Friday, August 7, 2020

Essential Recordings - Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo

Professor Longhair 1974 (Photo by Barry Kaiser)
It’s hard to describe just how great Professor Longhair really was. Allmusic.com calls him a “toweringly influential New Orleans pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and vital bridge between jazz, rock & roll, and R&B.”  That sums it up pretty well and still might be an understatement. I had actually never heard of him until I went to JazzFest in the mid 80’s, about six or seven years after he passed, but he was still something of a presence there at that time.....there were posters all around and he was even part of the souvenir program that year.

I decided when I got back home that I wanted to hear what all the fuss was about, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I went to my local record store a couple of weekends 'later and I saw a couple of Professor Longhair options.  I decided to grab a cassette copy of Rock ‘N’ Roll Gumbo.....no particular reason why, that’s just the one I picked.

To give you a little perspective about how things were going for Professor Longhair, or "Fess" for short, around this time.....just a few years earlier, he was toiling away as a janitor trying to beat a gambling habit through most of the 60's, after recording some of the Crescent City's finest music from the late 40's through the 50's....songs like "Go To The Mardi Gras" (or "Mardi Gras In New Orleans"), "Ball The Wall," "Tipitina," "In The Night," "Bald Head," "No Buts And No Maybes."  He pretty much gave up the piano until the early 70's, when the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, then in it's early years, invited him to perform.  From there, he recorded a pile of albums on various labels, including this set in 1974.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
The session was recorded in early April in Bogalusa, La.  The extraordinary guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown had come to town a few weeks earlier to record his own album and he met his old friend Fess and they spent an evening talking about old times and playing a few tunes that supposedly left the onlookers amazed and astonished.  It was therefore a no-brainer to invite Brown to participate in Fess' album.  Listeners agreed wholeheartedly.

Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo features a lot of songs that Fess had previously recorded, including several mentioned above.  This version of "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" is amazing and if it doesn't make you move, you need to check into the hospital.  I have several favorites among the fourteen tracks.  "Doin' It" is an inspired, fast-paced instrumental and speaking of such, you should really check out his stunning, breakneck version of "Mess Around" near the end of the album.....another favorite.

"Junco Partner" is another favorite.....a funky rhumba boogie, along with a terrific version of "Tipitina," and some supremely solid blues tunes like "Mean Old World" and "Stagger Lee."  When i hear "How Long Has That Train Been Gone," I can picture my daughters, then about six and two, dancing crazily to Fess' rhythm.  The cherry on top is a riproaring version of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)" that features fiddle from Brown.






Speaking of Brown, his playing is first-rate throughout.  He compliments Fess' amazing piano perfectly.  Both artists are really inspired by the other and while each set an impossibly high standard for their instrumental work over the years, they are both near their peak with this session.


Now......think about these two items for a moment.  First, this session was not released at the time of recording in the United States.  It was issued overseas in Europe, but few copies reached the states.  In the mid 80's, the master tapes were found and it was released.  Sadly, Professor Longhair had passed away in early 1980, but fans in the states had a fit when the album finally hit domestic shores.  

Now, item #2.....just three or four days before recording started on the album in 1974, Professor Longhair's house burned to the ground!  He had no fire insurance and basically lost everything that he had!  Although that had to be weighing heavy on his mind at the time, any sadness he had seemed to virtually disappear when he got behind the keys.  The music is just so full of joy and exuberance....he was just so good, whether playing blues, rhumbas, and even calypso.  This is such a great album.  

Professor Longhair recorded a number of excellent albums over the years......New Orleans Piano (a collection of his Atlantic recordings from the 40's and the 50's), House Party New Orleans Style and Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge (two sets recorded in Baton Rouge during the early 70's with Snooks Eaglin on guitar), Fess:  The Professor Longhair Anthology (an amazing overview from Rhino Records), and his swan song for Alligator Records, Crawfish Fiesta (released around the time of his death).  However, my go-to album when I want to hear Fess is Rock 'N' Roll Gumbo, which captures two excellent musicians at their very best.  If you dig New Orleans piano, or just good music in general, check this disc out at your first opportunity!


Friday, July 24, 2020

Ten Questions with Stevie J. Blues

I first encountered Jackson, MS-based blues artist Stevie J. Blues on a couple of releases from Bobby Rush (Live at Ground Zero and Folkfunk).  He played guitar on the live date and bass on the other release, considered to be one of Rush's finest efforts in an already impressive catalog.  He also performed with Dorothy Moore, Denise LaSalle, Mel Waiters and others on various Malaco Records releases.  He also represented the Central Mississippi Blues Society in the 2009 I.B.C.

