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.



Friday, February 26, 2021

Three Essential Recordings - B.B. King


Most blues fans had probably heard, if not actually heard of, B.B. King even before they became blues fans.  He was the most accessible of blues men back in the 70's, regularly appearing on talk shows and TV series.  I heard him play several times on the Tonight Show over the years (when you could hear him over the Tonight Show Orchestra) and his appearance on my favorite show, Sanford and Son, was just wonderful.  I even watched a prison concert he did in the late 70's on Mississippi's Public Television channel.    

Despite all that, it was a couple of years after I became a blues fan before I started picking up his albums.  I think part of the problem was that there were so many albums to choose from and I just didn't know where to start.  Part of it was that I was already familiar with him and there were these other great blues men and women that I was just discovering.

It's a pretty daunting task to select just three essential B.B. King recordings out of the hundreds of B.B. King albums on the market, but that's just what FBF is going to try and do today.  As with previous installments of Three Essentials, these are just my essential B.B. King recordings.  Your mileage may vary and I would love to hear what your three essentials might be......there are no wrong answers, so awaaay we go!!

Do The Boogie!  B.B. King's Early 50's Classics (Virgin Records):  Everyone needs to hear King's early work for the sheer energy and exuberance that was on display for almost every track.  He never really lost that energy, but for these recordings, he was in mid-20's to mid 30's age range and it was particularly high.  He always tried his hand at different styles of blues and this disc has some familiar songs and some that are not-so-familiar, but they probably should have been.  It's hard to go wrong with any of King's recordings from this time period (a lot of his late 60's - late 80's albums were hit-and-miss at times), and this one is one of my favorites of the lot.....I actually bought the original version from the U.K. Ace label before Virgin reissued it in the early 90's.  The cover shot of King in his stylish shorts doesn't hurt a bit either.  If you can find either version, grab it!



Live At The Regal (Geffen Records):  King released several excellent live albums (including Blues Is King, which we looked at a few months back), but Live At The Regal is considered not just the best live B.B. King album, but one of the best live BLUES albums of all time, and serves as a great introduction to not just King's music, but his skills as an entertainer.  He's rarely, if ever, sounded better as a singer or guitarist.  On song after song, most of which would be familiar to this 1964 audience of Chicago fans, he simply has the people hanging on his every word, eating out of his hand (they scream constantly throughout the songs, and he plays that enthusiasm for all it's worth).  Don't just buy one live B.B. King album, but definitely start with this one.




One Kind Favor (Geffen Records):  King's swan song in the studio is one of his best and most down-to-earth efforts in years.  A lot of his later recordings were sometimes marred by overly slick production, verging on pop production at times, or the presence of too many guest stars (some of these were better than others.....Blues Summit, for example).  One Kind Favor has a grittier production (courtesy of T-Bone Burnett) and it features a lot of songs that King never recorded before, including three from one of his heroes - Lonnie Johnson, and his vigorous read of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (from which the album's title is taken), which I couldn't help but hear in my head as I watched his funeral on Mississippi Public Television.  B.B. King saved one of his best albums for last.


It's really hard to pick just three great B.B. King albums, and that's not counting all of the multi-disc sets that are out there that cover the length and breadth of his career in one fell swoop!  By no means should you limit yourself to just three of his albums......you'll be selling yourself short if you do.

So what do you think?  Agree or disagree with these three choices.  We would love to hear from you and see what your choices would be for B.B. King's Three Essential Recordings!




Friday, February 12, 2021

Avalon Blues

For the past six or eight months, I have been listening to a lot of country blues, pre-war and post-war.  I always come and go with it, picking out a few discs from my collection and listening for a week or two, but I've stuck with it longer this time than ever before.  It's been a lot of fun to hear the original recorded versions of songs that you first heard from the legends of the 50's from all the Chicago labels and, later on, from British and American rock guitarists.  I've come to appreciate these artists even more than previously by taking the time to let this music soak in more than ever before.

I first heard Mississippi John Hurt in the late 80's, when I picked up a Vanguard collection called Blues at Newport, which featured performances from the Newport Folk Festival between 1959 and 1964.  Hurt had three tracks that opened the disc and I was captivated by his gentle approach, his intricate guitar work, his gentle vocals, and his amiable nature in conversation with the audience...it was a bit different from the other artists featured.  Later on, I heard a track from his 1928 recordings on another collection, and it was amazing that 35 years separated that performance with the Newport recordings.  

