Friday, April 29, 2011

Roots of Rock

Blues is often called the "roots of rock" by many people, and with good reason.  Every so often, Living Blues will publish a list of songs with origins in the blues that have been covered successfully by rockers....a list that gets longer and longer each year.  Of course, this has been going on since the days of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" in the mid 50's.  Today, Friday Blues Fix looks at three rock songs with blues roots.

Blind Willie McTell

First up is a song that many 60's rock fans will certainly remember, since a pair of groups took a shot at it in the late 60's.......Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues."  McTell was one of the more prolific blues recording artist, making records during the pre-war and post-war eras, and he's one of the few artists whose recordings have actually survived in pretty good shape soundwise, so listening to his songs is not as challenging as, say, Charlie Patton or Blind Blake or other Paramount artists.  He played for tips on the streets of Atlanta, playing a 12-string guitar in both a ragtime style (similar to Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller) and also bottleneck.  He was exceptional in both styles and rarely recorded songs the same way twice.  He was a major influence on Bob Dylan, who has paid tribute to McTell on several albums, including a song called "Blind Willie McTell."  McTell recorded several standards over his career, such as "Broke Down Engine," "Mama T'aint Long For Day," "Southern Can Is Mine," and "Georgia Strut," but the song he is best known for is "Statesboro Blues."

Taj Mahal

"Statesboro Blues" has been recorded by many different artists, but there's actually a story within a story in this particular case.  Taj Mahal recorded the song in 1968 for his debut recording, which is considered a masterpiece of modern blues.  At a time where many blues artists were leaning toward soul and even the psychedelia that was permeating rock music during this period.  Taj Mahal's debut was seemingly a perfect mix of looking back at classic blues sound and looking ahead at the same time to where the blues were going.  With able support from a sterling pair of guitarists (Ry Cooder on rhythm guitar and the amazing Jesse Ed Davis on lead), Mahal employed a basic approach quite different from the norm, and provided exuberant harmonica, guitar, and vocals.  The album is still great listening today, and their version is "Statesboro Blues" is one of the reasons why, with a powerful vocal by Mahal and some incredible guitar work by Davis.

The Allman Brothers Band

A couple of years later, the Allman Brothers Band recorded "Statesboro Blues" for their self-titled debut album.  They largely copped the melody of Taj Mahal's version, with the major difference being the presence of Duane Allman, whose astonishing slide work was beginning to attract a lot of attention.  Allman's mastery of the slide guitar was a direct effect of seeing Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis perform a couple of years earlier, when the Allmans were part of the Hour Glass.  The song Duane Allman heard them perform was "Statesboro Blues," and from that point, Allman practiced playing slide guitar almost non-stop.  The first song he ever played slide on with the Hour Glass was "Statesboro Blues."  When the Allmans recorded their classic live set at the Fillmore, one of the highlights was their version of the song.  From this point on, it's safe to say that "Statesboro Blues" was considered the Allman Brothers' song, but it really traveled an interesting path from Willie McTell's mournful version in the 1930's to the Fillmore East in 1971.

Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller)

Of course, the Allman Brothers have taken several other blues standards and made them their own during their storied career.  Another example is Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out."  Rice Miller's version (originally recorded, but not released by Elmore James) featured Buddy Guy on guitar, Jack Meyers on bass, Lafayette Leake on piano, and the great Fred Below on drums, and was recorded in 1964 during one of Rice Miller's final Chess sessions.  Williamson orignally recorded it in 1961, but the '64 version with Guy and Below's rhythmic vamp is the most memorable one.  The Allmans' version that became famous was recorded at the same Fillmore East show that produced "Statesboro Blues" (but released on their Eat A Peach album), and basically keeps the melody of the '64 version intact.  However, it exudes desperation, sweat, and fear, courtesy of Gregg Allman's breathless vocal and Duane Allman's manic slide guitar.

