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.


Friday, June 26, 2020

In Case You Missed Him......Joe Medwick


Joe Medwick
I’ve recently been enjoying Hammond Scott’s reminiscences of his days with Black Top Records on his Facebook page.  As longtime readers of FBF will know, I am a longtime fan of the New Orleans-based label and many of my first excursions into listening to the blues involved Black Top’s excellent catalog, where I was introduced to many of my favorites, the Neville Brothers, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin, James “Thunderbird” Davis, Anson Funderburgh, Sam Myers, and the Rockets, Bobby Parker, Bobby Radcliff, Grady Gaines, Roy Gaines, W.C. Clark, Lynn August, Clarence Hollimon, Carol Fran, and Robert Ward.

It was on Grady Gaines’ 1988 album Full Gain where I first heard Joe Medwick.  Medwick sang two tracks on that album, but the one that captured my attention was the third track on the disc, a slow, smoky blues ballad called “If I Don’t Get Involved.”  It was a powerful song just from the lyrics, but Medwick’s performance just blew me away.  I had recently started listening to some of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s recordings (most specifically, the incredible Two Steps From The Blues), and Medwick’s vocal  certainly fell in the vicinity of Bland’s…..tender and vulnerable but rawhide tough at the same time.  While I enjoyed the entire Full Gain album, I kept coming back to this song.  It really spoke to me….I don’t remember if it was things in my life at the time or what, but it definitely made an impact.


Of course, this wasn’t in the days of “information at your fingertips” that we have now, so it was difficult to find out more about Joe Medwick at that time.  He later appeared on volume 4 of Black Top Blues-A-Rama:  Live Down & Dirty with Gaines, his Texas Upsetters, and Joe “Guitar” Hughes, where he sang “If I Don’t Get Involved,” “C.C. Rider,” and a couple of Bland’s tunes, which sounded as good to these ears as these originals.  One of the highlights of listening to this portion of the set is Gaines’ introducing Medwick as “Joe Metric,” but the mispronunciation of his name sure didn’t affect his performance at all. 



At the time, I thought it would be fantastic if Black Top were able to release a whole album of Joe Medwick, but sadly, it didn’t work out that way.  Medwick passed away in April of 1992……I remember reading somewhere that he had liver cancer, so he didn’t even get to appear on Gaines’ Black Top follow-up, Horn of Plenty.

Bobby "Blue" Bland

What I didn't know about Joe Medwick until I read his obituary was that he wrote several songs for Bland at Duke Records, including those that he performed at the Blues-A-Rama (which I only recently purchased).  While he did receive partial composer credit for "Farther Up The Road" (reportedly with Johnny Copeland), he is also believed to have written "I Don't Want No Woman," "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Turn On Your Love Light," "I Pity The Fool," "Driving Wheel," and "Call On Me," among others. 



Don Robey
Since blues and R&B recordings were in high demand at the time, Medwick was able to sell his songs to local music producers, including Duke Records' Don Robey.  However, Medwick rarely asked for formal contracts for songwriting credit, so basically he sold them for cash he needed at the moment (he called them "rent songs") and the producers, most notoriously Robey, claimed songwriting credit (and royalties) for themselves.  Medwick later acknowledged that he used poor judgement in giving up his songwriting credits and royalties, but he needed the cash at the time to live on (partying with the rest), and he never really blamed Robey (or others) for misleading or exploiting him.....in fact he insisted that Robey offered him the standard contracts, but Medwick insisted on the cash up front.  



Robey did record three not-particularly-memorable Duke singles with Medwick in the late 50's, and also sang demos for Bland, but Bland fell out with Medwick for some reason and afterward was so mad that he couldn't even listen to Medwick's voice, which effectively ended Medwick's tenure with Duke.  He connected with Huey Meaux's Crazy Cajun studios in the mid/late 60's recording, releasing multiple singles under his own name, Joe Masters, or Joe Melvin, on a variety of labels.  Nineteen of those tracks were collected by the UK label Edsel on an album, I'm An After Hour Man.






Medwick was basically inactive on the Houston music scene until reconnecting with Grady Gaines in the mid 1980's.  His appearance on Full Gain earned him a measure of popularity in the last few years of his life.  Black Top actually included a couple of Medwick's songs on Gaines' follow-up, Horn of Plenty.  Ironically, "If I Don't Get Involved" was later covered by Bobby "Blue" Bland for his Midnight Run album in the late 80's and ended up getting a good bit of radio play on R&B stations.  Apparently, he overcame his anger at Medwick enough to record his song, which hopefully earned him a few dollars in his waning years.


