Friday, February 4, 2011

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #2

It's past time to revisit this theme, one of FBF's oldest, dating back to the pre-blog days when I used to email the occasional song to my friends.  This week, we will look at four artists, one that hails back to days of yore (Something Old), a relative newcomer to the scene (Something New), a blues artists taking on a song from another genre (Something Borrowed), and finally, an artist who, to me, is the essence of the blues (Something Blue).  Let's get started, shall we?

Skip James
First up today.......Something Old.  Let's go back to the mid 60's and check out an artist who first recorded in the 1930's,  Nehemiah "Skip" James.  A native of Bentonia, Ms (and considered the founder of the Bentonia School of Delta blues), James recorded for Paramount Records in the early 30's, on the recommendation of a talent scout named Henry Spier, who owned a record store in Jackson, MS, and had heard James play the blues.  He traveled up to Grafton, Wisconsin and recorded 26 sides, 18 of which were released.  Paramount, a subsidiary of a furniture company, basically did everything on the cheap, recording on cheap shellac, which allowed them to sell for less, but resulted in an inferior product.  Although dozens of other great blues artists recorded for Paramount, including Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, and others, the records that have survived are in bad to horrible shape.  James' sides are no exception, and when recorded in 1931, they hardly sold at all.  For his efforts, Paramount paid him the huge sum of $40 and a train ticket. 

Skip James
Frustrated, James turned from the blues to the church, singing in a gospel group and becoming a Baptist minister (and later a Methodist one as well).  He eventually gave all of that up and returned to Mississippi and became a laborer and supervisor of plantation workers.  James was rediscovered in 1964 by a trio of white record collectors and guitarists who had heard his scratchy Paramount recordings.  To their surprise, his talents were nearly intact and they coerced him into appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, where he became a sensation.  Eventually, he recorded for the folk label, Vanguard, where he made two epic albums that recaptured his sound perfectly.  The sound on these two albums (Today! and Devil Got My Woman) is nearly perfect, almost crystal clear it sounds like James is in the room with you when he plays his guitar.  My favorite track of James' is the very first one I heard, from one of these Vanguard albums.  It's called "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.  A few months back, we heard the 1931 version of the song, but here we have the pristine version he recorded for Vanguard.  As stated a few months back, you may be familiar with it, as it was performed by Chris Thomas King (playing another bluesman, Tommy Johnson) on the movie, O, Brother Where Art Thou?  James was able to record and perform at various festivals to many appreciative audiences for a couple of years (even collecting some royalties from Cream's version of his song, "I'm So Glad"), but was suffering from cancer when he was initially rediscovered (in a Tunica hospital), so his time back was all too brief.  He passed away in 1968.

For Something New, we'll look at a new release from a relatively new face to the blues.  Though he's been around since the mid 90's or so, British bluesman Todd Sharpville was absent for roughly half of the last decade, dealing with personal issues, such as a bitter divorce, separation from his children, a nervous breakdown, and the death of his father, The Viscount St. Davids (yes, Sharpville is a genuine blueblood....coming from an aristocratic background).  His latest release, Porchlight, is a double-disc set that allows Sharpville to bare his soul as he addresses these issues.  It's probably one of the most personal blues records you'll hear, but Sharpville is a compelling vocalist and a sensational guitarist (he won "Best Guitarist" at the 1995 British Blues Awards, outpolling Eric Clapton and Peter Green that year), so it's well worth a listen.  Joe Louis Walker, who took Sharpville under his wing when the Brit was a teenager and taught him the ropes, Duke Robillard (who also produced the disc), and Fabulous T-Bird harp wizard Kim Wilson also appear on the disc.  Walker contributes guitar on one of my favorite tracks on Porchlight, "When The Blues Comes Calling," a future slow blues classic.  Give it a listen below and see what you think.

Paint It Blue: Songs Of The Rolling StonesThis time around, we're taking liberties with the Something Borrowed theme.  Previously, we presented it as an old song being done by a newer artist.  This time around, we're looking a song from another genre "borrowed" by a blues artist.  To do that, let's go back to the late 90's, when the House of Blues had a record label.  One of their more interesting projects was a five-volume set of "tribute" discs that featured blues artists covering songs by famous rock performers Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Led Zeppelin.  I was only brave enough to check out two of these sets, the Clapton set and the Rolling Stones set, and both were impressive.  The blues artists involved took familiar songs from each artists and performed blues versions of the songs with mostly satisfying results. 

Luther Allison
 The Rolling Stones tribute was sort of unusual though, because it featured the final recorded performances of three blues legends, Junior Wells, Johnny Copeland, and Luther Allison, whose song was recorded just a few days before he was diagnosed with cancer.  Within six months of the October, 1997 release of Paint It, Blue - Songs of the Rolling Stones, all three were gone.....Allison and Copeland actually died before the release and Wells passed in early 1998.  Allison often closed his marathon three to four-hour shows with a variation of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," but had never previously recorded it.  What I like the most about this track is that like every other recording Allison ever did, he gives it 110 percent.  It's absolutely stunning to realize that in just over four weeks, he would be gone because as long as he was able to perform, he gave the same 110 percent.

Eddie Boyd
And now.....Something Blue.  The name Eddie Boyd may not ring a bell to many blues fans, but most of them are familiar with at least one of his songs.  Born in Clarksdale, MS in 1914, Boyd was a piano player who specialized in "after hours" blues songs.  He's responsible for songs like "Third Degree" and "24 Hours" and, most famously, "Five Long Years."  The latter song has been covered by scores of blues artists, including B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Guy.  First recorded for J.O.B. Records in 1951, the song topped the R&B charts in 1952.  Boyd also recorded for Parrot Records and for Chess, where he recorded the other two tracks listed above.  His relationship was Leonard Chess was tempestuous and best and he ended up at Bea & Baby, where he recorded some fine sides with Robert Lockwood Jr. on guitar.  He also went on the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival tour in Europe, and while there he decided to stay because he was frustrated by the racial discrimination of the times in the U.S.  He relocating to Belgium and was able to record of the sessions resulting in this 1965 remake of "Five Long Years," recorded in London with Buddy Guy backing on guitar, Jimmy Lee Robinson on bass, and Fred Below on drums. 

Boyd eventually settled in Helsinki, Finland, where he married, continued to record prolifically, and lived comfortably until his death in 1994.

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