Stevie Ray Vaughan made a big impact in what was a short career, sadly dying in a helicopter crash in 1990, after featuring in a concert along with his elder brother Jimmie, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray.
Despite living only long enough to produce six studio albums (two released posthumously), he breathed new life into the blues rock genre and left a lasting mark as a guitarist who has inspired subsequent generations. Vaughan drew his inspiration from the pantheon of great blues guitarists, like the three Kings, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
“I started out,” he said, “trying to copy licks from Lonnie Mack records. He was a really big influence for me. And my older brother Jimmie used to bring home records by B.B. and Albert King, Albert Collins and guys like Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy – all of ’em.”
He was able to synthesize all these influences into his own unique style rooted in blues, rock, and jazz, but yet was clearly in the tradition of the great Texas bluesmen. John Hammond (Sr.) said of him, “Stevie is in that great Texas tradition of T-Bone Walker. It’s a wonderful tradition. T-Bone, who I first saw back in 1936, used to do what Stevie does now – play the guitar behind his neck and everything else.”
Although, refreshingly at that time in the early 80s, Vaughan eschewed technological musical wizardly, dry ice, fog and lasers, stripping the music back to its essentials of guitar, bass and drums, he was an extravagant on-stage showman, with his distinctive Tex-Mex bandido get-up and pained guitar-solo face. But it was his virtuosic guitar playing that rightly endeared him to fans, both during his life-time and after.
Texas Flood was the debut studio album by Vaughan and his Double Trouble band mates, Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums. Released on June 13, 1983 by Epic Records, the album took its name from one of the record’s songs, first recorded by Larry Davis in 1958. There are ten songs on the original release, with six written by Vaughan. The CD version released in 1999 added 5 more songs.
Jackson Browne had seen and been impressed with the band when it played the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of 1982. After taking up Browne’s offer of some days of free use of his own recording studio in LA, the band recorded a demo which caught the attention of John H. Hammond and landed them a recording contract with Epic Records. Texas Flood was the first album made, recorded in the space of three days again at Jackson Browne’s studio.
The album garnered Grammy Award nominations – the album for Best Traditional Blues Performance, and the song Rude Mood for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Critical reception was generally excellent, with Stephen Thomas Erlewine describing it as having a “monumental impact” and suggesting it “sparked a revitalization of the blues.” Texas Monthly called Vaughan “the most exciting guitarist to come out of Texas since Johnny Winter,” although Winter himself was less than positive, saying that he thought Vaughan didn’t have a distinctive style.
There’s no doubt about Texas Flood’s success, however – the album went to #38 on the Billboard 200 chart and went platinum in Canada and double-platinum in the United States, selling over 2,000,000 units. It became a 2021 inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame in recognition of its historical significance.
The album kicks off with some rockin’ rock’n’roll with Love Struck Baby and you’re hooked straightaway. Before you’ve time to catch your breath, we’re into one of Vaughan’s signature tunes, Pride and Joy, showcasing his fine songwriting and, of course, his guitar chops.
The title track is up next, slower in tempo, but the guitar work no less fiery and emotional. This is old school blues, but it’s got a characteristic SRV stamp on it. As well as Vaughan originals, the album has a Howling Wolf song, Tell Me, driven now by Vaughan’s urgent guitar rather than the piano of the original, and a little more up tempo.
Oddly, Vaughan includes a children’s nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, now transported into a blues setting but it’s largely an opportunity for Vaughan’s guitar soloing. We get a couple of instrumentals, too, in Lenny, a slow, shimmering electric guitar exercise, and Testify, with Vaughan going at break-neck speed up and down the fretboard.
For the most part, it’s breath-taking, toe-tapping (or dancing if you’re so inclined) stuff, all Texas brashness and explosive energy. No wonder it went down a storm and put Stevie Ray Vaughan on the map.
He was the victim of his own success, sadly, descending further into the drugs and alcohol addiction that nearly claimed his life before he managed to get clean and begin touring again in 1986.
He recorded his fourth album, In Step, with Double Trouble in 1989 – “I’m finally in step with life,” he said, “in step with myself, in step with my music.” That was to be Vaughan’s last recording – tragically, he was killed in a helicopter crash with four others in August 1990. A huge loss to his family, but also to the wider music and blues world. Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker dedicated their next albums to his memory.
Love Struck Baby Pride and Joy Texas Flood Testify Rude Mood Mary Had a Little Lamb Dirty Pool I’m Cryin’
Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs, Already Made, on Bruce Watson’s Bible and Tire Recording Co. label.
“I was born in the country,” says Jack, “and I would hear Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them guys — and I used to patronize them, and sing like them a little bit, but I came back to my roots. I used to do a lot of blues singing but I broke from that and got into the gospel.”
Jack was the lead vocalist in a 1960s group along with Isaac Hayes on piano and had several hit records with both Stax Records and Peacock Records. He retired from professional singing to concentrate on being a church pastor in Memphis, and although his outstanding singing voice has been heard often in his church, this outstanding release from Bible and Tire gives the rest of us the opportunity to appreciate his considerable songwriting and vocal talent.
Elder Jack Ward’s re-discovery comes as a result of Bruce Watson working with Juan D Shipp on the old D-Vine Spiritual’s back catalogue. On finding some of the artists still alive and active, Watson has had them in the studio, with brilliant results. Elizabeth King’s Living in the Last Days was released to considerable critical acclaim and now we have Ward’s Already Made. [Catch our interview with the remarkable Elizabeth King here.] Produced by Watson and Sacred Soul Sound Section leader Will Sexton at Memphis’s Delta-Sonic Sound Studio, the ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to chat to Elder Jack Ward about the album, his music and life. I found him justifiable proud of his past singing career, performing and recording in the 1960s.
“I did a recording with Stax, Don’t Need No Doctor. It’s been so long, man, fifty years, but that’s what put me on the top. It was all just about for two years a hit. The Christian Harmonizers, we were with Stax and we went out on the road. I did a lot of writing myself, my own songs. And then I put a group together called The Gospel Four. That’s when we put out, Look Down the Lonesome Road and Change Gonna Come. And that put me in the spotlight.”
When you listen to Jack Ward sing, you hear a soulful tenor voice, with great range and a sweet falsetto. I asked about choosing gospel music rather than blues or soul.
“My mom, she was a singer and, I used to hear her – see, I’m a country boy – she used to pick cotton in the country and drive tractors and mules and she would sing songs. She was the one that kept me in the church whenever I was a lad of a boy. I was the only son and I had two sisters.”
Jack was singing from a young age, better, he said, than the “white boys” he knew, who would get him to sing for them in Moorhead Mississippi. “They heard me sing and I was I think about 10. I’d say, ‘Come on, who you want to hear?’ I used to do Earnest Tubb’s Walking the Floor Over You, Hank Williams and all of that. And they would give me a dime, fifteen cents.”
Jack left his home on the farm and came to Memphis when he was 18 – “I had it in mind to make me a hit record.” He went back and forth for a couple of years, but settled, he told me, when he was 21 and has been in Memphis ever since.
“And I had my mind set to come to Memphis to sing blues or rock ’n’ roll.” But some school friends said to him, ‘Look, man, we need you to sing gospel,’ so he joined the Christian Harmonizers, making a number of successful gospel records before going on to form the Gospel Four in 1968. The Gospel Four had an altogether different sound and style than the Christian Harmonizers, as exemplified by the gripping testimonial The Last Road and the mid-tempo, minor-keyed A Change Is Gonna Come.
“That was something that I enjoyed in my heart,” Jack told me, “and maybe this stopped me going to rock and roll and the blues and I’m glad that I turned around and got into the gospel.”
He earned the moniker “Jumping Jack Ward” around this time, “because, you know, I had a little jump from the singing. It was no outstanding thing, it just made me feel good. And I just do my little thing and they called Jumping Jack Ward.”
For the last fifty years, though, Jack has been Elder Jack Ward. He had started pastoring before his professional singing career finished – “I was doing evangelism and so on” – and went on to found the Earth Temple Holiness Church, which he has led for the past 57 years, although he started to “pass things back” a while ago.
Jack is clearly – and justifiably – quite delighted about the new album and the opportunity to get on the road. “Now this would be my first album [as opposed to 45 singles]. So this is where I am now at this time. I plan to do some traveling as soon as we get everything lined up. I’m an 83-year-old man!”
Watson feels that Already Made is one of the best albums he’s ever produced – given some of the albums he’s worked on at Fat Possum, that’s saying a lot. It is, indeed, very, very good, with Ward’s soulful vocals beautifully backed by both his daughters and Bible and Tire label mates the Sensational Barnes Brothers. Guitarists Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang add a little magic to the mix, adding variety to the songs, from the distortion on He’s Got Great Things to the cool reverb of Shout Trouble’s Over to the shimmering vibrato of God’s Love.
