Friday, January 4, 2013

My Favorite Things - Kings of the Blues

As I've mentioned before, one of the indispensable items in my building a blues collection was the Roundup Records mail order catalog in Cambridge, MA.  They had a mind-blowing list of blues recordings available that I never would have been able to find in my friendly neighborhood record stores, naturally because the primary focus of those record stores was to sell enough items to stay in business....there were many more Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Prince fans casually shopping in malls and shopping centers than there were B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Robert Cray, and Albert King fans.  Needless to say, my buying options were extremely limited as far as blues recordings were concerned when shopping locally, so for me, Roundup Records was a godsend.

One of my main sources of music from Roundup was the UK label, Ace Records.  Ace had a lot of compilation albums with music from the Kent, Modern, Specialty, Excello, RPM, and many other labels from the 50's and 60's.  They had bought the rights to license and issue these labels' catalogs to the overseas market and, thanks to Roundup, I was able to get my hands on several great collections of hits by B.B. King (including the magnificent box set, The Vintage Years), Bobby "Blue" Bland, Elmore James, and a few collections from various artists, one of these, Blues Around Midnight, I discussed about this time last year.  I actually had three collections that I really enjoyed listening to a lot back in the day, and will eventually discuss all three of them.

Kings of the Blues was a real keeper of a collection.  It featured songs from three different labels of the 50's and 60's.....Combo, Modern, and Specialty.  I wasn't familiar with most of the artists, but there were enough that I did know (B.B. King, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Guitar Slim, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, and Lowell Fulson) to make it worth a listen to me.  Once I heard how good all of the tracks were, I was hooked.  Even the relatively obscure (to me) artists were worth hearing.

Most of the tracks were rarities, too.  The opening cut, B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel," for the Modern label, was actually a 45 version cut with his seasoned road band, and was a tad raunchier than his album version that used the Maxwell Davis Band.  I prefer this one to the more frequently heard album track.

Johnny "Guitar" Watson
'Sweet Little Angel" is followed by an alternate version of the groundbreaking guitarist Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "She Moves Me," another Modern track.  For a lot of people, Watson is considered more of an R&B (and later funk) star, but his guitar work, given the period of time when he was playing, is amazingly ahead of its time. If you ever get a chance, you need to check out the Rhino Records collection of his 50's sides....just phenomenal stuff.  As you'll hear on this cut, he was also an above-average R&B singer.

Other tracks from the Modern label on this set are heard from familiar artists like Lightnin' Hopkins ("Lonesome Dog Blues"), T-Bone Walker ("Sitting Here Thinking"), Pee Wee Crayton ("Wild Hop"), Johnny Fuller ("Hard Times"), Lowell Fulson ("Too Many Drivers"), and Elmore James ("Please Find My Baby").  These tracks show the diversity of the Modern label, moving from country to urban blues with ease.

Frankie Lee Sims
The Specialty label is well-represented with a wide range of tracks.  Country blues is represented by Texas guitarist Frankie Lee Sims.  Sims was a cousin to Lightnin' Hopkins and one of the more influential Texas blues men, inspiring artists like Albert Collins and Jimmie Vaughan.  He was never really able to cash in with any success though and died from pneumonia in 1970.  The mellow blues track, "I'll Get Along Somehow," was recorded in 1954, but never saw the light of day until this album was released.

Other Specialty tunes include another previously unreleased track from Texas piano man Mercy Dee Walton, called "Problem Child," a rare 1951 track, "Lonesome Old Feeling," by Georgia blues man Bumble Bee Slim (a.k.a. Amos Easton), and the Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, who does a swinging version of "Yesterday," a variation of Little Walter's "Last Night."  Chenier is a bit of an oddity on this set, but you can tell by the vocal that the King of Zydeco was a blues man at heart.

Guitar Slim
Another standout Specialty track is Guitar Slim's intense "Sufferin' Mind."  Slim was a major influence on Watson (who played piano prior to seeing Slim in action) and Buddy Guy with his raucous performances that involved a 300 foot power cord attaching his guitar to speaker and his amazing wardrobe of red, green, and blue suits with matching shoes and hair.  Slim was a rising star who flamed out too quickly...his lifestyle was as wild as his guitar work and he died at age 32, the same week Buddy Holly's plane crashed, but did Guitar Slim ever make an impact!!!  "Sufferin' Mind" and the classic "The Things That I Used To Do" are recognized blues standards today.  We will dedicate an entire post to the amazing Guitar Slim in the near future.

The Combo label was a tiny one-man label run in California from the basement in the house of bandleader Jake Porter.  Combo had a few minor hits, but eventually Porter began to focus on his own music and his career.  There are four tracks from Combo included, including this track by Floyd Dixon (a.k.a. Jay Riggins, Jr.), "Riding Mighty High," which was unreleased until this set.  Dixon also recorded for Modern and Specialty (where he cut "Hey Bartender") during his lengthy career, which lasted until just before his death in 2006.

Kings of the Blues is, naturally, out of print now.  I recently found it used on Amazon for a bargain price, so I seized the opportunity to repurchase it.  It was a lot of fun to listen to then and it's still a lot of fun....a perfect mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.  If you're able to locate a copy of it (and there were several reasonably priced copies still available at Amazon), you should give it a listen.  Like nearly everything else released by Ace Records, it's worth searching out.

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