Friday, September 24, 2010

The Untouchable Robert Ward

Robert Ward played some of the most original and unique blues-based guitar you'll ever hear and he sang with the passion and soul of an O. V. Wright.  In fact, he's probably one of the best musicians you've never heard of, but Robert Ward was a sought-after guitarist in the 60's and early 70's who founded and led a band that eventually morphed into one of the primo funk bands of the 70's without him, who recorded on his own and backed other artists on labels like Motown Records, and whose re-emergence in the early 90's was one of the biggest come-out-of-nowhere-and-whack-you-between-the-eyes moments in recent blues history.

Robert Ward was born in Twiggs County, Georgia in 1938 in poverty. His father sang gospel and his mother played guitar. He picked up his first guitar at age ten, a gift from a white family, whose house Ward’s mother was cleaning. He taught himself to play listening to records he had heard from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed.

After serving a couple of years in the Army, Ward returned home in 1959 and joined his first band, the Brassettes, who played regularly, backing Piano Red, and even performed a side gig with James Brown’s Famous Flames (who had to borrow the band's equipment for their show). One of Ward's band mates was singer/guitarist Roy Lee Johnson, who later recorded the hit, “Mister Moonlight.” Frustrated by the lack of progress the group was making, Ward moved to Dayton, Ohio, where his aunt lived.

Ward (far right) with the Ohio Untouchables - 1964
Ward first received notice as the leader of the Ohio Untouchables in the early 1960’s. The Untouchables later became one of the biggest of the 70's funk group, the Ohio Players, long after Ward left the group. It was with the Untouchables that Ward began to develop as a songwriter, penning songs like “Your Love Is Amazing,” “Forgive Me Darling,” “So Tired of Wandering,” “Something For Nothing,” and “Your Love Is Real.” He also played some scorching instrumentals during that time, including “Uptown,” “Workout,” and “Hot Stuff.” The band recorded for the LuPine label out of Detroit, and built quite a reputation with their live performances. The group later backed the Falcons (and a young lead singer named Wilson Pickett) on their hit, "I Found A Love."

Ward picked up his distinctive, shimmering, vibrato-drenched guitar sound as a result of buying a Magnatone amplifier. He really liked the organ effect that it made on his guitar playing. The sound also impressed another young guitarist after he heard Ward playing in his native Indiana. A young Lonnie Mack bought his own Magnatone amp and with it, he recorded two major instrumentals in 1963, “Wham!” and “Memphis.”

Here are a couple of tracks from Ward’s beginnings, beginning with the Falcon’s gospel-influenced “I Found A Love.” Ward’s distinctive guitar complements Wilson Pickett’s testifying wail perfectly and the song went to #6 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1962. The Falcons also showcased, at various times, Sir Mack Rice (who wrote “Mustang Sally”), and Eddie Floyd (who sang “Knock On Wood”). Also, check the Untouchable's version of Ward's downright eerie doo-wopper, “Forgive Me Darling,” to really experience Ward’s ethereal string bending.

After leaving the Untouchables in the mid 60's (to be replaced by eventual Ohio Players guitarist and singer Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner), Ward toured with Pickett for a while, then released a couple of solo 45's and joined Motown as a session guitarist, playing behind The Undisputed Truth (on their monster hit, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”), the Temptations (during their “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” days), and others.

He dropped off the music scene in the mid 70's after the death of his first wife and his mother, moving back to Georgia, working in construction, cutting lumber, working for the City of Macon’s Maintenance Department, and various other jobs. He also did a year in prison (one of his prison mates was soul singer Major Lance, who had the 1963 hit, “Monkey Time”), forming a band while he was there.  Also during his time in Georgia, he began playing with a local gospel group, the Sermon Gospel Singers.

