Classic Americana Albums: Barrence Whitfield with Tom Russell “Cowboy Mambo”

East Side Digital, 1993

Collaborations can be a tricky musical venture – the artists need to complement each other and be distinctive enough not to meld into one.

Barrence Whitfield is a Boston-based blues and r’n’b singer (born Barry White incredibly) who, with his band The Savages, had some respectable success as a recording band and as a phenomenal live act. Whitfield has a forceful yet soulful vocal style and he is a prestigious record collector. Tom Russell is a brilliant singer-songwriter, painter and essayist and he’s recorded around thirty-five albums to date.

At the time of recording these, in 1993,  Whitfield said “Man, I grew up digging all the country greats, Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle, Willie, all that great, soulful country stuff, and I always wanted to do that …I’ve known Tom Russell since the late Eighties, my manager was a friend of his. So we cooked up this scheme and somehow we got a record deal.” Russell was quoted saying  about Whitfield, “He’s sort of a modern Little Richard – he wanted to do something country-oriented, so he contacted me, and what we came up with what was this real eclectic, good-timey blend of roots music.”

So with the help of some great musicians they recorded twenty-four songs over two releases – ‘Cowboy Mambo’ being the second, ‘Hillbilly Voodoo’ being the other. The musicians included ace guitarist Andrew Hardin; Hank Bones on bass; Seth Pappas on drums; Gene Hicks on keyboards; Crispin McCormack on sax; Larry Eagle on percussion and The Blood Of The Redeemer Gospel Chorus.

Amongst the goodies included are a barn-storming version of Richard Thompson’s ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’; a Memphis soul take on Pops Staples’ civil rights anthem ‘Freedom Highway’ and a graceful rendition of Gram Parson’s lament ‘Brass Buttons’. Originals included a Louisiana foot stomper ‘A Little Wind’, which Russell co-wrote with Peter Case and the Russell penned ballad ‘Home Before Dark’.

The beauty of these songs are that they sound suitably different from the material that both artists had been making individually, up until this point. Whitfield’s vocals are always exemplary and working with Russell’s musical mastery was a master stroke of an idea. If this album tempts you – do delve into Whitfield’s and Russell’s many other excellent releases.

One of the tracks is ‘Insufficient Sweetie (Tribute To Ukelele Ike)’ celebrating Cliff Edwards, recognised by some as a truly influential musician. He was born in 1895 and had a string of early jazz hits and later worked with Louis Armstrong and was later the voice of Jiminy Cricket for Walt Disney in the original ‘Pinocchio’.

These two albums have recently been re-released and are well worth tracking down as a superb coupling of two master singers and as genuine americana classic albums.

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