Johnny Rawls has the right to call himself a survivor. Rawls has been a mainstay on the road and in the studio performing as a sideman for O.V. Wright and as a lead singer for nearly 40 years. Rawls started playing guitar in Wright’s band in the 1970s when music fans all over America could still hear Southern soul artists such as Joe Tex and Denise LaSalle on the radio. By the 1980s, Wright had died and Rawls and the rest of the band became a highly sought-after backing band. By that time, changes in the music industry and R&B radio forced Southern soul’s retreat from the radio stations outside of the South. Rawls cut his first award-winning solo albums in the 1990s when Southern soul became a regional sub-genre of the blues - a musical style that with which it is often confused.
Rawls likely had all of those things in mind when he made the title track to his new CD, Soul Survivor. The cut serves as a representative sample of the Southern soul music sound. Yes, the blues are a key element to that sound, but as “Soul Survivor” shows, the genre combines the blues with elements of R&B, country, gospel and a little rock in the way that would be familiar to fans of the music of the Stax label. Thematically,” the tune “Soul Survivor” finds Rawls celebrating his career as a traveling man who used live music as a means of his survival in the industry. He also pays tribute to Wright and Little Johnny Taylor, two of his mentors who have passed away.
One element that Southern soul has in common with blues and country music is that artists such as Rawls have a penchant for story telling. The tracks on Soul Survivor provide Rawls space to operate in that tradition. He uses the album to find insightful and often funny ways to explore two recurring themes in Southern soul music – women and money.
“Hand Me Downs,” with it’s driving bass line, finds Rawls vocalizing his frustration over being forced to used second hand items that range from a guitar with three strings missing to a twice married woman with ex-lovers still catting around his front door. The country influenced “Eight Men, Four Women” is the only cover on Soul Survivor, and serves as another homage to Wright, who first recorded the cut in 1978. This track finds Rawls assuming the role of a man and woman where a jury calls their true love a crime.
Two of the albums highlights are the funky “Bad Little Girl” and the political anthem, “Don’t Need a Gun to Steal.” The former finds Rawls exasperated about his inability to handle a strong willed and street-wise woman. Of course, the woman’s mother could have given Rawls a heads-up. “She never did what her mother said/Never cleaned her room/Never made her bed.” “Don’t Need a Gun to Steal” is a number that could be on the Occupy Wall Street play list – if that play list included tunes from anybody other than Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Rawls rails against the usual suspects of greedy bankers and oil tycoons corrupt politicians and flashy televangelists. The tune’s kicker line expresses a widely held belief that money can buy more than just flashy suits. It can also buy justice: “Rob a 7-11 with a ski mask and knife/They’ll throw away the key and lock you up for life/Steal a million dollars/It’s a white collar crime/Slap you on the wrist with some country club time.”
At 60 years old, Rawls will likely not become a household name outside of the Southern soul sub-genre. Yet, he is highly decorated and well respected by musicians and Southern soul fans alike. Soul Survivor serves both as a celebration of the Johnny Rawls sound and a reminder of why the singer and guitarist has survived and thrived in the game for all these years. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes