"Joe Henry is a very cool guy," says singer Susan Tedeschi. "He shows up in Prada shoes, designer jeans, and a stylish shirt, and for someone who lives in Pasadena, heís got a lot of Southern charm. I would walk into the studio and Joe and all the musicians heíd gathered to play on my record were better dressed than me. And he finds everybodyís strengths and brings them out, so getting great performances is easy and fun."
But Henryís more than a clothes horse with a Zen attitude and a snoot for talent. He brings a degree of intellect, taste, insight, and musical sensitivity to creating unvarnished soul music that hasnít been seen since Jerry Wexler was the architect of the classic pre-rock-era Atlantic Records sound. And he does so in a way that respects soulís power ó hot-wired emotionalism ó and still sounds utterly contemporary.
Henry grew up listening to soul and classic country music in North Carolina, where he was born, and in Georgia before moving to New York, where he met and married Madonnaís sister, Melanie Ciccone. His first solo albums drew on those roots, but over the years his own arrangements began to incorporate more acoustic and subtly experimental elements, crossing cultures and genres. Heís brought much of that to his recent soul productions as well, which is why his own discs and the albums heís made with Bettye LaVette, self-proclaimed King of Rock íní Soul Solomon Burke, former Boston blues queen Susan Tedeschi, and Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, and Bily Preston all seem like part of the same fabric.
For some artists, his work is transforming. "I thought I was going to die in obscurity," LaVette tells me, adding that her just-released Iíve Got My Own Hell To Raise (Anti-), which Henry produced, "is getting me more interest than Iíve ever had in the 40 years Iíve been performing."
When Henry put together a band and worked with Burke on 2002ís Donít Give Up on Me (Anti-), he made one of the yearís critical favorites and put Burke back on his throne. Henry also produced Tedeschiís major-label debut, Hope and Desire (Verve). With a collection of classics and obscurities by a range of writers from Keith Richards ("You Got the Silver") to Bob Dylan ("Lord Protect My Child"), the disc stands to introduce Tedeschi to the same audience that loves Norah Jones without dampening her own simmering-to-incendiary approach. And without Jonesís preciousness.
Then thereís Henryís pet project I Believe to My Soul, the first release on his own Work Song label, which is affiliated with Rhino Records and Starbucksí Hear Music imprint. The 13-cut collaboration with the legendary soul and R&B performers Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples, and Billy Preston testifies to the heart-touching power of the voice and undiluted organic musicianship. Itís an exercise in musical honesty and also a statement of faith in the human spirit. So itís appropriate that Henry and his cast, post-recording, decided to donate a portion of sales to Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.
All that said, donít underestimate the mojo of Henryís sartorial splendor.
"I do believe in dressing, and in the power of shoes," he admits. "I had an epiphany a number of years ago. It occurred to me, listening to Miles Davis, that his records sound exactly like how he dressed at the time they were made. For Kind of Blue, he was wearing Brooks Brothers, and it has that very neat, clean sound. But when he made Big Fun, he was wearing an orange suede lace-up shirt and blue bubble sunglasses ó and thatís exactly what the record sounds like.
"Iíll never make fun of a womanís shopping for shoes or dresses again. I have more shoes than most women I know, and some of them might go unworn for a year or two just waiting for the exact moment when you need them."
Henryís producer credit can also be found on albums by Aimee Mann, Shivaree, Teddy Thompson, Ani DiFranco, John Doe, Kristin Hersh, and, perhaps most important, Joe Henry. Heís an accomplished singer and songwriter with nine discs that bear his name. And his production career began in the service of his own music. He produced his first two albums, 1986ís Talk of Heaven and 1990ís Shuffletown, with Keith Anderson and T-Bone Burnett, and his association with Burnett, which continues, seems to have had a profound effect on how he conceives of recording.
"I think of myself as a casting director," he explains. "Thatís something I learned from T-Bone, who is a master at assembling the right musicians to support the artists he records. I have a small but great pool of resources here in Los Angeles. What I try to do is think foremost of the voice that the players who make the record will be supporting, and then I try to put the right personalities in the room. Sometimes Iím not exactly sure what instrument theyíll be playing or what their exact role will be in the songs, but I wouldnít want to make an album without them. Susan, for example, has a band she really loves, but she was trusting enough to step outside her usual environment and into the one I created for her. It was the same with Bettye. Now, Solomon, I think, was a little more skeptical. Although he was game, I think it took him a few days to believe that he didnít need a big horn section and the other sort of classic elements of soul music that had surrounded his voice all his life. I told him, ĎSolomon, itís going to be like youíre Sinatra, the vocalist as bandleader, and the band is going to follow you wherever you go.í "
"Thatís what I experienced working with Joeís musicians, although it took them a day or two to really Ďgetí me," says LaVette. Listeners unfamiliar with her string of obscure recordings may be astonished to find that her emotional mastery is comparable to Aretha Franklinís. Her voice, however, is much darker and in a sense more worldly for its raw, oaken sound. She takes her albumís 10 songs, mostly familiar numbers by contemporary writers/performers including Sinéad OíConnor ("I Do Not Want What I Havenít Got") and Dolly Parton ("Little Sparrow"), to complex places where unvarnished feelings clash like the cross-currents of ocean channels.
"My phrasing really came to me over a period of time," she says of her mesmerizing style. "I had a manger for 15 years who wasnít concerned with recording, which might not have been such a good thing. But he told me that if I learned to develop myself as a singer and live performer and really got control of my voice, Iíd be able to work for the rest of my life. That did help me survive. Iíve had nothing to show in terms of a big hit, but Iíve worked on my voice and my show continuously."
And Tedeschi explains, "Iíd been writing a bunch of new songs and working on them with my band, but we were coming up against the deadline for getting my first album for Verve ready in time for its release date." Some of her energy had also been diverted into the birth and nurturing of her second child, Sofia, with her husband, Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks.
"I had heard Joeís record with Solomon, and both Derek and [Allmans and Govít Mule guitarist] Warren Haynes had suggested him when I was looking for possible producers, so I put my trust in him. The big deal for me was when he told me that Doyle Bramhall Jr. would be playing guitar." Indeed, the duoís gut-bucket rendition of "The Danger Zone" ó where Bramhall evokes the nasty guitar style of his hero Lightniní Hopkins, whose image is tattooíd on his arm ó is one of the CDís high points and a sharp contrast to many of its other elegant-though-spare arrangements.
That sparseness, always in the service of keeping his singers to the fore, is one of Henryís trademarks. "Itís instinctive for me to put the singer and the song forward. Iím a singer myself, and that informs my sensibility. Many producers have thought of the voice as the very last thing to go on tape, which often happened to Bettye in her career, so her performances hadnít been respected by the very people she was forced to put her trust in. If the voice is really speaking, really saying something to you, everything else has to take its place around it. And working with people like Solomon, Bettye, Mavis, Susan and Irma . . . these are voices that have something to say, even in a sigh."
Issue Date: November 4 - 10, 2005
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