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Super summit celebrates rhythm & blues

Sing It!
Sing It!
By Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson

Rounder Records: 1998

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This review first appeared in the January 31, 1998 edition of the American Reporter.

The summit album has been all the vogue the last decade or so in blues, ever since Alligator Records scored a Grammy for "Showdown!" – a collaboration between Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and a then-unknown named Robert Cray. That single album, which is already in the Blues Hall of Fame, helped turn Alligator from a small independent into a force on the blues scene.

Subsequent attempts to pair big stars into a combo have been a mixed bag – "Harp Attack!", for instance, featuring four blues-blowing harmonica players, fell flat despite the talent. Then again, B.B. King's "Blues Summit" was one of the best albums of '93, and a string of albums pairing John Lee Hooker with a variety of blues and pop stars helped re-ignite his career.

One of the best of the summit albums, though, will prove to be the new "Sing It!", pairing R&B and blues singers Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson. Like "Showdown!", these three artists find an empathy and groove that makes the combo of the three far greater than anything they have done individually. And that's covering some pretty impressive ground there, because over the past 30 years Ball, Nelson and Thomas have recorded some of the most riveting blues, gospel and R&B ever heard.

Tracy Nelson was the best female blues singer in San Francisco in the late '60s, Janice Joplin notwithstanding. Nelson always had a better voice than Joplin, and her band – Mother Earth – could play circles around any of the combos Joplin had backing her. But Nelson and Co. didn't arrive in the Bay Area until Joplin already owned the city, and eventually she drifted to Nashville, where she's been ever since – never gaining the commercial breakthrough that seemed assured after Mother Earth's first two albums.

(How good is Nelson? One evening maybe eight years ago when jazz-blues artists Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham, who spent much of the '60s in Madison, Wis., where Nelson grew up and first began performing, were over for dinner in San Diego, an old LP of Mother Earth with a cover of Allen Toussaint's "Cry On" was slipped on the turntable. Not four measures into Nelson's startlingly powerful vocal, Jeannie's eyes grew big and she set her fork down. "Jimmy," she said to her husband and musical partner, "That's that white girl who used to sing at the Church Key in Madison!" Yeah, that voice tends to grow on you in a way you never forget.)

Thomas is one of New Orleans' best-kept secrets. Her string of albums for independent label Rounder Records have become underground classics. And in her smooth, sultry combining of gospel, R&B and blues, Thomas has helped define modern New Orleans music as surely as Professor Longhair, the Marsalis clan or Toussaint.

Ball, too, is associated with New Orleans. Her Longhair-styled piano and distinctive vocals make her a favorite on the red beans and rice circuit. But she's also heavily involved with the Austin blues crowd, and was part of an earlier all-women R&B summit – "Dreams Come True," with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton for Antone's Records.

Together ... well, together they create a whole new level of artistry. They push each other, support each other, stretch each other. The vocal harmonies are sweeter than Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Everlies; the energy is something that would awe even exercise madman Richard Simmons.

And they've selected a wonderful set of songs: From old soul classics by Steve Cropper and Joe Tex to originals by the women and other writers, these tunes range from the classic Stax and Motown sounds to straight gospel to funky New Orleans gumbo.

It's only January, but at the end of the year this album is going to be one of the best that 1998 saw. It is, in fact, one of the best soul albums ever recorded in any year by any group.