Friday, November 1, 2013

Blues Labels - Delmark Records

Most blues fans who have been blues fans for a while have at least one recording that came from Delmark Records.  Many significant blues artists have recorded for the label, played on a session for somebody else on the label, or have had an older release reissued by the label.  If you were to look at many blues fans' Top Ten Desert Island Discs (a subject for a future post), there is more than likely at least one recording from Delmark that will be included.

Delmark Records is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.  It is the oldest active record label that is still run by its founder, Bob Koester.  Since 1953, Koester, who turned 81 on October 30th, has recorded some of the finest electric blues, country blues, and jazz recordings.....some of which have served as major influences on modern blues and rock & roll artists, and it all started in a St. Louis record store.

Delmark founder Bob Koester
Koester attended college in St. Louis, studying business.  He had started collecting blues and jazz 78's as a teenager in his native Wichita, KS, but once in St. Louis, he became immersed in the St. Louis jazz scene, publishing a magazine and selling 78's by mail from his dorm.  In 1952, he opened the Blue Note Record Shop, and a year later, he recorded his first band, the Windy City Six, on what was then called Delmar Records (due to a trademark issue, he later renamed the label Delmark).

Soon afterward, Koester and others in the St. Louis area, began seeking out musicians from previous decades who might still live in the city.  They found artists like Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams, J.D. Short, and eventually were led to find Sleepy John Estes.  These artists made up the first blues recordings for Delmark.....Speckled Red's The Dirty Dozens, Willams' Blues on Highway 49 (with Short), and Estes' The Legend of Sleepy John Estes.  During this time, Koester was also reissuing several jazz albums purchased from other labels.

In 1958, Koester moved to Chicago and later bought Seymour's Jazz Record Mart, where he began recording several of the Windy City's jazz musicians.  The business relocated in 1963 and was renamed the Jazz Record Mart.  It was also during the early 60's that the folk music revival started and there was a renewed interest in blues, particular the electric style.

By 1965, Koester had decided to record a local Chicago blues artist, Junior Wells, and his approach in doing so set the standard for modern blues records.  Until that point, a blues artist was only able to release an album once they had accumulated enough singles for a label to generate a "greatest hits" album.  With Wells, backed by Buddy Guy on guitar, Koester decided to record the session with the intent of capturing the charismatic harmonica player as if he were on the bandstand playing a regular live set at a local club.  The session was a huge success and Hoodoo Man Blues was, and still is, Delmark's biggest seller.  It is still considered to be one of the greatest blues albums of all time.

The floodgates opened soon after, with classic recordings from Magic Sam, J.B. Hutto, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, Carey Bell, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and later albums from Wells, Otis Rush, Jimmy Johnson.  Delmark's success with their blues recordings enabled Koester to delve into the Windy City's burgeoning avant garde jazz scene, recording some of the genre's finest albums.

Delmark has also acquired masters from many jazz and blues labels that are no longer in business.  Some of the blues labels include United/States, Apollo, Parkway, and Pearl.  They also bought the rights to several 70's sessions (from artists like Magic Slim, Jimmy Johnson, Lacy Gibson, Eddie Clearwater, and Lonnie Brooks) that were recorded by Ralph Bass.  These acquisitions have rewarded listeners with the opportunity to hear excellent recordings by Robert Nighthawk (Bricks In My Pillow) and Junior Wells' Blues Hit Big Town, a great pair of Memphis Slim/Matt "Guitar" Murphy recordings, and Little Walter's first recordings as a front man.  The label has also released excellent live recordings from the 70's by Otis Rush and Junior Wells.

L to R:  Bruce Iglauer, Jerry Del Guidice, Bob Koester, Michael Frank
Some of Delmark's employees have gone on to bigger and better things over the years.....Bruce Iglauer went on to form Alligator Records, and others such as Michael Frank (Earwig Records), Amy Van Siegal (Rooster Blues Records), Chuck Nessa (Nessa Records), Don Kent (Mamlish Records), and Pete Crawford (Red Beans Records) all went on to release prominent recordings of their own, and several musicians, including Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield, also worked there.

Delmark released few new recordings in the early 80's, at least on the blues side, but with the advent of CDs, they began reissuing their older recordings in the new format, and in the late 80's, started releasing some new recordings from Chicago acts like Professor Eddie Lusk, Dave Specter and Barkin' Bill Smith, Willie Kent, Jessie Fortune, Jimmie Lee Robinson, and Big Time Sarah through the early 90's, along with releases from soul legend Syl Johnson and the great Robert Ward.

