Friday, August 6, 2021

Summer Listening


It's been a few weeks since we've posted here, but there have been a lot of blues to be seen and heard during that time.  We've been out and about a bit, maintaining a respectable distance as much as possible, but it's been a while since we've been able to travel very much......almost five years for one reason or another, so we've taken a few opportunities to check things out this summer.  

In May, we traveled to Macon, GA.  I'd wanted to go there for years.  The Allman Brothers Band called Macon home for a number of years and the house they lived in during the early 70's, dubbed The Big House, is now a museum with tons of ABB memorabilia.  I became a fan of the band after buying their Dreams box set in the late 80's and really seeing what the band was all about.....how deep their roots dug into the blues, as well as jazz, soul, R&B, and country, eventually forming the foundation for Southern rock.

A pair of Duane Allman's guitars
For a fan of the band, The Big House is a must-see.  It traces the band's history far beyond their time spent in Macon, with lots of clothes, instruments, furniture, and many other items even donated by the band over the years.  It was really cool getting to see the actual guitars used by Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks, along with one of Gregg Allman's B3's, bass guitars from Berry Oakley, Allen Woody, and Oteil Burbridge, and Butch Trucks and Jaimoe's tools of the trade, too.

The Big House also had a great gift shop, so I picked up a couple of ABB CD's.....a set from the early 70's with the first incarnation of the band and a 2009 set from the 40th Anniversary tour at the Beacon Theatre with Eric Clapton sitting in, along with a DVD from the early 90's band (I later tracked down a couple of other DVDs from the Beacon.....around 2003 and 2009).  The later edition of the band was every bit as formidable as the first edition to these ears.  We also visited Rose Hill, the cemetery where Duane, Gregg, Berry, and Butch are buried, along with the gravesites of Elizabeth Reed and "Little Martha" (the inspiration for a couple of their greatest songs).

Otis Redding statue in Macon, GA
Soul legend Otis Redding also called Macon home, but the Otis Redding Foundation building, which also hosts a museum, from what I'm told, was closed on the weekend and his grave is on private property.  We were also unable to visit the Capricorn Records museum at Mercer University because of time limitations, but we would love to go back soon and catch what we missed.

My birthday is in June, which means Amazon gift cards, which means I picked up lots of great music and reading material.  I grabbed a couple of country blues CDs......Bukka White's phenomenal Vocalion recordings from 1937-1941 (some of the most passionate blues ever put to wax), and an excellent early 60's set from Arhoolie called I Have To Paint My Face, which features tracks from Sam Chatmon, K.C. Douglas, Big Joe Williams, and R.C. Smith, and is definitely worth a listen.  I also found Johnny Shines' Last Night's Dream (with Big Walter Horton, Willie Dixon, Clifton James, and Otis Spann in support) for a nice price and it's definitely a keeper, which should be obvious given the line-up.

I also grabbed King of the Electric Blues, a collection of Muddy Waters' Blue Sky recordings from the late 70's (the old lion still had plenty of fire in his belly), Rough Dried Woman  a collection of Magic Slim's Wolf recordings (because you can't have enough Magic Slim in your collection), and a copy of John Watkins' lone album, Here I Am.  I heard Watkins on the 80's Alligator collection, The New Bluebloods, but never heard anything else.  He released this album in the 80's for a French label, which was difficult to find until Blues Reference reissued it a few years back.  Watkins never released another album due to personal issues and some hard luck, but he is performing again now, so there's always a chance for more.



I also purchased a few more releases from the great Black Top Records....some that I missed during the label's later years.....Roscoe Shelton's Let It Shine, Earl Gaines' Everything's Gonna Be Alright, Tommy Ridgely's Since The Blues Began, and a retrospective of Anson Funderburgh's recordings with the label (Thru the Years).  I was impressed with the quality of the first three recordings...all three singers sounded as good as their earlier recordings, maybe even better.....and I had almost forgotten what a great guitarist Funderburgh was.  He was one of my first blues guitar heroes and I got to see him perform several times in the late 80's.


