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… 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.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Do Right Man Returns

I’ve wanted to write about Dan Penn since I started this blog.  He is truly one of the unsung heroes of soul music, no question.  Peter Guralnick gave a wonderful account of Penn and the rest of the cast of characters who came in and out of the soul music scene in Memphis and Muscle Shoals during the 60’s at FAME and American Studios in his book Sweet Soul Music (I’ll say it again…..if you only read one book about soul music, though I can’t imagine why you would limit yourself in that way, THIS is the book you should read) back in the mid 1980’s.  I was already into R&B and rock, but I ventured deeply into southern soul music after reading it and from there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the blues (with Guralnick showing the way with two other books, Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway).

Penn was born in Vernon, AL and was a performer as a teen in local bands around Muscle Shoals.  He soon became a regular at FAME as a performer, songwriter, and producer, writing and selling “Is A Bluebird Blue?” to Conway Twitty in 1960.  The song became a hit for Twitty, and encouraged Penn to keep at it.  In 1966, he ventured to Memphis to work with Chips Moman at American Studios, and teamed with organist Spooner Oldham.  The pair produced a number of hits, including Bobby & James Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet”, a few for the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby”), “A Woman Left Lonely” (recorded by Janis Joplin and, later, Charlie Rich), “Out of Left Field” (recorded by Percy Sledge and, on his last album, Gregg Allman), and “Sweet Inspiration” (recorded by the Sweet Inspirations and, later, by the Derek Trucks Band).


Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham
Two of his most memorable efforts were collaborations with Moman.  In 1967, James Carr recorded “The Dark End of The Street,” a song that has been recorded by numerous soul and blues artists.  Penn calls it “the best cheatin’ song.  Ever,” and it’s hard to argue with his thinking.  Over the years, I’ve heard it performed by soul, blues, country, and pop artists and it’s a perfect fit for all of those genres.  Around the same time, Aretha Franklin recorded Penn and Moman’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”  Franklin almost didn’t record it because her husband/manager, Ted White, had a major argument with FAME Records owner Rick Hall and the couple angrily departed the Muscle Shoals  studios with the song not quite completed.  She ended up finishing the song in NYC a few weeks later with her sisters singing backup. 


Besides the ones listed above, most folks have heard “You Left The Water Running” (recorded by Otis Redding, James & Bobby Purify, Barbara Lynn, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and Wilson Pickett) and “It Tears Me Up” (recorded by Percy Sledge).  Penn’s name comes up frequently when discussing great soul tunes of the 60’s, and many that should have been.

Penn and Presley
What's not as well known about Dan Penn is that he’s as good a singer as most of the artists who covered his songs.  James Carr battled emotional issues that eventually sidelined him as a performer, but he turned himself inside out to record “The Dark End of The Street” for Moman, who commented “What would I do if I wanted James to cut one of my songs?  Easiest thing in the world.  Just get Dan Penn to sing it.  He’d sing it, and all of a sudden James Carr could sing it.  He had to sing it, ‘cause Dan sung it so good.”  Penn recorded numerous tracks while with FAME and they were the stuff of legend for years since few, if any, were ever released.  Fortunately, Ace Records in the UK has issued these sides on a pair of CDs and listeners can hear for themselves what the fuss was about.


Penn has recorded sporadically over the years, releasing Nobody’s Fool in the early 70’s and the magnificent Do Right Man in 1994, where Penn returned to Muscle Shoals and recorded some of his classic tunes from the 60’s, along with some pretty impressive newer songs.  Penn and Oldham teamed up for a series of shows in the UK in 1998 and Proper Records released a live CD and DVD, called Moments From This Theater that’s one of my favorite live recordings.  Penn’s vocals are just amazing, blending grit, sweetness, vulnerability, and most of all…..soul.  Penn has also released a few “demo” albums on his own Dandy label over the past fifteen years that he recorded at home.  I’ve only been able to track down one of these so far, Blue Nite Lounge, which was very enjoyable.


A few weeks ago, Penn released Living On Mercy, his first full-blown studio release in 26 years.  Recorded in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Penn sounds as good as ever.  The session is relatively laid back and relaxed and the songs, mostly new, are very strong.  At 78 years old, he’s still got it.  He sounds just as good as he did on Do Right Man...if anything, his voice is an even better fit for this music.  If you're reading this, more than likely, you've heard some of Dan Penn's songs from other artists.  I'm telling you now that no one does Dan Penn's songs better than Dan Penn.

Friday, September 4, 2020

New Blues For You (Sort of) - September, 2020 Edition

In my spare time (such as it is), I contribute CD reviews to Blues Bytes, a music site sponsored by the Phoenix Blues Society.  I've been contributing reviews for almost 21 years and I really enjoy's as close to a hobby as I have, I guess....other than listening to the blues.  I've gotten to hear a lot of great music that I probably would have missed otherwise.  Occasionally, I like to tip my fellow FBF'ers off to some great new releases, and while the ones I'm discussing today aren't exactly new, they definitely deserve to be heard by as many blues fans as possible.  Extended reviews of each of these will be up in a week or so in Blues Bytes' September issue, but this will give you a sneak preview.  Here we go.......

