Recording of October 1993: Give It Up to Love

MIGHTY SAM McCLAIN: Give It Up to Love
AudioQuest AQ-LP1015 (LP), AQ-CD1015 (CD). Joe Harley, Sam McClain, Lorne Entress, prods.; Michael C. Ross, Dan Bosworth, engs. AAA/AAD. TTs: 47:46, 54:06

Ever wonder why Stax, Volt, Atlantic, and the other great and near-great soul and R&B labels can't, or won't, make records like they did 20 or 30 years ago? Well, don't. AudioQuest is doing it now. Mighty Sam McClain's Give It Up to Love is one of the great soul records. And, unlike all those soul classics of yesterdecade, it sounds just as great as it is.

Mighty Sam has not had an easy 50 years. A one-hit wonder in 1966 (with Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams," of all things), his career sputtered along and finally died a few years later. For the next 20 years McClain moved around the country in search of love, fulfillment, and jobs, recording the odd single here and there but mainly working menial jobs. He landed homeless back in his native Louisiana, and eventually sold real estate in Houston. Finally getting a band going in Boston, McClain came to the attention of AudioQuest's Joe Harley. The result is one of the most direct, powerful soul/blues albums I've ever heard.

McClain's voice and phrasing sound a lot like B.B. King's. But for those of you sick to death of the B.B. King Revue, the millionth "Tonight Show" telling of The Story of Lucille, and museum performances with every drop of sweat in place by living legends who should know better, McClain is the genuine article: a natural, a singer of absolute power and conviction whose every whisper, shout, and moan I implicitly believe. There's not a mediocre track on this disc, let alone a dud. From deep, slow blues such as "Got to Have Your Love" to the wearily powerful "I'm Tired of These Blues," to McClain's cover of Al Green's "I Feel Good," to Carlene Carter's neo-soul "Too Proud," to the gospely title track (with a thrilling break just before the final chorus) and "Don't Turn Back Now," every track could be another singer's end-of-album rave-up.

If anyone still played music like this on the radio, Mighty Sam would finally have another hit single or three. My two favorite tracks are opposite extremes: "What You Want Me to Do" is a gritty, hard-edged, electric road blues that brings back memories of Booker T. without sounding any more dated than 1993. The voice-and-acoustic-guitar duet of "Lonesome Road" that closes the album has more emotional electricity than any track on the disc—and that's going some. (But LP purists beware: Only the CD has "Love Me If You Want To," a big-beat, rock-solid Chicago blues that's an essential part of the album.)

The band is impeccable. Kevin Barry is that rarity: a completely versatile rock/blues/soul/R&B guitarist, on electric or acoustic, with nary a hint of studio-musician slickitude. Same goes for the rest: AudioQuest stable musician Bruce Katz contributes rich, purling Hammond B-3 fills and rolling breakers of gospel piano, and bassist Michael Rivard and drummer Lorne Entress work together beautifully to punch out cadences with full-throated drama and power.

This is an AudioQuest analog recording, and sounds it. Like the music, it's simple, direct, and ungussified, using minimal miking and virtually no overdubs. In fact, it sounds so natural, so right that it doesn't call attention to its own audiophile purity, as even some Cheskys seem to do. This is a fully rounded sound in a real space; the kicker is when, after one of Kevin Barry's particularly tasty fills, Mighty Sam pulls back from the mike to laugh in appreciation. That laugh happens in a space that seems to surround and support every player. Totally convincing.

I hope I've been half as convincing in persuading you to buy this record. You'll be satisfied with the CD or the 180-gram vinyl; I was hard put to hear much difference between the two, except for maybe a little bit more body and definition in the bass on, surprisingly, the LP.—Richard Lehnert