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.  





Friday, February 5, 2021

Three Essential Recordings: Buddy Guy

Friday Blues Fix is introducing a new topic this week called Three Essential Recordings.  This is not just for newcomers to the blues, but for longtime blues fans as well.  We will look at a particular artist and select, in our opinion, three albums that will serve as a fine introduction for new fans and lead longtime fans to go back and find one that they might have missed.  Next week, we will be discussing a recent blues-related journey that we undertook, but for now, let's get started with three essential recordings for Buddy Guy.

Most blues fans are familiar with Buddy Guy, who's served as a big influence for a lot of guitarists over the years.  In the early 80's, I was a huge fan of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, both of whom covered Guy songs on their albums.  However, I didn't actually get to hear Buddy Guy until MCA started reissuing the Chess Records catalogs in the mid 80's, via their The Blues anthology series.  Eventually, I tracked down some of his recordings with Junior Wells and finally his own reissued recordings.  In the early 90's, after the resurgence of the blues genre, Guy began releasing new material and continues to do so.

All of Guy's recording have great moments.....he manages to still sound inspired as he approaches his mid 80's.  For these Three Essentials, we opted to capture his best moments at various periods of his career.  If you happen to feel differently from our choices, well, that's your choice and we invite you to share your Three Essentials in the Comments below.

Okay......for starters, these Essentials will be of Guy by himself, we will look at his work with Junior Wells down the road a piece.  These are three great options to really catch the work of Buddy Guy over the span of his career.

Buddy's Blues (Chess/MCA):  Guy enjoyed a lengthy tenure with Chess, both as a session guitarist and as a front man.  Buddy's Blues captures the cream of those recordings, a crisp and concise 15-song set of Guy at his absolute best.  Most fans will have heard these songs, either by Guy or by someone else.  This is what all the fuss was about for those up-and-coming rock and blues-rock guitarists who cite Guy as a major influence.  This is the place for newcomers because each song here (even the one where he's backing vocalist Lacy Gibson with some superb guitar work) is a keeper and the sound is wonderful.





A Man and The Blues (Vanguard):  This recording was a couple of years after his Chess recordings (1968), but it captures Guy in a more relaxed and understaed mood, both as a singer and guitarist.  Backed by a tight, TIGHT band that includes the great Otis Spann on piano, Wayne Bennett on rhythm guitar, Fred Below on drums, and Jack Myers on bass, along with three saxophonists, Guy works through a great nine-song set that includes two of my favorite Guy slow burners, B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel" and Mercy Dee Walton's "One Room Country Shack," and "Mary Had A Little Lamb.  I've had this album in various formats since 1987, the year I started listening to the blues, and I still play it regularly.




Slippin' In
(Silvertone Records):  When Guy signed with ilvertone in the early 90's, I remember being excited because over time, I had managed to track down a lot of his earlier releases, solo and with Junior Wells, and I just knew he would make a big splash.  
Well, he did, but his first couple of efforts were mixed bags to me.....I just don't enjoy the "guest star" format that a lot of labels do when they sign blues artists....I know I'm probably in the minority here for sure, but I feel like it ends up not really being the star's album.  Guy was such a force of nature that it didn't happen that frequently, but his albums ended up having more of a pop/rock feel than blues sometimes.  Slippin' In came out in '94, and I almost didn't buy it because I was disappointed in Guy's previous release (Feels Like Rain), but I'm glad I did because to these ears, it's his best effort start to finish of his 90's and beyond releases.  He does have a few guest stars (Double Trouble's Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton on some tracks and pianist Johnnie Johnson), but they are versed in the blues through and through and Guy really shines on this set.  



There are a few runners-up.......I Was Walking Through The Woods, Stone Crazy, Sweet Tea, Live at the Checkerboard, and the Rhino collection The Very Best of Buddy Guy, but these three albums are the first ones I reach for when I want to hear Buddy Guy at his finest.  As stated above, your mileage may vary, so if they do, let us know in the Comments.



