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.



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!