Joe Ligon, Gospel Frontman for The Mighty Clouds of Joy


“I’ve Been In The Storm Too Long” (2 Versions)–Watch on YouTube

Joe Ligon was an Alabama-born gospel singer who moved to LA and started the legendary gospel group, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, in the 1950s. The group won three Grammys in the 1970s and were the first gospel group to appear on Soul Train.

Their contemporary approach to gospel helped them cross over to the R&B charts and earned them a spot as opening acts for Paul SImon, the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin.

Their first recording, “Steal Away To Jesus” was for the Peacock label in 1960. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, while liking some of their later work, still held this early work in high regard: “Is it the formal purity of the Peacock stuff, leaving the excitement to Joe Ligon’s falsetto-piercing shouts, that makes their sermonizing so unpresumptuous?”

“Mighty High”-Live-On Spotify

My Memories of Leon Russell in 11 Songs


I first discover Leon in the record bin of Boury’s Appliance Store in Wheeling, WV. I’ve never heard of him before, but I’m struck by the man looking back at me on the album cover. When I put needle to vinyl, I’m as captivated by his music as I am by him.

My friend Eddie and I chance upon Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the documentary about Joe Cocker’s world tour, at the Victoria Theater in Wheeling. In his stovepipe hat, Holy Trinity basketball jersey, Les Paul Gibson, and  his “hippy commune” of musicians and singers, he represents the type of free-spirited life I aspire to.

B.B. King is my other teenage musical idol, and I’m thrilled to see Leon playing piano for him as King performs a Russell song, “Hummingbird,” on The Mike Douglas Show. 

Here’s Leon’s original version.

During my freshman year at West Virginia University, a friend and I spend the better part of the year listening to Leon Live while drinking daiquiris and learning the Swahili chorus of “Out in the Woods.”

I see Leon for the first of five times at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. He and his carnival of a band open for Three Dog Night, which seemed a reversal of the natural order. One of the things that appeal to me about Leon is how he blends and celebrates country, rock, blues, classical, jazz and gospel, as he does when he gives the stage here to the Rev. Patrick Henderson.

Leon goes on tour to promote The Wedding Album, an record he produced with his then-wife Mary McCreary. I see them at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota with my then-wife. They would also perform the song on one of the earliest episodes of Saturday Night Live.

In the early aughts, I catch Leon at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis. He has aged considerably, is drawing a much smaller crowd and rushes through his setlist on an electric piano. A highlight for the audience (and I’m sure him) is one of his daughters, who supplies backup vocals and a few solos. After playing sold-out stadiums and mingling with musicians from George Harrison to Eric Clapton, he must have felt like he was in a strange land indeed.

A Netflix documentary, The Wrecking Crew, celebrates a largely unknown group of LA studio musicians who backed and provided the sound to many of our favorite songs. Turns out, Leon was one of them, recording on tracks for The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Monkees–even Sinatra and The Rolling Stones.

At the Trylon Microcinema, I see A Poem is a Naked Person, the surrealistic rock documentary by Les Blank. Produced by Russell and Denny Cordell, Leon kept it from release for 40 years. While the film  was ostensibly about Leon, he’s rarely in it. With his subject on a worldwide tour, Blank didn’t have the budget to travel along–most of the footage focuses on Russell’s home base and studio in Tulsa.

Leon has a late-life revival, when Elton John repays the kindness Leon had showed him as a young artist. Their joint album, recorded as Russell recovered from brain surgery, is highly acclaimed and puts Leon back in the spotlight. John makes sure Leon can afford to tour in a respectable bus with a real grand piano. Leon is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (introduced by Sir Elton) and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

I see Leon for a few last times, at the Dakota and Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. He seems happy to be on stage with an adoring audience before him. RIP, Leon, I will miss you, but your music will always live on for me.

Otis Clay, R&B Singer and Blues Hall of Famer

If ever you needed proof of the joy of music and its power to cross cultures, generations, backgrounds, it’s this video from the documentary Take Me To The River (to be released on DVD on February 5). Otis Clay, reprising his 1972 hit “Trying to Live My Life Without You” with the help of child hip-hop prodigy Li’l P-Nut.