After leaving prison, Ward decided to reform the Ohio Untouchables and returned to Dayton. While in Dayton, he stopped by a guitar shop to buy some guitar strings and met shop owner Dave Hussong, who was a major fan of Ward’s from his Untouchable days, and had been trying to track down the guitarist for nearly two years. At the time, most music fans assumed that Ward was dead since he had been off the scene for so long. Hussong steered Ward to Hammond Scott at New Orleans’ Black Top Records, who released Ward's comeback album, Fear No Evil, in 1990.

Fear No Evil is considered to be one of the best blues/soul albums of the 90's. Ward reprised several of his 60’s tunes for the disc, including “Your Love Is Amazing.” The first sound heard on the new disc was, appropriately, a fifteen-second riff of Ward’s quirky, shimmering guitar. When I first heard the track (I bought the disc on impulse, having never even heard, or heard of, Ward at the time), it raised goose bumps on my goose bumps.  It was a revelation from start to finish.

Ward released two other discs for Black Top during the 1990’s. The 1992 follow-up to Fear No Evil, Rhythm of the People, didn't meet the expectations of it's predecessor, a formidable challenge, though it did include some nice moments, including Ward’s own interpretation of “I Found A Love.” His third release, 1995's Black Bottom, was much better, with some new compositions by Ward and more of that great guitar.  Check out "Lonely Man," from Black Bottom.  

Ward also toured constantly during his comeback, including a memorable appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival in the mid 90's.  He drew rave reviews for his performances.

After several years away from the studio, Ward returned with a recording from Chicago’s Delmark Records, called New Role Soul that was a little rawer than his Black Top recordings, with fewer horns. Ward also brought some new songs to the table that ranked with his best, including the powerful “Peace of Mind,” and a sharp instrumental, “The Chicken Jerk,” that features some funky fingerpicking.  Lots of Ward's later material veered toward the gospel side with inspirational lyrics and messages, often sung with his second wife Roberta, who also co-authored several of his later songs. 

Then, not long after his last release, the ride was over. In 2001, Ward began having health problems, including a couple of strokes that left him unable to play. His kidneys also shut down and he passed away on Christmas Day in 2008. Ward led a tough life, never really got the breaks he should have, given his talents, and basically left this world as poor and destitute as he arrived in it, which is a shame.

He made some wonderful music that deserves to be heard. All of his Black Top recordings are once again available, either used or via the download option. His Delmark swan song is still available as well.  All of these are worth a listen, but you might want to make a little extra effort to track down Hot Stuff, a collection of all his 60’s work as a solo, with the Ohio Untouchables, and with the Falcons. It’s as good as this kind of music gets.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Blues Legends - Muddy Waters

This week, in the first of a series, FBF focuses on a blues legend of the past. This week we’ll look at the one and only Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, MS in 1915, and spent his early years working in the cotton fields. He learned to play harmonica in his early teens, and got his first guitar around the age of 17. A major influence on Waters was Eddie “Son” House, one of the true icons of the pre-war era. Waters was soon playing in the local juke joints and fish fries when he attracted the attention of John Lomax, who recorded Waters in 1941 for the Library of Congress. Lack of employment and the struggle of raising a family led Waters to make the move north to Chicago, where his dreams of being a musician were rekindled as he formed a powerhouse band in the late 40’s.

He caught on with Chess Records in the late 40’s and they recorded him in a sparse setting, featuring only Waters on guitar and Big Crawford on bass. These records sold very well, mainly because their downhome style reminded many listeners of what they’d heard back in the Delta. Here’s one of Waters’ first recordings for Chess, from 1948, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” featuring his wondrous slide guitar.

An early edition of the Muddy Waters Band, with Waters (left), Otis Spann (piano) and Jimmy Rogers (far right)
Even though his first recordings for Chess sold well, Waters longed to record with his band, which featured Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Baby Face Leroy on drums, and Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica. This band was THE band in Chicago at that time. No one in the Windy City could compete with them. Finally, after some arm-twisting, Chess recorded the full band in 1951 and never looked back. These songs were even bigger than the downhome recordings. From 1954, here’s one of Muddy’s most beloved songs, “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” featuring one of the greatest Chicago Blues bands ever assembled:  Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, and the immortal Otis Spann on piano.