When I started listening to the blues in the mid-80's, one of my first purchases was an Alligator Records sampler called Genuine Houserockin' Music.  It featured a track from Jimmy Johnson called "You Don't Know What Love Is," and I loved it because it was such a great mix of blues and soul with Jimmy's distinctive guitar and his soulful, gospel-influenced vocals.  Over the years, I managed to track down most of his albums and was never disappointed.  Every Day Of Your Life (Delmark) was his first album in at least 20 years and it came out late last year.  Johnson does nine tunes here, four songs with two different bands, and one song with him singing and playing piano.  He wrote half of the tunes and they're all keepers, and he does a marvelous job on the cover tunes.  The album came out around the time that Johnson celebrated his NINETY-FIRST birthday.  He sings and plays like a blues man half his age.and I get the feeling he's not close to hanging up his guitar.  Blues fans don't know how fortunate they are to still have Jimmy Johnson making music and I hope he doesn't stop anytime soon. 

 A few years ago, I got to review this great album called Broken Chains by a singer/songwriter/guitarist named Kern Pratt, from Greenville, MS.  His latest release, Greenville, MS...What About You? (Endless Blues Records), is even better.  Pratt wrote three of the songs and the other seven tracks are covers of some of his favorite songs.  He grew up in the Mississippi blues scene and met a lot of the area's blues legends when they shopped in his dad's hardware store, becoming immersed in their music at a very young age.  He's a very expressive singer with a lot of soul and his guitar playing is superlative, really standing out on some of the slow burners on the album.  He's assisted on these tracks by producer Bob Dowell, who plays a host of instruments as well, along with slide guitarist Chris Gill and Memphis-based guitarist Jeff Jensen, along with Gregg Allman's horn section (Marc Franklin and Kris Jensen), and Muscle Shoals legend Clayton Ivey.  Check out Pratt and Jensen wailing away on Bobby Rush's classic, "Chicken Heads."

Waylon Thibodeaux, known as Louisiana's Rockin' Fiddler, has released a couple of entertaining albums on Rabadash Records over the past decade, both of which deftly blend Cajun music with rock, soul, Swamp Pop, and the blues.  His third release for the label, Here We Go Again, focuses firmly on the blues, with guest appearances from bass player Benny Turner, guitarist Josh Garrett, harmonica player Johnny Sansone, and Rabadash head man and keyboardist John Autin, who also produced.  Thibodeaux is a great singer in a variety of genres and his fiddle playing is always a pleasure to hear...he even used an effects pedal to great effect on several tracks.  His own songs cover a wide range of styles from Cajun to country with an emphasis on the blues and he covers songs from the late, great David Egan, J.J. Cale, Edgar Winter, and Willie Nelson.  Few people realize what an effective instrument the fiddle is when playing the blues, but everywhere I've heard it was a perfect fit.  Thibodeaux certainly doesn't do anything to disprove my previous thoughts.  If you like the blues, or any of the great music that's found in the Pelican State, you will love this disc.

In Case You Missed It.....

Longtime readers of FBF are aware that Walter "Wolfman" Washington is one of my favorites, ever since I saw him perform at Jazz Fest in 1987.  He's the total package for me, a fierce guitarist, a dynamite singer, and comfortable playing blues, soul, funk, and jazz.  He has a rock solid catalog of music dating back to the mid 80's and there's not a clunker in the bunch.  A few years ago, I found Triple Threat, a collaboration with Washington, organist Joe Krown, and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. that I'd never even heard of, at Amazon and snatched it up.  All three artists are mainstays of the Crescent City music scene and this album shows why.  It's a mix of blues, funk, and soul, fairly evenly split between instrumentals and vocals from Washington.  After listening, I can't understand how I let this one slip by me the first time around.  The trio have released a couple of additional albums, including a live set at the fabled Maple Leaf, that I definitely have to track down, but this one will do for now.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Thanks, Stevie!!

Yesterday morning was the 30th anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic death.  Ten years ago, during the first year of the blog, I wrote a lengthy tribute to SRV, so I won’t repeat myself as far as what his music means to me (and lots of others).  I will elaborate on how he helped steer me to the blues, or at least improve my focus toward the music.  I don’t think I went into that in as much detail back then…..if so, sorry, here I go again. 

Actually, the first time I heard him was in a record store.  They were playing his album as background music and the track I heard was “Stang’s Swang,” the closing track on Couldn’t Stand The Weather.  I was really into guitar at that time……I listened to a lot of Clapton and a lot of Hendrix, having just discovered him a couple of years earlier.  I was also listening to a lot of jazz and R&B at the time and was a fan of George Benson, Earl Klugh, and Wes Montgomery.  Vaughan’s performance on “Stang’s Swang” really caught my ear because it had that jazz feel to it, but was also a little grittier.