Clay (February 11, 1942-January 8, 2016) was born in Mississippi, but began his singing career after moving to Chicago. He started as a gospel singer, but switched to R&B, soul and blues (although he would record a gospel album again later in life).

Clay was a Grammy nominee for Best Traditional R&B Performance and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.

Louis Johnson, Bassist of The Brothers Johnson

The Brothers Johnson Strawberry Letter 23

Every once in awhile my friend Jim will  single out a song for review via a YouTube link,  a copy of a CD, or when you’re a captive audience in his car. It’s a pretty random assortment–“In My Room” by The Beach Boys one time; “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve, the next.

One evening, as I rode shotgun on our way to a birthday celebration, he tested my music knowledge with a song I couldn’t name. Another friend, Brian, piped up from the backseat with the answer: “Strawberry Letter 23,” a Shuggie Otis song recorded by The Brothers Johnson. Brian and Jim are older than me–5 and 8 months respectively–so they’re entitled to have musical memories that we don’t share. What’s more, they both grew up in Minnesota, while I grew up in West Virginia, and their knowledge may reflect geographic differences in radio DJ taste.

The only flaw in those theories is the song came out in 1977, the year I moved to Minnesota.  So I guess I can’t use my “youth” or origins as excuses.

Anyway, this car-ride quiz sent me on a mission to discover the music of The Brothers Johnson and Shuggie Otis, both of whom I’ve come to love.

In the summer of ’77, The Brothers Johnson shot to #1 on the R&B charts and #5 on the Billboard charts with their cover of Otis’s single.

Louis Johnson (April 13, 1955-May 21, 2015) was a bassist, known as “Thunder Thumbs.” He and his brother George fronted an LA-based R&B/funk band, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. They backed up Bobby Womack, The Supremes, Billy Preston, and others, and were taken under the wing of Quincy Jones, who produced their debut album Look Out for #1 and its followup, Right On Time.

The group split up in the 1980s to pursue independent projects. Louis played bass on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and for a host of other artists, including Earl Klugh and George Benson. He released a gospel album with his band Passage and later, Evolution, an album under his own name.

Passage I See The Light

He is known for his slap-bass style, which he taught through a series of instructional videos.

Louis Johnson bass lesson intro

The Brothers Johnson I’ll Be Good To You

Percy Sledge, Singer of First Gold Record for Atlantic Records

It’s great to start your career with a spectacular success, but trying to top it, or even match it, has been the undoing of many an artist. That wasn’t the case with Percy Sledge (November 25, 1940-April 14, 2015). One song propelled him through a career that lasted 50 years.

His debut single “When a Man Loves a Woman” skyrocketed to No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B singles charts when it was released in 1966. It was Atlantic Records first gold record and the first No. 1 to come out of Muscle Shoals, where it was recorded. (The small Alabama town would soon become a mecca for other major artists, including Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett and The Rolling Stones.)

The song is credited to several of Sledge’s bandmates from The Esquires, bassist Calvin Lewis and organist Andrew Wright. Sledge also laid claim to writing the song, citing that a recent breakup with his girlfriend had provided the inspiration behind it.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” had a second life 20 years after it was recorded when it started showing up on soundtracks for “The Big Chill,” “Platoon,” “The Crying Game” and even in a 1987 Levi’s Commercial. Michael Bolton recorded it for his 1991 album “Time, Love and Tenderness.”

Add another 20 years and Percy Sledge was performing the song at his 2005 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So strong was the success of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Sledge’s other accomplishments are often overlooked. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 1994’s “Blue Night.” That album, which included performances by Steve Cropper, Mick Taylor and Bobby Womack, did win the 1996 W.C. Handy Award for Best Soul/Blues Album.


“Muscle Shoals,” the Movie, featuring Percy Sledge

The Story of “When a Man Loves a Woman” in SongFacts