Friday, May 4, 2012

A Few Items of Note

You may not know who Charles "Skip" Pitts was, but if you've listened to any music over the past fifty years, there's an excellent chance that you heard him play guitar.  Pitts, who passed away on May 1 after a long battle with cancer, was considered a master of the "wah wah" style of guitar, most notably on Isaac Hayes' funk classic, "Theme From Shaft," one of the baddest songs of all time.

That song was but the tip of the iceberg for the musical career of Skip Pitts. Pitts first learned to play guitar on the street corners of his native Washington, D.C. and landed an appearance on a recording at age 17 (Gene Chandler's "Rainbow '65").  He then worked for Wilson Pickett as guitarist/bandleader for his band, the Midnight Movers, before joining the Isley Brothers in 1969 and creating the funky riff for the Isley's big hit, "It's Your Thing."

Pitts moved to Memphis in 1970, working for Stax Records and serving as guitarist and bandleader for Hayes until Hayes' death in 2008.  In addition to "Theme From Shaft," Pitts appeared on Stax tracks for Rufus Thomas, the Soul Children, Albert King, and many others.  In 1998, he helped found the Memphis soul/jazz group, The Bo-Keys and recorded two well-received albums (The Royal Sessions and last year's Got to Get Back! which featured soul/blues legend Otis Clay on the title track).

In recent years, Pitts also appeared on Al Green's secular comeback CD, I Can't Stop, and Cindy Lauper's Memphis Blues.  Over the years, he has influenced many guitarists (anybody who's ever made a guitar go "waka waka" should have mailed him a royalty check) and his guitar work has been sampled by dozens of artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the Beastie Boys.

Skip Pitts was 65 years old.  If by some astounding chance you've never heard him, please do yourself a favor and check out either of his Bo-Keys albums to find out what the fuss was about.  Trust me, you will want to hear more.

Over the past couple of weeks, FBF has been looking at some must-see DVDs, past and present.  Let's continue looking at a couple of other recent releases that are worth seeing.

For many, the highlights of each Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise are the late-night "pro jams" that take place on the aft pool deck.  Filmmaker Robert Mugge (Deep Blues, Gospel According to Al Green, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, etc....) documented the October, 2010 cruise's pro jams, along with other jams taking place during the week.

In addition, a number of musical participants (including  Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Kim Wilson, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Larry McCray, Lee Oskar, Coco Montoya, Rick Estrin, Jimmy Thackery, John Nemeth, Sista Monica Parker, Vasti Jackson, and Eden Brent), along with Sirius XM's Bluesville program director Bill Wax and blues/jazz historian Bob Porter, offer their thoughts on the history, techniques, and even proper etiquette of  blues jamming.  

The DVD captures a lot of great performances during the jams and also during a series of demonstration sessions featuring guitar, piano, and harmonica.  This is a fun video to watch and can be had for just the cost of shipping ($5.95) by ordering it from the LRBC website.  Not a bad deal for nearly 90 minutes of great blues music by some of your favorites (see below).

Mugge has another recent release, Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues, which documents the travels of Scissormen, which features the incredible slide guitar of Ted Drozdowski (who won the Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism in 1998 and has served as consultant for several films, including Scorsese's The Blues mini-series) and drummer R. L. Hulsman (who has been replaced by Matt Snow since the movie was filmed).  Scissormen mixes Delta Blues, Hill Country, and a dash of psychedelic rock and Drozdowski's scorching slide work combines the best of Elmore James with Sonny Sharrock.

Mugge hoped to show how the group pays tribute to past masters like R. L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill, while doing their part to continue the music to appeal to new and future fans.  The band's performances are mixed in with discussions about the music with Charlie Noble, owner of the Key Palace Theatre (where the CD portion of this set was recorded) in Redkey, Indiana, Hal Yeagy, owner of the Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, and Cindy Barber, owner of Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in there's a visit to Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, where Charley Patton and many legendary blues and jazz artists were recorded in the 20's and 30's.  Drozdowski is a perfect host with his narrations during the drives, his rapport with his audience and the club owners, talking about his influences, and never taking himself too seriously.  It's obvious he's having a big time, because he's as much a fan as he is a musician, so he gets to experience it on both sides, something we, as fans, would love to do.

As I've told you before, I don't get to attend many festivals or concerts these days, but I seldom pass up a chance to see anybody perform at the Riley Center in Meridian, MS.  This Saturday night at the Riley Center offers the Soul Salvation tour with Ruthie Foster and Paul Thorn.  Many blues fans will be familiar with Foster.  Her latest CD is Let It Burn, but her previous effort, The Truth According to Ruthie Foster, was nominated for a Grammy.  Thorn has a new release, What the Hell is Goin' On, that I haven't heard yet, but his previous release, Pimps and Preachers, was outstanding and stayed at the top of the Americana charts for nearly a month when released in 2010.  Both artists have roots in gospel, but their music also mixes blues, soul, and R&B as well, so I can't wait to hear them together.  Naturally, I'll tell you all about it next week.

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