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Soul man Johnny Rawls is headliner for 35th annual Carolina Blues Festival
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Soul man Johnny Rawls is headliner for 35th annual Carolina Blues Festival

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Johnny Rawls is a soul man. None of that neo business, the Mississippi native’s output is pure soul. There aren’t many of ‘em left, a fact he is acutely aware of, addressing that problem on his latest release, “Where Have All the Soul Men Gone?” on Third Street Cigar Records.

“They dead,” Rawls says succinctly by phone last week from his Mississippi home. “No one picked it up, man. It’s a mystery to me, and this music is being played all over the world every day, every second. To me it’s the best music ever been recorded, the most danceable, and just the feeling, the impact, of the music. And I’m the only one actually that’s left that I know of that’s doing it.”

The 70-year-old singer/guitarist has been a pro since his mid teens, backing artists including Z.Z. Hill and Joe Tex. He joined soul great O.V. Wright (“Nickel and a Nail,” “8 Men and 4 Women” “Precious Precious”) in the ‘70s, becoming the band director and staying on to lead the band for nearly a decade after Wright’s death.

“Friends ‘til he took his last breath,” Rawls says. He credits Wright with giving him insights on how to deliver a song. “To relate to the song he’d become a part of that song,” Rawls says. “He’d mentally go there, become a part of that song, like in a trance. That’s one thing I learned, how to do that, but not as well as him, though.”

Rawls was Little Johnny Taylor’s bandleader as well, leaving to go solo in ‘85. Rawls has put out an album just about every year since, with 30 to his credit so far, writing or co-writing the material and producing as well.

“I keep it rolling, man,” Rawls affirms.

Rawls’ speaking voice is a tad crusty, a well broken-in instrument. It’s had a life-long acquaintance with interpreting pain and heartache. But when he sings, he smooths out all the rough spots, transforming into a soulful crooner who can hold his own with any of the soul gods. His guitar playing is impressive as well, embedded with traces of Clarence Carter, B.B. King and other blues/soul royalty.

But guitar was not his first instrument. He started on clarinet and sax, but found a good reason to change over.

“The girls like guitar players, man!” he says, chuckling. “No, man, the reason I play guitar, I saw my grandfather play one Christmas morning, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and I said to my mother I wish she’d buy me one. It was my grandfather and the girls that made me switch over.”

2012’s “Soul Survivor” album is a good sampling of his versatility. On Rawls’ original “Drowning,” he channels Solomon Burke and gets into a Bobby Womack feel on “Yes.” There’s a shimmery Clarence Carter feel to several cuts, and Rawls pays homage to Wright with a cover of “Eight Men, Four Women” that’s as soulful as Wright’s original.

At a show at Loafers Beach Club in Raleigh a few years ago, Rawls trotted out a dazzling array of soul men personas, easing in and out of the skins of Tyrone Davis, Lionel Ritchie and Clarence Carter. He offered up a blistering guitar solo, taking some of the sweetness out of a cover of Carter’s ‘71 hit “Slipped, Tripped and Fell In Love.”

He completely re-imagines Ben E. King’s 1961 classic “Stand By Me” by running it through Sam Cooke’s vocal chords. Ironically, the King song credited to the legendary writing team of Leiber and Stoller, who came up with most of the Coasters’ material (“Shoppin’ for Clothes,” “Yakety Yak,” “Young Blood”) as well as Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” was allegedly inspired by Cooke’s “Stand By Me Father,” recorded when he was with the Soul Stirrers.

“I just liked Sam Cooke’s style,” Rawls says. “Ben E. King did a great job, but he was just kinda like straight, and Sam would be like ‘whoa oh whoa oh stand by me.’ (There was) so much more that you could do with a Sam Cooke version than you could do with a Ben E. King version. Now, Ben E. King sold it, but Sam, I just loved Sam.”

Rawls is already busy on another release, “Johnny Rawls and Friends,” featuring guests including Kenny Neal and Elvin Bishop, set for release in August or September.

For the upcoming Carolina Blues Festival in Greensboro, Rawls promises to mix it up.

“Cause in Carolina, they like to shag a little bit. I’m gonna hit ‘em hard and funky and soulful. Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do. Tell the people in Greensboro, don’t meet me there, beat me there.”

Contact Grant Britt at gbritt1@triad.rr.com.

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