A couple of years later, in 2011, I was able to review his 2-disc set, The Diversity Project on Blue Skunk Records.  That was a most interesting release in that it included a disc of traditional blues and a disc of Southern soul music and showed him to be equally gifted in both genres.  The disc was one of the nominees in the album category of the 2011 I.B.C. and was well received by blues and Southern soul fans.  In 2016, Stevie J. Blues released Back 2 Blues, which combined blues and soul (with a little bit of gospel) and managed to embrace both traditional and modern versions of both genres.  It was one of my favorite releases of that year.

During the pandemic, he's been the proverbial busy bee, working on tracks for his upcoming album, Quarantined, releasing a few as singles, and producing for other area artists.  For the first time, he's worked as engineer, producer, vocalist, and principal musician and he certainly has a knack for it.  He's released a solo single, "Come To Daddy," a tasty cover of Little Milton's "If Walls Could Talk," with his friend Vick Allen, a dynamite collaboration with another Mississippi singer, LJ Echols called "My Ex," and a recently released tribute, featuring a number of young Southern soul stars, to the late Jackie Neal, an up-and-coming Southern soul vocalist whose life was tragically cut short back in 2005.




His most promising and ambitious effort is an upcoming album with his new group Urban Ladder Society, The Summit, where he's joined by singer victa nooman, guitarist Chris Gill, and backing vocalists Jonte Mayon and Tamera Tate.  Urban Ladder Society, or ULS for short, combines elements of the blues, soul, hip-hop, R&B, and classic rock.  The tracks I've heard so far indicate that this one will make a lot of noise when it hits stores in January, 2021.

For a long time, I thought about doing Ten Questions with Stevie J. Blues....we've been emailing back and forth for a couple of years and also chatting on Facebook....but I never could get my act together long enough to put something together, but after hearing some of his recent releases, I knew I had to sit down with him and find out more about him and his music, so sit back and enjoy.......

Ten Questions with.......Stevie J. Blues!!

Friday Blues Fix:  For starters, can you please tell us about your early years, where you grew up, and your family…..just who Stevie J. Blues is?  

Stevie J. Blues:  I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, raised in Jackson, Mississippi. My father was a Pentecostal pastor with 7 churches under his jurisdiction.  My mother had 3 sons…..all musicians.  My younger and older brother are pastors. I’m the blues-playing middle baby. 

FBF:  What kind of music did you grow up listening to?  

SJB:  My parents did not allow secular music in the house, so for me it was Gospel music!  Quartets at first, but then the Winans and Commissioned hit the scene, then I instantly became a Contemporary Gospel fan.  Of course there were artist like Andre Crouch, the Hawkins, and James Cleveland, then Contemporary Christian artists such as Petra, Russ Taff, The Imperials, and Chris Christian…man, EVERYBODY! 

FBF:  When did you decide that you wanted to be a musician?  

SJB:  By my father being a pastor/musician, music was always around.  I knew as early as 4th grade I wanted to be a touring musician.  When I was maybe 8 or 9, there was a concert and nearly all the popular professional quartet groups were on the ticket.  My dad told my mom we may as well make it a church event because ain’t nobody gonna be at church if we have night service….so our entire church family went and in school the next day, all I could think about was performing on that level....I always saw myself on somebody’s tour bus!

FBF:  Who are your musical influences and why? 

SJB:  There are so many!! Slim and the Supreme Angels had a guitarist by the name of Sugar Hightower.  He was amazing!  He would make a guitar grab your undivided attention!  The Dixie Hummingbirds’ Howard Carroll played such electrifying chords!  Mighty Clouds of Joy had a guitarist, Eddie “Spanky” Alford.  He had the jazz chops!!  He would go on to play and record with artists like D’Angelo and Tony!  Toni!  Toné!  Then when I got old enough to have my own place, I started listening to artist like Steely Dan, The Rippingtons, Earth, Wind & Fire, Prince, Michael Jackson, and,omg, JAMES TAYLOR!!!!

FBF:  Did you gravitate to the blues over time from another style of music?  

SJB:  The blues has always been a part of my playing tone but it wasn't until I met Bobby Rush that I started to study and learn the Blues.  I had been a touring quartet musician (1992-2001) and I was ready for a change.  I met Bobby in the studio of Malaco Records and the rest is blues history!

