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Big Belly Blues Band - Nobody's Home

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Nobody’s Home, the much anticipated second CD by the Big Belly Blues Band, draws together the rich blues, soul, funk, and jazz traditions that have long made Oakland, California, a hotbed of innovation in African American music. Led by seasoned drummer, songwriter, and record producer Paul Tillman Smith –with former Prince guitarist Levi Seacer Jr. serving as co-producer this time around – the current edition of the BBBB is, like the original group, a truly all-star assemblage of many of the most gifted vocalists and instrumentalists ever associated with the Oakland scene, from veteran soul men Bobby Reed and Freddie Hughes to the young Terrell “Tootie” Williams.

Big Belly Blues Band - Nobody's Home

Bookended by new treatments of two classics of Oakland soul – “Git Sum,” a late ‘60s Bay Area hit by the pioneering and still-active Oakland funk guitarist and bandleader Johnny Talbot, and the 1977 regional hit “Is It Me” by the late Cal Tjader pianist turned soul songwriter, producer, and singer Lonnie Hewitt – the 13-track Nobody’s Home presents 11 freshly minted tunes in the old-school tradition from the pens of Smith, Seacer, and Reed.

Named for the song “Big Belly Blues” by Smith and award-winning jazz and blues vocalist Faye Carol, the BBBB was formed in 2002 by Smith, pianist Ed Kelly, singer George Hubbard, bassist-trombonist Harley White, and trumpeter Khalil Shaheed. The band also featured Rapper and current Oakland Tribune editor Martin Reynolds. The band appeared at Yoshi’s and Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland, among other venues, prior to the deaths of Kelly, Hubbard, and Shaheed. Nobody’s Home includes a revised version of “Big Belly Blues” with new vocals by TMarvin Williams but with Kelly’s piano solo retained from the original recording. 

Born in Oakland in 1947, the son of a jazz drummer, Paul Tillman Smith has long distinguished himself as one of the
most valuable and versatile participants in the Northern California music scene. His contributions as a drummer, songwriter, bandleader, record producer, and event producer have remained undiminished since the time, at age 15, he made his professional debut backing bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins at the Continental Club in West Oakland.

Besides recording as a sideman with such jazz greats as saxophonist Sonny Simmons, violinist Michael White, and fellow drummer Smiley Winters, the Berkeley-based musician has led and produced albums by four world-class bands since the mid-1970a – Vitamin E, Bridge, and currently Park Place and the Big Belly Blues Band – that have featured a succession of remarkable singers, including Lady Bianca, David Gardner, Freddie Hughes and his son Derrick, Debra Von Lewis, Bonnie Boyer, Latoya London, and Donnie Williams.

Like his friend and mentor Lonnie Hewitt, Smith brings a jazz musician’s sophistication to writing and producing R&B
music. “A lot of my tunes have serious chord changes,” says Smith, who has written and published over 100 original compositions. In addition to songs performed by his own groups, his tunes have been recorded by, among others, Pharoah Sanders and Phyllis Hyman (“As You Are”), Norman Connors and Jean Carne (“Stella”), and Webster Lewis and D.J. Rogers (“Heavenly”). Smith and Hewitt wrote music for the 1980 off-Broadway musical Dunbar, winner of the prestigious AUDELCO Award. Smith also composed a dozen songs for the 2005 Tony Spires motion picture Tears of a Clown starring Don “D.C.” Curry.

Levi Seaser Jr., the Richmond, California-based co-producer who plays guitar and bass, write arrangements for, and sings on Nobody’s Home, brings a firm grounding in gospel,, R&B, and jazz to the BBBB. In addition to working with Prince for eight years, first as a bassist, then as a guitarist, his extensive resume includes stints with Rosie Gaines and Sheila E.  He’s been performing of late with Jody Whatley, Sons of the Soul Revivers, Tony Toni Tone, saxophonist Rick Alexander, and his aunt, gospel great Dorothy Morrison of “Oh Happy Day” renown. His credits as a producer, co-producer, and/or songwriter  include Prince, The Time, Sounds of Blackness, the Pointer Sisters, and Gerald Alston. Seacer is featured vocally on three tracks of Nobody’s Home: “Get Sum,” “High School Lovers,” and the title song.

“Levi is the best guitar player I ever heard around here,” says Smith, who first worked with Seacer on 2013’s Bed Ballads, a compilation of 15 of the drummer’s best love songs as sung by Freddie Hughes, Phyllis Hyman, Avis Nixon, Lenny Williams, Donnie Williams, Tootie Williams, TMarvin Williams, Michael Cheadle, Chris Fields, Vincent Lars, and Martin Luther.  Bed Ballads and the BBBB’s Nobody’s Home are both available on Smith’s Chump Change label, as are earlier releases by Bridge and Park Place.

“I couldn’t have done Nobody’s Home without Levi,” Smith adds. “That experience he had with Prince was absolutely necessary to do this record. Even though this is more of a ‘70s-type record, he was able to clean the tracks up, make them simple, and do all kinds of phenomenal arrangement to the songs. He even wrote some of the horn lines. When we had the horn players in the studio, he was able to invent stuff on the spot.”

