(5 / 5)
I loved her last album and gave it a glowing review. That record and two of her songs from it, made it into my end of year “Best Of” in my blues column in a magazine I used to contribute to. So, Ms. Fish had a lot to live up to, in my eyes, with her follow-up album. When I found out this would be all covers, my heart sank, but I stayed open minded when I listened to it for the first time.
Known far and wide as an incendiary guitar player and a formidable singer, this young US lass has a large fan-base over here, especially for her skills on a fretboard. But her latest release, “Chills & Fever”, may well attract two responses from the blues and guitar anoraks. 1. It’s not really blues, is it? 2. Not enough guitar. To that I say; go play with your train set and listen to your Jimi Hendrix Greatest His for the 12000th time!
Me; I bloody love this album. By far the very best thing she has done to date for me, and a turning point. A guitarist and a singer turning into a supreme and versatile artist. Yes, they are covers, but unless you really know your soul and your R&B history, this will probably all be new songs to most. Yes, there is less guitar across these 14 cuts maybe than previous albums. But it doesn’t detract from what we have here in any way at all.
This is a showcase for a voice, and for an artist being totally free and totally herself. Not template blues. Not template anything. You know the mind-set: “Oh, I have sung two verses and two choruses, so therefore it must be time for a 2 minute over blown guitar solo that starts and ends the same way as zillions of others – and borrows a few SRV or Albert King riffs in the middle”. Not what she does when she is in blues mode and definitely not what she does here.
Bugger off you boring blues purists. This is a trader of a lost art, at work. A masterful performance on a clutch of fairly obscure R&B songs that fit Samantha like a proverbial glove. She purrs, she growls, she squeals, she cries. Pretty apt when you see the leopard skin patterned pants she is wearing on the front cover.
It would not matter to me had she put her guitar down for this record and focused entirely on the voice. I love her playing usually, but this is all about THAT outrageous voice. Her vocals really are something else here, and she soars as free as a bird to new heights vocally; comfortable in her own skin. Like she just found herself at last. This is the real deal, folks. This is unashamedly old fashioned rhythm and blues. R&B when it WAS R&B and before it was hi-jacked by young upstarts singing all sorts but calling it R&B.
If Samantha had been around in the 50s and 60s and had she made this album back then, it would by now be a classic and she’d probably be a big star by now. More than half these cuts would also probably have been used on jeans and car adverts on TV by now, too. It is what we call in the trade AUTHENTIC. Trust me on that. It could not be any more authentic if Willie Mitchell was at the controls, and this was recorded at Royal Studios for Hi Records. If you like brassy, rockin’ groove-laden rhythm and blues, and a sassy, mutha of a vocal, this is for you. Great material, the band behind her are on fire and the horn section would melt faces. Oh, and she plays a mean guitar when it is called for too, you can bet your sweet bippy on that. If you dig the likes of Bettye LaVette, Betty Wright, Beth Hart,, who else…………oh there’s loads………….but this is Samantha Fish’s moment. She’s got that raunchy, incendiary rockabilly thing going on too; think Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee.
Buddy Guy is a fan. She has worked with Mike Zito and Luther Dickinson as producers of her records. They did a great job with her, especially LD on her last album, “Wild Heart”, two years ago. Until now, her best record thus far. But here, Bobby Harlow has played an absolute blinder on coaxing out of her vocals that are off the scale, and giving her the perfect tracks to use as a vehicle for her stunning voice on top. Bobby is a member of Detroit outfit The Go, which featured Jack White before his White Stripes period. Bobby has produced King Tuff, The Gap Dream and White Fang among others. He really knows his stuff and I predict big things from this cool cat as a producer. Love to hear him work with the UK’s James Hunter or the US artist Marcus King and his band.
Samantha grew up in Kansas City, and at 15 switched from drums to guitar. Good move. She loved the blues and spent a lot of time watching visiting blues bands in local bars. German label Ruf Records recognised her talents and signed her for the album “Girls With Guitars”, alongside Cassie Taylor and the UK’s Dani Wilde. Then Samantha formed her own trio, and in 2011 released “Runaway”, then “Black Wind Howlin” in 2013 and “Wild Heart” in 2015. She has also worked with Devon Allman, Jimmy Hall and Reese Wynans. She scooped up an award at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis for Best Artist Debut.
She ventured off to Motown territory with a trip to Detroit for this album, to hook up with members of the Detroit Cobras, a band whose fiery punk and blues has really put them on the map locally. Joe Mazzola on rhythm guitar, Steve Nawara on bass, Kenny Tudrick on drums, Bob Mervak on electric piano and the brilliant New Orleans horn section of Mark Levron and Travis Blotsky on trumpet and saxophone. Samantha’s early influences shine through; from her days as a youngster, listening to records by Otis Redding, Ray Charles and then later, R.L.Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. She followed their lead in really letting go and feeing her way through these songs; channelling the spirts. There is an intensity to this stuff that simmers and bubbles before it boils over, the further we get into these raw and alive cuts.