FBF:  You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years….do you have any cool stories about your playing with all these musicians, either in the studio or onstage?  

SJB:  My most memorable moment touring was my very first European trip.  Besides Air France going on strike right before sending my luggage through the carousel....we met some musicians who were singing and playing the blues so well we were nearly running to check them out.  After their set, we rushed over to talk to them only to learn they couldn't speak any English of any kind!! Epiphanic moment for me.  The light came on at that moment!!!!!

FBF:  You have been very busy during the pandemic, releasing some of your own singles and collaborating with other artists……please tell us about some of your recently projects?  

Urban Ladder Society
SJB:  We used this season of not being able to freely perform live to release some songs that would present a happy-type feel like the old Harlem rent party feel, where for the duration of the song take your mind off world issues or problems and just jam one time!!  These songs are setting up a farewell to the Stevie J Blues brand, we are shifting gears and I’m absolutely elated about it!! My pet project is the Urban Ladder Society, a fusion band of BLUES, Hip Hop, Classic Rock, and Neo Soul….GAME CHANGER!! Visit urbanladdersociety.com.  The single “Same Old Thang” is still playing in the Contemporary Blues Markets, College, and European radio.  Frank Roszak does his thing!! The second single, “All About You,” has seen Top Breaker reviews within the UK's Global Soul movement….this song literally came out of the blue!!! We have major distribution on the table but due to the COVID pandemic, everything is on hold, but we are still recording!  The debut album, The Summit, is complete and we are 3 songs into the follow-up.  Expect another ULS single in mid-August!!



FBF:  You recently issued an anthology paying tribute to the late Jackie Neal…..can you share some of her story to those not familiar with her great music and tell us a little bit about the project itself?  

SJB:  Jackie Neal is the late sister of Swamp Blues guru Kenny Neal.  She was an amazing artist with a bright future, and seeing the fruits of a successful career. Unfortunately, her career was short-lived in 2005 by the hands of a jealous boyfriend. The Jackie Neal Celebration is a 9 song compilation of Ms. Neal’s biggest Southern Soul anthems.  It features some of the greatest female talents in the mid-south, with a jam track from Rashad the Blues Kid and myself.  The album is available at all major online retailers.

FBF:  What is it about Mississippi that produces so many great musicians and inspires so much artistic creativity?  

SJB:  Simple....Mississippi is where the soul is.

FBF:  Musically speaking, is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?  

SJB:  I would love to produce a duet with Buddy Guy!!  I think that would be a dope song! Definitely from the ULS take of the Blues.  And I haven't toured with Urban Ladder Society yet, but I see myself on our tour bus now!!!  Other than that, I feel fulfilled in my musical journeys, though I push to keep growing in ability, creativity, and longevity.

FBF:  (Bonus Question) What are some of your favorite albums….the ones you keep playing over and over?  

SJB:  Steely Dan, Aja, Michael Jackson, Off The Wall, Fourplay, 4, Prince, The Black Album, Gary Moore, Live At Montreal.



Friday, July 17, 2020

Blues Traveling

My brother and I share a birthday, so we usually plan some sort of outing to celebrate.  In recent years, he started making cigar box guitars (his site is listed on the right sidebar if you want to check it out) and sort of gravitated toward the blues in the process.  Over the past few years, we made a few one-day "Blues Pilgrimages" around the state.....one year we drove to Indianola to the B.B. King Museum, another year we went to Clarksdale to check out the Delta Blues Museum, Roger Stolle's Cat Head, and the Rock & Blues Museum.  Last year, we drove to the southwestern part of the state to check out a few Blues Trail markers previously unseen.
This year posed a challenge because due to the virus, most businesses are closed.  We had tried a couple of weeks to go to West Point to visit the Howlin' Wolf museum, but the curator was going to be out of town the first weekend and by the time the second weekend rolled around, most of the businesses in town had shut down again.  We quickly came up with a back-up plan that didn't involve much mingling and little contact with the general public.

For starters, we visited my new favorite store, The Little Big Store in Raymond.  It had been several years since my brother had visited and their inventory had increased considerably.  We picked up a few used CDs and just took in the atmosphere.  One of my favorite things when I used to visit record stores was to check out the LPs to look at the artwork and enjoy the creativity involved in designing them.  Since all of these albums are used, you can now open them up and see all of the artwork and liner notes.  I had forgotten how much I used to enjoy doing that.

