Chicago soul singer Gerald McClendon, the “Soul Keeper,” got a lift from last year’s Delta Roots release, Battle of the Blues: Chicago vs. Oakland, an album that revealed city favorites that didn’t have much national exposure. While McClendon has appeared on other projects and compilations in recent years, his last album under his own name was 1999’s Choose Love. Now the world at large can hear one of the few real soul singers left. McClendon has a voice with a tremendous range that draws instant comparisons to other great singers. His smooth style evokes Ben E. King and Marvin Gaye. He doesn’t have the gritty rough voice of his mentor Z.Z. Hill, or quite as much fire as Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding but he’s in the same conversation. Other than Bobby Rush who is more diversified, and Johnny Rawls and a few precious others, sadly, there just aren’t many deep soul singers left. We just lost a great one in Frank Bey this past weekend. So, in one sense you’ve surely heard this sound before, but you need to savor it because it’s so rare today. McClendon is a master storyteller and provocateur, who will entice and entertain with both typically salacious material like Hill and the conventional love and R&B dance tunes. Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now showcases all his talents.
McLendon teamed up with the renowned producer Twist Turner (worked with 40 Grammy winners) to record at Sound Studios in the heart of Chicago. The duo employed a team of the city’s best session men that included Art Love on bass, three guitarists – Herb Walker, Joe Burba and Mike Wydra, and three keyboardists, Roosevelt Purifoy, Sumito Aryioshi and Brian James, along with Skinny Williams on saxophone and John “Boom” Brumbach on trumpet. Turner also laid down the drum tracks.
The horns immediately push the title track “Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now” into radio-friendly territory with McClendon sounding fully animated about getting a chance to be heard on a full album. The blazing tenor sax of Skinny Williams introduces the relationship vignette “Where Do We Go From Here’” in bluesy fashion. He then demonstrates that he can be a ‘strong persuader’ (nod to Robert Cray) on the smooth R&B tune “Groove On Tonight.” Williams shines again on the intro and mid-section of the desperate ballad “She Don’t Love Me Anymore,” one of several that sounds like the vintage era of soul music with the Fender Rhodes supporting perfectly.
Taking cues from his mentor Z.Z. Hill, McClendon chastises a bad girl on the bump n’ grind dance tune, “Runnin’ Wild,’’ graced gloriously by the horns in the ensemble and when Williams steps out. Close your eyes and envision the sweat pouring down McClendon’s craggy face. We get that Malaco sound of mid-late career Bobby “Blue” Bland on the piano-driven track “It’s Over Now” which also has some clean bluesy guitar soloing. A true standout track is “Mr. Wrong” for its repetitive chorus and as a clever way to sing about that age-old theme of infidelity (“can I be Mr. Wrong tonight until Mr. Right comes along”), another trait shares with Hill. The uplifting, horn slathered “I Started Over” evokes Tyrone Davis with one of McClendon’s strongest vocals.
”You Can’t Take My Love” has that deep sensual feel of the best soul ballads with Williams again blowing passionately against the wall of horns while the melodic “Why Can’t We Be Together” is one of those sing-along car songs (with the windows down of course). There’s the tale of the man caught cheating in “Cut You Once,” which also has one of those memorable repetitive choruses but “she had a pistol in her hand….cut you once shoot you twice” kind of lyric just doesn’t sit well right now as we witness the violence, unfortunately, ruining the peaceful protests over racism. Sure, it’s about cheating again and not the topic at hand but it rubs the wrong way, at least right now. On a brighter note, he uses Tyrone Davis’ line “if I could just turn back the hands of time.” The sublime closer is here with “I Think About You,” with all the key ingredients of a great soul tune – emotive vocals, strong horn support and the swirling B3.
You’ll be transported back to the golden era of soul music. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Kudos to Gerald McClendon for keeping the flame burning.