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All Hits, No Misses on Eli Paperboy Reed's New Compilation
When The Who released an album of outtakes in 1974 called Odds & Sods, it was immediately my favorite album by the band. Album rock radio had played Who hits to within a millimeter of them sounding like an air freshener commercial, so that collection was something both new and reliably old.
It was an influential album, giving other artists and their not always scrupulous labels permission to collect such archival material. In the 50 years since, it has become the signature name for any similar endeavor. Eli Paperboy Reed's new album Hits and Misses: The Singles coming October 20 on Yep Roc Records, is the soul-blues guitarist and singer's Odds & Sods, and it is an outstanding introduction to the young veteran's work. The label has released three singles, including versions of Steely Dan's "Do It Again" and Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" for us to preview.
But first we have to clean up the punctuation issue in his nickname: is it Paperboy or "Paperboy"? I've seen it both ways. Born and raised in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass., perhaps it's not even that: suppose it requires a very modern hyphen, as if Jill Paperboy married Jack Reed, and their offspring was Eli Paperboy-Reed? Both of my married daughters carry hyphenated surnames: Robins-Husband, although it freaks me out when I go to their apartments and see only the husband's last name on the door. Are they so modern and secure in their own careers that they like this retro touch? No one will ever call either of them "Mrs. Husband Surname," or at least I hope not. Actually, Reed's given name is Eli Husock, and according to Boston's NPR outlet WBUR, Eli was raised a reform Jew. Reed now lives with his family in the increasingly bohemian Brooklyn, N.Y., but in the multi-ethnic, family oriented neighborhood of Kensington.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of 21st century musicians with excellent technical ability but lacking the frisson of audacity, talent, and soul power that Reed brings to the studio. After high school, instead of taking a gap year to Italy or India, he went to Clarksdale, Miss., ground zero of the blues trail. Soak up that "authenticity," you know? But he really did, playing guitar in a black church by the first weekend, wandering into tough clubs other nights. Then it was to the University of Chicago, where a woman visited him in his dorm. The woman was 1960s Chess artist-turned-1970s-and-beyond pastor and gospel singer Mitty Collier, now 82, of Chicago's More Like Christ Christian Fellowship Church. She had a day job working at the university. He played some piano and sang for her, and she invited him to become keyboard player for the church. Not the right curriculum if you want to be Milton Friedman when you grow up (he still wasn't 21), but I'm already hoping that Paperboy gets famous enough for a film bio, with such great scenes. Brooklyn magazine has an excellent interview by Brian Braiker that appears as both text and a podcast.
Hits and Misses: The Singles might be a tongue-in-cheek name for the cuts collected from the time he began recording in 2008 to last year and the Covid drought, when Reed released an album of distinctive soul-blues covers of Merle Haggard songs, Down Every Road. His full throatedvocals and snappy, in-service-to-the-song guitar playing remind me of both brothers from the Blasters, guitarist Dave Alvin and singer Phil Alvin. Both Reed and the Blasters are excellent purveyors of blues, r&b, and country roots music, though Reed's sweet spot is the lesser known soul singers whose music didn't quite cross over, but meant so much to an earlier generation of southern black audiences: O.V. Wright, Little Johnnie Taylor, and Latimore, whose "Let's Straighten It Out," is performed here by Reed, faithful to both the original and his own emotional resonance. It was the so-called B-side to a very limited edition single released by WFMU's "Mr. Fine Wine," whose weekly Downtown Soulville program has long had a specialty following. The "A-side" was Reed's outtasight version of Steely Dan's "Do It Again."
One would expect Reed to have in his pocket some other covers here, including the despairing-but-never-giving up gospel song "I Don't Know What the World is Coming To," or "Bad Girl," a circa 1970 soul song so obscure that there is no agreement on the title or the spelling of the name of the artist: Hermon (or Herman) Hitson, song sometimes "(She's a) Bad Girl." The best known R&B cover, Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away," had the advantage of being recorded at Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., both Hughes original and Reed's version.
But "Do It Again," Bob Dylan's "To Be Alone With You," and Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" wouldn't be thought of as a natural fit for someone as dedicated to blues-soul roots as Reed. He must have heard them from his dad Howard Husock in Brookline, Mass., once a rock critic whose work appeared in the Boston Phoenix and Creem. Here's a weird thing: Howard Husock and I both appear on the same archival web page from the Phoenix, with him reviewing a Judy Collins album and me quoted from my Creem review in an ad for the reggae movie The Harder They Come. With this 1973 review, I'm guessing that Howard wrote for the Phoenix long before I did (circa 2000), and Creem long afer I left (1975).
Howard Husock is described as a "free market capitalist" as John Leland of the New York Times wrote in a 2016 article that mentioned Husock's work with the Manhattan Institute, with an interest in philanthropy. It was Howard who plugged Eli in to one of his most formative and satisfying jobs: an after school program in Harlem called "Gospel for Teens," which Eli ran for four years in the middle 2010s.
Dylan's "To Be Alone With You," sounds more vivid and punchy than the original, which appeared on Nashville Skyline. It's got a roadhouse eros you don't hear in the habituated country comfort of Skyline: an excellent transformation. "Do It Again" is darker than the first-album Steely Dan version, revolving around a repeated minor key guitar figure and a slamming organ. It's not better, but it's got Reed bringing the bravado, not necessarily vibrato.
Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" isn't as far a leap as I thought it might be. Like "Do It Again," it's got that staple of the blues, the gambling theme. Lemmy Kilmeister is in typical manic mode in describing the card game, the danger, the life-and-death stakes. But Reed makes it more soulful without giving up the power. Lemmy, in an interview, once told me the purpose of Motörhead's music was to turn your lawn brown. Reed makes "Ace of Spades"--as well as the other old but lasting tunes he covers--green again.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is reader-supported. I worked really hard to not have “Paperboy Delivers” as the headline. Paid subscriptions are as welcome as free ones.