Friday, August 12, 2011

Blues Bag

....a mixed bag of blues-related items to ponder this week.....

One of the coolest things I've gotten to do as a blues fan was to attend the Handy Awards (now called the Blues Music Awards) in 1999.  I had always wanted to go, just for the chance to see all those great musicians in one location.  I had joined the Blues Foundation a couple of years earlier and had voted for the first time that year.  The Foundation put out a little magazine about four to six times a year and one of them had a place to order tickets, so I ordered some for me, my brother, and one of his friends.

As is usually the case for most events I attend, my timing was impeccible.  You see, 1999 was the year that a big European tour coincided with the Handys, so many of the nominees and participants opted for the money to be made from an overseas tour and decided to pick up their trophies and plaques on the return trip home.  No problem there......I'm all for folks bettering themselves, and there were some pretty good artists who decided to attend that I did get to see. 

I saw Sam Carr, who was happy to be there, speaking to everybody he came into contact with, and Pete Mayes, who I did get to speak to, but only because he walked right past me.  I saw Johnny Jones, who if I remember correctly, was wearing a purple suit and a bright red hat.  I saw Bruce Iglauer, Lil' Ed Williams, and several others.  It was a pretty heady time for a blues nut like me.

When the show started (at the Orpheum in Memphis), it was announced that scheduled co-host Ruth Brown was not going to be able to attend, so Joe Louis Walker stood in for her as co-host with Memphis music legend Rufus Thomas.  One thing that really stood out to me (and to others, more on that later) was the humongous monitor on one side of the stage that showed the performers up close and personal.

There were some outstanding performances that night.  Johnnie Bassett performed a couple of tunes from his Cannonball recordings.  Bassett was nominated for a bunch of awards that year, including Song of the Year, and Male Traditional Blues Artist of the Year, but didn't win any of them.  His songs were a lot of fun though, including his popular tune at the time, "Cadillac Blues."  Johnnie Bassett is one artist that I would definitely like to hear more of in the future.

Another highlight was Bernard Allison, who appeared with Deborah Coleman and they blew the doors off of Bernard's Dad's tune, "Bad Love."  The pair nearly brought the house down, due, of course, to their performances and the fans' memory of Luther Allison, who had passed away nearly two years before.

There were some other fantastic performances, too, including the Band of the Year for 1999, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Roomful of Blues, Kenny Wayne Shepherd (whose lead singer never took his eyes off of his image on the huge monitor) playing with Double Trouble, Joe Louis Walker with former Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore (playing "Mystery Train"), and an all-star band including Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Bob Margolin, Willie Kent, and Mojo Buford.

But the highlight, for me, was getting to see Robert Lockwood Jr. perform.  Lockwood was nominated for several awards that year.  He had released a wonderful album the year before, I Got To Find Me A Woman that had been one of my favorite recordings of the year before.  I had really gotten into Lockwood's music after hearing that release, going back and finding other releases, all of which were uniformly good.  When he came out on the stage, a hush fell over the crowd, and I got goosebumps on top of my goosebumps.

He launched right into his version of Roosevelt Sykes' "Fell Like Blowin' My Horn," which was my favorite song on the new CD.  Have you ever had a tune rolling around in your head for days at a time and you can't get it out no matter what you do?  That's what was happening with me at the time with that song.  I had listened to his CD on the way to Memphis and I remember thinking it would be so cool if he played that song.  When he won two awards that night, it made things even better.

All in all, it was a great experience.  Although not many of the nominees I voted for won anything (and many of the winners weren't even there to accept their awards), it was a good time and some great music.  I haven't been back since then, but I would recommend at least one trip for any blues fan.

One of my all-time favorite singers is New Orleans R&B vocalist Johnny Adams.  Johnny Adams was a singer of astonishing depth, range, and versatility. He was a blues singer, a jazz singer, an R&B singer, a gospel singer, a country name it, he could sing it better than anybody else. He could move from the highest highs (his falsetto would bring you to your knees) to the lowest lows.

The first time I ever heard him, I was blown away.  I had never heard anyone who could sing with so much range so effortlessly.  Adams carved out a modest career on the soul circuit in the 60's with songs like "Reconsider Me," "I Won't Cry," "Losing Battle," and Release Me."  I first heard him on his first two recordings for Rounder Records.  What stood out on those releases was his ability to rise above what was occasionally pedestrian material, but the good stuff was very good, such as an absolutely scorching version of Ann Peebles' "Feel Like Breakin' Up Somebody's Home," and a beautiful track from New Orleans' R&B sax man, Alvin "Red" Tyler's jazz release for Rounder, Heritage, from the Tony Bennett catalog, "I Only Miss Her When I Think of Her."

As time passed, Adams began making "theme" albums for Rounder.  There was a straight blues releases (Room with a View of the Blues), a pair of releases focusing on jazz standards (Good Morning Heartache, The Verdict), then a mix of blues and jazz (One Foot in the Blues, with Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B-3), plus a couple of tributes to songwriters Percy Mayfield (Walking on a Tightrope) and Doc Pomus (The Real Me).  These sets of recordings are amazing in their versatility and their depth.  It's impossible to not tap your foot to the funky "Body & Fender Man," a Doc Pomus-penned track with Dr. John on piano and Duke Robillard and longtime Adams associate Walter "Wolfman" Washington on guitars.  Pomus was one of Adams' favorite composers, the song "There is Always One More Time," was featured on the opening credits of the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy movie, Bowfinger.

During the 90's, Adams began a long and painful battle with prostate cancer. While in remission, he worked on his final recording, Man of My Word, a largely R&B-based effort that was probably his best recording for Rounder.  An impressive list of songwriters contributed songs to the disc and Washington returned to play guitar (along with Memphis guitarist Michael Toles).  Adams was still suffering the effects of the cancer, but put together his best performances on this release.  Two of the standout tracks on this impressive recording were the David Egan/Buddy Flett composition, "Even Now," one of Adams' best performances ever, and an a cappella gospel track, "Never Alone," that featured another New Orleans legend, Aaron Neville.

Unfortunately, Adam's cancer returned later in the year, and he passed away in September, 1998, not long after Man of My Word was released.  Music fans in the know consider Johnny Adams to be one of the finest vocalists of all time.  Though he could have made it in any genre he wanted, Adams returned most often to the blues, and we're glad he did.

While you're out rambling, stop by and check out the latest issue of Blues Bytes.  It's a July/August issue with loads of reviews of new CDs from artists like Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne, Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band (a tribute to Charley Patton), Samantha Fish, L. C. Ulmer, Brad Vickers and his Vestapolitans, and a look at the latest edition of Chicago Blues: A Living History.  That's just the tip of the iceberg, so stop by and see what you might be missing.

Before we go, how about a little bit more Robert Lockwood, Jr., with a little help from Charlie Musselwhite.

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