Over the next couple of years, I picked up some other recordings from Hurt, including those incredible 1928 sessions (13 songs) and several sets after his 60's "rediscovery."  These are some of the finest, and most unique country blues that you'll hear, an almost-perfect marriage of blues and folk music as Hurt tells stories about everyday living and assorted characters that have passed down over the years from musician to musician.  I have returned to these recordings over and over again and Hurt's music appeals to music lovers who rarely, if ever, listen to the blues.  It has a timeless appeal that spans genres.

Hurt was born in rural Carroll County, a tiny community called Teoc.  He grew up in nearby Avalon, a few miles north of Greenwood.  He started playing guitar around the age of ten and was soon playing parties in the area, mostly ragtime tunes, while working as a farm hand.  In his twenties, he began working for the railroad, though briefly, but it allowed him to expand his repertoire in the process, and in a few years, he drew the attention of Okeh Records.  The label had come through the area to record white fiddle player Willie Narmour, who pointed them to Hurt (the two played square dances together around Avalon), which led Hurt to record the 13 tracks in 1928.




Hurt's recordings, which included "Stack-O-Lee," "Candy Man Blues," "Avalon Blues,", "Louis Collins," and "Frankie," were wonderful songs, but unfortunately didn't sell very well, which really didn't bother Hurt very much....he was content to work on the farm and play for his friends whenever he had a chance, and he probably would have done so in complete obscurity if it had not been for the folk music revival of the late 50's and early 60's.  

A music scholar named Tom Hoskins was curious about locating Mississippi John Hurt, and decided to follow the directions within Hurt's "Avalon Blues," locating the 70-something performer alive and well in Avalon.  By that time in his life, Hurt had worked very hard for a very long time with very little to show for it, but he could play and sing as well as he did in those 1928 recordings and was not opposed to playing his music for anyone who wanted to hear.  

(L to R);  Yank Rachell, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Reese, and Sleepy John Estes

He began to play concerts, the festival at Newport among them, and he was received warmly, which thrilled Hurt.  These fans, old and new, were eager to hear his music, buy his music, and hung on his every word, and he was a most congenial host and performer, completely relaxed and "at home" with this new audience.  He suddenly had more money than he'd ever imagined and was able to enjoy it, along with fame and success, recording several more times, all of it inspired and worth hearing today.  He passed away in November of 1966.



I've always wanted to go to Avalon, just to see the area where he lived and where he is buried.  Over the past couple of years, I've been able to venture out a bit.....most areas in Mississippi are a short day-trip of two-three hours from my house, so I decided to venture out a couple of weekends ago.  While doing a little research on the internet, I discovered that there is a Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, which was established in 1999 by Hurt's granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt, to preserve the musician's legacy and history through several means, including the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, which is set up in Hurt's old home, which is also the site for the annual Mississippi John Hurt Festival.  If you're interested in helping them with their mission, visit the site for information on donations....every little bit helps keep his music and legacy alive.

Since we're still battling this accursed virus, I was uncertain as to whether the museum might be open right now (I've been trying to get into another one for several months with no success), so I contacted Ms. Hurt to see about a possible visit.  She was most accommodating and got me in touch with Floyd Bailey, the museum curator, since visits are by appointment only.  Mr. Bailey contacted me and advised me to meet him in Greenwood and he would guide me to the museum, so my brother and I made the journey to Greenwood a couple of Saturdays ago.

Mr. Bailey met us at a local convenience store and we followed him on Highway 7 north out of town, turning right at Teoc Road.  It's always neat to be in the Greenwood area because you can plainly see where the Delta begins.....the rolling hills to the east just stop and then everything is flat.  The area where Mr. Hurt lived is right at the edge of the Delta, literally.  We went into the hills and took several dirt roads cut deeply into the hills of Carroll County before coming to a clearing where we could plainly see Hurt's house to the left.  Driving up to Greenwood, I told my brother that I hated for Mr. Bailey to have to meet us and lead us to the house because I figured we could find it ourselves.  Boy, was I wrong!  When we stopped, he got out of his van and, smiling, he asked, “Do you think you could have found this yourself???"  

