Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011: Top Discs You Might Have Missed

All is well on the computer front for now.  It's time for FBF's annual Top Discs You  Might Have Missed for 2011, a proud annual tradition at Friday Blues Fix for at least the past two years.  If you're interested, my Top Ten Albums for 2011 can be seen in the upcoming issue of Blues Bytes, but for now, below are several outstanding recordings that might have slipped past you during the hectic year (and haven't been discussed here previously), but definitely need to be heard.  As always, fleshed-out reviews of these discs can be seen in past, present, and upcoming issues of Blues Bytes.

Dave Keller - Where I'm Coming From.... (Tastee-Tone) - I first heard Keller on Ronnie Earl's Living In The Light disc in 2009.  Keller contributed a masterful cover of Bob Dylan's "What Can I Do For You," on that release.  Keller has also recorded solo and his most recent effort is a wonderful set of soul covers, most of them not-so-familiar to the average fan.  Keller does a masterful job on lesser-known titles from Bobby Womack ("More Than I Can Stand"), Syl Johnson ("Steppin' Out"), Percy Sledge ("That's The Way I Want To Live My Life"), O.V. Wright ("Are You Going Where I'm Coming From"), James Carr ("Pouring Water On A Drowning Man"), and Otis Clay ("You Hurt Me For The Last Time") and with incredible backing from the Brooklyn soul ensemble, The Revelations.  I've had a hard time getting this one out of my CD player over the past few weeks.  Chances are that you will, too.  

Hans Theessink - Jedermann Remixed: The Soundtrack (Blue Groove):  Theessink is considered to be one of the best blues/roots guitarists in the world and the Dutch guitarist has built an impressive catalog of recordings, instructional DVD's and books, and memorable performances around the globe.  Drafted to provide the soundtrack to Jedermann, a movie adaptation of the Austrian play, Everyman, Theessink produced a mix of original songs and covers of familiar blues and roots tracks from artists like Memphis Slim, Bo Diddley, Tom Waits, Jagger/Richards, and Johnny Cash that captures the mood of the play perfectly and also gives you a glimpse of sorts at the inner Theessink as well.  The guitarist performs solo tracks and band tracks and his guitar and deep, harrowing vocals are on top of it all.  Though this is sold as a "soundtrack," it's really an amazingly personal release that serves as a great introduction to Hans Theessink if you're not familiar with him.

Sarah Jane Nelson - Wild Women Don't Get The Blues (CDBY):  This is a laidback, relaxed session of backporch blues, courtesy of Sarah Jane Nelson, guitarist/vocalist Michael "Hawkeye" Herman, and harmonica player Big Irv Lubliner.  You will be familiar with the majority of the setlist, but Ms. Nelson gives new life to assorted recordings by Ida Cox, Billie Holliday, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, and T-Bone Walker.  How's that for a diverse set of songs?  This reminds me more than anything of buddies getting together on a Sunday afternoon to play their favorite tunes, with themselves as the appreciative audience.  Of course it doesn't hurt that Nelson is one talented singer, either.

L. C. Ulmer - Blues Come Yonder (Hill Country):  Finally, somebody decided to get Ulmer in the studio after his appearance on the M for Mississippi documentary, and boy, was he ever ready when he got there.  Mixing guitar with banjo and mandolin, Ulmer works through a wonderful set of blues that blend Hill Country trance-like grooves with upbeat and danceable folk songs as well as Delta and even a little bit of converted country-gospel (Hank Williams' "I Saw The Light").  Like most recordings of this type worth hearing, Ulmer's love for the music comes shining through and really makes a good recording great.  I hope that we get to hear more from the 83-year-old soon. 

Cousin Harley - It's A Sin (Little Pig):  The best rockabilly record I've heard in a while came this year from Vancouver native Paul Pigat, a roots music guitarist and singer who's played with folks like Jakob Dylan, Neko Case, Jim Byrnes, and the Sojourners.  It's A Sin is as rough and rowdy as rockabilly gets, with a few sidebars into jump blues and surf music thrown in.  These guys are so good that it's enough to make you wonder how the music ever fell out of favor in the first place.  Then again, these guys could lead the charge to bring it back into vogue.  Meanwhile, just sit back, no....stand up, and enjoy the ride.

Rich DelGrosso/John Del Toro Richardson - Time Slips On By:  I've only recently discovered blues mandolin.  Rich DelGrosso is one of the few mandolin players in the blues right now, continuing a tradition started by Yank Rachell, Charlie McCoy, and Johnny Young.  On his latest release, he teams up with Houston-area guitarist John Del Toro Richardson for a tight 14-song set of originals.  Most of DelGrosso's tunes, though they vary greatly in arrangement, are on the traditional side of blues, while Richardson's songs run the gamut from blues to roots to soul to jazz.  Overall this is a solid set of roots and blues music, made even more distinctive by the presence of the mandolin.  Very enjoyable. 

Ruff Kutt Blues Band - Mill Block Blues (Katy Mae Productions):  This is a good cause to contribute to.....proceeds on the sale of this CD go to the HART Fund, a service provided by the Blues Foundation to help with medical/dental care and pay funeral expenses to blues musicians.  The music itself is first-rate with support from artists like Anson Funderburgh, Hash Brown, Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones, and loads of talent from many Dallas area musicians, such as Dempsey Crenshaw, Michael Schaefer, Wes Starr, and Christian Dozzler.  This is as solid a set of Texas-based blues as you will find, and for a worthwhile cause to boot.

