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The Arkansas Mixtape, Part II

Susan Whitall Bio Subject Little WIllie Dixon
























You surely remember the life changing first article of this series, which chronicled Arkansas based artists including Johnny Cash, Louis Jordan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and, for symmetry’s sake, twelve other acts. In this second, and regretfully final, article on this subject, we survive scalding grits, salute ersatz Samoans, and share a bit too much information at the outhouse.

1. Little Willie John, “Leave My Kitten Alone.” William Edward John was born in Cullendale, Arkansas, but his family moved to Detroit when he was four years old. An underappreciated rhythm and blues singer, John hit the Top 40 with “Fever,” “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” and “Sleep.” This playful 1959 hit only went to #600 on the pop charts, but made an impression – the Beatles did a cover version five years later. Susan Whitall’s 2011 biography on LWJ (Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul: The Authorized Biography), written with Little Willie John’s son Kevin John, is highly recommended.

2. Pharoah Sanders, “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.” For some inexplicable reason, I tend to think that jazz artists were always raised in the East Village or on a suburb of Neptune. Little Rock native/tenor saxophonist Ferrell Sanders moved to New York in the early 1960s and recorded this challenging avant-garde soundscape in 1967. Listen to Sonny Sharrock’s guitar work on this song, then play your favorite Sonic Youth cut. Pharoah still plays regularly throughout Europe and the United States.

3. Charlie Rich, “Memphis and Arkansas Bridge.” Rich was born in Colt, Arkansas, but grew up in Benton (also the hometown of Billy Bob Thornton and Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee). Rich released plenty of, shall we say, fabulous tracks, but this 1970 album cut about trying to get back to Walnut Ridge, Arkansas wins the local color award.

4. Black Oak Arkansas, “When Electricity Came to Arkansas.” I was living in Arkansas in 1971, when this track was released, and the electrical grid was well established. I do remember as a youngster visiting “out in the country” relatives that still had an outhouse, an aging amenity that I visited on a cold, dark night. Sometimes constipation is your best friend.

5. The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There.” Charismatic Stax co-owner Al Bell, who was aggressively expanding the company in the early ‘70s, wrote this 1972 #1 pop hit. While the former Little Rock disc jockey is best known as an executive, under his real name (Alvertis Isbell), he has writing credits on Solomon Burke’s “Somebody is Watching,” Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand,” and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” Bell has made many fine contributions to American soul music, so let’s forgive him for discovering the Miami group Tag Team and releasing “Whoomp! (There It Is).”

6. Al Green “Call Me (Come Back Home)”. Forrest City, Arkansas got its name from Civil War lieutenant general Nathan Bedford Forrest and was also the stomping grounds for a young Albert King. Green’s incomparable falsetto took him to the Top Ten of the pop charts in the early ‘70s, including this 1973 album title track. The hits became smaller after an enraged girlfriend showered him with boiling grits in 1974 and Green began recording more spiritually based music.

7. Angry Samoans, “Right Side of My Mind.” “Metal” Mike Saunders grew up in Little Rock, was published in CREEM and Rolling Stone as a teenager, and became the angriest accounting major in American history. This 1980 punk raver ironically became burned in my brain when I lived in Little Rock in 1990. I hear echoes of this song every time I cross the Arkansas River on Highway 167 bridge, now with Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library prominently displayed on the right side of my mind’s eye.

8. K. T. Oslin, “80’s Ladies.” Nashville has never been a hotbed for sexually frustrated, middle aged women, yet Kay Toinette Oslin achieved a string of hits and awards in the late ‘80s with that persona. Born in Crossett, Arkansas (also the hometown of college and professional football coach Barry Switzer), K.T. won a Grammy for this 1987 song about survival and wisdom. Much easier on the ears than “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”

9. Collin Raye, “Little Rock.” A De Queen native, Collin took this 1994 hit about a drunk to #2 in 1994, but I prefer Reba McEntire’s “Little Rock,” which is about a divorce, which isn’t as good as Hayes Carll’s “Little Rock,” which is about getting the heck out of Conway. By the way, the Dairy Queen in De Queen is called the Dairy De Queen and it is located on 1008 West Collin Raye Drive.

10. Sleepy LaBeef, “Hillbilly Guitar Boogie.” Thomas Paulsley LaBeff has been recording for over fifty years and while he has only scored two minor country hits, he’s become a rockabilly legend in the process. There’s a major chapter about Sleepy in Peter Guralnick’s brilliant book Lost Highways: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. Born in Smackover and now living in Springdale, Arkansas, Sleepy is still recording and touring. This 1996 rocker is a fine introduction to his thundering baritone.

11. Evanescence, “Call Me When You’re Sober.” It’s hard to ignore a band that has sold over TWENTY MILLION ALBUMS, but in this case, I’ve done a pretty good job. I’d rather have an unmedicated vasectomy than listen to Amy Lee’s voice, so I chose this 2006 screecher because (a) the title sounds like a country song and (b) it’s under four minutes long.

12. Gossip, “Heavy Cross.” Beth Ditto and company trekked from Searcy, Arkansas to the Pacific Northwest to pursue their artistic ambitions. I wanted to choose “Arkansas Heat” for this list for thematic reasons, but there’s a reason that grunge rip wasn’t a hit. This 2009 marriage of alt-rock and dance rhythms went Top Ten in nine countries, spending almost two years on the German pop charts.

13. Levon Helm, “When I Go Away.” Levon had one of the most distinctive, moving voices in popular music and performed the lead vocals on The Band’s most popular songs. On this 2009 number, the native of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas is looking at his inevitable passing as a chance to leave his troubles in the graveyard as he moves to his permanent, glorious home. Levon passed away in April of 2012. I never met him, but I sure miss him.

14. Glen Campbell, “Ghost on the Canvas.” What a wonderful career Glen Campbell had. Moving from Delight, Arkansas at the age of 18, he became one of L.A.’s most respected session musicians in the early ‘60s, toured with the Beach Boys in the mid-60s, and had a string of classic pop and country hits as a solo artist. This 2011 Paul Westerberg cover, with production touches reminiscent of his late ‘60s hits, is nothing short of astounding.

15. Iris DeMent, “Living on the Inside.” Reviewing her 2012 album, this scribe noted, “Like pickled herring and lesbian rodeos, Iris Dement is an acquired taste.” This Paragould, Arkansas has some serious teeeee-WANG! in her voice, but is as direct and emotionally honest as anyone in the music industry. So, we’ll end our trip through “The Natural State” jumping around like a frog in a gunny sack with our Greene County gal.

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