The Records You Didn’t Know You Needed--- #2: Tracy Nelson—Doin’ It My Way—(Audio Directions AD101)

Tracy Nelson is such a great singer that you have to wonder why she never became a major, “you still hear her on the radio” star. Her deep, powerful, soulful voice is instantly recognizable whether she is singing, rock, country, r&b or blues. The usual vocal comparison is to Janis Joplin, which I’m sure Ms. Nelson got tired of hearing by the late 60s or sooner, but I’d say Nelson, while lacking the Joplin charisma, is a more subtle and technically, a better singer.

Nelson’s first album was for Prestige in 1964 when she was 20 and it showed her affinity for the blues and obvious vocal talents. By 1967, she was in San Francisco singing with rock band, Mother Earth. It was a great time to be a San Francisco rock band and Mother Earth got a recording contract with Mercury. Despite being well played and featuring one of the very best female singers in rock, the records weren’t successful commercially, probably because the band’s mixture of rock, country, soul and blues with psychedelic, hippie touches was too difficult to market. Mother Earth, after numerous personnel changes, morphed into Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth and soon she was a solo artist.

Despite recording some solid albums for Columbia, Reprise, Atlantic, and MCA, commercial success was elusive and by 1978 Nelson was recording for Flying Fish, an independent label that specialized in folk, country and blues. In the hierarchy of the music business, it was several steps below Columbia and the other majors. Apparently, she didn’t have an exclusive contract, because in 1978, in addition to an album released on Flying Fish, she released this excellent limited edition Direct To Disc LP on an audiophile label called Audio Directions, based in Nashville which, as far as I can determine, only released one other record which was; yes, wait for it, …….a percussion record. You knew it was going to be, didn’t you?

This was an expensive production for a label that only made two records. The record features a nine-piece band with some well-known session players plus three backup singers with horn arrangements by Wayne Jackson who was a member of the Mar-Keys and the Memphis Horns. The playing is tight and tasteful with a late 70s Stax Style groove. The excellent band arrangements are uncredited, but Nelson is listed as co-Producer and the liner notes state that she was “Doin’ It Her Way,” so they may be hers, or head arrangements that she worked up with the musicians.

Vocally, she’s typically intense and commanding with that trademark wail. She’d previously recorded seven of the eight songs, so the record is an unofficial career overview or “Best Of.” It starts off with “Lies.” an uptempo r&b styled, Nick Gravenites co-composition that features great playing by the horns, super hip, funky bass and a very good Nelson vocal that displays her ability to convincingly sing r&b with some gospel style shouting at the end.

“I Could Have Been Your Best Friend,” co-written by Nelson, is not a strong song but is well played with a classic 70s funk rhythm, a very nice guitar solo and ends with Nelson soulfully wailing alone. “Time Is on My Side” has a wonderful New Orleans style piano intro, superb “in the pocket” playing by bass and drums and Nelson’s soulful singing. It’s all very well done, but the song is so familiar that the feeling of ho hum starts to build until about halfway through when Nelson sings the line “Oh, go right ahead on baby, go on out and light up the town” and the passion takes over and she tears it up until the end.

“Temptation Took Control” by Eric Kaz, a frequent contributor to the Nelson repertoire, is an excellent song, done here in a hard rock/funk arrangement with a hot guitar solo, while the bass and drums just lay the groove down. Nelson’s vocal power and emotional intensity on this song is astonishing. “I’ll Be Long Gone” is the song from Boz Scaggs’ first U.S. LP done in an almost “sweet” r&b style that Nelson takes into a deep, gospel shouting direction. “Pity the Fool” is a slightly mistitled version of the Bobby Bland classic done in a near Ohio Players, 70s hard funk arrangement. The playing is very good and Nelson sings very well, but this version lacks the smooth to menacing vocal buildup of the Bland version.

“Going Back to Tennessee” was originally done by Nelson as country rock but here it’s played with an r&b/funk feel. The musicianship on this track is superior, but the looser feel and the Levon Helm style drums on the original version worked better for the tune. Nelson’s vocal, as always, is excellent. “Down So Low” is Nelson’s best known composition and has been covered numerous times. It’s a heartbroken but angry song and the wide range of the melody is ideal for her voice. This a wonderful vocal performance as Nelson escalates effortlessly from quiet, near whispering to all out wail. The backup is simple and doesn’t distract from Nelson’s emotional fury.

The usual criticism of music on audiophile labels and especially direct to disc recordings, is that the music is bland and performed by artists that are, at best, second rate. That is not the case here. The music is late 70s r&b styled versions of some good to excellent songs with one classic, extremely well played by session pros and sung by one of the best female singers of her era. One has to be extremely impressed that a nine-piece band, three singers and Nelson were able to perform continuously, without the possibility of overdubbing, each side of the LP, approximately, 17 minutes, with such precision and fire.

Sonically, this a superb recording of a large r&b style band with a very powerful singer. The sound is warm and full, with a wide, precise soundstage. The bass guitar and bass drum go very low and are very quick and dynamic. Turn down your subwoofer if you have one. The balance on all the instruments is natural, without the soloists jumping out of the soundstage. The recording of Nelson’s voice is wonderful; you can hear the air in her throat and almost see that enormous voice in front of you. She probably has a wider dynamic range than almost any other singer in rock, r&b etc. and on all her other recordings, she sounds compressed and limited. On this record, her voice is unleashed and the power and impact it has is startling.

Musically and sonically this one of the very best rock/r&b direct to disc recordings I’ve ever heard. It’s unfortunate that Audio Directions didn’t make more records, but they did make this one and they should have been proud of it.

Doin’ It My Way has never been issued on cd. It was issued, apparently contemporaneously, on Adelphi Record but not in a direct to disc pressing. Clean copies of the Audio Directions LP can be purchased for very reasonable prices—around $10 on DISCOGS.

Bluejimbop's picture

Naming the musicians you’re writing about help unknowns become known.

Trevor_Bartram's picture

I've always had a soft spot for Tracy Nelson because despite her enormous talent, fame passed her by. Maybe there wasn't room for two great female blues singers in the national spotlight, the other being Bonnie Raitt, of course. I have Living With The Animals and the Reprise Archives compilation and would buy Doin' It My Way if it was re-released.

David Poole's picture

Just picked up a copy of Tracy Nelson's direct to disc LP after reading this post recently.
Found it in the local $ bin, and it sounds uncharacteristically lively for the format. Thanks for the tip! Love these sort of hidden treasures.

eatapc's picture

I LOVE this album. It's been a reference disc of mine for decades. I have both the Adelphi Records version and the direct-to-disc LP. They are not really comparable, as different takes were used and the Adelphi version has a traditional mix. I like the Adelphi much better. It's not as super-clean sounding as the D-to-D, naturally, but it's much punchier and rocks harder. The performances (vocal and band) are simply better. The D-to-D is, as typical, pristine sounding but a little tame compared to the Adelphi, where the best takes could be mixed carefully. It's a stunningly great mix. But both are worth having.