Audio Remasterer: John Baldwin .
Liner Note Author: Andria Lisle.
Johnnie Frierson may have been a somewhat minor player on the Memphis soul circuit, but this posthumous release of his early-'90s solo gospel recordings suggests a unique, if somewhat lonesome vision. Frierson's career dates back to the mid-'60s when he and his sister Mary enjoyed a brief run on the Stax roster as part of a vocal group called the Drapels. While their recordings quickly fell into obscurity, Mary went on to pursue a slightly more successful Stax solo career under the name Wendy Rene. Meanwhile, Frierson stuck around the Memphis scene into the late '60s doing session work, writing, gigging, and cobbling together work until joining the U.S. Army in 1970. By most accounts, that was end of his brief career as, like so many young men of his era, he returned home from Vietnam a changed man. A man of faith, Frierson had been involved with gospel music even before his time in the secular Drapels and, as he grappled with what was most likely the effects of undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he leaned on his religion, releasing one last gospel single in 1975 before bowing out of the industry to raise a family. By the early '90s he was hosting a gospel show on a local radio station and experiencing what his daughter refers to as a difficult emotional period. Seeking a creative outlet, Frierson began recording himself on a tape recorder, singing original gospel tunes and accompanying himself on electric guitar. These self-released tapes were sold at Memphis corner stores and local festivals under the name Khafele Ajanaku and, while they reflected his dogged optimism, his soulful delivery revealed haunted undertones. Because of their lo-fi and low-key nature, the cassettes failed to revive any commercial success for Frierson, coming across as more of a personal and creative statement by a music-filled man unburdening his soul. A few years after his death in 2010, a local Memphis crate-digger named Jameson Sweiger unearthed the cassettes at a thrift store, connecting the dots that the enchanting singer with the African name was, in reality, the former Drapel and Stax alum, Johnnie Frierson. The seven songs on this reissue are spare and unadorned, with a rhythmic simplicity and a grounding, soulful beauty. At times, Frierson's warm affirmations resemble those of Venice Beach troubadour Ted Hawkins, another underappreciated figure whose optimistic disposition often flew in the face of hard times. Decades later, the power of retrospection lends these recordings an added air of grace and a poignancy that Frierson did not live to hear his humbly made songs get another chance to improve this troubled world. ~ Timothy Monger