Devin B. Thompson Dusts off Vintage Soul Sounds on ‘Tales of the Soul’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Tales of the Soul is the culmination of a musical career that began in Devin B. Thompson’s early teens in the industrial city of Joliet, just southwest of the Windy City. He was the product of a musical family, and, like many a soul great, he has a church background: His father was a choir singer whose voice attracted the attention of the famed producer Thom Bell, and his sister also led a choir. Thompson began playing trumpet and singing background in his older brother’s band at the age of 14 or 15. He gradually transitioned into singing as the group played shows around the Midwest and much later he took up songwriting, with Prince being his major influence.

Those familiar with Severn Records, realize that the label does not put out very many releases in any given year, so this debut certainly begs the question as to how Thompson, previously unrecorded, came to their attention.  So, of course, there’s an interesting back story that traces to his major influence, Willie Newsome, an artist he learned about through his dad’s record collection. Thompson and Newsome eventually worked together in a Chicago-based society band, the Georgia Francis Orchestra. In 2015, some of Newsome’s highly prized singles for small Windy City labels attracted the attention of an English promoter, who featured him on a major Northern Soul festival in Manchester.

“This was one of my mentors,” Thompson says, “and I started trying to figure out how I could get this guy some more gigs, so I started phone calling some people, just to see what was going on. Tad Robinson, the singer, was on Severn Records, and he sent some of Willie’s old records to David Earl at Severn. David immediately said, ‘Is this guy still around? Is he alive? Where is he at? We’ve gotta have him.’” Thompson accompanied Newsome to Maryland when sessions began for the older vocalist’s new album, and Earl was impressed. “Unbeknownst to me, they were saying, ‘We should try to work with him as well,’” he says. “And when we were leaving, they said to me, ‘Hey, man, we would like to work with you at some point, too.’” Further work was scheduled on Newsome’s record, but completion of the project proved impossible, as he was stricken with cancer. (He ultimately succumbed to the disease in September 2019.) As fate would have it, Thompson ended up stepping in. That brings us up to date.

Thompson not only is the lead vocalist, but he penned eight of the eleven tunes and co-produced the album with label founder David Earl and pianist-musical director Kevin Anker. The collection features Severn’s ace house band — Anker, guitarist Johnny Moeller, organist Benjie Porecki, bassist Steve Gomes, and drummer Robb Stupka. The group’s smooth R&B  sound is augmented by a four-piece horn section, a of background vocalists, and storied guitarist Robben Ford, who guests on two tracks “I’m Gonna Cry a River” and “Read Your Mind.” The recording of the album’s leadoff tracks — Bobby Blue Bland’s “Love to See You Smile,” Little Milton’s “I’m Gonna Cry a River,” and Joe Simon’s flowing  “Something You Can Do Today” — set the deep soul template for Thompson eight original numbers that fill out the record.

Having established a comfort level, Thompson then unveiled tunes he had already written, some of which had to be rearranged such as “I Ain’t No Good” transformed from a pop-like Beatles tune into a breezy soul shuffle that better fit the mood and groove of the sessions. These are essentially vintage soul sounds given a more contemporary sheen, a balance of ballads and danceable tunes, complete with requisite soul instrumentation – heavy B3, forceful horns, and choir-like background vocals. As Thompson sings, you’ll sense a veteran presence belying that he’s not been recorded to this point. He did take the opportunity to present his most timely song, even though it dates to several years ago. The set closer “Tell Me” is a pointed meditation on race in the style of Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” and Syl Johnson’s “Is It Because I’m Black.” 

Thompson explains “It’s just about the experience of being a Black man in America. The first thing I started with was, ‘Tell me what it is about my skin that you don’t like.’ It’s a real question — people who claim white supremacy can’t tell me why they don’t like me. But then it became a lot more real when Colin Kaepernick was going through some of the things that he was going through. The song is about challenging people to have empathy. In America, people seem to lack the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Thompson feels gratified that he made the album at Severn’s home base in Maryland, away from the trappings of home as it freed up his style and opened him to new ideas. Hopefully, this is just the first of many good ones to come. 

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