On the rock side of the blues, I picked up a few of Santana's earliest recordings (they were originally known as the Santana Blues Band and the blues runs deep in Carlos Santana's fretwork) as they began to move more into a jazz direction, a pair of Allman Brothers Band recordings with Duane Allman at the helm (the 1970 set at American University and the excellent 1970 performance at the Atlanta International Pop Festival).  There were also three Jimi Hendrix sets of previously unreleased tracks from 1968-1970 that were heavy on blues influences (Valleys of Neptune, People, Hell, and Angels, and Both Sides of the Sky).  Hendrix was one of the indirect influences in guiding me to the blues, whether I knew it at the time or not.

I also picked up a newer blues set from one of my recent favorites, Kevin Burt.  His Heartland & Soul release from a few years back just blew me away with it's energy and passion, so when I found his newest, Stone Crazy, I had to have it and it's every bit as good as it's predecessor.  If you haven't heard Kevin Burt before, and you are a blues fan, I strongly recommend you check this guy out.

That's not all we listened to this summer......we'll look at a few more in the coming weeks, Also, in a few weeks, we'll look at some of the books I've picked up.......I'm reading three or four at a time and haven't finished any of them yet.  Until then.......



Friday, June 25, 2021

A Pair of Windy City Gems

Robert Nighthawk

I've been listening to a lot of older blues since we've had a fair amount of spare time over the past year or so....more or less revisiting some old CDs that I picked up many years ago.  My recent adventures at the Little Big Store, finding several nice collection of country blues artists pre- and post-war, have more or less led me into checking out some of the great music between the 30's and the 60's, some of which I've shared with you on previous posts.

Last summer, I found a CD version of some of Professor Longhair's earliest recordings called Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  It was released on a St. Louis label called Nighthawk Records, which has been shut down for over 20 years.....it shifted from blues to reggae in the early 80's, but continued to re-release the occasional album until they went under (the blues catalog was purchased by Omnivore Records in 2017).  

I wrote about Fess' album here in December (which is wonderful, if you can find it), but one of the things that I noticed in the liner notes was a list of Nighthawk's other releases at the time (1990).  Among those were several collections of early Chicago blues, Memphis blues, and Detroit blues.  Upon further research on my part, I was a bit disappointed to find out that only a couple of these were actually released in CD format, the rest are just about impossible to track down at this point some thirty years after the fact.  However, I decided to make an effort, eventually successful, to track down the two CDs available (though long out of print).

Windy City Blues 1935 - 1953:  The Transition is a fantastic set that collects a wide variety of rarely-heard early recordings from some of Chicago's finest artists of the time.  Robert Lee McCoy (later known as Robert Nighthawk) is featured on 1935's "Prowlin' Nighthawk," the song that gave him his later stage name.  There are also two 1938 tracks from Sonny Boy Williamson (V. 1.0), Johnny Shines' "Please Don't" from 1953, four tracks from Robert Lockwood, Jr. (two from 1941, his first session, and two from 1953), and a late-career track (1951) from the great Tampa Red.  Other artists featured on the set include Aaron "Pinetop" Sparks, the State Street Boys (a sort of "all-star" band that included Big Bill Broonzy, Jazz Gillum, and Carl Martin). 

For the CD, there are eight bonus tracks (I'm assuming from some of the other LPs that didn't make it to the CD format) from Willie Nix, Floyd Jones, John Brim, Lazy Bill Lucas, and J.B. Hutto.  Some of these tracks exceed the 1953 end date by a couple of years, but that's not a problem because these tracks are as good as the original 16 tracks.  Altogether, there's a whopping 24 tracks of great pre- and post-war Chicago blues that are as good as any you'll hear from any of the better-known labels of the time.


A few weeks later, I found Chicago Slickers 1948 - 1953, which covers a fewer number of years, but the music is no less potent with early sides from Little Walter ("Just Keep Lovin' Her"), Floyd Jones ("Hard Time"), Forest City Joe, John Brim, Earl Hooker, Johnny Shines ("Ramblin'"), Homesick James, and the newly-dubbed Robert Nighthawk ("Maggie Campbell").  This set also includes eight bonus tracks from Little Walter, Nighthawk, Willie Nix, Shines, and Man Young (a.k.a. Johnny Young).  These sides were recorded for long-forgotten small labels like Parkway, Tempotone, and Random, but they're as powerful as any of these artists' later recordings for bigger, more successful labels in the Windy City.


