Plenty of artists had unexpected professions. James Brown was a shoe-shiner. B.B. King was a farmhand. Elvis was the world’s most tuneful trucker. With Frankie Oliver, the job was taxi driver. One-time reggae singer for Island Record, Oliver quit music in the 90s to support his family with a stable gig driving a black cab round London. Two decades later, he’s been led back into the world of music by a melody that came to him in the night. The resulting album, ‘Here I Am’, is just as power-packed as you’d expect from a release twenty years in rumination. A love letter to old-school soul with a cabbie’s casual charm.
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The album cruises many streets in the rhythm and blues neighbourhood, but the heart of it lies in dark, delicious Chicago blues. Maybe it’s all those nights driving London’s shadowy underpasses that gives Oliver that knack for the noir. Lead single ‘Tell Me’ is a textbook example. Shuffling along at breadline pace, built on a jazzy organ and 2017’s most sizzling horn section, it conjures images of lamp-lit alleyways and inner-city mischief. All just a stage, for Oliver’s vocals to leap into the spot. Striding two lanes of both Sam Cooke-style tenderness and revving-engine rasps, Oliver works the song like a punching bag to pack feeling into every nook and cranny.
‘My Kinda Woman’, the song that lured Oliver back into the studio, is much the same story. A sultry vocal powerhouse ripped straight from some 1970s speakeasy. It also showcases the sax work of Ray Carless and Funkadelic guitar-noodling of Steve Haworth, two in the plethora of heavyweights forming Oliver’s very own Blues Brothers Band. ‘Honey I’m On Fire’ and ‘How Many Times’ offer a more gospel-tinged take on Oliver’s sound, whilst keeping that knockout two-time of Oliver’s soaring vocals and the killer brass.
Firmly rooted in Stax and Motown Oliver may be, but he’s not afraid to shuffle within the bracket. In the danceable ‘She’s Beautiful’ we glimpse some of his reggae pedigree. ‘I’ve Got Love’ is a slick modern funk track that’d fit in like a native alongside The Main Squeeze or Turkuaz, whilst ‘Down By The Riverside’ hits the line between Nathaniel Rateliff and The Temptations. There’s even a legitimate soul ballad in final track ‘Things I Was Told’. A stripped-back hand-holder of just Oliver and a lone guitar, building to a classic Motown string section for the finale.
Oliver has spoken at length about how the album tells ‘the real story’. It’s certainly true that several of the songs contain autobiographical elements, but that’s not ‘the truth’ Oliver is talking about. What bleeds through most of all as you listen through is Oliver’s boundless passion for the music he plays, and the classics it is built upon. ‘Here I Am’ doesn’t listen like a comeback album. It listens like the conclusion of a life-long love-affair with soul music, conveniently captured for your pleasure.