Friday, January 18, 2013

Taking Inventory

The first few weeks of the new year are always sort of different, musically speaking.  There's a couple of weeks between the releases timed for Christmas sales and then the new releases that kick off the new year.  For the first time in a while, I am caught up with my new listening.  This has enabled me to go back and listen to some of my old favorites while I wait for what I hope will be as great a set of new releases in 2013 as I got to hear in 2012.  This week, FBF will look at a few of those old favorites.

I recently picked up the Ace Records anthology disc, Kings of the Blues, which we discussed here a couple of weeks ago.  Since then, I've been listening to some other anthology sets that I have picked up over the past few years.  When I first started listening to the blues, I figured out pretty quick that collections featuring various artists provided a great way to listen to a lot of different artists at once, while saving some money in the process.  From that entry point, you can always expand your collections of the artists you like by picking up CDs or mp3's of your favorites.

In the late 90's, Testament Records released a couple of cool collections, one featuring a boatload of slide guitarists (Down Home Slide) and one showcasing harmonica players (Down Home Harp).  On Down Home Slide, there are 19 fantastic sides (14 previously unreleased) from artists like Big Joe Williams, Eddie Taylor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James, and Johnny Littlejohn (hear "Slidin'" below) plus great tracks from lesser-known guitarists like John Henry Barbee, Elijah Brown, Blind Connie Williams, and Arthur Weston.  The real highlight for me was the three previously unreleased live tracks from 1964 featuring Robert Nighthawk backed by Johnny Young (on guitar or mandolin) and Little Walter on acoustic harmonica.  One of the tracks is his classic, "Anna Lee" (one of my all-time favorites), and the other two are covers of Jimmy Rogers' "That's All Right," and Little Walter's "Everything Gonna Be Alright."  If you like slide guitar, this is a wonderful collection.

Down Home Harp has 22 tracks, 21 previously unreleased!  It's a well-balanced mix between urban Chicago-styled players (Little Walter, with Nighthawk on one track and Young on another, Big Walter Horton, Billy Boy Arnold (hear "Mattie Mae" below) and more country blues-oriented blowers like Coot Vinson (his "Thinking About Your Apples" is below), Doctor Ross, Willie Lee Harris, Driftin' Slim, and the Slim Willis Quartet.  For fans of blues harmonica, this is as essential as it gets.  It's a wide-ranging collection that has something for fans of every variation of blues harmonica.  I love to play these two discs together.  "Down Home" couldn't be a more correct way to describe these recordings.

Speaking of Robert Nighthawk, I managed to track down his early 50's recordings for Aristocrat (Chess) Records.  This might be a good time to plug Amazon, because if you happen to click on one of the titles that I link to Amazon, and you end up purchasing an item from them, then since I am a member of Amazon Associates, I receive a small percentage fee for everybody involved gets something out of the deal.  This past month, after nearly three years of attaching links to Amazon with every post, I finally earned TEN DOLLARS and therefore received a gift card from Amazon.  I spent the card on two CDs, one of which we will discuss in the future (hasn't arrived yet) and the other was the aforementioned collection of Nighthawk's Chess sides, called Sweet Black Angel.  This is the only source of this material since the 90's MCA/Chess compilation, The Aristocrat of the Blues, went out of print, and this import features all of Nighthawk's Chess sides, except for one alternate take.

Nighthawk's material is always a treat to listen to.....his slide work is never less than marvelous and these rank with his best work.  The title track has been recorded by dozens of blues artists including B. B. King and Buddy Guy, and this version of "Anna Lee Blues" is my favorite.  It's available for a very small amount of money from Amazon, so I would definitely take the time to check it out if you're a fan, because these sides are hard to find elsewhere.  While you're at it, check out Nighthawk's other recordings, especially Delmark's Bricks in My Pillow and his 1964 Maxwell Street set, which is available on it's own by Rounder Records (and was featured on one of FBF's earliest post, way back in 2010), or as part of the incredible set, .....And This is Maxwell Street.

