The Reba Russell Band

The Reba Russell Band
Broke Down But Not Out


By Art Tipaldi
January 2007

I have a few bottles of Italian wine from 1997. When I drank these in 1997, there was a youthful power to the wine, more fruit and tannins. When I open one today, I can taste a balanced maturity. The wines are robust, yet polished and evened with depth and subtle nuances.

I have been listening to Memphis singer Reba Russell since 1995. My first glimpse of her was on Beale Street in the Black Diamond on a Wednesday night. As she belted out the blues, James Cotton came running in. He and Russell did a half hour of rockin’ blues.

Since then, I’ve been hooked on that voice. I’ve worn out her first two records, Buried Treasures and City of the Blues. Over the years, I’ve seen her backing Tracy Nelson, Jimmy Thackery, and others, and I’ve caught her voice at festivals throughout the U.S.

And every trip to Memphis means scouring the papers to see if Reba’s performing during my short stay.

Like my 1997 wines, Russell has polished her powerful voice with a maturity that relies as much on brawn as it does on control, authority, and emotional nuances. She can still belt it out down and dirty, but she can also produce the most soulful vibrato a human voice can deliver. Vocally, she can vent in one breath, roar in the next, then whisper ‘mmmm or ‘ooh - and have any man on his knees.

She kicks the record off with Delta Joe Sanders’ “Got A One Track Mind,” a sexy, acoustic, back porch blues. Sanders fingerpicks guitar, Robert ”Nighthawk” Tooms draws and blows country harp and Russell turns loose her finest Memphis Minnie. As the passion builds, the tempo quickens to the song’s climatic finish. On the follow-up, Russell and her full band plug in, Memphis style. Here, Russell’s restrained voice dances with Josh Robert’s tough rock guitar.

Russell is at her finest when she delivers a ballad of personal heartache. On “Just One More,” by songwriting ace E. G. Kight, she uses the stage as her confessional to plead with her lover for one more chance. The intensity of the suffering is articulated through her enormous expression.

Russell’s highly personal delivery will touch every listener who has wished to hold someone just another moment longer. Her own ballad, “Without Your Love,” oozes with Memphis soul that Russell has breathed in throughout her life. Russell’s red hot passion simmers below Nighthawk’s ponderous B-3 and the uplifting chorus of Susan Marshall, Jackie Johnson, and Jimmy Davis.

Russell penned five other originals for the album. They cover all the musical bases from the high flyin’ slide guitar and harmonica romp on “Need A Healin,’” the bluesy rock of “Paint It Red” and “Just Stay Stoned,” to the more Memphis, country rock of “House Of Love.”

In “River Town,” Russell utilizes Nighthawk’s gritty electric harmonica and guitarist Skip Pitts’ wah-wah (remember, Pitts was the guitar behind Issac Hayes on “Shaft,”) to cement her message.

When Russell ends the record, she uses her songwriter’s eye to zero in on her world. In “Hard To Live,” Russell wonders about what we do to each other when there is no hope in a hopeless world, and no love in a loveless world.

To succeed, any singer must deliver the story in a believable fashion. Russell’s achingly honest, torrid delivery captivates from the outset. Like that aforementioned aged wine, she has bottled an exuberance that today’s young singers can strive to achieve. It’s too bad that there are many talents like Russell who may never get the exposure they deserve.

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