Friday, May 9, 2014

My Favorite Things - Sweet Home Chicago

One of my favorite blues collections has to be Delmark's Sweet Home Chicago.  It sometimes gets lost in the shuffle among a few of the other Chicago blues anthologies, like Alligator's Living Chicago Blues series and Vanguard's Chicago/The Blues/Today! series, but to me, the music is just as good and focuses on some of the movers and shakers of the Windy City's West Side blues scene of the mid to late 60's.  Though it's only a little over 30 minutes long, for blues fans it's a well-spent half hour featuring some great early music from several artists who have become legendary as time passed.

Luther Allison

Sweet Home Chicago included some of Luther Allison's earliest recordings, done in March of 1967.  He would record Love Me Mama for Delmark in 1968, then he rocketed to attention by a series of amazing shows at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals from 1969 through 1971.  He then become one of an exclusive group of blues artists to sign with Motown Records in the early 70's.  Backing Allison on his two sides were his regular bass player, Big Mojo Elem (who also contributed a pair of songs to the set), drummer S.P. Leary, Odie Payne, Jr., who was one of the city's premier drummers, on piano, and Fred Roulette on Hawaiian steel guitar.
Fred Roulette

Big Mojo Elem

Both Allison's and Elem's tracks are impressive.....each man brings passionate vocals into the mix and Allison's guitar is as sharp and fierce as it would be in later years.  I really like Payne's delicate piano work on Allison's "Gotta Move On Up," along with Roulette's tasty steel guitar.  The two Allison sides kick off the disc and set the bar really high.  Elem ably handles the slow blues "Move On Out of Town."  He played with Louis and David Myers in the 50's before joining Freddy King's band.  Allison eventually inherited King's band in the early 60's and Elem was still backing Allison in the late 60's, but showed that he was pretty capable of fronting a band himself, which he did to from time to time, releasing a few albums.

Louis Myers

The aforementioned Louis Myers also appears on a couple of tracks, recorded in the spring of 1968, playing harmonica with backing from Magic Sam on guitar, Mac Thompson on bass, and Payne on drums.  Myers was primarily known for his years of playing guitar with Junior Wells, Little Walter, and in his own band, The Aces, with his brother David and drummer Fred Below, which backed Little Walter for many years.  Myers' contributes a torrid instrumental, "Top of the Harp," and the classic "That's All Right."

Magic Sam and Eddie Shaw

Magic Sam also has four of his own tracks on Sweet Home Chicago, with tenor sax man Eddie Shaw, Thompson, and Robert Richey on drums.  At this point, Sam had not recorded in several years and was somewhat frustrated with the lack of progress he had made as a blues artist.  When presented with the opportunity to record, he jumped at the chance and his sides, two vocals and two instrumentals, are particularly inspired.  Sam would soon release West Side Soul, the quintessential West Side blues album, and Black Magic, every bit its equal, over the next couple of years.  Both of Sam's vocal tracks, including the ominous "That's Why I'm Crying," really stand out.  You can really tell that he intended to make the most of this recording opportunity.

Closing the disc is Leo (Lucky Lopez) Evans, an Eastabuchie, MS native, who moved up north to Milwaukee with his family when he was young, joining a band and touring the southern U.S. frequently until he settled in Chicago in the mid 60's and backed Howlin' Wolf, along with many other Windy City artists.  Though he was a good singer and guitarist, as evidenced by his track here (backed by the Jazz Prophets), he never really caught a break, but he did record several albums for labels overseas.

Sadly, most of the artists involved in the making of Sweet Home Chicago have passed away, including Magic Sam, Allison, Myers, Evans, Payne, Elem, Leary, and Below.  Eddie Shaw and Fred Roulette are still with us though, and still performing on a regular basis.

Although the previously mentioned collections from Vanguard and Alligator are usually the first that come to mind when discussing Chicago Blues, Sweet Home Chicago is just as essential because it captures several young artists in their early stages of development and showed that great things were in store for blues fans.

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