Hadden Sayers - Hard Dollar (Blue Corn):  Sayers returned from a brief hiatus to release this beauty of a recording that ably blends Texas blues with rock and the sounds of the swamp.  In addition to being a fine guitarist, he's also a pretty good songwriter too, including the rocking opener "Take Me Back To Texas," his duet with Ruthie Foster, with whom he's worked over the past few years ("All I Want Is You"), and a nice tribute to the women of his home state ("Sweet Texas Girls").  After much too long an absence, it's great to have Hadden Sayers back on the scene and it sounds like he's as glad to be back as we are to have him. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

In Memoriam: 2011 Passings

Merry Christmas, everybody!!!  This year saw the passing of many familiar blues musicians, including several Muddy Waters Band alumni.  Most of us have been following these people for a long time and will feel a definite void with their absence in the coming years.  Here are just a few of the noteworthy passings in the blues world from 2011.

Lacy Gibson, who died in April at age 74, was an underrated bluesman from Chicago who played with Son Seals on several of his recordings, but he was also a pretty good solo artist, too........a great vocalist and guitarist.  Check out his reissued 70's session on Delmark Records and his recording for Black Magic, Switchy Titchy, along with his set on Alligator's Living Chicago Blues series.  Several of his tunes are fondly remembered....particularly his vocal debut on Chess Records during a Buddy Guy session.  The tune, "My Love Is Real," was mistakenly attributed to Guy upon its initial release.  Another tune was a show-stopping version of Ray Charles' "Drown In My Own Tears," that was his opening tune for his appearance on Volume 3 of the LCB series.

One of the first bluesmen I got to hear was Big Jack Johnson, who died in March at age 70.  Few artists today brought the level of intensity to their performance that Johnson did.  His guitar cut to the bone, his raw vocals sometimes brought chills, and his unique songwriting covered topics as far-ranging as ice storms, the AIDS virus, divorce, and country music.  What always amazed me about Johnson was that on record, he always improved on what he had done previously.  For his fans, there was never the likelihood that he was going to sit back and release The Oil Man, Part 2.  He always moved forward, both as a songwriter and a guitarist.  This made Johnson's death all the more depressing.......he had a lot more left to say.

The first track I ever heard from Pinetop Perkins is still my favorite.  That was his fun-filled romp through the classic "Caldonia," recorded as part of the blues club Antones' 10th Anniversary celebration.  The former Muddy Waters piano man started out as a guitarist as a youngster, but switched to piano after being stabbed in a fight.  The guitar world's loss was our gain as we got to enjoy over half a century of some of the finest blues piano and one of the true characters of the blues.  He was also proof positive that a steady diet of McDonald's food is not necessarily bad for your health, lasting almost 98 years.

I am so glad that I got the opportunity to see Honeyboy Edwards this winter at the Riley Center as part of the Big Head Blues Club show.  He retired a few months later and then passed away in late August at 96.  Because of Edwards, blues fans have a greater sense of what it was like to live as a bluesman during the first half of the century.....the endless travel, hoboing, and the danger.  Edwards also crossed paths with many of the great bluesmen of the early years and because of that, we have a better feel about those musicians.  Edwards' autobiography is essential reading for any blues fan and his recordings often include tracks where he recounts many of those old times.  Every blues fan should want to know about Honeyboy Edwards and we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his musical and historical contributions.

You may not know who Cornell Dupree was, but if you've ever listened to blues, jazz, or R&B, you have heard him play before.  The Fort Worth native, who died in May at age 68, got his start with King Curtis' band in the early 60's before becoming a session musician, appearing on 2,500 sessions.  He played guitar on Brook Benton's classic "Rainy Night in Georgia," and recorded sessions for artists as diverse as Lou Rawls, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, Donnie Hathaway, Bill Withers, and Joe Cocker.  He was part of Aretha Frankin's band from the late 60's to the mid 70's (playing the opening riff of "Respect") and moved toward the jazz circuit from that point, exploring fusion, acid jazz, and funk.  Dupree was a versatile and highly underrated and underappreciated artist.

When Muddy Waters tabbed George "Mojo" Buford to play harmonica in Waters' ensemble, the Hernando, MS native had some big shoes to fill in Little Walter and James Cotton, but he not only survived, but thrived, serving several stints with Waters during the 60's, 70's, and 80's, including holding down the post in Waters' last band.  Buford, who died in October at age 81, did record several albums on his own for labels like JSP, Mr. Blues, Vernon, and Folk Art, all the time rarely straying from the classic Chicago sound.

New Orleans R&B singer Benny Spellman passed away in June at age 79.  Spellman had a brief career in the 60's, recording on many Allen Toussaint sessions during that time.  He provided the bass backing vocals to Ernie K-Doe's major hit, "Mother In Law," but he also recorded several hits of his own, later covered by soem familiar artists.  "Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)" was covered by Delbert McClinton, Ringo Starr, the O'Jays, and Snooks Eaglin.  The flip side of "Lipstick Traces" was "Fortune Teller," which was later recorded by the Rolling Stones, the Who, and most recently by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.  In the mid 60's, he left the music business to become a beer salesman, but made regular appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for many years.