Lead Belly

In 1939, Huddie Ledbetter (also known as Lead Belly), one of the most prolific and enduring blues/folk artists of the early part of the 20th Century, recorded an acapella version of an old prison work song called "Black Betty."  It had been recorded in the early 30's as well by prison group and was subsequently recorded by several others, including folk singer Odetta, Dave "Snaker" Ray, and Alan Lomax, who was involved in recording the 1930's versions.  However, Lead Belly's performance remains the best known of the early recordings.

Ram Jam

In 1976, a rock group from Cincinnati called Starstruck recorded a version of "Black Betty," with some modified lyrics, but it didn't do that much and the band split.  The next year, it was revived by one of the members of Starstruck, who was now in a band called Ram Jam.  The re-release became a Top 20 smash in 1977 and has actually been remixed and reworked several times since then. 

Even though the song was boycotted by the NAACP and other civil rights groups, it is unclear what the song is actually about.  It dates back to the 18th Century, when a certain flint lock musket was called "Black Betty" (the Bam-a-Lam referring to the sound of the gun firing).  It's  been associated with a bottle of whiskey, a bullwhip, and a prisoner transfer wagon used in a penitentiary.  It's also been associated with a motorcycle and a hot rod.  Whatever your views on where it originated, it's obvious that the Ram Jam version has been wildly successful, having been covered by other bands, featured on movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks.

These three songs are just the tip of the iceberg.  Stay tuned for more rock tunes with blues origins in the near future.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Brand New Blues and Stuff

This week, let's look at a few noteworthy new releases, plus a few other noteworthy items.

Movie goers may remember Dana Fuchs from the 2007 movie, Across the Universe, and her memorable interpretations of several Beatles tunes.  She's also appeared as Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway musical, Love, Janis.  However, the sultry singer has also released several albums of powerful rock and blues over the past few years.  Her latest, Love To Beg, is her first for Ruf Records.  While Fuchs certainly owes a debt to Joplin with her vocal stylings, Joplin is merely a piece to the puzzle.  She takes in equal parts blues, rock, soul, and gospel in her approach and she seems to have barely scratched the surface so far. 

The title track is a rocker that benefits from a supple vocal from Fuchs and some sizzling slide guitar and harmonica from producer/collaborator Jon Diamond.  There are plenty of other highlights, too, mostly focusing on the rock side of the blues, such as "Keepsake," "Set It On Fire," "Pretty Girl," and "Faster Than We Can."  "Keep On Rollin'" slows things down a bit, and "Summersong" is a nice change of pace, landing more on the pop and soul side of the fence......a really fun track that brings to mind the Memphis soul sound of Stax and Hi Records in the 60's and 70's.  Fuchs mines from that vein on the album's' lone cover, a fine version of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." 

Overall, this is a very strong effort by Dana Fuchs that will definitely please her fans and should open a few eyes, and ears.  It will be interesting to hear where she goes from here.  Check out this cut, from the new release, called "Golden Eyes."

Portland bluesman Lloyd Jones has built a large fan base in the Northwest and has released several well-received albums over the past few decades.  He's as comfortable playing R&B, funk, rock, or soul music as he is playing straight blues.  Highway Bound is Jones' first "unplugged" disc and it features sixteen stellar traditional blues tunes. 

Jones is a first-rate guitarist, showing some particularly outstanding fingerpicking on his version of Elizabeth Cotton's "When I'm Gone" and Blind Willie McTell's "Broke Down Engine."  He also tackles tunes by John Brim ("Ice Cream Man," with Charlie Musselwhite guesting on harmonica), Robert Johnson (a plugged-in rendition of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down"), and Leadbelly ("Good Night Irene").  Jones also does a pair of tunes from Big Bill Broonzy ("Southbound Train" and "Key To The Highway") and W.C. Handy ("Careless Love" and "Make Me A Pallet On The Floor") and even covers Hoagy Carmichael on the closer ("Lazybones," with Curtis Salgado on harmonica). 

