Friday, March 27, 2009

Johnnie Johnson and the Kentucky Headhunters - That'll Work


There's a time for every thing.

I'd seen albums from The Kentucky Headhunters for years, usually available for cheap in the discount bins, but never really felt inclined to pick one up. Based on the name, I was expecting a very countrified version of rock, possibly bordering on new country, (urgh!) and that just never sounded appealing. So I let them pass. Time after time.

Imagine my surprise then, when I picked up this 1993 platter, "That'll Work," and gave it it's initial spin in the Ripple player. Rather than a bland country disc, I was greeted by some damned fine ivory tinkling piano playing leading into a straight up, ballsy southern blues number. Add in some nice, throaty vocals and a classy guitar solo, and it became apparent that these Headhunters had far more in common with The Fabulous Thunderbirds than Alabama. More Stevie Ray Vaughn than Kenny Chesney. Now, suddenly the band had my attention.

After pumping out a few years worth of southern fried, honky tonk, country rock albums, the Headhunters teamed up with the legendary piano player, Johnnie Johnson, formerly of the Chuck Berry band, and put out this tasty dish of pure, unadulterated, southern blues rock. Emphasis here clearly on the blues. And, as I noted on my impression, Johnnie Johnson, an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, shows his chops here in mindboggling fashion. Without a doubt, he is one fine piano player. His fingers dance and tickle across the ivory's throughout that first number, the title track. And when the guitar finally comes in for a solo, it's strong and honest, calling out in a glorious tone.

"Sunday Blues," brims out a percolating brand of funky blues. Vocals soaring over the plucking guitar notes as the whole thing just wanders on down it's own dusty road. Johnson drops in a fine, deeply blues-infected solo, while the band works it's funky beat. Throw in a muscular saxophone, blowing a solo midway, and the whole song kicks up quite a fuss. "Johnnie's Breakdown," brings on the jump, dashing away in a honky tonk instrumental designed to get you kicking your shoes off on the dancefloor.

All of which brings us to my favorite track, the album's highlight, the painfully mournful, lobbing blues of "I'm Not Runnin'." Starting off eerily similar to the classic "Night Time is the Right Time," this is deeply wounded blues, guitars howling out a tearful song of the type Robert Cray did so well. And the album goes on from their, mining the same straight up bluesy path til the e
nd, making me dream of a wooden porch on a Texas morning, crawdads bubbling away for the afternoon's party and some good brisket on the bar-b-que.

The final track, "Tell Me Baby," is another standout, a true blues stalwart. Beautiful piano trickling through the melody with some of the albums finest guitar work. Not one to be missed.

Listening to this on my way into work, I was lost in the blues, my hand tapping the steering wheel, my toes tapping. All of which made me regret that I'd never taken the time to pick this one up out of the bins earlier. I'd have a hard time calling "That'll Work," a lost classic, but if your in the mood for the blues, this baby should scratch that itch just fine.

The time just has to be right.

--Racer

That'll Work



7 comments:

william hats said...

I'm a native St Louisan. One of the great things about that was 40some odd years worth of seeing Johnnie Johnson play live. I saw Johnnie with The Headhunters a few times. They are a hot band. Johnnie playing with them gave them their PHDs. The Headhunters showed respect, and came to Johnnie's wake in their tour camper.Out of the way, on the way to a gig. Rocked the funeral hall with Little Queenie and some other songs. Yes, that is a fine album.
Seeing that you have fallen under the daze of Mr. Johnson's piano, I reccomend Johnnie Be Back, and Johnnie Be Eighty. And Still Bad! The former was produced by Jimmy Vivino, and recorded in N.Y. The latter, was Johnnie Johnson's last recording. It was cut in St Louis, shortly before oOhnnie died. I'm acquainted with the producer, Jeff Alexander. Alexander wrote the songs with Johnson. Those of us who were musical tavern rats know that this record sounded like Johnnie in a club. Johnnie Be Back, another great recording, also sounded like Johnnie. Was a slicker record, more record like. Very well recorded, very polished. Fine product.

The RIpple Effect said...

William,

Wow! Thanks for the great comment and the recommendations. We're new to Johnnie Johnson here at the Ripple, but we're damn glad we found him. We'll dig further into his catalog and take your suggestions.

tele_scratcher said...

hey ripple
just found your piece about the kentucky headhunters and johnnie johnson.playing with johnnie will always be a highlight for the heads.good news. the actual last recordings have been storage
since right before his passing.we did not want to release them after we lost johnnie.2 weeks ago we started working on finishing,and hopefully will be released by years end.also working on a full rerelease of that'll work.alittle tidbit:"THE BAND" recorded "back to memphis" from "that'll work" (also a great honor as we are huge fans.johnnie was like an uncle to us and we miss him very much.
thank you richard young

tele_scratcher said...

hey ripple
just found your piece about the kentucky headhunters and johnnie johnson.playing with johnnie will always be a highlight for the heads.good news. the actual last recordings have been storage
since right before his passing.we did not want to release them after we lost johnnie.2 weeks ago we started working on finishing,and hopefully will be released by years end.also working on a full rerelease of that'll work.alittle tidbit:"THE BAND" recorded "back to memphis" from "that'll work" (also a great honor as we are huge fans.johnnie was like an uncle to us and we miss him very much.
thank you richard young

The RIpple Effect said...

Wow! No, thank you Richard. Thanks for finding our humble offering and thanks for the update.

Please keep us posted on the new release. We'll be happy to give it a Ripple spin.

Best,

Racer

William Hats said...

Just learned I missed the Headhunters in JJ teritory, O' Fallon, MO. Two days ago! Big Bummer!

William Hats said...

Just learned I missed the Headhunters in JJ teritory, O' Fallon, MO. Two days ago! Big Bummer!

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