Friday, August 23, 2013

Ten Essential Discs - Greatest Hits Electric Blues Edition

This week, Friday Blues Fix begins the first of a series called Ten Essential Discs.  Periodically, we will take a look at ten albums that should be in every new blues fans' collection.  There are a few guidelines that we will follow in order to avoid complicating this and future lists too much.

1)  Single disc sets only.....after all, if you're a new blues fan, there's a chance that a) you just want a sample of each artists at first, to avoid being overwhelmed, and b) you may not have the funds available for those massive double disc, triple-disc, humongous box set collections.

2)  Each artist appears only one time per broaden the blues palate, so to speak.  We may eventually get to the point where we list ten essential discs from one particular artist in the future, but we ain't there right now.

Okay....two guidelines.....simple enough, right?  Here we go with Ten Essential "Greatest Hits" Electric Blues discs that should be in every blues fans collection.  Today's list will be devoted solely to individual artists.  Keep in mind that this is one man's opinion of Ten Essentials.  Your mileage may vary and if it does, I'd love to see what your Ten Essentials are.

B.B. King - Greatest Hits (MCA):  There are tons of B.B. King collections in print right now, but nearly all of them are multiple-disc sets, and are all worthwhile.  This set, released fifteen years ago, in August of 1998, gives a pretty well-rounded look at the King of the Blues' career from the early/mid 60's onward, basically from the Live at the Regal set (hopefully, a future FBF subject), to the mid 90's, culminating in his duet with Bono of U2.  Most of the songs here will be familiar to even neophytes ("The Thrill Is Gone," "Sweet Little Angel," "When Love Comes To Town," "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss"), but this is just the tip of the iceberg for B.B. King's career....there is so much more that is NOT here, such as his wonderful recordings from the 50's and even his later recordings from '97 on, where he shrugged off all the crossover ideas and just decided to focus on the low-down, dirty blues again.  However, if I were starting out my collection as a new blues fan, this would be my first stop for B.B. King.....a single disc that basically lets you know what all the fuss is about.

Muddy Waters - His Best:  1947 to 1955 (MCA/Chess):  If I had to pick only one Muddy Waters CD to own (a decision I will never have to make, thank goodness), it would be this one.  This set features twenty of his best tracks, spanning his first eight years with Chess.  The quality and talent of the artists featured here with Waters is just staggering....Otis Spann, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon, Fred Below....a regular Hall of Fame of the Blues in itself.  Nearly all of Waters' most famous songs are here...."I Can't Be Satisfied," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Rollin' Stone," "Baby Please Don't Go," "Hoochie Coochie Man" (though in an alternate version), "I'm Ready," "Mannish Boy," and "Trouble No More," to name just a few.  You can't go wrong with this disc.

Elmore James - The Sky Is Crying:  The History of Elmore James (Rhino):  It's not hard to find collections of Elmore James' music, but this set from Rhino, released in 1993, is the place to start because it features songs from nearly every label James recorded for, and it also presents a pretty diverse range of his guitar work.  Though he will always be identified by his signature slide guitar riff from "Dust My Broom," there was so much more to his style, as can be heard on songs like "Sunnyland," "Hawaiian Boogie," "It Hurts Me Too," and the title track, simply one of the greatest slow blues tracks ever.  As you listen to this disc, you will be amazed at how many of these songs you've heard other blues artists cover, but for the most part, Elmore James' versions outshine them all.

Luther Allison - Where Have You Been?  Live in Montreux 1976 - 1994 (Ruf):  Every blues fan needs some Luther Allison in their collection, and the best way to hear and truly appreciate Allson's talents would be to hear him perform live.  This set, which was actually released by Ruf before Allison's death in 1997, captures a dozen of his finest performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival.  Allison does mostly covers on this collection, and many of them are familiar tunes, but he puts so much into the performances, both on guitar and vocally, that he seems to make then his own.  The disc is nearly eighty minutes of Allison in his element, playing his music for his adoring fans.  You can't get much better than that.  Man, do I miss him.

