Friday, October 30, 2020

Watch Your Step - The Music of Bobby Parker

The first time I ever heard of Bobby Parker was when I bought Carlos Santana's Havana Moon album in the early 80's.  That whole album was an eye-, and ear-opening experience for me, as it introduced me to a lot of new sounds and musicians that I'd never really heard before......Booker T. Jones and the Fabulous Thunderbirds would both later become favorites.  There was lots of old school rock n' roll and Tex-Mex included......just a great album that you should check out if you're a fan of Santana or any of the other artists (even Willie Nelson made an appearance).

Although Bobby Parker wasn't on the album, one of his songs was....."Watch Your Step" opened the disc in a big way and quickly became my favorite song on the album.  I did find out that it was a cover of a early 60's hit by Bobby Parker.  Of course, back then it wasn't like old songs appeared on the radio, other than on Sunday nights, when I could pick up WLAC out of Nashville.  They played songs from the late 50's/early 60's frequently and that's where I first heard the original version of "Watch Your Step," which blew me away all over again.


It was next to impossible for me to find recordings of older artists like Parker where I lived.  I listened to what I could find, thanks to a few mail-order places that I was able to track down via the ads in Living Blues magazine, but I was never able to track down any music from Bobby Parker.  I think it was mainly due to the fact that Parker just recorded singles and for multiple labels, so it was hard to collect them all together into a "Best Of" due to licensing issues and such.

Fortunately, my favorite record label at the time, Black Top Records, released Bent Out Of Shape, Parker's first official album, in 1993.  I heard about it via Mississippi's Public Radio Saturday night show, Highway 61.  They played a track off the album (the title track, I think) as part of their set and two days later, I was driving to the record store, where I quickly grabbed a copy.




Bent Out Of Shape was everything I expected it to be.  Parker was the total package....a great guitarist, singer, and songwriter (though I'd never seen him perform, I knew that had to be part of the package as well).  I played that album over and over for a long time, and when Black Top released a follow-up in 1995, Shine Me Up, I played it almost as much.  Both albums are permanent fixtures on my iPod playlist, along with many of Black Top's other albums.

Upon hearing Bent Out Of Shape, my biggest question was why Bobby Parker didn't become a big star then and why wasn't he regarded as one of big stars of his era??  I found out over the years that he was a huge influence on a host of acts, particularly Santana, John Lennon, Spencer Davis, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Bobby Radcliff, who described Parker as "Guitar Slim meets James Brown," which sums him up about as well as I've ever heard.


Parker was born in Lafayette, LA in 1937, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a kid.  Bitten by the show biz bug at an early age, he was influenced by a number of big stage acts that he saw locally......Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Mr. B., Billy Eckstine, which made him a fan of jazz early on.  However, when he saw some of the West Coast blues gutiarists.....T-Bone Walker, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Pee Wee Crayton, and Lowell Fulson, he became a man of the blues.

He won a talent contest in the late 50's, which led to a gig with Otis Williams & the Charms, later backing Bo Diddley (even appearing on Ed Sullivan), and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams before he settled down in Washington D.C., where he became a solo act, recording "Watch Your Step" in 1961 for V-Tone Records.  Some of his other singles included "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" (Parker claimed that he wrote the B-side, "You Got What It Takes," but it was stolen by Berry Gordy) and "It's Hard By It's Fair," both of which he reprised on Bent Out Of Shape many years later.


Parker remained active over the years, but spent most of his time performing in the D.C. area.  Upon the release of his two Black Top efforts, Santana took Parker on the road with him for several shows, one of which was captured for DVD in the late 90's.  


Parker remained active until he passed away in October of 2013 from a heart attack at 76.  If you missed out on Bobby Parker, you missed a real treat.  Luckily, his music is still available via streaming or CD, and there's an upcoming release that collects his 50's and 60's recordings that is on my radar for sure.


Friday, October 23, 2020

More Big Doings at The Little Big Store

So I had a doctor visit this past Friday for a routine checkup (all was well).  While I was out and in the neighborhood......give or take about twenty-five miles.....I decided to stop by The Little Big Store, where I found those great deals during the summer.  I had been planning to return for a couple of weekends, but things didn't work out, so I decided to make it work out while I had a chance.

