July 17, 1996
Ted Hawkins, Songs From Venice Beach (Evidence Music 1995) - When the extraordinary blues singer Ted Hawkins died suddenly at age 60 on January 1, 1995, he left behind a rich (but cruelly ignored) recording legacy. Songs From Venice Beach helps fill a gap in his career.
Hawkins' leanings, though steeped in the blues, often headed toward a 60s Los Angeles-based R & B sound. His voice comes through loud and clear on Songs From Venice Beach, which includes an early version of "There Stands the Glass" (one of the highlights of 1994's The Next Hundred Years).
The 14 tracks on the album are essential Hawkins: just the singer and his guitar. Except for one original ("Ladder of Success"), all the cuts are covers, including the Rolling Stones' "Just My Imagination" and Curtis Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman." In addition, Hawkins displays his pop leanings on three Sam Cooke songs: "Having a Party," "Good Times," and "Somebody Have Mercy."
Hawkins' story is one of almost constant adversity and street-front busking. After a difficult upbringing in the South (which included three years at the Parchment State Penitentiary in Mississippi), Hawkins drifted from Chicago to Philadelphia and Buffalo.
When his second wife died of cancer two months after their marriage, Hawkins took the money from her estate and bought a one-way train ticket to California, where he began a singular recording career.
After arriving in Los Angeles in 1966, Hawkins bought a guitar and committed himself to singing. During the next 30 years, his career hung tantalizingly before him; recordings were made, then lost, then surfaced years later to acclaim. For example, Watch Your Step was recorded in 70's but not released until 1984, when it received an excellent review in Rolling Stone.
Hawkins supported his family for years by performing in and around Venice Beach before moving to England in 1986. During a four-year period, Hawkins established a steady following on the Continent. But upon his return to the U.S. in 1990, he again found himself singing on street corners.
All this changed when he was "discovered" by Geffen Records while performing at a local benefit for the homeless. Hawkins' finally reached the limelight on 1994's remarkable The Next Hundred Years, and he left behind years of suffering.
Hawkins's basked in the media acclaim that followed The Next Hundred Years, and enjoyed the opportunity to bring his music to a wider circle. Said Hawkins toward the end of his life, "If I don't ever get anything else, I'm getting this thing now. People are hearing my music and it's making them happy. That's what is making me happy."
Hawkins continued. "For years on the beach, I would sing to people all day and make them feel better, and they liked me, and they paid me well. Now, I'm making more people happy and they seem to like me even more. I just want my music to be out there and have people hear me sing, because I have something for them."
Songs From Venice Beach will help perpetuate Hawkins' legacy. The title is misleading, as the album was actually recorded in Nashville in 1985: Hawkins later sold two cassettes from these sessions while in Europe.
For my taste, the recording has too much echo in it; I would have cleaned up the sound, because Hawkins' voice didn't need any artificial help. But Songs From Venice Beach is a gentle morsel from this original talent, and deserves to be heard.
Teisco Del Rey, Plays Music for Lovers (Upstart/Rounder 1996) - Now based in Austin, Texas, Teisco Del Rey (real name: Dan Forte) claims to be the "king of the el cheapo guitar." From hoppin' dance numbers to surf guitar stylings, Del Rey is a powerful and seductive player. And his fretwork shines on Plays Music for Lovers.
Now age 40, Del Rey grew up in the Bay Area, and cites Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, The Ventures and Freddy King as major musical influences. Widely respected among the ranks of guitar players, Del Rey recruited guest appearances from fellow six-stringers Doyle Bramhall, Sonny Landreth, and Mitch Watkins on Plays Music for Lovers.
[Side note - Del Rey also penned the liner notes for Rhino's excellent Rock Instrumental Classics, Volume 5: Surf. The five-disk Rock Instrumental series is a must-own.]
Del Rey builds from a solid 60s sound on such surf-drenched numbers as "Seville" and "Twango" before covering Link Wray's "Steel Trap" (whom Del Rey calls the "godfather of the power chord") right through to covers of "Sealed with a Kiss" and the "Theme from Lawrence of Arabia" (camp city alert!).
Which leads to my one knock with this album -- the unnecessary effort to create a campy image. I don't understand why Del Rey has such an interest in creating a faux 60s "martini makeout" image. Although, as Del Rey notes, "if you're not laughing, the joke is on you."
With his ability to effortlessly shift styles (the album also includes a great read on the blues-based, "Madison Time"), Del Rey doesn't need this crutch for his career.
In the words of Frank Zappa, "Shut up and play guitar." And Del Rey can play with the best of them. Look past the image and try Plays Music for Lovers.
-- Randy Krbechek
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