Hubert Sumlin was responsible for many of the wild, unpredictable, darting and twisting guitar leads that punctuated Howlin' Wolf's 60's recordings.  Songs like "Spoonful," "Hidden Charms," "Killing Floor," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Do the Do," and "300 Pounds of Joy,"  Sumlin became the Wolf's primary guitarist in 1955 and, except for a brief stint with Muddy Waters in 1956, served in that capacity until Wolf's death in 1975.  He resurfaced in the late 80's and, after shaking off some initial rust, soon started sounding like the old Hubert Sumlin and enjoyed a fairly successful solo career until health problems surfaced in the mid 2000's when he nearly died after a massive heart attack.  He died in early December at age 80.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paid the expenses for his funeral.  I got to see Sumlin with Honeyboy Edwards earlier this year and even though he was strapped to an oxygen tank, he was still scattering those unpredictible guitar lines all over the place with ease.

British guitarist Gary Moore died in February from a heart attack at age 58.  Moore was well-known as guitarist for the groups Skid Row and Thin Lizzy, before he embarked on a solo career that shifted to blues/rock in the 90's, as he appeared on recordings with B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Albert King, and collaborated with numerous rockers over the span of his career, successfully jumping between the blues and rock over the past couple of decades.  Though he was popular in the U.S., he enjoyed a huge following overseas and deservedly so with his powerful guitar attack which, whether playing rock or blues, was completely immersed in the blues.

Willie "Big Eyes" Smith was surrounded by the blues as a youngster.  As a boy in Helena, Arkansas, his neighbors included Robert Nighthawk and Pinetop Perkins.  He taught himself drums and harmonica after moving to Chicago, playing and struggling throughout most of the 50's in the Windy City before taking over the drum kit in Muddy Waters' band in 1960.  He stayed with Waters for nearly 20 years before forming his own group, largely consisting of former Waters' sidemen who quit the band en masse in 1980, called the Legendary Blues Band.  Smith finally started his own solo career in 1995, playing harmonica and singing, and releasing some consistently fine recordings, including his swan song effort released earlier this year with Pinetop Perkins.  Smith died at age 75 in September, about six months after Perkins.

Lee "Shot" Williams, who died in November at age 73, also grew up around the blues, growing up with Big and Little Smokey Smothers in Mississippi.  He later moved to Chicago at age 20, meeting up with Little Smokey Smothers in the Windy City and singing in his band, and also with Magic Sam's band.  He recorded a few singles in the early 60's that were regional hits, and later toured with Earl Hooker, Little Milton Campbell, and Bobby Blue Bland.  He started recording in the late 70's and started hitting the soul/blues circuit in the South, building a big following throughout the 80's.  In 1995, Black Magic released Williams' magnificent Cold Shot album, which featured Little Smokey Smothers on guitar and a seasoned group of backing musicians like bass player Johnny B. Gayden and keyboardist Tony Z.  Williams ended up with the Memphis-based Ecko Records after that and continued to be a success on the soul/blues circuit, ending up with CDS Records during the past few years.


Friday, December 16, 2011

We Juke Up In Here!

I've been battling some computer issues for the past few days......hard drive problems on one computer and a virus on the other.......Hopefully, we will return to your regularly scheduled programming next week.  In the meantime, what's new with the blues?

First up, an exciting new film is in the works.  Here's a press release from our friends Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle......


For more information, contact:  Roger Stolle at or Jeff Konkel at

(CLARKSDALE, MS) In 2008, music producers Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle took viewers on a road trip through the birthplace of the blues in the award-winning film M For Mississippi. Now the duo is set to return with a new film exploring what remains of the once-thriving tradition of juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. Filming concluded last week for We Juke Up In Here: Mississippi’s Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads. The DVD/CD set will be released in April 2012 but is available now for pre-order at

“Great blues music can be enjoyed anywhere, whether it’s at a big outdoor festival or an upscale supper club. But we believe the best place to hear it is in a dimly lit juke filled with tough characters, treacherous women and lukewarm beer,” Konkel said. “This film aims to prove our point.”

Production for We Juke Up In Here began in May and continued through the summer and fall. The project reunites Stolle and Konkel with their M For Mississippi cinematographer and co-producer Damien Blaylock. Also returning from the previous production was sound engineer Bill Abel. The team was rounded out by talented videographer and photographer Lou Bopp.

Red Paden (Photo by Lou Bopp)

Although the movie’s production included film shoots in venues throughout the Delta, the film largely focuses on Red’s Lounge, a long-running juke in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and its owner Red Paden. Over the past decade, Red’s Lounge has emerged as the most active juke joint in the region, hosting live blues every weekend by some of the state’s best-loved bluesmen.

“There are plenty of so-called ‘juke joints’ in Mississippi that book live music during festival weekends when thousands of tourists flood the region,” Stolle said. “But the test of a real juke is what happens when the crowds go home. Red books real-deal blues into his juke week-in and week-out, all year round. He’s like the last of the Mohicans.”
Filming at the Blue Front Cafe (Photo by Lou Bopp)

Other venues to be featured in the film include Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi and the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Mississippi.

In addition to insightful interviews with juke owners, patrons and musicians, “We Juke Up In Here” will feature gritty performances by Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood, Elmo Williams & Hezekiah Early, Robert Lee “Lil’ Poochie” Watson, Big George Brock, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and Terry “Harmonica” Bean. 

Filming at Po' Monkey's Lounge (Photo by Lou Bopp)
We Juke Up In Here will be released as a deluxe box set featuring a DVD, a CD soundtrack and a glossy pullout booklet with multiple essays, notes and color photos. The DVD will include the feature-length documentary along with a treasure trove of bonus features including unreleased scenes, production stills, a promotional trailer, closed captioning, foreign-language subtitles and more. The DVD will be region-free and playable on DVD players worldwide. The box set will retail for $29.99 (US).