Sadly, Joe Medwick didn't get the recognition that his talent deserved, via a few tough breaks brought on by bad choices and bad luck.  However, in more recent times, his talents have become more appreciated, thanks to stories like this one on the internet.  It's just too bad he wasn't here to enjoy it.



Friday, June 19, 2020

Big Finds at the Little Big Store (Part 4)

I’ve owned a pair of B.B. King live recordings for years in various formats….Live at the Regal and Live at Cook County Jail.  I figured that was all the live B.B. I would ever need, but several years ago I was talking “B.B.” with a friend and he told me that Blues Is King, to him, was THE definitive B.B. King live recording.  It, more than any other, captured the true essence of the “live” B.B. King, not just his musical performance but also his personal charm and rapport with his audience.

I was surprised because I wasn’t that familiar with Blues Is King.  In fact, I didn’t even know it was a live recording…..I had just seen the album in record stores a few times.  It wasn’t as prevalent in the stores as some of his other releases, and there was so much B.B. King product in the record stores (even before the blues caught fire again in the mid 80’s) that it just got lost in the cracks to me.  It wasn't like it is now, where you can go to the internet on your phone and find out what you need to know about an album in less than 30 seconds.  

After hearing about it, I ventured to the B.B. King Museum at Indianola a couple of years ago and happened to see it in the gift shop.  However, the asking price for it was a bit prohibitive, as often happens in gift shops, so I passed on purchasing it, opting for a new copy of Cook County Jail instead.  Frequent searches online showed similar prices to the gift shop's, so I put it on the backburner.

A few weeks ago at the Little Big Store, however, I stumbled across it while flipping through the CDs....a very nice copy that looked like it had barely even been played, at about 20% of the cost of the one I had seen a few years earlier.  I grabbed the copy as soon as I saw it, anxious to hear if what I'd heard about it was true.

Original album cover from 1967
Blues Is King was recorded about two years after Live at the Regal, also in Chicago, but in a smaller, more intimate nightclub, The Club (at 5523 South State Street, managed by DJ's Pervis Spann and E. Rodney Jones) in November of 1966.  On the previous recording, King had been backed by his big band, which was not really an option in this setting.  Here, he was backed by Duke Jethro (organ), Louis Satterfield (bass), Sonny Freeman (drums), Kenneth Sands (trumpet), and Bobby Forte (tenor sax).  

After multiple listenings, I'm not sure that I would rate it as his best live recording, but it's certainly a contender.  For starters, he sounds fantastic on guitar......he is really tearing it up on these ten tracks, really inspired, fierce stinging leads.  His singing is filled with passion and soul. Sometimes, when I used to hear King on TV, he would be almost overwhelmed by the horns in his band, which is really saying something because of his booming voice and screaming guitar.....but it would happen.  This five-piece ensemble complements him well and he makes the most of it.

Another standout factor of Blues Is King is the song selection.  There were a few that would be familiar to most fans on the set......"Gamblers' Blues" (the last time he recorded it), "Don't Answer The Door," and "Night Life" (he basically took this one away from Willie Nelson over the years) certainly will ring a bell to fans, but there are several others that he performed less frequently, at least as the years rolled by, such as "Waitin' On You," "Blind Love," "I Know What You're Puttin' Down" (some of his best guitar work), and "Baby Get Lost."  






Evidently, King was feeling mighty fine the night he recorded these tracks, with some of the most inspired singing and playing you'll hear from him.  It's hard to say that Blues Is King is the definitive live B.B. King recording....the song selection is a little better on the other two I mentioned (at least more familiar to fans), but I think his performance is better on this set.  It was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2018, the third live King album to receive the honor (guess the other two).  Give it a spin and see what you think.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I encourage you to check out the Little Big Store in Raymond if you're in the vicinity of Jackson, MS in the near future.  It's about 20 miles south of the interstate just off Highway 18.  It's easy to spend several hours in there going through the inventory and there's plenty for blues fans to enjoy.



Friday, June 12, 2020

Big Finds at the Little Big Store (Part 3)

Floyd Jones and Eddie Taylor
My third find at the Little Big Store was a pleasant surprise.  When I first started listening to the blues, most of it had a decided Chicago bent.  I found that I really enjoyed the Chicago blues of the 50's.....Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (Version II), Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and so on an so on.  I picked up a lot of Chess Records compilations, which were being reissued in a big way in the mid/late 80's.  Over the first few years, I dug deeper and discovered a lot of artists beyond the Mount Rushmore types.....not as well known, but capable of making some excellent music.  While flipping through CDs at the Little Big Store a few weeks ago, I found a release that I'd never seen before, actually never even heard of before, from a pair of Chicago artists who had been favorites for a long time, but weren't as "mainstream" as some of the others mentioned.  Floyd Jones and Eddie Taylor.


