Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Soulful Strings - Paint It Black

Here we have some truth in advertising with the abstract image of a red background painted black aligning to the album title. Appropriately, this 1966 album of all covers leads off with a striking rendition of “Paint It Black” featuring abundant echo, prominent flute and Latin polyrhythms. The main man and driving force behind the red door was Richard Evans, a bass player who later went on to produce and arrange for megastars like Peabo Bryson and the legendary Ramsey Lewis before becoming a distinguished professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. At Chicago’s Cadet Records, Evans led the large house band which included guitarist Phil Upchurch, flautist Lenny Druss and harpist Dorothy Ashby who became known collectively as the Soulful Strings. While none of their recordings express the deep depths of a David Axelrod project or the compounding congas heard on Music from Lil Brown by Africa, the music is certainly textured while the employment of strings allow for the unfurling of sweeping melodies. They interpret these hit songs in way that retains their essential core, but customize them to the point to also make them adventurous, dynamic, and enduring. In short, the strings are smoothly blended and skillfully balanced with the soulful elements. The album does sag in the middle as the source material (“Sunny” & “When a Man Loves a Woman”) now sounds tired and turgid due to radio overplay. The album takes flight once again and peaks with “Eight Miles High.”  Subsequently, the Soulful Strings would go on to release the original single “Burning Spear” which reached #64 in February 1968 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a half-dozen long players-all arranged & produced by the aforementioned Richard Evans. While the Soulful Strings have gained belated recognition and royalties from being frequently sampled, they have not yet received a domestic reissue treatment beyond their 1968 Christmas album which was re-wrapped in 2015. In any case, this debut is the place to begin exploring their transitional sounds created by Evans layering musical elements of Africa and Europe over mid-sixties pop and soul in the heartland of North America.

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