Nobody’s Home, like all of Smith’s previous record projects, features a variety of vocalists, each especially selected to best complement individual songs. “I’m always looking for singers who look like they would have a shot, even if I’m not the one that gets them out there in the final analysis,” Smith says.

TMarvin Williams is featured on six songs on Nobody’s Home. He solos on “Big Belly Blues,” “Too Much,” “Country Flower,” and “Back Here Again” and joins Seacer and Shema Bellamy vocally on “Git Sum” and Seacer and Freddie Hughes on the title track “There’s nobody who can beat him in live performance,” Smith says of Williams, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania native who since 2005 has been touring with the Persuaders, the soul vocal group best known for the 1971 smash “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.”

The album reunites Smith with singing bassist Bobby Reed. The two men had first written a song together for a 1970 Columbia album by Sweet Apple, a short-lived band in which Reed was a member before the Whispers hired him as their bass player. The Tulsa-born musician came to Oakland as a teenager and played with Eugene Blacknell and the New Breed before joining the Right Kind, a self-contained (vocal and instrumental) band that scored a national hit in 1968 with “(Tell Me) Why Do You Have to Lie” featuring Reed’s robust lead vocal. With the BBBB Reed sings his own compositions “The Joint” and “Be with Me” and also plays bass on those two songs and a number of other tracks.

Nobody’s Home also reunites Smith with David Gardner, who had been co-lead singer of Vitamin E, a Smith-led band that recorded a Norman Connors-produced album titled Sharing for Buddah Records in 1977. Born in Galveston, Texas, and bred in San Francisco, Gardner had recorded with recorded with Donnel Hickman’s San Francisco Inspirational Choir and performed with saxophonist Jules Broussard’s popular band early in his career. He later fell on hard times and, although now thankfully back on his feet, was homeless for a period, making him an ideal choice for the Smith song “The Hobo.”

Terrell “Tootie” Williams, born 27 years ago in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and presently based in Los Angeles, sang with her older brother, onetime American Idol finalist Donnie Williams, on the 2007 Park Place album Just Like Magic.  On Nobody’s Home she sings lead on “Before You Know” and the provocative “One Summer Night. “

Singing alongside Seacer and TMarvin Williams on “Git Sum” and contributing background vocals to other tracks is Shema Bellamy, the daughter of Smith’s best friend from high school. She made her initial mark on records doing the lead singing on the 1999 Bay Area hip-hop hit “Wide Open” by Mac Mall. “She reminds me of Etta James,” Smith says of Bellamy. “She’s just Oakland all the way.”

Longtime Smith associate Freddie Hughes joins Seacer and TMarvin Williams vocally on “Nobody’s Home.”  The Berkeley-born singer scored a national hit in 1968 with the Lonnie Hewitt penned-and-produced ballad “Send Me Back” and nine years later sang lead on “Sharing,” the title track of Vitamin E’s sole album.

Los Angeles-born singer Rhonda Benin, a member of Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir for the past 23 years, duets with Seacer on “High School Lovers.” “Except for that pot belly, you’re still the apple of my eye,” she sings at one point, reflecting a common physical attribute of middle age that in part inspired the Big Belly Blues Band name.

For the band’s new reading of Lonnie Hewitt’s “Is it Me,” Benin recommended Nashville-bred, Oakland-based singer and actor Nicolas Bearde, a charter member of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicesta.  At the time Hewitt’s recording of “Is It Me” was being played on Bay Area radio, some listeners suggested It would be a perfect song for Lou Rawls. Bearde, who has performed and recorded tributes to Rawls, was thus a perfect choice. 

In addition to the stellar cast of singers, the new BBBB album features many of the Bay Area’s most accomplished instrumentalists. Levi Seacer Jr. plays guitar throughout and alternates on bass with Bobby Reed. Ronnie Smith, Arron Green, Larry Vann, and Paul Tillman Smith take turns on trap drums, and Paul and Butch Haynes contribute additional percussion. Paul’s cousin Eric Tillman is featured on keyboards, along with Seacer, Lorenzo Hawkins, and Rom Rosenblum.  Blues harmonica is by Richard Meyers. Trumpets are played by John Halblieb, Tom Poole, Geechie Taylor, and the late Khalil Shaheed. The trombonists are Danny Armstrong, Mike Rinta, and Harley White. The saxophonists are Morris Atchinson, James Carraway, James Nelson, Michael Peloquin, Doug Rowan, Robert Stewart, Joe Thornton, and Howard Wiley. Horn arrangements are by Seacer, Danny Armstrong, Carl Green, John Halblieb, Lonnie Hewitt, Rom Rosenblum, Johnny Talbot, and Harley White. And Paul Tillman Smith makes his debut as a rapper with the monologue on “Is It Me.”

Nobody’s Home brilliantly demonstrates Smith’s ongoing knack for picking just the right songs, singers, and players. He and his associates have created a masterpiece that stands out brightly in the annals of Oakland music.         

- Written by Chronicle Music Critic                                                                                

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