I picked up several CDs, a couple of which were blues.  Over the past few months, I've been listening to a lot of classic blues artists......Furry Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, Blind Willie McTell, Floyd Jones, Robert Nighthawk.....and Johnny Shines.  Actually, Shines was one of the first blues artists I heard.  one night in the mid 80's, I was changing channels on the TV and ran across a video of an old blues festival in Mississippi (I think it was took place in the mid/late 70's based on the fashions worn by the audience) on public television.  The artist playing when I ran across the show was Johnny Shines and his intense vocals caught my attention, as well as his equally intense, absolutely stunning slide guitar.

Later, when I was trying to build up a blues collection, I was really not able to find a lot of Shines' recordings, other than his appearance on Volume 3 of Chicago!  The Blues!  Today!  Shines' performance there was memorable, but I was unable to find any more of his work and eventually he slipped down the old memory hole.  The Little Big Store had several Johnny Shines collections available, so I picked up two of them last week......the solo acoustic Standing At The Crossroads, a phenomenal set which included several songs associated with his former traveling partner Robert Johnson.  This set finds Shines at the top of his game playing the country blues he grew up playing in the 30's and 40's with and without Johnson.  I'm not sure how I went so long without owning or at least hearing this album......just amazing stuff.


That being said, the second Shines CD I purchased nearly blew my socks off.  Johnny Shines With Big Walter Horton teams two of the greatest blues artists of the previous quarter century.....Shines and harmonica master Horton (who is simply one of the finest harp players ever....there is no way that this can be argued).  It's a compilation of two electric sessions between Shines and Horton that is some of the best, rawest Chicago blues you'll ever hear.  It shows that Shines was as powerful a plugged-in blues man as he was unplugged, and it certainly didn't hurt a bit that on one of the sessions, he was backed by a young guitarist names Luther Allison.....it's a shame these two didn't collaborate more often.  This is one of those sessions that I'm sure required little work by the folks in the recording booth......they just sat back and let magic happen.  I strongly recommend both of these sets to anyone who digs vintage blues.


After leaving the store, we stopped and ate lunch at a restaurant in Ridgeland, MS called Burgers & Blues, where we enjoyed great food, but not much blues other than the decor.....the music was of the 80's pop variety.  From there, we drove north for about an hour to Ebenezer, MS, following the map on the Mississippi Blues Trail app to the Newport Missionary Baptist Church to visit the grave sites of Elmore James and Lonnie Pitchford.  


 

As seen on his marker, James is called "King of the Slide Guitar."  More than likely if you're visiting this blog, you're familiar with Elmore James' music.  If not, you need to be.  He's best known for "Dust My Broom," an old tune associated with Robert Johnson, but his entire body of work is amazing.  For the uninitiated, check out the Rhino set, The Sky Is Crying:  The History of Elmore James (an overview of his whole career), then dig deeper with Let's Cut It:  The Very Best of Elmore James (which collects his recordings for Meteor, Flair, and Modern Records).  He was as powerful a singer as he was a guitarist and there are three markers in this part of the state associated with him and his music (the other two are just south in Canton, MS).



 

Lonnie Pitchford became known in the 80's and 90's for his inspired versions of Robert Johnson songs played on his one-stringed diddley bow.  He learned the Johnson tunes after meeting Robert Lockwood Jr., who taught him some of the songs.  He later played with Lockwood and Shines.  Though he also played six-string guitar and piano (both of these talents are on display on his only album, All Around Man, on Rooster Blues Records.  He mostly played in Mississippi and sometimes in Memphis, but also worked as a carpenter (I remember seeing this in an interview for Mississippi Public Television).  He made a memorable appearance in the early 90's movie Deep Blues, and the accompanying soundtrack.  Sadly, he passed away in 1998, only 43 years old.  His headstone also has a place on the right side where a guitar string was originally attached, but it was not there the day we visited.


I'm sure you've all noticed the common factor (Robert Johnson) in all three of these artists.  Shines traveled and played with Johnson, and James was also active around the same time and influenced by him (one wonders if his version of "Dust My Broom" wasn't so far removed from how Johnson would have played it during the same era).  Pitchford was heavily influenced by Johnson's music as well.  Of course, Robert Johnson is a common factor in a lot of blues artists, past and present.....just more so with these three than a lot of others.

