Friday, November 19, 2010

Essential Recordings: Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Johnny Copeland - Showdown!

Way back in 1986, I was a college student, working toward my engineering degree at Mississippi State, looking for something different to listen to. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my musical tastes were all over the map, ranging from 80's pop to 70's funk to rock and roll to jazz to soul and R&B. While I enjoyed all of it, I had sort of hit a wall as far as music went. Nothing really grabbed me or kept my attention for very long, which bothered me just a little bit. After all, music had been a big part of my life for so long (only as a listener though, I have no musical ability whatsoever.....just ask anyone who sits next to me in church), so I really wanted to find something interesting.

I decided to go with a couple of my buddies to nearby Columbus, where there was a mall....and a music store, Camelot Music. I had been there several times and had picked up a few records here and there, but nothing really memorable. On this day, I was thumbing through the jazz cassettes and came across an intriguing-looking album with three guys standing in a huddle, all with guitars slung over their shoulders, and the word "SHOWDOWN!" in big red letters across the bottom of the cover. I looked at the names of the artists.....Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copeland. I had heard of Robert Cray from a music magazine that I had read, but didn't know what he sounded like. I didn't know any of the songs listed on the back cover either. This was the epitome of an impulse buy. I didn't know what I had, but I had the feeling that I was going to like it when I unwrapped it and popped it into my tape deck.

I did enjoy it, repeatedly. For about two week, the only tape that I listened to was Showdown! The sound was what I had been waiting for…..the fierce guitar, the soulful and gritty vocals, the songs…… was my favorite things from other musical styles wrapped up into one package. Of course, now I know that what I was doing was climbing down the musical tree. You see……all these musical styles that I already liked were branches of the same tree. All of those styles of music could trace their origins to the blues. The blues was the trunk of the tree and funk, jazz, soul, R&B, rock and roll, and pop were the branches. Of course, I wasn’t thinking that deeply when I listened to it for the first time. I was just wondering where I could find some more music like it.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
Showdown! was first envisioned as a triple header between Collins, Copeland, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The trio had played at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1984 and had impressed the audience.  Copeland's management had contacted Alligator head man, Bruce Iglauer, with the idea of making an album.  Unfortunately, the tempestuous Brown never got on the same page as the other musicians and was removed from the project altogether. Enter Robert Cray, who had idolized Albert Collins from the days when the Iceman played a high school dance at Young Bob’s school in Seattle, and one of the finest blues records of the 1980’s was well on the way to fruition.

The trio actually only played together on two songs, the opener, a rousing version of T-Bone Walker’s “T-Bone Shuffle,” and the torrid closer, Ray Charles’ “Blackjack.” On “T-Bone Shuffle,” a regular song in Cray's set at the time, each man got to sing a verse and take a solo, which was great fun and showed that while they played guitar similarly, each had his own individual style that colored his fretwork. Vocally, they were all different……Copeland’s vocals were fierce and fiery, Collins’ were someone laconic and self-effacing, and Cray’s were reminiscent of the 60’s soul belters like O. V. Wright. On “Blackjack,” Collins was the only singer, but each pulled out all the stops for their solos…..but then, this was how the ENTIRE album was…..pulling out all the stops, no holds barred from start to finish. Check out the opening cut of the disc, with all three getting a turn at the mic and on guitar……”T-Bone Shuffle," followed by their grand finale, "Blackjack."

Even though the disc was basically an Albert Collins album (he was the only actual Alligator artist), Collins graciously stayed in the background for the most part, offering up vocals on the opener and closer, on the funky, “The Moon Is Full,” and sharing guitar leads with Cray, one verse of Hop Wilson’s “Black Cat Bone,” with Copeland, and the groovy instrumental, “Albert’s Alley,” also with Copeland. Even though he stays back and lets the others have the spotlight for the most part, there’s still that distinctive, piercing guitar all over the place that you recognize immediately when you hear it.

Johnny Copeland had been recording since the late 50’s when Showdown! came along (highlighted by two wonderful albums for Rounder Records…..Copeland Special and Texas Twister) and he came on like a force of nature (despite a mid-session bout with his stomach that slowed him for a couple of days) on all of his songs with guitar work that would seemingly melt steel and righteous, ragged vocals on tracks like “Lion’s Den” and “Bring Your Fine Self Home.” To me, this was some of the best work he ever did, just burning with intensity. On “Bring Your Fine Self Home,” Copeland is accompanied by Collins, who plays harmonica. Both men raise the rafters with their solos.

For Cray, this was sort of a coming-out party. While he had received some attention for his Hightone release, Bad Influence, he was still not the household name in the blues world that he is now. Both of his songs are a bit different from the rest of the disc. Muddy Waters’ “She’s Into Something” is a quirky song anyway as part of the Waters catalog, but Cray’s version is actually more definitive to me. “The Dream” is one of the highlights of Showdown! This moody masterpiece is a showcase for Cray’s intense vocal, along with Collins’ jagged guitar solo. Both are stellar performances.

You can’t talk about Showdown! without giving some major props to the folks behind the scenes, producers Bruce Iglauer and Dick Shurman (who reminisced fondly about the album in the most recent Living Blues), along with longtime Cray producer Bruce Bromberg, bass player extraordinaire Johnny B. Gayden, keyboardist Allen Batts, and drummer Casey Jones.

Showdown! won the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 1986 and all of the artists went on to better things over the next few years. Collins made a memorable cameo appearance in the movie, Adventures in Babysitting (“Nobody gets outta this place without singin’ the Blues.”), made one more recording for Alligator, Cold Snap, then signed a major deal with PointBlank Records, releasing a couple of albums before his untimely death from lung cancer in November of 1993.

Copeland signed with Verve Records and released a couple of fine discs in the 90’s before developing heart problems. He underwent a heart transplant and seemed to be recovering well before complications set in about a year later, and he passed away in the summer of 1997.

Everybody knows about Robert Cray’s meteoric rise following the release of “Smoking Gun” and the album Strong Persuader. He’s managed to parley that hit into a very nice career with over twenty releases and worldwide tours over the past twenty-five years, mixing the blues with deep southern soul.

Although Showdown! was a major blues release of the 80’s and is still a favorite of most blues fans, it will stand out the most to me because it was my very first blues album.  After nearly twenty-five years, I still pull it out every month or so and give it a listen......and it sounds just as good now as it did in 1986.

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