I was really glad that I did, because they had some "new" old albums to choose from this time around.  I had a couple that I was intending to purchase if they were still there when I returned, and I did, but there were some other great selections that I picked up while I was there.  Let's check out a couple of them, why don't we......


Johnny Shines' music has always intrigued me.  I first saw him in the mid-80's on a public TV documentary about the Delta Blues Festival.  This was early on into my journey through the blues and I was just fascinated by his style.......that slide guitar and his powerful vocals just grabbed your attention.  Later on, when I read Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home, I learned much more about him.....how he traveled and played with Robert Johnson and probably knew as much about him as any musician of that time.

In the 40's and 50's, he played electric blues in Chicago, recording for Chess and J.O.B. among others, but returned to his roots in the 60's and 70's, playing in solo acoustic format on many of his albums.  I've picked up several Johnny Shines albums at The Little Big Store over the past few months and I left Traditional Delta Blues, hoping it would be there for my next visit.  Thank goodness it was still there.

These 14 sides were recorded in the early 70's, but I'm not sure if they were ever released until the early 90's by Biograph Records, the liner notes don't really say.  I don't understand why such great music sits on the shelf for so long, but I guess that's the music business.  Anyway, Shines covers several of Robert Johnson's songs ("Milk Cow Blues," "Dynaflow Blues," and "Tell Me Mama," which Shines learned from Johnson, who never recorded it).  He also covers Charley Patton's "Pony Blues," "Sitting On Top Of The World" (from the Mississippi Sheiks), and Memphis Minnie's "Bumble Bee," allegedly the first song Shines ever learned to play.  It's a great set of Delta blues and one of Shines' many excellent recordings.



One of the new finds was an album that I had been long been in search of.  I first heard Skip James via his Vanguard recordings in the mid-60's, but the sides recorded on Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers (also on Biograph Records), done just a couple of months after James' incredible appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, preceded his first Vanguard album by about a year.  

James re-recorded six of his classic 1931 sides for this session and introduced six new songs, several of which described his ongoing battle with cancer (which eventually claimed his life in 1968).  Those sides are especially powerful and somber.......James' brand of blues were really blues at times....not exactly dance tunes or singalongs, which might have explained why his Paramount recordings of the 30's didn't sell that well. 

Still, while his guitar playing had declined a bit over the 30 year span, his vocals were even more powerful and expressive than they had been.  Listening to him is guaranteed to induce chill bumps, especially late at night.  While I love the Vanguard recordings for their amazing clarity and James' performances, I would put these recordings on the same level as those.  If you can't find this version, Biograph actually re-released it in the early 2000's as Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, with the songs in different playing order (that track is just killer on the Biograph or Vanguard albums...check it out below).  Either version is worth a listen and a great introduction to Skip James' music.


These trips to The Little Big Store have really stirred my interest in acoustic blues and I will be talking about even more of my finds in the future, so stay tuned.

Friday, October 2, 2020

New Blues For You - October, 2020 Edition

It's been a wild couple of weeks around here, both at home and at work.  Now that things have settled down a little bit, folks are trying to make up for lost time all over the place, especially at work, which is part of the reason why there was no post last week and why there nearly wasn't one this week.  Luckily, things have eased up a bit for a couple of hours, so here's a look at some of the new blues I've been listening to for review in future issues of Blues Bytes.....THE monthly online magazine of blues CD reviews!!  Here are three recent releases that showed up that have managed to stick around my listening room for awhile.


Matty T. Wall - Transpacific Blues Vol. 1 (Hipsterdumpster Records):  For his latest release, the Australian guitarist decided to take on eight of his favorite blues classics tunes.  They have to be favorites because he really cuts loose on these tracks, both vocally and on guitar.  Blues fans will be familiar with all of these tracks, previously released by John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Robert Cray, Albert King, among others.  While Wall really doesn't need any help interpreting this classics, he invited several of his guitar-playing friends to participate.....Dave Hole, Eric Gales, Kid Ramos, Walter Trout, and Kirk Fletcher.  Wall's collaboration with Fletcher on the blues standard "Born Under A Bad Sign" is a standout among standouts.  If a modern take on traditional blues favorites is in your wheelhouse, then you must, by all means, give Transpacific Blues Vol. 1 a spin.  You'll be beating the bushes for Vol. 2 after you listen.


