3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
A few years ago, a friend E-mailed me a video of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" performed by musicians from all over the world for a project dubbed "Playing for Change." The three lead vocalists, in order, were Roger Ridley, a gruff-voiced powerhouse from Los Angeles; New Orleans based bluesman/R & B belter Grandpa Elliott, and Youngblood shouter Clarence Bekker from the Netherlands. The throat-ripping Ridley was the best, Bekker the most aggressive, and Grandpa fit the role of an authentic overlooked street musician. Grandpa had the whole Blind Lemon Chitlin' persona going, but his vocal for "Stand by Me" was occasionally hindered by his lack of an upper plate. Well, give a man the right tunes and some opportune dental work and a star is born.
Don't be put off by the trio of tentative tunes that start the album off, Grandpa sweetens things up as the finds his stylistic footing. The opener, "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do," was recorded with gusto by Van Morrison for his live album "It's Too Late to Stop Now." Grandpa will never win an award for clarity ("Dere ain't nuttin' you kan do"), but his vocal is less gruff than it was for his turn on "Stand by Me." His "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do" is done in a laid-back yet positive manner reminiscent of Bobby Mcferrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy," with bubbly guitar work by Louis Mhlanga. Grandpa helps set the mood with an easy going harp solo.
With the CD's three weakest tracks by the boards, Grandpa begins to sweeten the selections with a slow, slurpy version of "Baby What You Want Me to Do." Mhlanga's slippery slide guitar and Eric Lynn's B-3 provide a bluesy background and Grandpa sounds fully invested and involved.
"We're Gonna Make it" is a soul searching, testifying R & B ballad that's Grandpa's gravy. His vocal and harmonica playing, reedy and rich along the style of Lee Oskar, is more confident, matching his volcanic vocal.
It's impossible to top Richard Manuel's heartfelt vocal for "Share Your Love" on The Band's "Moondog Matinee," but Grandpa's should be appreciated. You can tell Elliott had impressive pipes when he was younger - they're still in evidence here - so it's a shame he recorded "Share Your love" twenty years too late. Still, Grandpa has plenty of love to share and the way horn players Dave "Woody" Wooford and Steve Madaio frame his voice will bring back memories of Otis Redding and Stax Records during their salad days.
Grandpa's rendition of "Another Saturday Night" is a combination of Sam Cooke's soulful original and Cat Stevens' calypso version. My man Mhlanga continues to make the strings ring, and Grandpa does a good job with his phrasing. Praise Polident!
"Fannie Mae" is done live with Grandpa going Paul Butterfield on harp and still hanging in with authority on vocals. It's a loosely configured version with "Playing for Change" alums Keb Mo' somewhere on guitar and singer Tula's shrill shouts regurgitating unpleasant memories of Yoko Ono.
As a bonus cut you get Grandpa singing a sparse, overwrought "Please Come Home for Christmas" which is bound to sound a bit out of place come August. Grandpa's dental challenges get the better of him whenever he gums "Chrisssmuss," but his downcast harp and Joe Krown's low end turn on the Wurlitzer make it a soulful, sorrowful Christmas and a helluva better listen than "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Before his untimely death in 2005, Roger Ridley took his shot at stardom with "Taking You Back," a CD featuring his grizzly bear versions of soul classics such as "My Girl," "Try a Little Tenderness," "Ain't No Sunshine," and, of course, "Stand By Me." It's worth a listen, and so is Grandpa Elliott's long deserved debut. It's sugar sweet.