Customers who pre-order We Juke Up In Here from will receive the product before its official release and at a discounted price of $25 (US) plus free shipping worldwide.

Several marketing sponsors have stepped forward with financial support to assist in the production of the movie. The filmmakers’ principal sponsor and partner is the Rootsway Roots & Blues Association (, a nonprofit organization from Parma, Italy. Founded in 2004, the group is dedicated to promoting rural and indigenous American and African-American musical art forms throughout northern Italy. Rootsway has brought several Mississippi blues performers to Italy in recent years.

Additional sponsors include: AJStephans Company/Jeff Rose (, Cathead Vodka (, Jerry and Marge Konkel, Lemuria Books (, Nayati Dreams (, The New Roxy (, Roadhouse Lou, and Smokestack Blues (

Additional sponsorship opportunities remain for We Juke Up In Here. To inquire about sponsorships, e-mail the filmmakers at

We Juke Up In Here is a joint production of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art ( and Broke & Hungry Records (

Friday Blues Fix will be taking a closer look at We Juke Up In Here in the coming months.

This week, the nominees for the 33rd Annual Blues Music Awards (formerly the Handy Awards) were announced.  Check out the list and see if your favorites made the cut.  I've heard several of the nominees in the Album categories, but not enough of them to make a really clear-cut vote in any of those categories. 
Acoustic Album

Brand New Eyes - Doug MacLeod
Conversations in Blue - David Maxwell & Otis Spann
Misery Loves Company - Mary Flower
Shake 'Em on Down - Rory Block
Troubadour Live - Eric Bibb

Acoustic Artist

David Maxwell
Doug MacLeod
Eric Bibb
Guy Davis
Mary Flower
Rory Block

Album of the Year

Chicago Blues A Living History the (R)evolution Continues - Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Carlos Johnson
Evening - Sugar Ray & the Bluetones
Medicine - Tab Benoit
Revelator - Tedeschi Trucks Band
Rock and a Hard Place - Eugene Hideaway Bridges
The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too - Johnny Sansone

B.B. King Entertainer

Candye Kane
Lil' Ed
Ruthie Foster
Tab Benoit
Tommy Castro


The Bo-Keys
Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
Sugar Ray & the Bluetones
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Tommy Castro Band
Trampled Under Foot

Best New Artist Debut

Bad Girl - Demetria Taylor
Choice Cuts - Big Pete
Leave The Light On - Sena Ehrhardt
Runaway - Samantha Fish
The Mighty Mojo Prophets - The Mighty Mojo Prophets

Contemporary Blues Album

Don't Explain - Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa
Medicine - Tab Benoit
The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too - Johnny Sansone
The Skinny - Ian Siegal & the Youngest Sons
Tommy Castro Presents The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue--Live! - Various Artists
Unconditional  - Ana Popovic

Contemporary Blues Female Artist

Ana Popovic
Bettye LaVette
Candye Kane
Janiva Magness
Susan Tedeschi

Contemporary Blues Male Artist

Joe Louis Walker
Johnny Sansone
JP Soars
Tab Benoit
Tommy Castro


Live At Antone's -Ruthie Foster (Blue Corn)
All Jams on Deck - Various Artists (Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise & Mug-Shot Productions)
An Evening at Trasimeno Lake - Ana Popovic (ArtisteXclusive)
Live at Montreux 2010 - Gary Moore (Eagle Rock)
Play the Blues - Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton (Rhino)
The Emporium to the Orpheum - Trampled Under Foot (Redwood)

Gibson Guitar Award

Derek Trucks
Duke Robillard
Kirk Fletcher
Lurrie Bell
Michael Burks

Historical Album

Bear Family - Texas Flyer 1974-76 (Freddie King)
Chess - Smokestack Lightning/The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 (Howlin' Wolf)
Delmark - Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band with Buddy Guy)
Electro-Fi - Teardrops Are Falling - Live in 1983 (George "Harmonica" Smith)
Virgin - The Essential Modern Records Collection (Etta James)


Biscuit Miller
Danielle Schnebelen
Larry Taylor
Michael "Mudcat" Ward
Patrick Rynn


Chris Layton
Jimi Bott
Kenny Smith
Robb Stupka
Stanton Moore
Tony Braunagel


Charlie Musselwhite
Kim Wilson
Lazy Lester
Rick Estrin
Sugar Ray Norcia


Al Basile
Doug James
Keith Crossan
Sax Gordon
Terry Hanck


Ben Prestage, diddley bow
Lionel Young, violin
Otis Taylor, banjo
Rich Del Grosso, mandolin
Sonny Rhodes, lap steel guitar

Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues Female)

Diunna Greenleaf
Maria Muldaur
Nora Jean
Ruthie Foster
Tracy Nelson

Pinetop Perkins Piano Player

David Maxwell
Eden Brent
Jon Cleary
Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne
Marcia Ball
Victor Wainwright

Rock Blues Album

2120 South Michigan Ave. - George Thorogood & the Destroyers
Dust Bowl - Joe Bonamassa
Greyhound - Mike Zito
Man In Motion - Warren Haynes
Shiver - Too Slim and the Taildraggers


"Appreciate What You Got" - Terry Hanck (Look Out! - Terry Hanck)
"Back to the Blues" - Hadden Sayers (Hard Dollar - Hadden Sayers)
"Memphis Still Got Soul" - Bob Trenchard & Johnny Rawls (Memphis Still Got Soul - Johnny Rawls)
"Thank You for Giving Me the Blues" - Grady Champion, Zac Harmon & Chris Troy (Dreamin' - Grady Champion)
"The Lord is Waiting, the Devil is Too" - Johnny Sansone (The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too - Johnny Sansone)
"The Older I Get the Better I Was" - Joe Shelton (The Older I Get the Better I Was - Big Joe Shelton)