 

It's tough to choose which of these albums is the best buy because they're both so good.  Chicago was truly loaded with some incredible talent during these three decades, some of which were not able to catch a break and enjoy a measure of success similar to Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf.  Some were able to enjoy success much later in their careers and many of them served as influences for later artists.  However you look at it, if you are into the classic Chicago blues of the 50's and would like to hear some of the early pioneers and influences of those artists, these are two most excellent collections.


Friday, May 14, 2021

Lonnie Pitchford - All Around Man

Lonnie Pitchford (Photo by Lauri Lawson)

I'm not sure when I first heard Lonnie Pitchford....I'm sure I read about him before I ever heard him play.  I think the first music I heard was on the soundtrack to the movie Deep Blues in the early 90's.  It was only a couple of songs, but there were pretty impressive.  I had heard that he was recognized as one of the best, if not the best, interpreters of Robert Johnson's music, but he had recorded next to nothing, so I didn't exactly have a good frame of reference on my part.  I later found three songs on a Robert Johnson tribute that Columbia released around the same time, but that was about it at the time.

 

Pitchford was from Lexington, Mississippi, about an hour's drive from Jackson.  He was a protege' of Robert Lockwood, Jr. (Robert Johnson's stepson), who taught the youngster how to play in Johnson's style (Lockwood was one of the few students Johnson taught directly).  also learned from other Delta artists such as Johnny Shines and Eugene Powell (a.k.a. Sonny Boy Nelson), among others.  I heard all of this when I first started reading about the blues, when it was sometimes easier to read about musicians than to actually hear them.  

Unfortunately, I never got to see Pitchford perform live, but I did see him on Deep Blues and on some documentaries that I was able to see on Public Television (Mississippi always featured a lot of blues programming in February for Black History Month).  He was quite amazing to watch, but I wanted to hear more recordings but they were just too few and far between and, truthfully, I think more product would have benefitted him greatly and allowed him to be heard by a bigger audience.

 


Fortunately, Rooster Blues Records remedied that problem somewhat by releasing Pitchford's first, and only, album All Around Man in 1994.  When I heard about it, I just had to have it and made the three-hour journey to Clarksdale to the Stackhouse Records store and bought a copy first chance I got.  

Never has an album had a more appropriate title.  Pitchford was a skilled carpenter as well as being a skilled musician.  As a musician, he played acoustic, electric, lead, and rhythm guitar, bass, and piano.  He also was a master of the diddley bow, the one stringed guitar that he first learned at the age of five.  He plays all of these instruments on this album.

Pitchford offers acoustic blues (via guitar and diddley bow), electric blues, a bit of Hill Country, jazz, funk, and urban blues......playing some of his own songs as well as songs by Robert Johnson, Bo Carter (the title track), Willie Dixon, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Donny Hathaway, Bobby Hebb, Muddy Waters, and even a song by Elmore James, which James only recorded as an instrumental!    He even plays piano on one track, but for sure the guitar work is the most compelling aspect of his artistry.  He also has a nice, warm vocal style that's suited to a variety of styles. 

   

All Around Man is an amazing album that shows Pitchford was comfortable in a variety of musical settings.  At the time it was released, some critics said it was too busy and unsettled and jumped around too much.  However, at the time it was released, no one was aware that Lonnie Pitchford would be dead in four years.  True, Pitchford did live a hard life, similar to many of his influences, and some may have been surprised that he lived 43 years, but most fans and critics figured he'd have more opportunities to record and future releases would be more focused on one musical path.  Sadly, that was not to be, but All Around Man does effectively capture the width and breadth of his talent.

In addition to All Around Man, Pitchford has tracks on several anthologies, including the Deep Blues soundtrack, the Columbia Robert Johnson tribute (Roots of Rhythm & Blues:  A Tribute To The Robert Johnson Era), and the Living Country Blues collection on Evidence Records, and a few other albums that are pretty hard to find (actually, all of these are out of print except for the Columbia album, but can be found on the internet).  Unfortunately, Pitchford's lack of touring (mostly limited to the southern part of the country) led to a lack of recording opportunities, but what he did record is well worth seeking out.

