Monday, July 31, 2017

A Song A Day: "Mississippi Charles" Bevel, "Don't Lie to Me"

JULY 31, 2017




Charles Bevel certainly didn’t start out intending to be a recording artist, and he didn’t end up as one. But his fairly short stint on record produced some fine music.

He had done a lot of things by age 30, in 1969, including on-the-ground civil rights work, four years of college, a stint in the Navy, time in a steel mill, and travels all over the world. He’d also lived for more than three years in Liberian with his African-born wife.

Eventually he drifted toward music, by chance meeting someone who got one of his songs to the Staples Singers, who eventually cut it. In 1972, Bevel met Jerry Butler, who put him in touch with Calvin Carter, longtime Chicago R&B and soul producer. Carter found Bevel’s material good enough that he recommended that A&M Records sign him.

When A&M began issuing records in the mid-60s, much of its product was Latin jazz and West Coast folk-rock. But by the early 1970s, African American artists Quincy Jones and Billy Preston had enjoyed hits for the label. Bevel had some musical and attitudinal similarities to another contemporary R&B star, Bill Withers; both were slightly older working-class men who eschewed pieties but also refused to play “street” when it wasn’t in them.

Bevel’s album, Meet “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, was issued in 1973. A blend of folk, funk, soul, and ballads, it included two songs he’d written in Africa, along with the searing “Sally B. White,” a rip on a social-climbing young black woman. Perhaps the top track was “Don’t Lie to Me,” which to me sounds like a single but was only issued on the b-side of a promo-only 45 in 1974.

Meet “Mississippi Charles” Bevel, cut in Chicago, was generally strong and sounded terrific; the musicians included the top class of Windy City session men, including Phil Upchurch, Richard Evans, and Morris Jennings. The story—outsider finds his gift and does great album—was compelling, but the album somehow didn’t sell. After this one record, Bevel chose to leave the recording industry.

Bevel continued to perform, write, create visual art, and lecture, and when he eventually found his way into theater work, he seemed to be more fulfilled and was certainly more appreciated. A show he co-wrote, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, went to Broadway and in 1999 received several Tony nominations.

The only other recorded release under Bevel’s name was the 2000 album Not of Seasons. On this album he wrote, sang, and produced. It didn’t make him a star in pop music either, but was probably a more satisfying experience.

Here is “Don’t Lie to Me,” which may only be half of a conversation but tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on. It’s funky, down-home, pleading, wary, layered, but spare. Thank you, Mr. Bevel!


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