Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Travel Alone

Lou Ragland.  I Travel Alone.
Numero Uno, 2012.  Lou Ragland:

Lou Ragland was an important figure in the Cleveland soul/funk scene of the late 1960s and 1970s.  Singer, songwriter, performer, producer, road manager, and entrepreneur, Ragland did just about everything, and through a string of short-lived bands, created a legacy of fine recordings.  Although he never broke through to the national market, It’s clear that he both reflected and influenced the music that did hit the charts.  This 3-CD compilation (also released as 4 LPs, for the vinyl freaks out there) brings together a portion of that legacy, moving in chronological order from his early releases, through his Hot Chocolate (not the British group) and solo work.  It excludes his 80s work with the Great Lakes Orchestra in Las Vegas, and later material.

Born in Cleveland in 1942, Ragland worked his way into the music business, through the clubs, passing through Way Out, Boddie, and Agency Records.  He was a road manager for the O’Jays for a couple of years, before they hit the big time, and worked for a short period with Billy Ward & the Dominoes.  But his body of work here is all Cleveland.  The first CD in the set begins with his earliest singles, including the song that forms the title of the collection, and they are fine examples of Northern soul, along the lines of Motown (he was buddies with Edwin Starr).  A couple of tracks with the band Volcanic Eruption (rather forgettable) are followed by some truly excellent funk with the Cleveland band Hot Chocolate.  Initially a trio, with Ragland, George Pickett on bass, and Tony Roberson on drums, the group released one album in 1970, Hot Chocolate, reproduced here with extended tracks added.  Their music is gorgeous, minimalist soul/funk, some with vocals, others purely instrumental jams with a bit of psychedelic influence.  Great stuff.  A couple of tracks tacked on at the end feature a larger version of the band, with keyboards, strings, and more background vocals.  “I Can’t Take It” has  a later-day Temptations feel to it, while “What the Doctor Prescribed” harks back a few years to a more straightforward soul-style.

The second CD, titled Understand Each Other or Lou Ragland is the ConVeyer, depending on how you read it, is billed as Ragland’s rather than Hot Chocolate’s.  However,  members of the group played on many tracks, along with a bevy of other musicians prominent in Cleveland in the early 1970s (one long track is credited to a group called Wildfire).  Some songs are soul, some are funk, but all of the material is high quality, well-recorded, with great vocals and instrumental breaks.  Some of the songs feature socially-conscious lyrics, while others are rave-ups or ballads.  Ragland’s voice is highly expressive, one minute plaintive, the next, angry or exalting.

The last CD in the set takes us back to Hot Chocolate in its larger incarnation and in a live recording session for Agency Records.  Songs are extended, with no tune under four minutes.  The sound quality is considerably poorer than the other CDs because the tracks are taken from DAT tapes rather than the masters.  However, the musicianship shows through.  The use of strings for density and depth is unusual here, with little brass showing, and the result is a deeper, edgier sound.  The group covers some songs here, including “The World is a Ghetto,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” and curiously, “Brother Louie,” the hit for the British band of the same name.  The last track is a blow-out, a ten-minute extended version of “Good for the Gander,” which shows up in a briefer version on the first CD.  This one is heavier, sounding more like later Sly Stone with a touch of Hendrix.

It’s remarkable how such amazing recordings could be hidden away for so long and so poorly promoted back when they were new.  Some might chalk it up to Ragland staying in Cleveland while others left to become famous elsewhere (Starr, the O’Jays).  What else is out there that hasn’t yet surfaced?

Personnel:  Lou Ragland (vocals, guitar), members of Hot Chocolate, Volcanic Eruption, and various other musicians.
CDs:  Hot Chocolate, Understand Each Other/Lou Ragland is ConVeyer, Lou Ragland and Hot Chocolate Live.

The Grand Wazoo

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