Another song from Muddy’s salad days is “I Love The Life I Live and I Live the Life I Love,” one of many Willie Dixon-penned classics recorded by Waters. By now, Little Walter had embarked on his own successful solo career and had been replaced by James Cotton on harmonica. Second guitarist Pat Hare was later known for his hit song for Sun Records called “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby,” which proved to be prophetic after he murdered his baby and spend most of the rest of his life in prison.

By the late 50’s, musical styles and tastes were changing, so Waters’ record sales dipped a bit, but he continued to record for Chess until the early 70’s with varying degrees of success.  Chess put him in an acoustic setting to try and draw the folk music crowd (Folk Singer) and, later, in an ill-advised foray into psychedelic music, entitled Electric Mud.  Here's a clip of Waters at the Newport Jazz Festival in the early 1960's, performing one of his classics, "Rollin' Stone," and, yes, Brian Jones named his band after this song.....maybe you're familiar with them.

One of his bigger songs in the early 60’s was the autobiographical “My Home Is In The Delta,” which gives you an earful of Waters' amazing slide guitar along with a young Buddy Guy on guitar backing up the legend.  Waters also recorded this tune with Otis Spann in the late 60's and his slide guitar (this time plugged in) was even better on Spann's version.

Waters with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy

Waters' band also served as a launching pad for many of Chicago's legendary blues artists of the 50's and 60's.  Among those who either recorded with Waters or played in his regular band are Little Walter Jacobs, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter Horton, Fred Below, Francis Clay, Luther Tucker, Sammy Lawhorn, Fred Robinson, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Earl Hooker, A. C. Reed, Big Moose Walker, Lafayette Leake, Casey Jones, Pee Wee Madison, Buddy Guy, Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Portnoy, Bob Margolin, Johnny Winter, Hubert Sumlin, and many, many others.  Check out Waters and slide guitar master Earl Hooker on "You Shook Me."

Muddy and the Wolf
Over the years, there arose a friendly rivalry between Waters and Howlin' Wolf, though much of it was blown out of proportion.  Waters actually helped the Wolf get his first job in Chicago, which soon led to the suddenly in-demand Wolf taking club dates away from him.  There was also the time when Waters "stole" guitarist Hubert Sumlin away from Wolf after he was fired during one of Sumlin and Wolf's regular falling-outs, and then Wolf stretching out his set at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival in an attempt to keep Waters from getting onstage.  Still, the two held a grudging respect for each other over the years.

Waters recorded for Chess until the label closed up shop and he continued to tour nationally and internationally (see below for a clip of Waters, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy from Montreux in 1974).  He appeared with Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and others during the decade, and made an appearance at the Band's final concert, captured on the film, The Last Waltz.

In the late 70’s, he signed with Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky label and recorded several albums, including the classic Hard Again. One of the originals Waters brought to the session was “The Blues Had A Baby.” The backing band included Winter (who produced the Blue Sky albums) on guitar, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and Cotton on harmonica.  Though Waters was now in his 60's, his new recordings were every bit as powerful as his Chess sides.

Waters passed on in 1983, but his place is secure as one of the Mount Rushmore figures of the blues. Today, it’s hard to find an artist who wasn’t influenced by this great man.  If you're not familiar with Muddy Waters' music, there are several fantastic collections of his recordings for Chess, including the single-disc The Definitive Collectionor Anthology: 1947-1972, a 2-CD set. Several of his Chess albums are still available, too, like Folk Singer, At Newport 1960, and Fathers & Sons.  For his early recordings in Mississippi, check out The Complete Plantation RecordingsMost of his 70's recordings are still available too, like Hard Again, King Bee, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters, and I'm Ready.  You can't go wrong with any Muddy Waters you find and you'll never be able to get enough of it either.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Essential Recordings: Deep Blues (Original Soundtrack)

A lot of the best blues recordings I ever picked up were strictly based on impulse.  Something about it just interested me at the time I saw it, whether it was the cover, the track list, the featured artists, or even a particular song.  Such was the case with Deep Blues.  I was in a fairly new record store (remember when most record stores were "fairly new" instead of "recently closed?") browsing through their blues cassette section, which consisted of a whopping two rows of about twenty-five selections. 