Soul Blues Album

Dreamin' - Grady Champion
Got to Get Back! - Bo-Keys
Memphis Still Got Soul - Johnny Rawls
Rock and a Hard Place - Eugene Hideaway Bridges
Show You A Good Time - Bobby Rush

Soul Blues Female Artist

Alexis P. Suter
Denise LaSalle
Jackie Johnson
Sharrie Williams
Sista Monica Parker

Soul Blues Male Artist

Bobby Rush
Curtis Salgado
Eugene Hideaway Bridges
Johnny Rawls
Otis Clay

Traditional Blues Album

Chicago Blues A Living History the (R)evolution Continues - Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Carlos Johnson
Evening - Sugar Ray & the Bluetones
Trying To Hold On - Diunna Greenleaf
Victim Of The Blues - Tracy Nelson
You Better Listen - Lazy Lester

Traditional Blues Male Artist

Charlie Musselwhite
John Primer
Lazy Lester
Mac Arnold
Magic Slim

Friday, December 9, 2011

Black Top Records - 10 Great Albums

As promised last week, FBF will take a look at ten of Black Top Records standout recordings.  This is not a top ten greatest all-time list, but more of a ten personal favorites list.  Your list may be a different animal entirely, but here's mine (in no particular order):

Grady Gaines & the Texas Upsetters - Full Gain (1988):  The former Little Richard sideman rocked the house with this superlative effort, bringing a boatload of Houston-area talent along for the ride.  Guitarists Roy Gaines (Grady's brother) and Clarence Hollimon shine, and the vocalists (Roy Gaines, piano man Teddy Reynolds, Big Robert Smith, and long-lost Joe Medwick) make a great recording even greater.  Gaines' follow-up, Horn of Plenty, was also a rocking good time, but this one gets the nod because of the presence of Roy Gaines and Joe Medwick (who passed away before the second release). As you can see from the video below, Gaines and the Upsetters are still going strong.


Robert Ward -  Fear No Evil (1991):  Ward had not recorded as a leader in almost 25 years when he wandered into an Ohio fan's guitar shop store one day.  The fan had been searching for him for years, and Ward soon signed with Black Top and released this incredible album.  Mixing remakes of his classic 60's sides with some interesting new material, Ward ended up with one of the best blues recordings of the 1990's.  Despite his extended absence, Ward's skills were fully intact, both as an awesome guitarist and a powerful singer.

Lynn August - Creole Cruiser (1992):  When I picked up this album, I had never heard of Lynn August and owned no Zydeco recordings.  Blind from birth, August first learned to play the drums and ended up playing percussion with the legendary Esquerita, who encouraged him to take up keyboards.  He backed Buckwheat Zydeco on Hammond B3 in the 60's and later focused on R&B and Swamp Pop.  In the late 80's, he locked himself in a room and taught himself to play accordion, starting his Zydeco career in earnest.  On Creole Cruiser, August mixes his R&B and Swamp Pop influences seamlessly with Zydeco, giving the music an little bit of an extra "oomph."  On one track, "Undivided Love," August parks behind the B3 and lays down one of the funkiest tracks you'll ever hear.  Big fun from start to finish.

Snooks Eaglin - Baby You Can Get Your Gun (1987):  Speaking of fun, check out Snooks Eaglin.  Nicknamed "the Human Juke Box," the blind guitarist started out as a solo acoustic folk/blues guitarist, but soon signed with Dave Bartholomew and Imperial Records, where his fretwork adorned many a side throughout the 60's.  He also played with Professor Longhair in the 70's, appearing on some of Fess's "lost" sessions recorded in Baton Rouge and Memphis.  Eaglin's debut recording for Black Top has a diverse set list, ranging from the funky "Drop The Bomb," the surf rocker "Profidia," and the R&B of the Four Blazers' "Mary Jo," and Eugene Church's "Pretty Girls Everywhere."  Eaglin is absolutely astonishing on guitar and his vocal style have a touch of Ray Charles in them.  Each of Eaglin's subsequent Black Top recordings were an improvement over this one, but this one is special because it was my first experience with the unpredictable guitarist.

Bobby Parker - Bent Out Of Shape (1993):  Parker is best known for his 1961 hit, "Watch Your Step," and is regarded as a major influence on 60's artists like Spencer Davis, John Lennon, John Mayall, Robin Trower, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Carlos Santana (who covered "Watch Your Step" on his Havana Moon recording).  The best way to describe Parker was probably summed up by protege Bobby Radcliff, who described his music as "Guitar Slim meets James Brown."  If you're a blues fan, do you really need to hear anything else.  This was his Black Top debut and ranks with the best of the 90's, with Parker re-recording "Watch Your Step," along with a couple of other oldies, and some impressive new tunes as well.  Seek this one out, by all means, and be sure to catch Parker live in the Washington D.C. area.

Bobby Radcliff - Dresses Too Short (1989):  I covered this release a while back, but it's worth revisiting.  Radcliff mixes the best of Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Bobby Parker.  He can sing and play like nobody's business and this first disc was his best, with some choice cover tunes and some excellent performances.  Standouts include the Dyke & the Blazers' favorite, "Ugh," the Syl Johnson title track, Rush's "Keep Lovin' Me Baby," and a manic take of the instrumental "Kool and the Gang."