Friday, January 15, 2021

Friday Blues Fix's Top 20 For 2020

Well, 2020 wasn't much to cheer about....a year best seen in your rear view mirror.  However, there were some very good blues recordings that helped blues fans get through it.  It was a very hectic year for your humble correspondent and his family, but I was able to listen to a lot of great music in what spare time I had.  I also missed a few, too, I'm sure, but below are the best 20 blues albums that I heard this year.  Stay tuned for the next online issue of Blues Bytes to see which of these 20 made up my Top Ten for the year.  
Friday Blues Fix's Top 2020 for 2020 (in no particular order)

Johnny Rawls -
Where Have All The Soul Men Gone?  (Third Street Cigar Records):  Mr. Rawls does it again with a fantastic album of blues and soul.  His songs always sound like old favorites with a nice modern feel.  Fortunately, there's still a few soul men still with us (see below), and thank goodness Johnny Rawls is one of them!

Liz Mandeville - Playing With Fire (Blue Kitty Music):  One of the nicest stories in the blues this year.  Ms. Mandeville was in a terrible accident back in 2016 and was told she'd never perform again, but she beat the odds and came back with a vengeance.....some nine months after the accident.  She's at her best on this set, both as a performer and a songwriter with a very distinctive style.




Kat Riggins - Cry Out (Gulf Coast Records):  Ms. Riggins is a talent who deserves to be heard by a wider audience and this album should be the one to make that happen, if there's any justice in the world.  A powerful vocalist, Riggins is also a talented songwriter who reaches down deep for inspiration.



Sam Joyner - When U Need A Friend (Sam Joyner Music):  I wasn't familiar with Joyner, even though he reached the finals at the I.B.C. two consecutive years.  After listening to this fine album, it all made sense to me.  His brand of blues is a combination of Chicago blues, New Orleans R&B, and the smoothest soul blues this side of Malaco Records.  Great set.




Sonny Landreth - Blacktop Run (Provogue Records):  You can't go wrong with this slide guitarist extraordinaire, especially when he focuses on the blues as firmly as he does on this excellent release, which blends the blues with various Louisiana styles, Americana, jazz, and R&B.  Landreth first blew me away backing John Hiatt over thirty years ago and then with his 1995 release, South of I-10.  He still blows me away a quarter century later.

Sonny Green
- Found!  One Soul Singer (Little Village Foundation):   I am not sure how this could be Green's first album....the California-based singer has recorded a handful of sought-after 45's over the years, but this is a revelation.  Green brings a little bit of Bobby "Blue" Bland, a little bit of Little Milton, and a dash of 70's-era Hi Records to the table and it's a mighty fine concoction.  A must-listen for blues and soul fans.

Nora Jean Wallace
- BluesWoman (Severn Records):  I first heard Ms. Wallace backing Jimmy Dawkins on a couple of his mid 80's albums and she recorded a couple of solid albums in the early 2000's before taking time off to care for her sick mother.  She's back on the scene now with Severn  Records, supported by their fine house band on this excellent set and shows she's as formidable a vocalist now as she was pre-hiatus.  Hopefully, we won't have to wait 16 years for her next album. 


New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers
- Volume 1 (Stony Plain Records):  This fantastic, loose-limbed jam session, with the North Mississippi Allstars, Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, and the late Jim Dickinson sat on the shelf for a dozen years, believe it or not.  Even better, there's a Volume 2 on the way this spring that's reportedly even better.  Can't wait!!





Jose Ramirez - Here I Come:  A native of Costa Rica, guitarist Ramirez placed second in the 2020 I.B.C.  This release finds him teaming up with Anson Funderburgh, Jim Pugh, and friends in Austin.  He shows amazing diversity, playing the blues, soul, and even a taste of New Orleans.  His guitar work is amazing from track to track, and he's a great singer and songwriter, too.  Don't miss this one!   






Don Bryant
- You Make Me Feel (Fat Possum Records):  Responsible for some of the best songs recorded on Hi Records, Bryant focused on gospel music and his wife Ann Peebles' career for a number of years before returning to the secular music world a few years ago.  Bryant still sounds fabulous and still knows how to write a tune.  Fans of Hi and Stax need this in their collection.