While flipping through one of the rows, I ran across this cassette bearing a couple of familiar names.  First, the cassette title was the same as a book I had just finished reading a few weeks before (and one that was discussed on this blog a few months ago).  Second, and I had to go across the aisle to the CD section to find this out (something I did frequently because of the lack of basic information on cassettes due to space limitations), I saw Robert Palmer, the author of the book, Deep Blues, listed as the producer.  I was familiar with a few of the names on the track listing.  I had picked up a cassette by Booba Barnes a couple of years earlier at Stackhouse Records while visiting the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, so I knew his music.  The other musicians listed were only familiar in name......I hadn't actually heard any of their music before.  I didn't even remember any of these guys being mentioned or written about in the book, Deep Blues, but the fact that they were all from or associated with Mississippi really intrigued me, so I bought it.

Before I left the parking lot, I popped it into my cassette player.  The opening cut was called "Jumper On The Line," and it was by R.L. Burnside.  Now, I'm driving home on the interstate, on a clear, crisp moonlit fall evening, and this track was positively eerie with its droning, rhythmic guitar pulsing through the speakers, then Burnside's high-pitched moan piercing the night...."See my jumper, Lord!  Hangin' out on the line!"  I didn't even know what the song meant at the time, but I was hooked.  I've heard several different versions of this song from Burnside, but I think that this is the absolute best one.  This was my first encounter with Burnside, and with Mississippi Hill Country blues, but definitely not my last with either.  R. L. signed with Fat Possum Records soon after Deep Blues was released and recorded some marvelous albums, my personal favorite being Too Bad Jim, also produced by Palmer.

The next track, "Jr.'s Blues," was by Junior Kimbrough.  Kimbrough had been playing houseparties since before he was ten years old.  More than likely, his sound never varied a whole lot between the time he was ten and when he recorded this track in his early 60's for Deep Blues, but that was okay.  "Jr.'s Blues" sort of falls together at the beginning, with Kimbrough moaning the opening lyric over the shouts of the appreciative crowd......then it's nearly seven minutes of Kimbrough tossing stinging lead guitar in amidst the rumbling bass and drums that maintain that absolutely hypnotic beat.    I can remember listening to this song (and Burnside's opening track) over and over again....rewinding the cassette back to the beginning....trying to figure out what it was that gripped me so much about it.  You've seen the quote above from Albert Collins about simple music being the hardest to play.......folks, this kind of music seems simple, but if it was, everybody would be playing it. It comes from deep within the heart and soul of Junior Kimbrough. That's how it sinks it's teeth into you and why you have to hear more.  Kimbrough may often be imitated, but he will never be duplicated.

I can remember Robert Palmer writing somewhere (maybe in the liner notes of Kimbrough's incredible first album for Fat Possum, which he produced) about getting so caught up in the hypnotic atmosphere of Kimbrough's juke joint and his music that he once woke up out in a pasture about fifty yards from the joint and had no idea how he got there.  That's powerful stuff.  The production on this album made things even better.  With the crystal clear sound, you could actually hear the bottles clanking around in the background along with the appreciative voices in the audience.

Deep Blues also took in some of the more urban Mississippi Delta sounds as well, ranging from Big Jack Johnson and Frank Frost to Booba Barnes...."urban" meaning that they mixed elements of R&B and soul into their blues.  Though it was urban, it was still far from the urban blues of a Jimmy Witherspoon or B. B. King.  Frost's lone track on the disc was marred by some sound problems, but Big Jack Johnson more than made up for it with his three selections. 