God’s Love is a lovely song, with Ward’s tender vocals giving a great sense of somebody who has personally experienced God’s love and care over the years, despite life’s difficulties.
“When you weak, he will make you strong, when you’re lonely, he would never leave you alone. So that was a comfort to me a whole lot. I didn’t drop out. I just kept doing what God had gave me from birth. I love that one, God’s Love.”
Other songs, like Someone Who Is Greater Than Me, Lord I’m In Your Care and God’s Got a Hold of My Hands, all convey the same positive message of Ward’s experience of faith in the nitty gritty of his own life and those of the many people he has pastored over the years.
He’s someone who knows about hard times – not that he’ll be forthcoming in complaining in any way. I asked him, for example, about his early life, and he told me about life in a family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi in the first half of the last century. Life wasn’t easy, to say the least.
“We was raised up on a farm. I had to work on the farm, my family and I, and my two sisters. And we had to chop cotton, pick cotton. When I turned 17, I was working with my father and some men that he had hired. And we cut wood for cross ties that goes on the rail road. So I was working, doing, the job that men was doing. I was pretty apt to catch on.
“And, as I just come up through the years, I applied to use a one row planter. You had to put the mule on the row with the planter, and you had to walk on the top of it, one road planter, and man, it was hot. We was in the sun. 85 or 90, sometime they would get up there to 105. My head, it was black in the sun! I’ve done some bogus work. I’ve done everything, drove tractors and drove mules and baled hay.”
Sharecropping is a system where the landlord allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. Mississippi tenant farm families were often kept severely indebted. The landlord would extend a line of credit to the sharecropper while taking the year’s crop as collateral. The sharecropper could then draw food and supplies all year long. When the crop was harvested, the harvest was sold and the debt settled, but with no added benefit for the sharecropper.
“Sharecropper,” Jack mused. “But you would get nothing out of it. You wouldn’t get anything out of that because the boss man, he tell you, ‘Well, Jordan’ – that’s my daddy’s name – he said, ‘y’all just come out, outta debt.’ And so daddy said, outta debt? He said, ‘well, we’ll loan you some money and go through the winter.’” Jack chuckled as he recounted this.
Remarkably, he remembers the good things about those days. His family never went hungry – “because, we raised vegetables and water melons, sweet potatoes, corn, popcorn. We hunted rabbits and stuff like that. And we never did get hungry.”
“I mean, back in the old days, it was pretty good, because, we didn’t have no responsibility like, lights and all of this, ‘cause we didn’t have lights. During that time we had to use kerosene, paraffin, stuff like that, and when the boss man put lights in our house, man, I tell you, I was just so happy.”
“You know, you was in the country. You didn’t have nothing too much to worry about. You had to work hard and they pay you little money. So from that point, yeah, it was tough. But, people was not sick. Like a lot of people now. See, we had chickens, geese, mules and all of that and hogs. Getting close to wintertime, dad would kill a hog. We was in the field and didn’t get sick because you would get out in the heat and sweat all that stuff out. You didn’t have no high blood pressure. They didn’t have no headaches and diabetes.”
Jack remembers being able to dress up once in a while, putting on his best shoes and a suit. “Looking back, we was taken care of. We just did so much hard work, bogus work. I call it like that. You didn’t get no pay amount to anything. I’ve chopped cotton for a dollar and a quarter a whole day. We moved on from that, but, you know, I thank God for how he kept me and I didn’t get sick and a lot, but I just thank God for this time.”
Elder Jack Ward has an incredibly positive attitude to life, and thankfulness is clearly a mark of the man. You just have to listen to He’s Got Great Things Waiting You, to get a sense of the way his faith gives him confidence in God, no matter what life throws at him. “Dry your eyes, and don’t you cry, your blessing is so nigh.”
At 83, Jack knows the road ahead is shorter than what’s behind, but his sense of gratitude, his faith and his enthusiasm for life as inspirational. “I know we all got to leave here, but a whole lot of my friends, they are gone. So I’m thankful. I thank God for just keeping me alive. And I’m doing pretty good and my ministry and then my singing career – I love both. I love singing. I love preaching. I love teaching and that’s me.”
The album finishes with Ward’s favorite, I Feel Better Since I Prayed. When I asked him about it, he got on the theme of thankfulness again.
“We do pray the prayer of Our Father, but perhaps you want to thank God for what he has done and how far he has brought you. And you look back and you see a lot of your friends and your school mates in the singers, they are gone and we are blessed to be here. Now, I’ve got a song called You’re Blessed to be Here, with the Sunset Travelers. You’re blessed to be here. And I tell people without God, we are nothing because he wakes us up in the morning. We have a lot to be thankful for.
