Friday, February 19, 2016

In Remembrance

There have been a lot of musicians passing away recently in several genres.  We have paid tribute to a few of them here at Friday Blues Fix lately.  Time passes and things change.  This week, FBF will pay tribute to a couple of Mississippi blues artists who recently left us.  We'll also look at the last days of a musical institution which helped pave the way for many blues artists and fans for over 50 years.

Photo by Lou Bopp

Ellisville, MS blues man L.C. Ulmer died on Sunday.  He was found unconscious at his home Sunday morning.  Ulmer was born in Stringer, MS, and was a regular part of the Jones County, Mississippi blues circuit for a number of years in the 50's.  He eventually left to find work in areas ranging from Cuba to Alaska before settling back into Mississippi in the early 2000's.

I first saw and heard Ulmer on Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle's documentary, M for Mississippi:  A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues.  Their paths crossed on the last day of their trip, and Ulmer's performance of "Rosalie" was absolutely mesmerizing.  I couldn't believe that I'd never heard him before.

Over the last few years, he released a couple of albums, 2008's Long Way From Home, an entertaining CD which was recorded live at the Rootsway Festival in Parma, Italy.  In 2011, he released Blues Come Yonder, one of the best of the year, which we reviewed here,   Last year, my family and I passed through the Bentonia Blues Festival during our trip to the B.B. King Museum, and Ulmer was playing onstage while we were there, so I did get to see him perform, although briefly.

Ulmer was a multi-instrumentalist, who played guitar, banjo, keyboards, harmonica, drums, mandolin, and violin.  He also loved to work on vintage cars and was something of a health nut, usually promoting homemade remedies and strict diet recommendations (he was an avowed vegetarian).

Since his death, there have been numerous comments on Facebook from Ulmer's fans and friends, including Konkel. Stolle, and photographer Lou Bopp that are worth reading.  From all I've read, Ulmer was a nice man, who made friends everywhere he met.  He able to tour thoughout the U.S., Europe and Israel over the past few years and was still active until just before he passed away at 87 years of age (there are some reports that he was older).  He will be missed by his many fans and friends.

Photo by Scott Baretta

Natchez, MS blues man Elmo Williams passed away on Tuesday night at the age of 83.  He had been in declining health for a couple of years and had recently gone into hospice care.  Williams only played full-time as a musician for a couple of years, working at various jobs in sawmills, a bakery, and a dairy, while playing music on the side.  He played for over sixty years, starting at local gatherings in Natchez with local musicians, including longtime collaborator Hezekiah Early, before being drafted in the army in the early 50's.

When he was discharged, he returned to Natchez, playing occasionally with a band that included Early on drums.  He formed his own band in the mid 50's, which played regularly in Natchez clubs and across the Mississippi River in Ferraday, LA.

He continued to play throughout the 70's and 80's, mostly at local functions, eventually traveling overseas to play with other Mississippi blues artists at the Blues Estafette festival in the Netherlands.  The arrival of the casino boats in Natchez spelled an end to the juke joints, so Williams basically quit music at that time.

Fat Possum Records tracked Williams down in the late 90's, and he ended up recording an album with Hezekiah Early called Takes One To Know One in 1998, one of the rawest down-home blues albums of the 90's.  The label also released a vinyl-only album, called American Made, in 2008.  The pair also appeared in Konkel and Stolle's second blues documentary, We Juke Up In Here: Mississippi's Juke Joint Culture At The Crossroads, in 2012.

Konkel really said it best in one of his Facebook posts:  Folks, when you get a chance to see one of these older artists perform, don't miss it. They won't be with us forever.  This is something I'm becoming more and more aware of every year, as I see many of my favorite blues artists pass away. 

