the hereafter. Life for these unfortunate souls has been a nightmare with the eternal rest of death and paradise seemingly the only way to end this nightmare. This is a sad song, but also a reminder that plenty of people in this land of plenty live hard lives on the fringes and that if a society is judged by how it treats those who have the least, our society will be found wanting.

Of course, for many of the blues, southern soul and classic R&B fans who listen to Soul Brothers, the track that reminds them that we are all closer to the end than the beginning will be the cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” Rawls and Clay released Soul Brothers in late October, or a little less than a month before Ruffin, 78, passed away. Still, the passing of a man who helped craft the sound of young America makes the inclusion of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted on Soul Brothers both poignant and timely. However, this is perhaps the one track where Clay’s vocals betrays his as he begins to run out of gas toward the end.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that Clay and Rawls spend their time singing about impending doom. Part of duo’s self-awareness comes from the fact that they realize that they are both still fully alive. There is life and wisdom in their funky southern soul rendition of “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool.” They balance the regretful tone of Johnny Taylor’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time” with the sheer joy they bring to sharing the mic on this tune, and the two still enjoy turning down those dark streets and falling under the spell of a pair of sexy enchantresses on the blues/rock number “Voodoo Queen.”

I thought that Remembering O.V., Rawls tribute to his friend and mentor that featured Clay as guest vocalist on three tracks, had the air of finality. Yet, this dynamic blues duo found themselves in the land of the living and decided to get back to work,  and judging from the output there are plenty of blues and southern soul fans hoping the Rawls and Clay have at least one more project in them. Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

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