James "Thunderbird" Davis - Check Out Time (1989):  Davis started out as an opening act for Guitar Slim (where he earned his "Thunderbird" nickname after a disasterous encounter with the wine of the same name), but soon signed with Duke Records, where he recorded several classics, including "Blue Monday" and "Your Turn To Cry," and also served as demo singer for Bobby Bland.  He dropped off the scene in the late 60's and was believed to be dead when he resurfaced in the late 80's and released this recording.  Clarence Hollimon was on hand to play some wonderful guitar (along with Anson Funderburgh) and Lloyd Lambert (Guitar Slim's bandleader) played bass.  Davis sounded even better than he did on his Duke sides, and soon relaunched his music career.  He died with his boots on in St. Paul, MN, suffering a fatal heart attack onstage after finishing his song, "What Else Is There To Do?".

Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets (Featuring Sam Myers) - Sins (1987):  Funderburgh was one of the first bluesmen I ever heard of.  He was a regular at clubs in Jackson, MS in the late 70's and early 80's.  He was also one of the first live acts I got to see when he appeared at the Chunky Rhythm and Blues Festival.  Myers, a Jackson native, had enjoyed a nice career as a solo artist in the 60's before teaming up with Funderburgh and his band.  Most of the group's output is first-rate, but Sins stands out slightly above the others.  The group's mix of Texas and the Delta is hard to top and Myers sounds as good as he ever did.  Funderburgh also played guitar on numerous Black Top sessions over the years for other artists.  Myers passed away in 2006.  (Useless Trivia Time........former Rockets bass player Mike  Judge is the creator of Beavis and Butthead).

W. C. Clark - Heart of Gold (1994):  At the time of this release, Clark was known by most for serving in an early edition of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble (called Triple Threat) and for writing SRV's hit, "Cold Shot."  Few realized that Clark was a first-rate guitarist and a soul singer on par with Al Green.  In fact, the entire disc has a "Memphis Soul via Austin" feel.  There's plenty of sweat-drenched soul and Texas roadhouse blues to go around on this disc.  Plus, he got to record his own version of "Cold Shot" (as you heard on last week's post).  This was a great later release for the label and one of three standouts from Mr. Clark (who later signed with Alligator).

Carol Fran & Clarence Hollimon - Soul Sensation (1992):  Another fun ride that we've visited before.  Fran and Hollimon were first heard on the Gulf Coast Blues anthology in 1990, but this release gives them an entire disc to strut their stuff.  They mix blues, jazz, soul, and even gospel and Hollimon's guitar work is outstanding, as he gets two great instrumentals ("Blues For Carol" and the amazing "Gristle").  Fran does one incredible vocal turn after another, with songs like "I Needs To Be Be'd With," and "I Had A Talk With My Man," and "This Little Light."  Lynn August appears on the Zydeco-flavored "Push-Pull." 

Most of these recordings have been out of print a while, but are easily found via the internet.  Trust me when I say that you will agree that they are worth searching for.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Blues Labels......Black Top Records

As a new listener to the blues in the 1980's, it was hard to figure out what to listen to sometimes.  It wasn't like there was a lot of blues fans in my town.  The ones that did listen were about like me as far as locating music.  There wasn't a long row of blues clubs anywhere nearby and most record stores had a section of blues that was about two or three rows long and consisted of nearly all of B.B. King's 70's and 80's recordings, a fair amount of soul/blues recordings from Malaco or local labels, and the occasional John Lee Hooker or Bobby "Blue" Bland LP.  Most of us had the recordings from Clapton or SRV that got us started on the path, but we wanted more.

Fortunately, I lucked out.  While in college, I saw this band called the Neville Brothers on Saturday Night Live one night and was blown away.  One day after class, I stopped by the local record store (Be-Bop Record Shop) to look for any releases by the Neville Brothers.  There was a cassette there called Nevillization.  It was a live recording from one of their appearances at Tipitina's.  I listened to it a lot for the next few weeks and noticed the logo shown above on the side of the cassette, not thinking too much about it.

A few years later, I was Jazz Fest with a buddy and we hit the record tent, where I picked up a couple of cassettes from artists I had seen at the Fairgrounds that day.  One of them was by a New Orleans guitarist named Earl King, who had appeared that day with Roomful of Blues, who I had seen the night before at a midnight concert hosted by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.  King had recently recorded the cassette I bought, Glazed, with Roomful of Blues......on the Black Top label. 

While I was in the record tent, I bought a souvenir book of the festival that featured an ad for Rounder Records and an address where you could get a catalog that contained blues and jazz recordings......No 800 numbers, no websites, just an address where you could send a letter.  So that's what I did, and four to six weeks later, I had the catalog that changed my life in my hands......Roundup Records.  For a new music fan, Roundup Records was the same thing as the Sears Wish Book used to be for kids at Christmas.  They had EVERYTHING from LP, cassettes, books, magazines, t-shirts.....anything you wanted that was related to music, and most especially the blues.  I did my first mail order within a week and then discovered that they sent out a monthly catalog with new releases and favorite older releases, all discussed by a group of writers who were big fans of the music.  I made an order almost every month, usually a mix of new recordings and older recordings of artists that I had heard of, but couldn't find in my local record stores.  My collection grew by leaps and bounds.

