Friday, May 27, 2011

U.P. Wilson - The Texas Blues Tornado

U.P. Wilson

Like most music lovers, I sometimes tend to get in a rut with what I listen to.  I get to a point where everything sounds the same or I feel like I've heard it all before.  Ordinarily, I move between blues, jazz, soul, and gospel for the most part, mainly focusing on the blues.....but sometimes nothing really grabs you no matter what you listen to.  That was me ten or twelve years ago.  I was in a rut and couldn't get out of it for about six months.  Nothing I found really got my attention, until I discovered the Texas Tornado, Mr. Huary Perry Wilson.

Now, I had heard a track from U.P. Wilson before, on a compilation CD from Rounder Records' EasyDisc offshoot, and thought it was interesting, but the vocal, sung in falsetto, was rather strange, even though the rest of the track, especially the guitar work, was pretty good. 

Unfortunately, he recorded for a British label, JSP, that was next to impossible for me to find in record stores around my area (of course, this was really before the internet got kicked off, so ordering online was still a novel concept, at least to me).
During a family vacation, we stopped in an area mall and were just browsing around, so I decided to check out the record store.  This particular store happened to have a HUGE blues section.  Not only was it huge, it was loaded with hard-to-find CDs, including many imports that I had been wanting to hear, but hadn't been able to find, so yes, I blew my souvenir money on CDs....big time.  One of the CDs I found was U.P. Wilson's Whirlwind.

Wow, did that one blow me away.  A more appropriate album title could not be found.  This was a whirlwind from start to finish.  Wilson's guitar often sounded like it was strung with barbed wire, but man could this guy find a groove and not only hang on to it, but work it to death, too.  His vocals were a pleasant surprise, too.....raw, soulful, somewhat gospel-influenced.  The tracks ranged from rangy Texas style roadhouse blues ("Walk That Walk") to a taste of Chicago via the Mississippi Delta("Come on Baby, Go Home With Me") to even some smooth urban jazz ("Juicin'"), and it was all outstanding.  Needless to say, I was officially rut-free.

As time passed, I was able to track down a few more CDs from Wilson....his debut recording for JSP for starters.  He only sang on a few tracks (soul/blues belter Alanda Williams handled the bulk of the vocals), but the guitar work was really impressive.  Two tracks really stood out to me.....the irresistible "Boogie Boy" and the incredible slow blues cover of "T for Texas."  He didn't sound like anyone else I was listening to at the time.  The combination of these two releases really piqued my curiousity about him.....who he was, where he came from, who his influences were.

Wilson was born in Shreveport, LA, but was raised in West Dallas.  His earliest influences were from gospel music he heard in church, but he learned the blues from an outstanding group of musicians that included Zuzu Bollin, Frankie Lee Sims, Cat Man Fleming, Mercy Baby, and others.  He eventually settled in Fort Worth and started a band called the Boogie Chillun with drummer/vocalist Robert Ealey.  While playing music at night, with Ealey and other musicians, Wilson supported his family by working as a school janitor during the day. Ealey and Wilson teamed up again on Wilson's 1998 CD, The Good The Bad The Blues, with Ealey contributing drums and vocals to the track, "Lonely Guy."

U.P. Wilson (left) with Robert Ealey (courtesy Dallas Blues Society)
Wilson and Ealey played together off and on for many years, most notably at a Fort Worth club called the New Bluebird, where they acquired a huge following of fans (including Ray Sharpe of "Linda Lu" fame) who really knew how the blues were supposed to be played.  He was able to record a few albums in the 80's for overseas labels like Double Trouble and Red Lightnin' that unfortunately made little impact here at the time.

A master showman, Wilson would sit his guitar on a table, and play it with one hand while smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer.  However, there was much more to his music than theatrics.  He was a highly original and clever songwriter and his highly original and inventive guitar playing encompassed down-and-dirty and urban blues and jazz.  In addition to Ray Sharpe, many other artists were influenced by his of which  you may have heard of.  On the cover of his JSP debut is a blurb from Stevie Ray Vaughan stating, "U.P. Wilson was my greatest guitar inspiration for real blues."  On most of his JSP recordings, Wilson plays riffs that would have fit seamlessly on any SRV album.

Wilson's JSP recordings helped to earn him more exposure and allowed him to tour Europe and more widely across America, including appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival during the last decade of his life.  Unfortunately, he was arrested for possession of cocaine in the late 90's and spent six months in jail in 1997 and 1998.  Upon release, he left the country, moving to Paris, where he stayed until he passed away in 2004 at the age of 70.

Although U.P. Wilson wasn't widely known at the time of his death, we are fortunate that he was able to record on a regular basis over the last two decades of his life.  The JSP recordings are all good, though they sometimes verge on being overproduced, and his earlier recordings capture Wilson in a rougher rawer setting, warts and all.  What comes through on all his recordings is that Wilson had a unique talent.  He was a highly original and gifted songwriter as well as being a monster on guitar.  I can almost guarantee that you've never heard anyone exactly like U.P. Wilson.

Selected Discography

On My Way On My Way (Fedora) - a set of recordings the late 80's, originally on Red Lightnin' Records......a bit rawer than his later recordings, and with a few more cover tunes.
Boogie Boy! The Texas Guitar Tornado Returns!

Boogie Boy! The Texas Guitar Tornado Returns! (JSP) - Wilson's debut for JSP is a great introduction.  Wilson sings on about half the tunes and soul singer Alanda Williams does the rest.  Williams is a great vocalist, but his smooth singing is a jarring contrast to Wilson's.

This Is
This is U.P. Wilson (JSP) - Wilson's second JSP release is a loose-limbed jam session with him and a few buddies.  This is a really relaxed session with some fine music.  Wilson's decision to sing in a ghostly falsetto is a bit of a puzzle, but overall, it's a pretty fun release.

WhirlwindWhirlwind (JSP) - This is Wilson's best JSP release, although all of them are worth having.  It just seems that he was firing on all cylinders for this one, with some outstanding songs and his best and most diverse fret work.  Start here and work your way out.
The Good The Bad The Blues

The Good The Bad The Blues (JSP) - An appropriate title.There are some nice moments on this CD, including a track with longtime cohort, Robert Ealey, but there are too many different vocalists and too many tracks that sound alike.  However, the good songs are really good.


Booting (JSP) - This disc was recorded at the same time as the Whirlwind session and is a nice bookend with that set.  Not as diverse and creative as its predecessor, but still a good listen.

Best Of - The Texas Blues Guitar Tornado

Best Of - The Texas Blues Guitar Tornado (JSP) - A "Best of" set that reprises the best moments from the JSP recordings.  This is a nice set for completists, but believe me, you will want more than what's sampled here.

Texas Blues Party 1Texas Blues Party Volume 1 (Wolf Records) - This is a great live set recorded in the early 90's at Schooner's in Dallas, featuring Wilson with Dallas singer/guitarist Tutu Jones.  This a very nice set with some good moments from Wilson and Jones.

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