Johnny Rawls

Johnny Rawls
Soul Survivor

Cat Food Records

By Tony Del Rey
November 2012

It’s all about style, fool. And soul singer Johnny Rawls has an abundance of it. Seems fitting that the affable fellow with the good-looking voice would choose, at this stage of his career, to take on the role of soul music’s full-time ambassador. Rawls’ latest disc, Soul Survivor, sounds like a man openly campaigning for the job, and his qualifications ride on an artistic legacy that spans some 40 years as a musician, writer, arranger and producer.

But it’s also about songs. And while Rawls’ velveteen vocal style fits nicely with the horn-augmented 70s sound of his material, the all-too predictable lyrics, meager melodies and run-of-the-mill song arrangements are among the album’s tragic flaws. Simply put, there aren’t any great songs on Soul Survivor.

What passes for sweet soul music here are a brace of album tracks, tuneful but disappointingly one-dimensional. Rawls can only breathe so much life into the repetitive I-IV chord changes that serve as the main musical pivot for virtually every cut, making Soul Survivor, in essence, one long song - namely the album opener and title track.

Penned by keyboard player Dan Ferguson and bassist Bob Trenchard, “Soul Survivor” sounds like it was written specifically for Rawls, the autobiographical lyrics centering on the specious glamour of a musician’s life. The tall horn charts and close female harmonies that accompany Rawls’ vocals provide the track with a nice coat of polish. The blandness of the song’s two-chord cycle, however, diminishes any sonic impact the listener might have hoped to hear - particularly in an opening number.

Things get a bit tastier on the minor-modal blues waltz, “Eight Men, Four Women.” Written by R&B record producer, Deadric Malone (aka Don Robey), the upgrade in quality of song writing is discernible. The tune’s 50s-style chord changes mesh beautifully with the choir of female voices backing up Rawls’ sweat-soaked vocals. In fact, he never sounds more assured than he does here, thanks in large part to Malone’s haunting melody and well-conceived story-in-a-song lyrics.

The other odd highlight occurs on the funky instrumental, “J.R.’s Groove.” A collaborative effort credited to Rawls, Ferguson, drummer Richy Puga and guitarist Johnny McGhee, the track captures the essence of a tight soul band circa 1974, complete with bad movie soundtrack wah-wah guitar and swirling Hammond B-3 organ. Think Quincy Jones’ theme to the hit TV series, “Sanford and Son,” and you get the idea.

Despite the sour review notice, Johnny Rawls deserves kudos for his efforts to keep the spirit of soul music alive. His contributions to Soul Survivor as both musician and co-producer (bassist Trenchard is the other half of the production team) are to be applauded for the way in which he succeeds at translating his convictions to disc. It’s a pity the songwriting isn’t quite up to the task.

<- back to Features