Floyd Jones with Big Walter Horton and Sunnyland Slim
The first time I heard Floyd Jones was on Chess Records' compilation Drop Down Mama, which included his classic "Dark Road."  I'm not sure anybody could do that song as well as Jones did.  It came from a place deep down in his soul.  He recorded it several times over his career on multiple labels and each version brought a little something different to the table.  A couple of his other sides were "Hard Times," "Stockyard Blues," and "On The Road Again," which Canned Heat made a Top 10 hit in 1968.  Most of Jones' songs took a dour, gloomy tone and were very powerful, but maybe they made for difficult listening to folks who wanted a little more upbeat blues at the time.  During the 50's, Jones recorded for Chess, JOB, and Vee-Jay in the 50's, and in the early 80's, he appeared on one of my favorite albums, Old Friends, with Honeyboy Edwards, Big Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim, and Kansas City Red, and continued to play in Chicago until he passed away in 1989. 


Eddie Taylor
Blues fans may not be familiar with Eddie Taylor, but there's a good chance that they've heard him before.  His rhythm guitar was the guiding force behind Jimmy Reed's excellent sides for Vee-Jay Records in the 50's.   However, there was much more to Taylor.  He recorded his own sides for Vee-Jay, his best-known tracks were probably "Bad Boy," which featured Reed on harmonica, and "Big Town Playboy," both of which have been covered frequently by blues artists through the years.  Though he never achieved the fame and popularity of Reed or other Chicago artists, he played a vital role in the development of the Chicago Blues sound, backing Snooky Pryor, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, John Brim, Sammy Lay, and many others.  He recorded a couple of albums of his own in the 70's and 80's that showed he could have been a contender with just a few more breaks, but passed away on Christmas Day in 1985.  Several of his children, the late guitarist Eddie Taylor Jr., drummer Larry Taylor, and singer Demetria Taylor, as well as his late wife Vera were fine blues artists in their own right.


Jones and Taylor shared an album on Testament Records, Masters of Modern Blues (Volume 3).  The label was founded by Pete Welding, who was a writer and editor of Down Beat magazine.  Over about fifteen years, Welding recorded blues, jazz, country, and gospel artists, focusing mostly on the blues.  Many blues artists who had seldom recorded got the opportunity with Testament and many of the albums are still available, thanks to HighTone Records and Shout! Factory.  

The 60's were a lean time for recording blues, at least compared to the 50's and many of these artists were happy for the opportunity to be heard and made the most of it.  There were four volumes of Masters of Modern Blues (we'll look at the rest in the future) with other sets from J.B. Hutto, Johnny Shines, Robert Nighthawk, and Houston Stackhouse in the collection.  Others who recorded for Testament included Honeyboy Edwards, Sleepy John Estes, Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Big John Wrencher.  Testament also released some marvelous collections focusing on slide guitarists, harmonica players, fife and drum bands, and topical albums.

Volume 3 of Masters of Modern Blues features eight sides from Floyd Jones and eight from Eddie Taylor recorded in 1966.  Both artists sound like they are making up for lost time on these tracks.  Jones has two versions of "Dark Road" on this set (one previously unreleased) as well as new versions of "Hard Times" and "Stockyard Blues."  His other sides are pretty much in keeping with his usual approach, although "Sweet Talkin' Woman" is fairly upbeat.  Taylor also reproduces his two favorites, "Bad Boy" (also with an alternate take) and "Big Time Playboy," while turning in splendid performances on other tunes like "Train Fare Home," "Feel So Bad," and "After Hours." 





As noteworthy as these two artists' performances are, they are enhanced by the performance of their backing band. Jones played bass and Taylor guitar on each track, and they are supported by an all-star trio - Otis Spann on piano, Big Walter Horton on harmonica, and Fred Below on drums.  One couldn't ask for a better band playing behind them.  

This was a fantastic set of blues from a couple of artists who didn't really get the opportunities that they deserved during their lifetimes.  In fact, I was so excited to hear this set that I ended up ordering the other three volumes of the series and pulled out a couple of other Testament recordings I've picked up over the years, Down Home Slide and Down Home Harp.  There's great listening ahead!!