[Review] Brace Yourself! A Tribute to Otis Blackwell (1994)

Old wine in new wineskins, the best of Blackwell can still be found on Elvis Presley records.

Kronomyth 1.5: Life imitating Elvis.

Life is a roller coaster: one moment you’re up, the next moment you’re listening to your idols sing Jerry Lee Lewis songs. After Otis Blackwell suffered a stroke in 1991 that left him paralyzed and speechless, musicians, a likable lot by nature, did what they could to lift his spirits: they sang his praises by singing his songs. Brace Yourself might have become another oldies tribute album but for the participation of prickly artists like Graham Parker, Frank Black, Jon Spencer and Tom Verlaine. In between their idiosyncratic performances are faithful readings from Ronnie Spector, Kris Kristofferson and Joe Ely plus some white-hot blues from Paul Rodgers, Joe Louis Walker and Willie Deville. Now, I’m no student of early rock and roll, so I won’t waste our time fumbling around for a terse eulogy that talks about Blackwell’s influence on music. He wrote some brilliant rock and roll songs that drew heavily from the blues, had the interesting habit of comparing love to an illness (“Paralyzed,” “Breathless,” “Fever,” “All Shook Up”) and, in an era dominated by white rock musicians, made a good living writing great songs for other people. You might expect this to be a sentimental journey, but the producers quickly discard their rose-colored glasses with Graham Parker’s “Paralyzed” as the leadoff track. Not that it’s so serious as all that. Frank Black’s “Breathless” and Jon Spencer’s “All Shook Up” (comically confused with the Kris Kristofferson version on the CD’s track listing) are perfectly playful. The trouble with these tracks is hearing them and yet not hearing them because you’ve heard them so many times before. Joe Louis Walker, Tom Verlaine and Willie Deville deliver interesting versions, but most of the time I found myself wishing I were listening to the originals by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Still, it’s the genius of the songwriter, Blackwell, that consistently emerges. As for nostalgia, well, I did get nostalgic for my old Tom Verlaine records listening to this.

The Songs

1. Graham Parker: Paralyzed
2. Chrissie Hynde & Chris Spedding: Hey Little Boy (Little Girl)
3. Paul Rodgers: Home In Your Heart
4. Frank Black & The Stax Pistols: Breathless
5. The Smithereens: Let’s Talk About Us
6. Tom Verlaine: Fever
7. Joe Louis Walker: On That Power Line
8. Deborah Harry: Don’t Be Cruel
9. Jon Spencer: All Shook Up
10. Frank Black: Handyman
11. Joe Ely/Sue Foley with Sarah Brown & Marcia Ball: Great Balls of Fire
12. Ronnie Spector: Brace Yourself
13. Willie Deville: Daddy Rolling Stone
14. Dave Edmunds: Return To Sender
15. Kris Kristofferson: All Shook Up

The Players

Kenny Aaronson (bass, background vocals, claps), Jimmy Destri (organ, piano, fingersnaps, background vocals, claps), Steve Ferrone (drums, fingersnaps), Chris Spedding (guitars, lead vocals on 2), The Uptown Horns (horn arrangements): Richie Cannata (tenor sax), Crispin Cioe (baritone sax, the lone arranger), Larry Etkin (trumpet), Bob Funk (trombone), Arno Hecht (tenor sax) with Tim Alexander (piano on 11), Marcia Ball (piano on 11), Frank Black (vocals, rhythm guitar), Sarah Brown (bass guitar on 11), Johnny Colla (background vocals on 1), Steve Cropper (lead guitar, vocal harmony), Jol Dantzig (background vocals), Willie Deville (vocals on 13), Dave Edmunds (all vocals & instruments on 14), Ira Sebastian Elliot (claps on 5), Joe Ely (vocals on 11), Sue Foley (lead guitar on 11), Randall Grass (fingersnaps on 6), Deborah Harry (vocals & claps on 8), Chrissie Hynde (vocals on 2), Kris Kristofferson (vocals, harp & acoustic guitar on 15), Kenny Margolis (piano, vocals & claps on 5), Glen Matlock (vocals on 4), May Pang-Visconti (background vocals & claps on 8), Graham Parker (lead and background vocals on 1), Paul Rodgers (vocals on 3), The Smithereens (5) [Jim Babjak (lead guitar, backing vocals), Dennis Diken (drums, claps), Pat DiNizio (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Mike Mesaros (bass)], Ronnie Spector (vocals on 12), Jon Spencer (vocals & lead guitar on 9), Tom Verlaine (vocals & lead guitar on 6), Jon Tiven (background vocals, guitars, organ), Sally Tiven (background vocals, claps), Tony Visconti (background vocals, fingersnaps, claps), Joe Louis Walker (vocals & lead guitar on 7), Lyle Workman (background vocals on 1). Produced by Jon Tiven & Tony Visconti; associate producers: Sarah Brown (11); production assistance by May Pang-Visconti, Sally Tiven; executive producer: Randall Grass; recording engineered by Jimmy Douglass; overdub engineered by Jimmy Douglas, Joe Johnson; mix engineered by Tony Visconti; additional engineering by F. Campbell, Johnny Colla, Jason Eyers, Chris Shepard.

The Pictures

Photography by Raymond Ross. Front cover concept by R. Wayne Martin. Booklet design by Joan Pelosi.

The Plastic

Released on compact disc and cassette on February 21, 1994 in the US (Shanachie, 5702).

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