At the time Deep Blues was filmed/recorded, Johnson was still driving a truck, delivering heating oil to Delta residents and earning the nickname "The Oil Man," but he had played guitar for years, first backing Frost on some of Frost's classic sides for Sam Phillips' Phillips International label, then teaming up with Frost and Delta drumming legend Sam Carr (son of Robert Nighthawk) to form the Jelly Roll Kings.  Johnson eventually recorded some solo discs for Earwig Records in the late 80's and eventually developed into one of the Delta's biggest names and is one of the best guitarists in the blues right now, mixing the old and the new seamlessly.  Check out this track from the album, a full modernization of the immortal "Catfish Blues," with Terry "Big T" Williams helping out on second guitar.  Highly underrated, Johnson has released several outstanding discs on M.C. Records over the past decade and all of them are worth a listen.

Booba Barnes was at the height of his fame in the early 90's.  A highly flamboyant showman, people came from all over the world to check him out at his Nelson Street stomping grounds in Greenville at his own Playboy Club.  He wore outrageous costumes, played guitar with one hand, his teeth, or his tongue, and literally bounced around the stage, but he was a gifted guitarist and singer and his antics sometimes overshadowed his abilities.  Unfortunately, he made what might be considered a bad career move several years after Deep Blues, when he sold his club and moved to Chicago to try his luck.  He was just another face in the crowd in the Windy City and found it hard to get gigs due to the increased competition.  Shortly after moving, he was diagnosed with cancer and he died in the mid 90's.  He released one album, called The Heartbroken Man, that is recommended listening.  Here's a clip of Barnes, from the Deep Blues documentary (the song is also included on the album), called "Ain't Gonna Worry About Tomorrow."  Lending a hand on guitar is the late Dave Thompson, who got his start with Barnes before going solo in the mid 90's.

Other Mississippi blues artists featured on Deep Blues, included Jessie Mae Hemphill, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, and Lonnie Pitchford.  Pitchford was the youngest musician featured and he was impressive.  He was not only an excellent modern blues player, he also focused a lot on the roots and origins of the music, playing the diddley bow, the one-string guitar mounted on a board or the side of a house that served as many blues guitarists' first guitar.  He also learned, and mastered the music of Robert Johnson, with an assist from Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnson's stepson.  At the time of Deep Blues, Pitchford didn't even own a guitar, so Palmer and company bought him one and he ripped through two tunes of Robert Johnson's....."Terraplane Blues" and this one, "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day."  He captured the dread and desperation of Johnson's original perfectly.  As Palmer stated in the Deep Blues liner notes, it was "as if the hounds of Hell were indeed snapping at his heels."

Pitchford was able to make one recording before his death in 1998, at the age of 43. from AIDS.  The disc was called All Around Man and featured him on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, diddley bow, harmonica, and double bass.  His death was a huge loss, because he was one of the few young bluesmen continuing in the Mississippi Delta Blues tradition at the time.  Though others have emerged since then, it would have been interesting to see how his career would have progressed.

Deep Blues is an album I have played over and over again.  Unfortunately, it will be much harder for you to do the same.  That's because for some unfathomable reason, the disc has been OUT OF PRINT since the mid 90's.  There are lots of things in life that I don't and never will understand, but this one takes the cake.  This is a perfect summary of the Mississippi blues scene of the late 80's and early 90's, with some performers who would later find some measure of success as all of them (except for Owens and Spires) released wonderful, critically acclaimed recordings in the 90's, and it can only be found on eBay or from one of Amazon's independent sellers, usually, but not always for a high price.  I looked for the CD for a couple of years before finally finding it on eBay for.....well, never mind what I paid for was worth it.  Today, it seems to be a little easier to find and less expensive.  However you do find it, you should definitely purchase it if you're able, because it is essential listening for blues fans that want to hear the real thing. 

Sometime in the future, we'll complete the Deep Blues trifecta and discuss the actual documentary.