Lonnie Pitchford died in November, 1998 of complications from AIDS.  He was survived by a wife and daughter and is buried in Holmes County, Mississippi in the Newport Baptist Church cemetery near Ebenezer.  His headstone, which features a diddley bow on the side of the marker, was paid for by John Fogerty and Rooster Blues Records via the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.  His grave is very close to the grave of Elmore James.  If you're in the neighborhood, about an hour north of Jackson just off I-55, it's a very nice, peaceful area and well worth a visit.


Diddley Bow string was missing when I visited the gravesite last summer.

  

Friday, March 26, 2021

Three Essential Recordings - John Lee Hooker


I first experienced John Lee Hooker on The Blues Brothers movie, playing on the street during the Maxwell Street scene.  I thought it was the coolest thing....I loved his gruff vocals, that driving boogie beat, and the "How How How How" growl.  I definitely wanted to know more about him once I saw and heard him.

I actually got to see him in person a few years later at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  It was back in the days when they did night shows on the Riverboat President.....around 1987, I guess.  He opened for The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who were hosting a revue-type show with blues artists ranging from Lazy Lester and Katy Webster to Dr. John, Roomful of Blues, Duke Robillard, and Bonnie Raitt.  

As impressive as that lineup sounds, I was more impressed with Hooker, sitting on a stage all by his lonesome, playing in front of a couple thousand people, who remained basically silent during his performance (something that you don't always get to experience these days at live shows.....not sure why people pay big bucks to hear an act and then they don't even bother to listen to said act).  He was mesmerizing.

Since that performance, I've been a fan.  Over the years, I've picked up several albums and I listen to him a lot, but it seems like mostly late at night.  Thirty years ago, when I used to drive around late at night on hot summer nights down dusty dirt roads (pre marriage and family), I loved to listen to a cassette of John Lee Hooker.......that seemed to be the best setting for his moody brand of blues.  

The hardest thing for me to do this week was pick out just three essential recordings by Hooker.  The man recorded an unbelievable number of songs over a half century of performing.  As on our previous "essential recording" posts, we limit it to single-disc sets.  Also, remember that these are FBF’s essential three.....your essentials may be different and we'd love to hear from you about your choices.

The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954 (Ace UK):  Hooker recorded frequently from the start for different labels under different names, but from 1948 until 1954, he recorded for Modern Records and these two dozen sides represent some of his best work, including three of his biggest songs ever, "Boogie Chillen," "Crawling Kingsnake," and "I'm In The Mood."  I love Ace UK's diverse collection of recordings and their informative liner notes are always worth a read.  This is one of their best efforts and there's not a bad track to be found here.  This set is well worth the search.






Whiskey & Wimmen:  John Lee Hooker's Finest (Vee-Jay/Concord Music Group):  The set was released in celebration of Hooker's 100th birthday in 2017.  It's a nice single-disc set that covers the period that Hooker was recording for Vee-Jay, Stax, Riverside, and Specialty Records.  Lots of familiar tunes here.... "Boom Boom,"  "Dimples," "It Serves Me Right," "Big Legs, Tight Skirt," and remakes of the three mentioned on the Modern release.  These cover about a ten year period after the Modern set as Hooker was honing that unique sound.  Powerful stuff.





The Definitive Collection (Hip-O/Universal):  A few tracks overlap on this 20-song set, but this is probably the most comprehensive collection of his best work, covering those late 40's Modern recordings all the way to his last collaborations in the late 80's and 90's with Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt.  It also collections tracks from a few other labels not collected on the above two recordings......Chess, Impulse, ABC-BluesWay, among them.  If you get this one first, you'll certainly want to grab the other two afterward.....and probably even more after that.






It's really difficult to just pick three recordings of John Lee Hooker......and truthfully, you shouldn't limit yourself to just three.  These should simply be a starting point.  His music seemed to be simple enough upon listening, but when you think about it, there are no true imitators of his style.....nobody really plays the blues like he did.  He was truly in a class by himself.