In recent years, Delmark has issued recordings from veterans like Jimmy and Eddie Burns, Eddie Shaw, James Wheeler, Little Arthur Duncan, Tail Dragger, Detroit Jr., Willie Buck, Eddie C. Campbell, and Johnny B. Moore, and have also tapped into the Windy City's more recent blues stars like Toronzo Cannon, Mike Wheeler, Sharon Lewis, Lurrie Bell, Karen Carroll, Quintus McCormick, Linsey Alexander, and Studebaker John.

Koester still has plenty of great recordings in the works, including a November release from Magic Sam (a live set from June, 1968), the third set of live recordings by the much-missed singer/guitarist that the label has released.  There will also be a 60th Anniversary disc available in for the blues recordings and one for jazz.

So if you talk to anyone who laments the passing of independent record labels, just shake your head and point to Delmark Records as a continuing success story, even in these days of cookie-cutter music and big corporation record labels.  Without Bob Koester and Delmark, their pioneering approach to recording albums, their consistent reissuing of great music from defunct record labels, and their relentless promotion of the music they love, the world of blues recordings would be a much different place.

To check out Delmark's extensive catalog of blues and jazz recordings, go here.  To check out the Jazz Record Mart and check out their massive inventory, visit their site here.

Ten Essential Delmark Recordings:

As you glance through these, please keep in mind that these are MY essential Delmark Recordings, and that it was really hard to limit it to just ten.  I would love to hear from you about your favorite Delmark albums.

Junior Wells (with Buddy Guy):  Hoodoo Man Blues - The Gold Standard for Chicago blues recordings.  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for this session.

Magic Sam:  Black Magic - I know a lot of people love West Side Soul, and it's tough to have to decide between the two, but I think Black Magic has a slight edge and this is my list, so.......  Sadly, it was the last chance we had to hear Magic Sam in the studio.

Various Artists:  Sweet Home Chicago - I think this is a highly underrated set that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle with the great multi-volume Chicago collections from Alligator (Living Chicago Blues) and Vanguard (Chicago!  The Blues!  Today!).  Face it.....any disc with recordings from Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Louis Myers, and Eddie Shaw deserves a spot on your music shelf.

Robert Jr. Lockwood: Steady Rollin' Man - This was Lockwood's first session as a leader and one of his best.  I probably listen to this disc as much as any in my collection.

Jimmy Johnson:  Johnson Whacks - Johnson's catalog is loaded with quality work, but this release is the cream of the crop, with a perfect mix of blues and soul.

Robert Nighthawk:  Bricks In My Pillow - Nighthawk recorded this session for United in the early 50's, so this is one of the many great reissues that Delmark has blessed blues fans with over the years.  This was my first exposure to the slide guitar master and it remains one of my favorites.

Otis Rush:  All Your Love I Miss Loving - Live at the Wise Fool's Pub, Chicago - This live date was recorded in 1976 for broadcast on a Chicago radio station to help promote Rush's Cold Day In Hell release on Delmark.  We will look deeper into this disc in the coming weeks, but this is a fantastic example of a typical 70's Rush set.

James Kinds:  Love You From The Top - Kinds was seen as the "next big thing" in the blues back in the 70's, but sort of dropped off the radar after a series of bad breaks.  This release was well received upon its release a few years ago and seemed to get Kinds back on track, but he's since battled some health issues.  Hopefully, we haven't heard the last of him.

Toronzo Cannon:  Leaving Mood - We talked with Mr. Cannon a few weeks ago and discussed this release.  Cannon is one of the many rising stars on the Chicago blues scene.  His inventive songwriting and powerful rocking guitar work are positive signs for the future of the blues.

Lurrie Bell:  Blues In My Soul - Bell's most recent release is an excellent set of Chicago blues classics reinterpreted by the talented guitarist.  Backed by a great band, Bell really tears into these songs and gives one of his finest performances.....a great listen from start to finish.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent blog about Delmark Records. My favourite is Southside Side Blues Jam from Junior Wells. All his work is great btw.
Of course there are a lot of more favourite records with good sound quality also.

Graham said...

That is a good one, and one that I need to repurchase sometime in the future. I had it on cassette years ago. I think that those are some of Otis Spann's last recordings. Junior, Buddy, Spann, and Fred Below are always a great listen.

There's so much good music to pick from with Delmark, it was hard to limit it to just ten.

Thanks for stopping by.

Bert Hut said...

Thanks to you for leaving every friday a nice blog about known and lesser known blues artists. I started about a year ago reading it (about Big Jack Johnson, I believe).
Yes, Southside was one of the last recordings with the great Otis Spann in excellent shape. Maybe a nice item for another friday: Otis Spann and the also great artist Fred Below.
Have to shop soon again at Delmark, they have good stuff comming out these days.
btw my name is Bert Hut not anonymous, sorry.

Bert Hut - Spain

Graham said...

Thanks for reading, Bert. Nice to hear from you. I hope to do a post one day about Otis Spann in the near future.