I didn’t buy his album then…..I had found something else that I wanted at the time (can’t remember what it was, but probably didn’t make much of an impact, obviously).  A few weeks later, I was back in college and my roommate, who had a really eclectic record collection of rock, blues, and jazz, said “Have you heard this Stevie Ray Vaughan guy?  He’s Jimmie Vaughan’s brother.”  Now I had heard of Jimmie Vaughan because I’d heard of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and they had played on one of my favorite Carlos Santana albums, Havana Moon.  I had tracked down one of their cassettes (T-Bird Rhythm) and really liked it, so I decided to take the plunge on SRV and picked up Couldn’t Stand The Weather.


As I said, I was really into Hendrix, so I loved the “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” cover, but the other songs just blew me away, too.  The opener, “Scuttle Buttin’” caught me flat-footed and the title track really pulled me in.  Believe it or not, I’d never heard “Things That I Used To Do,” before I heard SRV’s version (remember, this was pre-blues for me).  I loved “Cold Shot” and the slow burner “Tin Pan Alley” was amazing and the manic “Honey Bee” was fun.  Then I got to hear “Stang’s Swang” in its entirety. 


Within a month, I had backtracked and picked up Vaughan’s debut, Texas Flood, and I liked it even more than Couldn’t Stand The Weather….it’s still my go-to SRV disc when I want to hear just one.


From that point, I eagerly anticipated each of SRV’s releases, but something else happened along the way.  I’ve always been curious about music and it always fascinated me to hear an earlier version of a song that I liked.  I’m not sure when that started, maybe when I heard a song on the radio that was a version of an older tune…….I liked 50’s and 60’s rock and soul because my uncle had given us a stack of old 45’s and albums from the early mid 60’s when I was a kid and I played them until they warped.  It was always cool to hear another artist’s perspective on an older song.


It was hard for me to find old blues recordings back in the mid 80’s, because I wasn’t sure where to look and who to look for, but I noticed that a lot of Vaughan’s songs on his albums were cover tunes (thank you, liner notes), so I began to seek out some of the original tunes.  Keep in mind that this was before the internet……YouTube……Spotify……Pandora, etc……so it was kind of like an Easter Egg hunt at times. 


One thing that helped me out was that Vaughan (and Robert Cray and the T-Birds…..and The Blues Brothers movie from a few years earlier going to cable and video) helped inspire a resurgence of interest in the blues, so blues began appearing as if out of nowhere…..on TV ads, on movie soundtracks for starters.  That sort of opened the door for me, because around the same time, various labels started reissuing blues albums and compiling new collections.  Then I discovered Alligator Records (and Vaughan’s collaboration with the great Lonnie Mack) and soon I was on my way to becoming a blues nut.

So, yeah…..Stevie Ray Vaughan played a big part in what music I listen to (and write about) and through his efforts (and others….Clapton, George Thorogood, Robert Cray, B.B. King), I was able to dig deeper and discover a lot of other great guitarists and bluesmen and their music…..Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, etc…..  From listening to those guys, I found lots of other great artists…..Junior Wells, Son Seals, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Luther Allison, etc…), then I dug even deeper (Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, Tommy Johnson, etc…..), and so on and so on.


Over the past few months, I’ve had more time than usual and I’ve been revisiting Stevie Ray Vaughan’s catalog.  I had all of his music on cassette many years ago and recently picked up all of his CDs, all of which have added bonus cuts/live tracks, so I now have access to a lot of his music that I didn’t have before.  One that I had missed the first time around for some reason was his collaboration with Albert King, In Session.  I have probably listened to it more than the others because the two guitarist had so much in common musically and they had a genuine rapport and a most genuine mutual respect for each other.  From what I’ve read, the latter didn’t always come easily from King, but Vaughan really won him over and it shows in their playing together.


I also read Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s recent biography Texas Flood:  The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan (reviewed here a few months back) and reread the Joe Nick Patoski/Bill Crawford bio from the mid 90’s, Caught In the Crossfire, and Keri Leigh’s underrated Soul To Soul.  Each of the books paint a slightly different picture of Vaughan’s life, his trials, his failures, his shortcomings, and his successes, but all of them agree that he was one of the finest guitarists to come around in a long time and in his short time on the planet, he made some mighty music and influenced a lot of guitarists in a variety of genres, but most definitely the blues.  At the same time, he was never shy about his own influences on guitar and as a songwriter and singer.


When a musician dies early in their life, it’s only natural to wonder where they might have gone as an artist if they had lived.  I’ve wondered that a lot with other musicians….Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, and Magic Sam, to name just a few.  I like to think that, based on one of his last songs on In Step, the  instrumental “Rivera Paradise,” he might have ventured into jazz a bit more.  However, I think that regardless of where he would have directed his talents, he still would have had both feet firmly planted in the blues.  That would have always been present in his music, wherever direction he chose to pursue.

It’s still hard to believe that he died thirty years ago.  I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news.  It’s sad that his life was cut short, but I’m grateful that he helped guide me to this music that I love, and I know he guided a lot of others in that direction, too.