Freddy King - Hideaway:  The Best of Freddy King (Rhino):  There are several great Freddy King collections out there, but this one puts the primary focus on his outstanding work for King Records in the 60's.  While King did do some standout work for Leon Russell's Shelter Records in the early 70's (and a couple of tracks are included), this is where every new Freddy King fan should get started.  There's a fairly equal mix of instrumental tunes (like the title track, "Remington Ride," "San Ho Zay" and "The Stumble") and vocal classics, too (like "Have You Ever Loved A Woman," "I'm Tore Down," "Going Down," and "You Got To Love Her With Feeling").  Freddy King often gets lost in the shuffle among great blues guitarists, but this disc gives blues fans a great sampler of just what he was capable of doing.

Albert King - King of the Blues Guitar (Atlantic):  This was a tough choice, because King recorded some excellent tunes for several labels over his lifetime, before and after his tenure with Stax Records.  However, this set contains the entire track list of his finest record ever, Born Under A Bad Sign, plus a few other Stax singles never available on an album before.  It's mighty hard to go wrong with that sort of musical content.  You will want to hear more of King after you hear this set, but this is definitely the place to start.  This single disc captures the essence of Albert King better than any other.

John Lee Hooker - The Definitive Collection (Hip-O):  How in the world do you track down a single disc collection of Hooker's greatest sides???  He recorded hundreds of songs, maybe thousands, for just an infinite list of record labels over the years.  Hip-O's effort from 2006 comes about as close as possible, with recordings from Modern that he did in the 40's, going through his Vee Jay and Chess recordings of the 50's, his tracks for ABC-Bluesway and Impulse, all the way to his session with Canned Heat and his later tracks from his late 80's "comeback" that featured Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt.  It's really hard to pin everything that Hooker did on one disc (like most of the artists listed here), because he was so prolific for so long, but this set comes pretty close.

Little Walter - His Best (MCA/Chess):  Quite simply, Little Walter is the place for blues fans to start their harmonica blues collection.  He redefined the role of the harmonica in the blues, making it a lead instrument in the tradition of a saxophone.  Some of his instrumentals from the early 50's are still inspiring harmonica players today.  Seriously, it's impossible to find a modern harmonica player today that wasn't influenced by Little Walter.  It didn't hurt one bit that he was as good a singer as most of the R&B singers of his era.  Unfortunately, bad habits and a hot temper helped cut his career short, but it's amazing to imagine just how much more he would have redefined the harmonica had he remained on top of his game like he is on these recordings.  This set collects all of his essential recordings and should be a part of any blues lover's collection.

Buddy Guy - Buddy's Blues (MCA/Chess):  Here's the dilemma when trying to find a single disc of Buddy Guy's finest moments spanning his career.......there's no such thing.  The best effort was from Rhino in the early 90's, but it doesn't cover his work from the last 20 years.  Most of his recordings for earlier labels are spotty....a mix of the outstanding, the pretty good, and the forgettable, so single label compilations are a mixed bag.  Even the Chess recordings are sort of inconsistent, because at times they tried to package him as a hit-maker during part of the 60's, with varying degrees of success.  However, most of his best work is from the Chess label, and this set captures his finest moment with the label.  Now, realize that most of this is prior to the Hendrixian sound fuzz and feedback transition that he is so noted for today, but this is my Top Ten and this is the Buddy Guy that I'm partial to.  As stated above......your mileage may vary.

T-Bone Walker - The Very Best of T-Bone Walker (Rhino):  Again, there's not been a collection that captures every era of Walker's career, but this 2000 collection picks the highlights from 1945-1957, easily the most creative portion of his recording career.  More than anyone else on this list, Walker's blues were colored heavily by jazz and, again like most others on this list, he's certainly inspired his share of later guitarist in multiple genres.....blues, jazz, rock, and even the occasional country guitarist as well.

There you have it.....Ten Essential "Greatest Hits" collections from ten electric blues giants.  For newcomers, it's a great jumping-off point.  For experienced listeners, it's a great way to get most of your favorite artists' best songs on a single disc.  We will revisit this topic at a later date, so in the meantime, go, seek out, and purchase these collections if you don't have them already.  You can thank me later.

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