One of the great Ace Records collections that I found years ago, was this set of early B. B. King sides from the 50's.  Do The Boogie:  B.B. King's Early 50's Classics features 20 of King's earliest recordings from Modern Records.  There are plenty of familiar tunes here like "Woke Up This Morning (My Baby's Gone)," "Everyday (I Have The Blues)," "Why I Sing The Blues," "I Gotta Find My Baby," and "When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer" (below), and many of these are alternate takes of the originals that have interesting variations from the released versions.  It shows that King was always trying to expand his sound and reach in different directions.  To me, King's 50's and early 60's recordings rank with his best work.  Later on, he sort of fell into a creative rut in the late 70's and 80's, but bounced back strongly in the 90's.  During his developing years in the 50's was when King truly worked his way into the title he holds now.....King of the Blues.  This is a great place to hear the early B. B. King, plus it's hard to pass up that picture of King in his fashionable shorts (I can't believe those didn't catch on).

One blues artists that has not received nearly enough attention here at Friday Blues Fix is Elmore James.  We intend to correct that slight in the near future.  In the meantime, I highly recommend "Let's Cut It" The Very Best of Elmore James.  This set covers James' recordings from the 50's when he was with the Modern, Flair, and Meteor labels.  Of course, this set doesn't include his monster hit, "Dust My Broom" (it does have a variation called "Dust My Blues"), but the material that is here ranks with his best recordings.  James might be mistaken by some as sort of a one-trick pony, based on the numerous tracks he recorded using the "Dust My Broom" riff, but this set shows that there was much more to enjoy.  One of my favorite Elmore James tunes is "Sunnyland," where there's nary a "Dust My Broom" riff to be found.  Count on hearing more from Elmore James here at FBF in a few weeks.

Yet another first rate collection from Ace is the two volume collection of Bobby Bland's best Duke recordings.....The "3B" Blues Boy - The Blues Years 1952 - 1959 and The Voice - Duke Recordings 1959 - 69.  I was late in arriving to the Bobby "Blue" Bland bandwagon....when I started listening to the blues, I focused on the guitar slingers, harmonica aces, and piano wizards, so a performer like Bland, who "just" sang, wasn't my cup of tea.  Yes, I was an idiot, but I eventually came around, especially after listening to Bland's immortal, quintessential soul/blues album, Two Steps From The Blues.  He didn't "just" sing....his voice was an instrument and he was as masterful with it as B. B. King was with Lucille.  Bland's most familiar tunes are actually split between these two discs, but you will discover some amazing music that you might have missed otherwise while waiting for the familiar ones.  There have been several compilations of Bland's Duke sides, but these two are my favorites from start to finish.

Finally, I also dug out my set of Magic Slim's Zoo Bar series, released on the Austrian label, Wolf Records.  This is an interesting five-volume set that Wolf released during the 90's that highlighted various performances by Slim and the Teardrops from the late 70's/early 80's to the mid 90's at the Zoo Bar, a blues club in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.  Slim and the band have played the club for many years, and he eventually moved his family from Chicago to Lincoln.  I plan to devote a whole post to this series in the future, but I can tell you that all five volumes are lots of fun to listen to and they give you a glimpse at the early stages and continued development of Magic Slim and the Teardrops, from the Alabama Jr. Pettis days all the way through the John Primer years.  You also get to experience the band's vast repertoire as well, as they cover an impressive range of tunes that includes a ton of familiar tunes by folks like Muddy Waters, Little Milton, Jimmy Reed, Lonnie Brooks, and Albert King, plus a few interesting covers like "Ode To Billy Joe," "Reelin' and Rockin'," and "Green Onions."  If you're a fan of Magic Slim's, this is an indispensable collection, just five of many great Magic Slim releases from Wolf Records.

It's been an enjoyable couple of weeks spent revisiting some old favorites, but I'm excited about all the new releases during the new year.  You'll be hearing more about many of them here at Friday Blues Fix.

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