Jones also wrote three songs on Highway Bound, all three of which blend seamlessly with the included blues classics.  I can't recommend this one highly enough.  Check out Jones' torrid version of W.C. Handy's "Careless Love."

For the past decade, Mack Orr has been pounding out some of the greasiest, funkiest Memphis blues heard in years.  A late bloomer (picking up the guitar in his forties), Orr has been fronting the Daddy Mack Blues Band for the past couple of decades and has released three fantastic albums that should be in every discerning blues fan's collection.  His latest release, Bluesfinger, should join the other three as essential listening. 

The title track is a bluesy version of the Bar-Kays' classic soul instrumental, "Soul Finger," and it's so funky you can feel the grease dripping off of it.  That vibe carries over to tracks like "Great Recession Blues," 'You Got My Money," the salacious "Soda Pop," and "Long Hard Road."  "Can't Make It Without Your Love" leans more toward the soul side of Memphis with an impressive vocal turn from Orr, plus horns, churchy B3, and chick singers.  Their gritty version of "Honky Tonk" will remind some longtime fans of Orr's album of rock covers from a few years ago, Slow Ride.  Lending the band a hand is Memphis harmonica ace, Billy Gibson

There's nothing new or even revelatory here, just the basic gutbucket blues played about as well as they can be played.  As I stated a few weeks ago, the Daddy Mack Blues Band is one of my favorite bands currently playing.  Pick up Bluesfinger and you will see what I'm talking about and you might even thank me later.  For now, just take in Daddy Mack's timely "Great Recession Blues."

The Terry Quiett Band won the 2010 Ozark Blues Challenge and before that, they won the 2008 Wichita Blues Society Blues Challenge.  The trio's versatility encompasses blues, rock, and jazz, with guitarist Quiett being particularly masterful in all three genres.  He's also a powerful and emotive singer and wrote all thirteen songs on their latest release, Just My Luck.  The disc holds up well to repeated listening because you find something else each time that you missed the time before, especially with Quiett's guitar work. 

Most of Quiett's songs deal with familiar blues themes (love, women, regrets), but his approach is anything but familiar.  Standout tracks include the jazzy late-night feel of "Work For It," the southern rocker, "Big Man Boogie," and "Getting Through To Me," which features some particular nasty guitar.  A couple of tracks, like "Pound of Flesh" and "Fool's Gold," have an autobiographical hint to them.  Quiett also goes acoustic on "Judgement Day," and dabbles in reggae on the politically-charged "Some People."

Blues/rock fans will love this release.  It's a well-rounded, well-played set and Quiett has the makings of a future star with his formidable writing, playing, and singing skills.  Check out the opening track of Just My Luck, the groove-packed "Karma."

Last week, the blues world lost Lacey Gibson, a highly underrated artist, whose flashy, jazz-influenced guitar graced numerous albums by Son Seals, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Sun Ra, and Billy Boy Arnold over the years.  A talented soulful singer, he played guitar with and opened for Seals for a number of years, and appeared on three of Seals' 70's era recordings for Alligator, including the seminal Live and Burning.  His work with Seals led Alligator head man Bruce Iglauer to recruit Gibson for four tracks on his excellent Living Chicago Blues series.  In the 80's, he recorded several albums of his own, the best being Switchy Titchy for Black Magic in the early 80's and continued performing, as his health allowed, into the 21st Century.  I always enjoyed Gibson's guitar work backing Seals and count a few of his solo recordings as some of my favorites, including his classic, crowd-pleasing version of "Drown In My Own Tears," from the Living Chicago Blues series, and "Easy Woman" from Switchy Titchy.  However, my favorite Lacey Gibson track is one he recorded during a Buddy Guy session in 1963 that was mistakingly credited by Chess Records to Buddy Guy (who wrote the track) called "My Love Is Real."  This is great stuff from an artist who deserved to be better known.

