Friday, July 30, 2010

Feel Like Going Home - Essential Reading

One of the first books about music that I ever read was Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick. I was heavily into 50's and 60's soul music during that time and it was manna from Heaven. With chapters devoted to soul pioneers like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, James Carr, and Dan Penn, I read it through three times. What came through more than the details about these musicians' lives was Guralnick's passion for the music and the artists. I've read many books about music by many different authors, but few captured the artists' stories and personalities (warts and all) so well, while being able to convey their own personal observations without interfering with the story.

Since I enjoyed Sweet Soul Music so much, I wanted to read more of Guralnick's work. Little did I know that there was a music that he was even more passionate about than soul music, and it was a genre that I was just getting into. I found a couple of books by Guralnick at Roundup Records (THE mail order music source for blues and soul back in the 80's and early 90's), so I ordered them. One of these books was the subject of today's post........Feel Like Going Home.

Guralnick had written about music for several magazines in the late 60's, such as Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone, and this book is set up similarly to his articles written at the time.  The subtitle of the book is Portraits in Blues and Rock 'N' Roll, and that's basically what Guralnick does, short profiles on a wide-ranging group of musicians.  He also gives a short history of the blues (with an emphasis on country blues artists like Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, etc..) as well as the development of rock & roll from the blues, which basically serves as background for the profiles. 

The blues profiles range from familiar subjects (Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf) to a few lesser known artists, who played an important role in the development of the blues.  Johnny Shines traveled extensively with Robert Johnson and later was an invaluable source for Guralnick's essay, Searching for Robert Johnson.  At the time the book was originally published, there were no photos of Robert Johnson known to exist.  In Guralnick's brief history of the blues, Shines describes Johnson as having a bad eye and bearing a strong resemblance to Buddy Guy.  He was a source of information about many of the early musicians that had passed on by the time the 60's rolled around, but as a musician, he was as good or better than many of them.  He had a strong, highly emotional voice and was a master guitarist.  In the 70's, 80's, and 90's, he also recorded albums with Big Walter Horton, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Snooky Pryor.  Here's a clip of Shines, originally broadcast on public television in the 70's, performing "Ramblin' Blues."

The chapter devoted to Bentonia, MS native Skip James is essential reading for any fan of country blues.  This was my introduction to James and I quickly tracked down his "rediscovery" recordings for Vanguard Records in the mid 60's.  These are some of the most beautiful country blues ever recorded, with crystal clear sound.  Though over 30 years had passed between the Vanguard recordings and his legendary 1931 sessions for Paramount, James' performances were wonderful.  Unfortunately, he was ill when he was rediscovered and died only a few years after restarting his career.  Guralnick presents James as he was, a unique talent in the blues (with his haunting vocal style, understated guitar, and idiosyncratic piano playing) with a sometimes difficult, even arrogant personality.  He didn't suffer fools gladly and was not above lecturing his audience for not truly appreciating his talents.  It's a fascinating character study.  One of my favorite Skip James songs is "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."  It was originally recorded during the 1931 session and you might have heard it on the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (even though it was being played by the character Tommy Johnson, played by bluesman Chris Thomas King).  James re-recorded it for his 1964 Vanguard session and it was the first song I ever actually heard of his.  Below is the original version.

The other blues artist profiled is Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams.  Guralnick was enthralled by Williams' totally original music.  Williams never made a living off of his music and his unique style was something of an acquired taste for many listeners, but his lyrics were so brutally honest that you couldn't help but listen.  Guralnick was one of the first to bring attention to Williams and his music.  Otherwise, he might have faded into obscurity.  He was able to record several albums and played enough festivals to acquire a small, but loyal fan base. 

There are also a couple of other profiles, one of rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis which had to have left Guralnick exhausted upon its completion, and one of the amazing Charlie Rich.  For most fans of Charlie Rich, those only familiar with his countrypolitian hits of the 1970's, he would seem an unlikely subject in this book, but Rich's roots run deep in the blues. He got his start recording for Sun Records, recording songs like "Lonely Weekends" and "Life's Little Up's and Down's," but never really hit it big at the time.  Later recordings for RCA leaned more toward jazzy settings, then he hit gold with Billy Sherrill and Epic Records.  Unfortunately, Rich was his own worst enemy at times.  He struggled with inner demons and alcohol and eventually hit rock bottom.  Shortly before his death in 1995, Rich recorded the album he always wanted to record, Pictures and Paintings.  It was produced by Guralnick and featured Rich playing blues, jazz, and the song, "Feel Like Going Home," the inspiration for the book's title.  Here's the Pictures and Paintings version from 1991.  The song was also recorded as the "B" side to his smash hit, "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" in 1973, but the later version has more of a Memphis soul feel than the Nashville sound of the '73 version.

To truly appreciate Charlie Rich, you have to look beyond the syrupy strings and twang of his most popular hits and listen to the heart and grit of his performances. The blues was there for all to see and hear in everything he ever recorded.

The book closes with a look at Sun Records (and its eccentric owner, Sam Phillips, who played a major role in the development of rock and roll and has long deserved a book of his own) and the legendary Chess Records (with the equally eccentric Chess brothers).  The Chess chapter takes place around the end of the label's run, so at times, it's depressing to see that time and trends had passed the label (and many of it's artists) by.  Feel Like Going Home is probably one of the most personal, insightful, and ultimately rewarding books you will read about music of any genre.      

As I mentioned last week, Phillip Walker passed away from heart failure on July 22 at age 73.  Walker took up guitar as a teenager in his native Louisiana, and was influenced by guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown.  At 17, he began a two-year stint backing the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.  He later played with Memphis R&B singer Rosco Gordon and also with Long John Hunter before relocating to California.  Once there, he recorded for labels like Fantasy, Joliet, and Playboy (the magazine's short-lived record label).  Many of these recordings are still available, although from different labels.  During this time, Walker fell in with Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker.  Brombert produced and Dennis Walker wrote or co-wrote many of Walker's songs, and both later played a big role in the early development of Robert Cray.

Walker recorded for Rounder Records for a time, then joined back up with Bromberg on his Hightone label, where he released the album, Blues, a sizzling disc that was much more than it's generic title indicated.  While at Hightone, Walker was able to reissue several of his earlier albums (Someday You'll Have These Blues and The Bottom Of The Top) on Hightone to much acclaim.  He also recorded a couple of solid discs for Black Top in the mid 90's.

In the late 90's, Walker teamed with Lonnie Brooks, Ervin Charles, and Long John Hunter for the essential Alligator Records release, Lone Star Shootout, as good a disc of modern Texas blues as you'll ever hear.  In 2002, Walker put together a big band and released Live at Biscuits and Blues.  His last release was for the Delta Groove label, called Going Back Home, in 2007.

Throughout his career, Walker recorded many classic tunes, such as "Hello My Darling," "The Bottom of the Top," "Hey Hey Baby's Gone," "Brother, Go Ahead and Take Her" (later recorded by Joe Louis Walker), my favorite tune "Tough As I Want To Be" (later recorded by Lowell Fulson), "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (later recorded by Robert Cray), and "I Got A Sweet Tooth."  Check out one of Walker's earlier recordings for Fantasy, a reworking of Sam Cooke's soul classic, "Laughin' and Clownin'," which really showcases his guitar playing and soulful vocal style.

If you're not familiar with Phillip Walker's music, do yourself a favor and check out a couple of his discs. He didn't record nearly enough, but all of his releases are excellent and each offers a variety of styles. He could play deep soul as well as deep blues. My personal favorites are The Bottom Of The Top and Working Girl Blues.

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