Friday, December 18, 2015

Roots of Rock II

When I was in my late teens and starting to really get into music in a big way, I began to read about many of my favorite artists of the time.  One of the interesting things about most of their stories was how much of their music was influenced by the blues or by R&B music that they listened to while growing up.  Artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, etc.....were not only influenced by the blues and R&B, but they faithfully covered tunes by their influences and even gave them some recognition (which actually benefited many of those influences who were still alive).

Way back in April of 2011, Friday Blues Fix took a look at three longtime rock favorites that had their origins in the blues......Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" (featuring the original with covers from Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers), Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out" (covered by the Allmans) and Lead Belly's "Black Betty" (covered by Ram Jam).  It's past time to revisit this topic, so let's look at three more classic rock tunes that have their roots in the blues.

Clapton's Just One Night album

One of my favorite Otis Rush tunes is "Double Trouble," but the first time I ever heard the song was on Eric Clapton's 1980 live album, Just One Night.  Clapton's version was a dynamite 8-plus minute reading that featured some of his best guitar work (backed by fellow guitarist Albert Lee, who pushed Clapton to new heights for several years as part of his band) and a pretty fiery vocal to boot.  It was one of the better moments in an otherwise inconsistent album, and I played it frequently.  It's pretty obvious that Clapton was a fan of, and strongly influenced by, Rush in the way he approaches this song.  I didn't find out who Otis Rush was (or that he was born just twenty minutes or so from where I live) until a few years later, when I happened to find a couple of his songs on an Atlantic Records blues compilation.

Otis Rush

However, when I heard Rush perform this song a few years later, as part of the Antone's 10th Anniversary Anthology series, my sock were promptly blown off.  Though Rush's version on this disc was only about half the length of Clapton's version, the energy and sheer intensity of Rush's performance is just incredible.  I've heard several different versions of "Double Trouble" from both artists over the years, but these are still the best two to my ears, with Rush's Antone's version ranking as the undisputed champ.

Rush initially released "Double Trouble" as a single on Cobra Records in 1958, backed by Willie Dixon on bass (who also produced), Ike Turner (guitar, the distinctive vibrato parts), Little Brother Montgomery (piano), and others.  It also inspired versions by Paul Butterfield and John Mayall in later years in addition to Clapton's.  As you might have surmised, the song also inspired the name for Stevie Ray Vaughan's band.

Led  Zeppelin

Next up is "When The Levee Breaks."  Most people associate this song with Led Zeppelin because it was one of many standout tracks on their epic fourth album (commonly called Led Zeppelin IV). This album basically set the stage for hard rock to this day.  The band's version of this blues classic really served as a foreshadowing of future blues-rock ensembles like the North Mississippi Allstars, the droning, hypnotic guitar, the ghostly harmonica, the hard-driving percussion, the sweaty swampy atmosphere.  For many Led Zeppelin fans, "When The Levee Breaks" is as defining a moment for the band, and their fourth album, as "Stairway To Heaven."

Kansas City Joe and Memphis Minnie

The original version of "When The Levee Breaks" was written by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife/musical partner Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas).  It was written about the terrible 1927 flood that damaged a huge part of the Mississippi Delta and surrounding areas and caused the migration of many of the Delta's residents, mostly African American to the midwest (Chicago, St. Louis, etc..).  Many of the residents of Greenville, MS were forced to evacuate to one of the few levees that was relatively unscathed, in fear that this levee, too, would be compromised and further damage cause.  That was the basic theme of the song, and many others from other blues artists of the time.  The song was originally released in 1929, on Columbia Records.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page made changes to the song structure on the band's version, modernizing it for public consumption, and taking advantage of their monster drummer John Bonham, who played the drums at the bottom of a stairwell, which gave them their distinctive sound, and singer Robert Plant's haunting harmonica backing.  The band kept most of the original lyrics, however, even giving her co-composer credit on the track.

The Animals

Back in 2005, a powerful video circulated on the internet that showed pictures of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  Picture after picture of damage and desolation were accompanied by the haunting "House of the Rising Sun," which was a huge hit for the British rock group the Animals in 1964 (#1 in the U.S. and U.K.).  The song enjoyed a bit of a resurgence after Katrina and several oldie stations (at least those in my area) began playing it regularly.  The song itself, at least the Animals' version, deals with someone who has fallen upon hard  times in New Orleans, and Eric Burdon's distinctive vocals and the pulsating keyboards from Alan Price are what make the song really stand out, even now...over 50 years later.

Josh White

This song's origins are a bit harder to track, because it actually has, in part, been traced to a 16th Century English folk ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake."  The "Rising Sun" was referred to as a house of ill repute in a couple of traditional English songs and eventually made its way into the song.  The setting of the song was moved from England to New Orleans at some point, probably by American performers.  It was recorded many times, the first known was in 1933.  Roy Acuff recorded it in 1938, Alan Lomax recorded several people singing it during his Library of Congress musical expeditions, and Woody Guthrie recorded in 1941.  Josh White recorded it a couple of times, changing some of the lyrics along the way and this updated version was recorded by a variety of singers, including Glenn Yarbrough, The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Andy Griffith(!), Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the Chambers Brothers.  Lead Belly also recorded it a couple of times, 1944 and 1948.  Here's one of his versions, along with readings from Acuff, White, and Dylan.  

Hope you've enjoyed this look at the roots of rock.  We will revisit this topic again soon.

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