Dan Penn
- Living On Mercy (The Last Music Company):  It's been over a quarter century since Penn released a studio recording (notwithstanding a series of "demos" self-released and hard to find), but that's perfectly fine if he does as fine a job as he does on this release.  A great mix of some older Penn songs with some really good new songs, and the man sounds just as soulful as ever.  







Andrew Alli - Hard Workin' Man (EllerSoul Records):  Alli was a bit of a late bloomer, taking up the harmonica at age 20, but did he ever catch on fast!!  This is his debut recording and he sounds like he's been doing this his whole life.  This is a great set of traditional Chicago-styled blues and he pays tribute to some of the Windy City's harp masters, all of whom would be duly impressed with this young talent.





Lisa Mills
- The Triangle (Melody Place Music):  Mills traveled to Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Jackson, MS (home of Malaco Records), recording her versions of songs native to the regions, backed by artists also native to the region.  The result is some mighty fine music by one of the best voices in blues and roots music today.  She deserves to be heard and this is a great place to start listening.







Gerald McClendon - Can't Nobody Stop Me Now (Delta Roots Records):  I first heard McClendon on last year's Battle of the Blues - Chicago vs. Oakland set......only one tune, but this release more than makes up for that with this fine set of soul-blues.  A fantastic and versatile vocalist, McClendon does an excellent job on this set of original blues, soul, and R&B tunes.







The Robert Cray Band
- That's What I Heard (Nozzle Records):  Cray continues his collaboration with Steve Jordan and they continue to explore the Memphis side of the blues and soul.  A delightful mix of solid Cray originals with well-chosen covers of rarely-heard tunes.  Blues fans owe a lot to Cray for his mid-80's contributions that helped lead to the resurgence of the music and he continues to consistently produce some wonderful recordings.






Johnny Iguana
- Johnny Iguana's Chicago Spectacular!  (Delmark Records):  If you've happened to hear any of piano man Iguana's recordings with the Claudettes (and you really should), you kind of know what to expect.  With assistance from some of Chicago's finest (John Primer, Lil' Ed Williams, Billy Boy Arnold, and Bob Margolin to name a few), Iguana breathes new life into some of the city's classic blues tunes and contributes some fantastic instrumentals of his own.





Kern Pratt
- Greenville, MS....What About You? (Endless Blues Records):  This one came out in late December of 2019, so it was too late to get it in for my Top 20 last year.  I told him after I reviewed it that I would have put it on that list if I'd had a chance to listen.  I'm putting it on this one.  His love for the music came through in every note he played and sang.  I have probably played this as much as any new recording I played this year.  He will be much missed on the Mississippi blues scene and the national blues scene.  





John Blues Boyd
- What My Eyes Have Seen.... (Gulf Coast Records):  Another late bloomer, Boyd worked as a roofer for over 40 years, retiring to take care of his ailing wife.  He began singing and writing songs in his spare time and soon began performing.  On this compelling album, Boyd tells his story...including his exodus from his native Mississippi in the early 60's, his career, his journey to California, and his love for his wife and the blues.  His magnificent voice is worth the price of the album, but there's so much more to savor.  




Bobby Rush
- Rawer Than Raw (Deep Rush Records):  I never cease to be amazed at Bobby Rush.  Now 87 years old and approaching 70 years in the business, he's as energetic and creative as he's ever been, just tearing into this incredible set of acoustic blues that includes classic takes on material from Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson (Version II), Skip James and Howlin' Wolf, mixing in a few of his own tunes for good measure.  As I said in my review last month, I can't see anyone not enjoying this recording.





John Nemeth
- Stronger Than Strong (Nola Blue Records):  I really like how Nemeth doesn't stay in one spot musically from album to album.  This set goes in a new direction for the singer, mixing swamp, country, and Hill Country blues.  There's still plenty of soul and R&B in the stew, but I really like the direction he takes with this release.  It's ragged, but righteous.







 So, what are your favorites of 2020?  Feel free to share them in the Comments below.....