The opening track, “He Did It” was called “She Did It” by the writer Jackie DeShannon, who once dated Elvis and supported the Beatles on their first US tour in 1964. Jackie is still friends with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr today. The title song, written by New Orleans R&B composers Bobby Rackep and Billy J Ross, was originally recorded by Johnny Love & His Orchestra, released as a single in the UK in 1961 and in 1960 in the US. “Hello Stranger”, was written and recorded by Barbara Lewis in 1963 at Chess in Chicago, and with The Dells backing her. It spent two weeks at number one on the R&B singles chart in the US, crossing over to the pop chart where it peaked at number three. It was released in the UK in 1963, and then again in 1968 when Atlantic picked it up.
A killer cut for Samantha with “It’s Your Voodoo Working”, the slinky and soulful Charles Sheffield-penned and recorded song which he released on the Excello label in 1961. Now a rare collectible if you can find one. Imelda May did a great version, as does Samantha here. The Irma Thomas cut, “Hurt’s All Gone” penned by legendary song writer Jerry Ragovoy, drops the “The” from the title. She next covers a superb song I did not know, but feel I should, “You Can’t Go” with the writer’s credit of L. Duggan. Answers on a post card please. A hot spot on the album in Stax style.
“Either Way I Lose” has been covered by many, including Gladys Knight and the Pips and Nina Simone, written by the great Van McCoy. A kind of “I’ll Put A Spell On You” moment. This next one should keep the blues fans happy; “Never Gonna Cry”. Most artists cover writer and Chicago blues style guitarist Fenton Robinson’s signature song, “Somebody Loan Me a Dime”, a hit in 1967.This is a more obscure song by him. This next one; a touch of twangy country vibes to it; “Little Baby” written by Michael Stubbs, and recorded by The Bristols, with French singer Fabienne Delsol, who performs primarily in English. In 1996, she moved to England, attracted by the London music scene. There she met the producers Liam Watson and Ed Deegan, and became the lead singer of the Bristols, a garage/pop group produced by Watson and Deegan. This song was on their 2001 album “Tune In With… the Bristols” on the Damaged Goods label.
The Alan Toussaint song, “Nearer To You” features a heart wrenching vocal and greasy organ on this slow burn soulful ballad, where the horns set the tone perfectly, a la Otis Redding’s trademark sound. The song, recorded by US singer Betty Harris who started out singing in the Big Maybell revue in the early 1960s, was a single on the Stateside label in 1967. Here, Samantha channels the likes of O.V.Wright and James Carr, and her vocal is enough to make me cuss my head off, it is so flipping soulful.
Before I looked at the names of the songs, or any recording or writer’s info, on first play of the album I jotted down a few names of artists that sprang to mind when I heard what Samantha was doing here. The wonderful Bettye LaVette was one, and so I smiled when I recalled that this next track, “You’ll Never Change” written by Willie Schofield and Robert West, was Ms. Bettye’s last recording for Atlantic Records. Samantha’s version is so, so sultry and soulful; her phrasing innate, shivers down the spine time. I could see BBC Radio 2 play-listing this for national airplay here in the UK. Just fabulous, and the band deserve kudos for their efforts on this, and on the entire album.
The raunchy blues standard “Crow Jane”, gives Samantha the opportunity to belt out a vocal more in her usual territory, and there’s some sizzling grunged-up slide guitar for good measure too. It is hard to pin down the exact origins of this song. Rev. Gary Davis was known to perform it during the 1920’s, and the first recording was made in 1927 by guitarist Julius Daniels, who gets the writers’ credit here. Skip James’ 1964 version is worth hearing, as is this one.
The pair of so-called “Bonus Songs” at 13 & 14 offer us: the deep R&B groove of the horn soaked and rockin’ “Somebody’s Always Trying”, with Samantha’s vocals well on-point and some totally audacious guitar licks that deserve much credit. This cut really is a bonus. Recorded by the vastly under-appreciated US soul artist Ted Taylor on the Okeh label in 1964, a mint copy of which will set you back circa £400 -£500 today.
The closer, “I’ll Come Running Over” was a stonking 1964 Decca single for Lulu in the UK, and the B-side of the Lulu US 45, “Here Comes The Night” on the Parrot label. Written and produced by Bert Berns, and arranged by Mike Leander. Jimmy Page played guitar on the session. I have always thought of Lulu as one of the greatest R&B and soul singers the UK every produced, who got stiffed with a lot of the material she was given in her younger days. If you do not know this track by her, check it out. Also found on Lulu’s album “Something To Shout About”. A great choice for Samantha’s brilliant album, as are ALL the songs assembled here, and yet another awesome vocal from her. That Lulu album title, seems VERY appropriate here; Samantha Fish really is ‘something to shout about’.
P.S. I make no apologies at all for the length of this review. This amount of work, effort, talent, skills and love to deliver such glittering results on this album, deserve a thorough pat on the back to all involved, not just the sensational Samantha. But if I can convince just one or two to give it a try and they tell their friends and family, and so on…………this Fish may well be swimming towards her biggest success to date with this record. (See what I did there?)
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’