Most of the new recordings were from a pair of labels......Rounder Records and Black Top Records, mainly because a lot of the artists I listened to, I had discovered at Jazz Fest, and both labels featured a lot of Louisiana blues and soul artists, plus many from the southern part of Texas as well.  One of the first I remember ordering was a release by Hubert Sumlin, called Hubert Sumlin's Blues Party.  It featured a lot of the artists from the Earl King set I had bought at Jazz Fest, plus a wonderful soul singer named Mighty Sam McClain.  After I heard that one, I started making a point to see what Black Top had to offer each month, and I was rarely disappointed.

Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets
The label was started in the early 80's in New Orleans, by a pair of brothers named Hammond and Nauman Scott.  They started out recording Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets (pre-Sam Myers).  Funderburgh used to be a regular visitor to Mississippi, mostly in Jackson, and was one of the first blues acts I got to see live.  He ended up making eight recordings with Black Top.  Other artists that were recorded in the early years were Ronnie Earl, Buckwheat Zydeco, and former B.B. King keyboardist Ron Levy.

Snooks Eaglin
In the late 80's, around 1987, the label started recording more Gulf Coast-area artists, ranging from New Orleans to Houston, beginning with Earl King's collaboration with Roomful of Blues.  Soon after, they recorded the fantastic New Orleans guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who would go on to record four albums.  Blind from glaucoma since he was about a year old, Eaglin was known as "the Human Jukebox" because he was able to play so many different songs, over 2500, according to the man himself.  Vocally, he was often compared to Ray Charles.  I got to see him at Jazz Fest several years ago, and I discovered that he didn't do prepared sets, which had to have confounded his band members.  He took requests from the audience and many times, he just played what came to his mind.

Joe Medwick
One of the most exciting albums I picked up from Black Top was from Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters.  Called Full Gain, it featured a boatload of New Orleans and Houston musicians, including Gaines' brother, guitarist Roy Gaines on several songs, plus others like Funderburgh and Clarence Hollimon, piano man Teddy Reynolds, and singers Big Robert Smith and Joe Medwick.  Medwick was an interesting story, having written many of Bobby Bland's hits ("Further On Up The Road," "Cry, Cry, Cry," "I Pity The Fool")for Duke in the 50's and 60's.  Unfortunately, he sold the rights to the songs (and their royalties) to Duke's owner, Don Robey, so he only received an up-front fee for his efforts.  Medwick also demoed many of his tunes for Bland and probably influenced the legend's vocal style in the process.  Medwick got to perform two songs on Full Gain (including one tune later covered by Bland for Malaco), but passed away soon after from liver cancer.

Clarence Hollimon
A few weeks ago, I covered one of my all-time favorite recordings from Black Top, Gulf Coast Blues, Volume 1.  A couple of songs on that collection were from the husband and wife team of Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon.  Hollimon was one of the most talented guitarists ever.  I could sit and listen to him play guitar all day and all night.  Black Top soon recorded Fran and Hollimon on two wonderful CDs in the early 90's, showcasing Ms. Fran's distinctively soulful pipes and Mr. Hollimon's incredible guitar.

Black Top also recorded some other great Gulf Coast musicians, like former Duke recording artist James "Thunderbird" Davis and Houston guitarist Joe "Guitar" Hughes.  They also recorded artists like Al Copley, Greg Piccolo, Rod Piazza, Mike Morgan and the Crawl, and James Harman.  In addition to Buckwheat Zydeco, the label also recorded zydeco artists Terrence Simien and Lynn August.

During the early 90's, Black Top hit the jackpot after stretching out a bit beyond the Gulf Coast.  First, they recorded D.C. guitarist Bobby Radcliff, whose scorching Magic Sam-influenced sound turned some heads on 1989's Dresses Too Short

Bobby Parker
Next, they found the legendary Robert Ward in Twiggs County, Georgia in the early 90's, and his Fear No Evil release was one of the great blues albums of the decade.  Ward's success was followed by another D.C. guitarist, Bobby Parker.  Parker's scorching guitar work was a big influence on artists like John Lennon and Carlos Santana and his two releases for Black Top (Bent Out of Shape and Shine Me Up) were top of the line.

Black Top also gave their listeners a little extra when they released the occasional budget-priced sampler.  On some of them, like one of my personal favorites, Black Top Blues Pajama Party, they loaded heaps of previously unreleased tracks.  On some collections, when you hear previously unreleased tracks, you have a good idea why they were previously unreleased......not the case with Black Top's collections.  These tracks were as good, and sometimes better than the tracks that made the cut on most recordings.

In the late 80's, Black Top started another tradition.  For a number of years, Black Top would sponsor a show during Jazz Fest, usually somewhere like Tipitina's, featuring a number of their acts together.  These were usually outstanding shows, so it made sense to record them for the ages and sell them to the unlucky fans who didn't make the live show.  Black Top kept this tradition going through seven volumes, with discs featuring Funderburgh, Radcliff, Grady Gaines, James "Thunderbird" Davis, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Ron Levy, and many, many others.

As the 90's winded down, Black Top released recordings by W.C. Clark (hear his version of "Cold Shot," made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughan, below), Maria Muldaur, Phillip Walker, Robert Ealey, Solomon Burke, and former Excello recording artist Earl Gaines.  During all these years, Rounder distributed the label, but they were picked up by another distributor, who was unsuccessful.  Alligator handled distribution until 1999, when the label folded.

A few years after the label folded, Hammond Scott released a new CD from Snooks Eaglin on a new label called Money Tree.  The new disc was called The Way It Is and for all practical purposes, it was the "unofficial" last Black Top release, even though it was on a different label.  It was a fitting swan song, capturing perfectly the essence of the label at its very best.