“And I thank God every day. You know, you don’t have to be screaming, hollering, you can just pray in your spirit. When we leave home and go places, when we get ready to get out of drive, my wife prays and I’m driving. God has brought us through a lot of things. So I just take a step every day. I don’t worry about what tomorrow would bring. The Bible tells us that the morrow will take care of itself. And, we just go one day, when you wake up, you’re thankful that you are alive. I tell people when you wake up, you sit up and you get up!”
“You can give God praise, you got to tell him, thank you for another day, you kept me, you kept your arms around me.”
He may have just recorded a terrific album in Already Made, but there’re no sense of Jack Ward resting on his laurels. He’s looking to the future with a thankful heart and an optimistic spirit. “I tell people there’s a whole lot to be done and a little time to do it. So I got a message. I got a message I’m going to do on that. It’s a whole lot to be done, but a little time to do it.”
I’ve been a fan of Jackson Browne since I first saw him on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in May 1972, performing Jamaica Say You Will at the piano. I still have, and play, the old vinyl albums from the 70s – The Pretender, Late for the Sky and Running on Empty. I’ve seen him perform live on a number of occasions – the Royal Albert Hall concert in November in 2017 was particularly memorable, and I’d say it ranked with the best of the Bruce Springsteen gigs I’ve been to.
So I’m always pleased to see a new Jackson Browne album appear. In Downhill From Everywhere, the music is reliably good, with fine musicianship and song arrangements, featuring superb, less-is-more guitar work by Greg Leisz and Val McCullum, the excellent Bob Glaub on bass, and Mauricio Lewak and Russ Kunkel on drums.
The lyrical content, as always, is superbly crafted by a master songwriter. There’s often a nice synthesis of the personal and the political, where Browne manages to get you focused on some important issues without ever sounding preachy.
So it is with the ten tracks on Downhill from Everywhere, Browne’s first album since 2014’s Standing in the Breach (which I found a fine piece of work). He tackles the problems of immigrants to the US in The Dreamer and poverty in Haiti in the beautiful Love is Love. And there’s a thoughtful rumination on the idea of the American Dream in Until Justice is Real. It’s a song perhaps only someone in their 70s could write, with more of the road behind them than ahead. (I’m beginning to know the feeling, Jackson.)
“Time rolling away Time like a river, time like a train Time like a fuse burning shorter every day.”
It begs the inevitable question: “What is my purpose, what can I do?” I guess of we’re honest, particularly as the clock of life ticks on, that’s what we all want to know. Browne wants us to “put our shoulder to the wheel,” but wonders, “what would it look like?”
Perhaps something of the answer comes in A Human Touch, written and performed by Jackson Browne and Leslie Mendelson. The song appeared on the 2018 documentary film 5B, about the care given by doctors and nurses to people living with AIDS.
Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwan came up with the song originally, and Browne says he only” added a few lines,” but nevertheless, “we really got into every line and nearly every word in depth to make sure it was what we wanted to say and convey in the song.”
The song addresses suffering, pain and loneliness, of which there is still far too much in the world:
“Everybody gets lonely Feel like it’s all too much Reaching out for some connections”
“all anybody needs Is a human touch.”
Leslie Mendelson said of the song, “One of the most important things in life is human contact. To feel empathy or to experience a connection with someone is why we’re here. Without that we have nothing. At the end of the day, people want to connect and feel and be loved.”
My mother lived for many years after my dad had passed away, and, although she was a determined woman who just got on with things, she did find being on her own a challenge. She used to love it when I would give her a shoulder rub when I visited, and I know she appreciated that even when she eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s near the end of her life. “Sometimes all anybody needs is a human touch.”
Which brings us back to “what’s my purpose, what can I do?” Although in Europe and America we live in a culture where the individual is king, and you’re meant to make it on your own, that’s not the way humans are made.
Other non-Western cultures have something to teach us in this regard. In South Africa, the word Ubuntu describes a way of life where our dependence upon each other is recognized – “I am because we are.” We are all connected and can only achieve for ourselves as we seek the growth and progress of others. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Ubuntu was about being generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. “You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”
Our fast-paced, acquisitive, self-absorbed culture has largely forgotten this. But if we want to find our purpose, Unbuntu, the human touch is exactly where we find it – and ourselves. In giving the generosity, care and compassion that Tutu talked about.