Now for a departure of a different kind.....For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading about the impending closure of Jazz Record Mart in Chicago.  On January 29th, owner Bob Koester put the business up for sale.  Over the years, his rent for the building has been increasing to the point that he couldn't justify keeping it open, peaking at a mind-boggling $12,000 a month recently.  This week, he sold the store's inventory and the Jazz Record Mart name and website to Wolfgang's Vault, a Reno, Nevada business that buys and sells music, films, and other memorabilia.  The sale was final on Monday and JRM closed it's doors soon afterward, one of the last of its kind.

When I started listening to the blues, there were several ways that I built  my record collection, but the main methods I used were mail order catalogs and record stores.  Sadly, both of those are nearly a thing of the past.  It's pretty hard to find a record store these days and while there are a few mail order places that are still in operation, most of their orders are more than likely done via the internet.

Since I lived in a small town, there were no record stores in my immediate area, but most of the cities within 30 minutes to an hour away had multiple stores, so I would make a trip regularly to nearby cities and hit two-three sometimes four record stores while I was there.  Some of their blues collections only consisted of three or four rows of cassettes, albums, or CDs, but as a beginning listener, there was plenty to choose from.  I would usually flip through the albums and if I found something of interest, I would move over to the cassettes stacks (which you could look at, but couldn't access in most stores) and see if I could find what I was looking for in that format.  I know, sounds kind of geeky now (you should try typing it), but for a new blues listener, there was nothing better than finding something new to listen to.

After a couple of years, when I was at Jazz Fest, I picked up a program and it featured an ad for some new releases on Rounder Records.  At the bottom of the ad, there was an address where you could request a catalog of their music, so I did.  In 4 to 6 weeks, I received a package from Roundup Records, which included their 100-or-so page master catalog, a copy of their monthly catalog of new releases, and a couple of other loose handouts with additional music.  Not only did they have Rounder's list of recordings (and their subsidiaries Black Top, Bullseye Blues, Varrick, Philo, and others), but they also had recordings from other labels.....independent labels, labels from overseas, and even a few widely-distributed labels as well.  For me, this was like striking the mother lode.

Remember those days when you would order something, write a check or money order, stuff it in an envelope with an order form filled out by hand, and drop it in the mail.  Once you did that, you would wait 4-6 weeks for your goodies to arrive in the mail.  Around Week 4 1/2, the anticipation was almost too much to take and you were checking the mail sometimes twice a day.  When the package finally arrived, it was so exciting!  Today, you can either order something and get it in a matter of days, or download it instantly, which is really a cool thing, but for some reason, I miss the other feelings that I used to get ordering the old fashioned way.

Eventually, I got catalogs from other sources.....Down Home Music was (and still is) an indispensable source of music, as is Bluebeat Music.....also Shanachie Records (where I picked up so many pre-war recordings on Yazoo Records), Antones, Stackhouse Music, and Jazz Record Mart.  I ordered many of Delmark Records' finest recordings (also owned by Koester, which he still owns and which continues to release new blues and jazz recordings) from JRM and from Roundup.

Even though, there are much quicker ways to expand your blues collection these days, I miss those early days of collecting.....the uncertainty of being able to find what you're looking for, and the excitement you felt when you stumbled onto it.  Now, it takes very little effort to find many of the albums you're looking for, which, don't get me wrong, is a great thing, and I still get excited when I find what I'm looking for, but it's a different excitement.

One of the things I always wanted to do was visit Jazz Record Mart.  Years ago, I went into a huge Tower Records in Memphis, and my wife nearly had to shoot me with a tranquilizer dart to get me out of there.....I had to have stayed in there for three hours, and then went back two days later and spent another hour.  Unfortunately, I never got to go to JRM, but I managed to make a pretty good dent in their inventory via their mail order catalogs.  I hate to see it shut down, but that's the way of the world these days.  Luckily, blues fans have lots of other ways to get their music now and there's more to be had now than ever before, but I still miss the feelings I would get when those packages arrived in the mail 4 - 6 weeks after ordering them and all the great music I was hearing for the first time.


Steve Arvey said...

This a very good article...Thank you..

Graham said...

Thank you for visiting. Much appreciated.