In recent years, several labels have attempted to reissue a few of the Black Top recordings with varying degrees of success.  However, copies of the original releases are still fairly easy to find at Amazon and Ebay, which is where I repurchased most of my favorites on CD.  They should be required listening for any blues fan.

Next Week........FBF's Top 10 Black Top Albums

Friday, November 25, 2011

Five More Albums You Might Have Missed (V.3)

Once again, it's time for Friday Blues Fix to look at five more gems from the past few years that might have slipped past blues fans the first time a relatively new disc.  That's six CDs for the price of five.  Who says I'm not giving you the best deal in blues these days??!!!

Zuzu Bollin - Texas Bluesman (Antones):  Bollin led his own combo, beginning in the late 40's, recorded two 78's in the early 50's, and this recording in the 1980's.  That's it.  That's the list.  The Dallas native eventually gave up the music business for the dry cleaning business in the mid 60's.  He was rediscovered by the Dallas Blues Society in 1987, which led to this album being released by the society in 1989.  Texas Bluesman contains remakes of both sides of his first 78, "Why Don't You Eat Where You Slept Last Night" and "Headlight Blues," plus covers of songs by Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Cleanhead Vinson, and Percy Mayfield.  There's also some great T-Bone Walker-styled guitar and outstanding jump blues.  Bollin passed away in 1990, not long after the album was initially released.  It was eventually re-issued by Antones, where it enjoyed wider distribution.  It will definitely make you wonder why this guy had such a hard time getting in the studio.

Bill Sims (Warner Brothers):  In the late 90's, NYC bluesman Sims appeared in the PBS documentary, American Love Story, which profiled his multi-ethnic family.  This 1999 album was released in conjunction with the series and received a lot of attention back then, but has proved to be Sims' last release so far, so many new blues listeners may have missed out.  Sims is an incredibly versatile musician, having played urban and country blues, R&B, jazz, and even doo wop.  This is a stellar mix of all those styles.  More recently, Sims has teamed up with harmonica player Mark LaVoie as an acoustic country blues duo.

Texas Northside Kings (Dialtone):  Austin-based Dialtone Records has assembled a neat little catalog over the past decade or so, focusing on the vast talent of the Austin/Houston area for the most part.  For this 2007 release, the label takes six of Austin's up-and-coming guitar slingers (Eva Monsees, Johnny Moeller, Shawn Pittman, Mike Keller, Nick Curran, Seth Walker) and gives each of them two or three tracks of their own, backing them with a tight set of area musicians (Earl Gilliam on keyboards, drummer Willie Sampson, sax man Spot Barnett).  This recording is a lot of fun, with some great songs and performances.  Several of these guitarists have since made some phenomenal recordings, so this is a good chance to catch them in their early stages.  Check out this funky Johnny Moeller instrumental, "Radio Groove."

Bobby Purify - Better To Have It (Proper):  James and Bobby Purify were one of the unsung soul duos of the 60's, with hits like "I'm Your Puppet," "Shake a Tail Feather," and "Let Love Come Between Us."  This is the 70's "Bobby Purify," whose real name is Ben Moore.  Moore had a successful career in Gospel during the 80's, but fell upon hard times after he lost his sight in 1998.  In 2005, he launched a comeback with this release, which teamed him up with veteran soul songwriter/singer/producer Dan Penn, who wrote several of the Purify hits of the 60's, including "I'm Your Puppet."  Penn, who had been involved in Solomon Burke's comeback release for Fat Possum the year before, brought in a bevy of Muscle Shoals music legends, including keyboardist Spooner Oldham and Carson Whitsett, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and Memphis Horns trumpet player Wayne Jackson, and thirteen new songs that capture the essence of that 60's southern soul sound.  Purify has just the right combination of smooth and grit in his voice to pull off this material. 

Bo Ramsey - Stranger Blues (CDBY):  Iowa's Bo Ramsey was influenced by the sounds of Sun Records and Chess Records.  He has built a pretty solid career both as a solo artist and a collaborator (with Greg Brown, Lucinda Williams, Pieta Brown).  His own music has a moody, atmospheric quality and it lifts this 2007 set of cover tunes several notches.  The opening track, a ghostly reworking of the Elmore James tune, is fantastic, with Ramsey's craggly vocal punctuated by the keyboards whooshing along behind Ramsey's twangy guitar and a piercing harmonica.  Ramsey also breathes new life into Little Walter's "Hate To See You Go," Muddy's "Little Geneva," Jessie Mae Hemphill's "Jump Baby Jump," and Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Unseen Eye."  The tunes will be familiar to most blues fans, but it's pretty cool to hear Ramsey's restructuring of them.

For a newer disc that you might have missed, check out Denver bluesman Mojo Watson.  Watson is the son of 50's R&B singer K.C. "Mojo" Watson, and has been recording his own material for around a decade.  Watson's music was best described by a friend of mine as "part Muddy Waters, part Robert Cray, part Jimi Hendrix," which is not a bad combination when you think about it.  Watson's previous CDs have included mostly original songs (or songs previously done by his dad), but Geechy Woman also features a few cover tunes, including Elmore James' "Sunnyland," B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen," the Wolf's "Killing Floor," and Hendrix's "Dolly Dagger."  Watson is an amazing guitarist, mixing old school riffs with the occasional journey into Purple Haze territory.  This is a set that will please both traditional blues and blues/rock fans, so stop by Mojo's site and check it out.