There's an interesting story on the Foundation website that describes how Ms. Hurt ended up with her grandfather's house.  She was able to move it from it's original location about a mile west of the current location.  The cozy three-room house is a great little stop with some of his old furniture still in place and lots of information on the walls.....newspaper clippings, pictures of Hurt and his family members and other musicians of the time.  It was just a cool feeling to know that he had lived in this house, probably playing his guitar on the porch from time to time.  Ms. Hurt also moved the original St. James Church on the property and it sits about 100 yards away from the house.  

I asked a few questions to Mr. Bailey while there and he filled me in on a few details that I had not been aware of.  Mr. Bailey lives in Itta Bena, a few miles west of Greenwood.  I lived there as a young child, so we talked a little bit about that as well.  He was a most gracious host!

We also wanted to see Hurt's blues marker and also his grave site.  Mr. Bailey said, "Follow me," so we followed him out to the paved road to the site of the old Valley Store, which is where Hurt would buy his groceries, visit with friends, and occasionally play on the front porch.  

From there, Mr. Bailey led us to a dirt road cut into a steep hill that he said would lead us to the cemetery, saying to drive past a double-wide trailer on the right, go about 600 yards, and "look to the left."  Hurt's first log cabin was on this road, as well as the old St. James Church (the one that is now next to the museum).  The new location of St. James Church is now a few miles away and there's mostly deer camps and deer stands dotting this road now.






There were actually two cemeteries down this roads, the one we were looking for and a newer cemetery just across the road with only a few headstones.  We found the cemetery when we saw a couple of wind chimes hanging from trees at the cemetery on the right.  We were lucky to see it because it's basically a cut in a small hill that's maybe about ten feet wide and marked by a granite marker on the edge of the road....."Durbin Cemetery."  I happened to be looking down and caught a glimpse of the marker as I passed, so we drove another hundred feet or so down the narrow road until we found a place to pull over.


The cemetery was on the side of a hill.  The graves were set up on either side of a narrow path, about two or three to a side, some with nice markers, some with stones with faded writing, some with the metal markers from the funeral home.  Hurt's grave was near the back, about 75 yards maybe from the road.  His grave was well-tended, with stones lining the sides.  The headstone that has been seen in pictures from books and magazines is at the head of the grave and another newer stone is at the foot.  Like other graves we've seen, there were things left behind by fans who made the journey (I'm not sure about the significance of the urn in the picture... UPDATE:  Ms. Hurt told me that the urn contains the ashes of Hurt's son, John William, who passed away in 2016).  It's a very peaceful, serene site, definitely off the beaten path.  It's located where John Hurt spent the majority of his life.  It's near his home place and where he went to church, where his family and friends were, so I’m sure it was where he wanted to be.  

There are a lot of other Hurts in this cemetery as well, including John's wife, Gertrude, who passed away in 2012 at 111, and son, T.C. (Ms. Hurt's father), who passed away a couple of months before his father.  Gertrude Hurt is buried closer to the road, about 50 yards away from her husband, and T.C. Hurt is buried close to his father.  Mary Frances Hurt's mother, brother, and sister are also buried in this peaceful place.

I've really enjoyed my recent travels into Mississippi Blues Country.  This was one of the most interesting because I've enjoyed Mississippi John Hurt's music for so long.  Any blues fan enjoys his music.  As stated above, it has a timeless appeal that really spans genres....it's not just good blues, it's good music.  If you are not familiar with his music, here are three essential releases that I've enjoyed over the years, but trust me when I tell you that you can't go wrong with any of his recordings.  These are just the tip of the iceberg.


Avalon Blues:  The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Legacy):  These are the legendary first recordings.  The sound is superb, considering that they're over 90 years old.  What's amazing is that when Hurt was "rediscovered" some 35 years later, he sounded just as good as he does on these tracks.  Every blues fan should have a Mississippi John Hurt album in their collection and they definitely need this one if they don't have any others.






The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard):  I like all of Hurt's Vanguard recordings, but this album, released shortly after his death, is my favorite of those.  He sounds fantastic on these tracks.  When I first purchased this one years ago, I played it all the time.  The sound is pristine, as on many of Vanguard's releases, and it just has a warm, cozy feel, like you're listening to Hurt play on his front porch.






The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard):  Somewhat awkwardly titled, this is actually a 1965 concert recorded at Oberlin College, not a collection of his "Greatest Hits."  However, this set captures Hurt  in great form performing most of his classic songs and interacting with an appreciative audience.