Bobby Rush - Rawer Than Raw (Deep Rush Records):  In 2007, Bobby Rush released Raw, his first foray into acoustic blues.  Since his appearance in The Blues series in 2003, Rush has mixed his raucous brand of soul-blues with the occasional stripped-down blues and widened his audience considerably in the process.  This release is a sequel of sorts to the 2007 release.  It's a bit of a change to hear him in this format, but that doesn't mean that he's not comfortable in his surroundings, in this case accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar.  Rush is a good guitarist, but a most excellent harmonica player.  He wrote five of the eleven tracks here and really puts his own distinct, personal spin on the covers.....at this point in his career, he can't help but put his own personality into any song her performs.  Longtime fans needn't worry that he's softening up in his old age (87 this November).....there's still plenty of fire left in his delivery on these tracks.  So, is Rawer Than Raw rawer than Raw???  It's a close call, but the best way to decide is to check out both of these great releases and make up your own mind.


Sugar Blue - Colors (Beeble Music LLC):  If you are old enough to remember The Rolling Stones' #1 hit "Miss You" from the mid 70's, you probably remember that distinctive, piercing harmonica that wove through the track....and other tracks from the Some Girls and Emotional Rescue albums.  Sugar Blue played the harmonica on assorted tracks from both albums.....Mick Jagger discovered the young harmonica playing on the streets of Paris and invited him to play at the sessions.  Previously backing such blues luminaries as Johnny Shines, Roosevelt Sykes, and Louisiana Red, Blue's appearances with the Stones helped launch his solo career.  Though he's not been exactly prolific during the following forty-something years, his work has always been of high quality, and Colors may be his best effort yet.  He's always been able to mesh other styles into his brand of blues and with this release, he probably covers the most ground this time, with tracks of rock, jazz, world music, and a fine pair of acoustic tracks.  His songwriting is great as well and he's always been able to incorporate a bit of humor into his songs, but is not afraid to step on a few toes as well.  Sugar Blue is one of the best harmonica players currently practicing and there's plenty of great harp work here......this is one blues artist who should be better known than he is.  Check this disc out......you won't be disappointed.

Note:  The song in this video is “Dirty Old Man,” not “Man Like Me.”


Friday, September 18, 2020

Vintage Blues - The Dirty Dozens


Several years ago, I heard a couple of tracks on an anthology collection from the UK label, JSP Records from Jimmy Rogers and Left Hand Frank Craig. It sounded like a fairly intimate session, maybe performed in a small English club. I think that was what captured my attention. There wasn’t a lot of musical accompaniment, bass and drums, and the focus was on Rogers and Craig.







   

It was recorded in the late 70’s, some of it in the 100 Club in London and some in JSP Records head John Stedman’s living room. The sound quality is not exactly pristine, but it is not bad. I’m not sure about the history of Rogers and Craig…..how long they played together, how often, etc….but they have an excellent musical rapport. Rogers was the second guitarist for years behind Muddy Waters and no one played that role better. He plays the same part behind Craig, a great lead guitarist who was criminally under recorded over his career. 



JSP released the set a few years ago as The Dirty Dozens and it’s worth seeking out for fans of traditional Chicago blues. Rogers sings on nine of the fifteen tracks and most of these songs will be familiar to his fans. His vocals leave you with a warm feeling inside. Craig’s six songs are equally fine and they pair pulls out a completely unplanned, unrehearsed version of the salacious title track that’s a lot of fun, too. 




Craig, as the nickname implies, a left-handed guitarist, played with Rogers, Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins, and many others over the years over a quarter century. He ended up migrating to the west coast not long after these sessions, for health reasons, and passed away in 1992. He has a live album, Live at the Knickerbocker Café, that’s hard to find, plus four tracks on the first volume of Alligator Records’ Living Chicago Blues series, a four-volume set that should be in any blues fans’ collection.





FBF did a profile of Rogers many years ago. He had a nice, two-part career, starting in the 40’s with Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Big Bad Smitty (as a harp player), and Waters and later enjoying some solo success with Chess before stepping back in the 60’s. He returned in the early 70’s and recorded several memorable albums for a variety of labels. He passed away in late 1997. If you’re not familiar with The Dirty Dozens and you like basic Chicago blues, this is a great set of blues to unwind with.