We also drove through Lexington, a few miles to the north, where we saw another blues marker.  Lexington was the home of B.B. King for a few years, living there for two years with his father after his mother and grandmother passed away.  It was also the home of the blues version of the Smothers Brothers......Otis "Big Smokey" Smothers and Abe "Little Smokey" Smothers, as well as Lee "Shot" Williams, who was a cousin of the Smothers.  We didn't make to the other Holmes County marker in Tchula, but that's another trip for another day.  While this trip wasn't the "Blues Pilgrimage" my brother and I originally planned, I think it was a very good one.  I'm already looking forward to next year's trip.



Friday, July 10, 2020

Vintage Blues - Drop Down Mama

Since my recent trip to the Little Big Store, I've been on a bit of a classic blues kick, which is not unusual because I usually revisit a couple of times a year, but it usually consists of things that I already have in my collection.  Since my big finds a few weeks ago, I have picked up a few other classic sets, including the rest of the Masters of Modern Blues series on Testament Records, which we'll discuss in the near future.  I also paid another visit to the Little Big Store with some of my family, who loved it and want to go back again.  While there, I picked up a couple of other sets that looked interesting, including a re-purchase of a hard-to-find set from years ago.

When I started listening to the blues in the mid/late 80's, one of the indispensable sources of blues was MCA Records, which owned the rights to the Chess Records catalog and was re-issuing classic sets by all of the Chess luminaries of the 50's and 60's.  I picked up collections on cassette from Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (Version II), and a six-volume set simply called The Blues, which was fantastic for a new fan of the blues, featuring songs by the four mentioned above, plus Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, and many, many more.

It took me a couple of years, but I finally was able to track down all six volumes of The Blues.  They were short and concise and just a perfect starter set for this new fan.  Collections were such a great place to hear a lot of good blues from a lot of different blues artists really quickly....I found a lot of them back then and still like to find one now and again to introduce me to new artists and songs.

A few months after wrapping up that series, I found Drop Down Mama, another Chess collection that was made up of songs from the label before it became Chess, back when it was still called Aristocrat Records.  I wasn't very familiar with many of the artists that were featured....I had seen Johnny Shines and Honeyboy Edwards perform on Public Television, and I had heard of Robert Nighthawk, but had never actually heard him.  The rest of the artists, Arthur "Big Boy" Spires, Blue Smitty, and Floyd Jones were new to me.

Shines, who like Edwards, knew and occasionally played with Robert Johnson, was surely one of the most intense blues artists with his booming voice and his kinetic slide guitar playing.  His body of work, from the 40's through the late 60's/early 70's is amazingly, consistently good (we'll discuss him in a later post), and even after a stroke in the 80's limited his guitar playing, his voice was still strong.  "So Glad That I Found You" was recorded in 1950, with Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers providing musical support.



Honeyboy Edwards actually does the interesting title track and is backed by a full band.




As I said above, I'd never heard Robert Nighthawk before this set, but his stunning slide guitar just blew me away.  It's some of the crispest, cleanest slide you'll ever hear, and when I got to hear Earl Hooker a few years later, I knew who he listened to while growing up.  I had already heard B.B. King sing "Sweet Little Angel," and now I knew that King got his version from Nighthawk's "Sweet Black Angel," which is featured here, as well as his "Anna Lee," one of my favorites blues songs ever (the Earl Hooker version is almost as good).




 I sang the praises of Floyd Jones a few weeks back and these versions of "Dark Road" and "Playhouse" were the first versions of these songs that I'd ever heard.  Spires and Blue Smitty (born Claude Smith) both have solid contributions as well.....Smitty's "Crying" has some amazing wild guitar fills for 1952, the year it was recorded.  It's just amazing how much good blues was being played back during this time and how much of it probably didn't get heard by a lot of people at the time and certainly deserved to be heard.



I started trying to find Drop Down Mama a few years ago in CD format, but it was very hard to find at that time.  I tracked down the Nighthawk sides on a European collection of nearly all of Nighthawk's recordings for Aristocrat/Chess (only one alternate take missing), plus two mid-60's recordings with Buddy Guy and Walter Horton in support (Sweet Black Angel, highly recommended if you can find it), so that suited me for a time, but then I happened to find it at the Little Big Store a few weeks ago and decided to pick up the whole set again.

Stay tuned as Friday Blues Fix continues to revisit some vintage blues collections in the coming weeks.