Malaco V.P. Wolf Stephenson stands in the middle of what was once Malaco Records' studio, destroyed by a tornado last Friday afternoon.
Last weekend, a series of tornadoes (over 250 total by some accounts) ripped through the southeastern part of the U.S., from Arkansas, through Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina.  Some of the worst came through east central Mississippi and one of them destroyed two of the three buildings that housed Malaco Records in Jackson.  Fortunately, no one was hurt and the masters and other items were stored in another building, which was relatively unharmed.  Malaco, one of the labels who played a major role in keeping the blues alive in the 70's and 80's with tunes like "Misty Blue," "Mr. Big Stuff," "Members Only," "The Blues Is Alright," and "Down Home Blues," has relocated to temporary quarters in Jackson, but plan to rebuild at their Northside Drive location in the near future, promising to be bigger and better than before.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Blues Legends - Magic Sam

In the late 1960's, Magic Sam Meghett came about as close as any blues artist to becoming a mainstream act.  His music was the epitome of the Chicago West Side sound, with it's adventurous mix of blues and soul.  Among the other artists who brought the West Side sound to life in the late 50's/early 60's were Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie C. Campbell, and Eddy Clearwater, but Magic Sam's brand of West Side blues stood above the rest.

Magic Sam was born Samuel Gene Meghett in Grenada, MS on Valentine's Day, 1937.  He learned to play guitar listening to Muddy Waters and Little Walter records, and passed what he learned along to his classmate, Morris Holt (who would later become Magic Slim).  He moved to the Windy City at the age of 19, and furthered his music education, learning from neighbor and fellow guitarist Syl Johnson, who helped transform Sam's "hillbilly" style into the blues.  He started gigging in Chicago clubs, with Johnson, Johnson's bass-playing brother Mack Thompson, and gambler-turned-harmonica player Shakey Jake Harris, under the name Good Rocking Sam.

Magic Sam cut a demo of "All Your Love," but was turned down by Chess Records (one of the label's few missteps). At the urging of Otis Rush, Sam took the demo to Cobra Records and was signed by the label in 1957.  Cobra was also the home of guitarists Rush and Buddy Guy.  While each were distinctive guitarists, Sam's rich tremolo guitar playing was in a class by itself at that time.  Since there were already several artists performing under the "Good Rocking" name, Cobra label head Eli Toscano wanted to change Sam's name to something more traditional, like Sad Sam or Singing Sam.  Fortunately, Mack Thompson thought of "Magic" Sam, which suited Meghett liked that just fine.  His first single for Cobra was "All Your Love," which became a big local hit.  The song's unusual rhythm was revisited by the guitarist several times over the years with varying levels of success ("Easy Baby," "Everything's Gonna Be Alright"), but he also recorded a few other classics during his tenure with Cobra, including a pair of tracks with some intensely fiery guitar (the almost rockabilly "21 Days In Jail" and "Love Me With A Feeling,"). 

Sam's tenure with Cobra was interrupted by another Sam.....Uncle Sam, who drafted Magic Sam into the army.  Unfortunately, he and the army weren't a good match, and Sam ended up serving six months in jail for going AWOL.  When Cobra went under (soon after owner and notorious gambler Toscano's body was fished out of Lake Michigan), Sam headed over to Mel London's Chief Records in 1960.  While his Chief sides weren't quite as compelling as his earlier work with Cobra, he did make a few noteworthy recordings, such as a remake of Fats Domino's "Every Night About This Time."  The flip side was "Do The Camel Walk," an instrumental that was popular in Chicago clubs at the time and was later recorded much more successfully by fellow West Sider Freddy King as "Hideaway."  Over the years, the song has been linked to King, but sources say that it was actually developed by Hound Dog Taylor a few years earlier.

Chief folded up after a couple of years and Sam recorded sporadically for the next few years, until he hooked up with Delmark Records as part of their 1966 anthology release, Sweet Home Chicago, a small, but potent collection featuring tracks by Sam, Luther Allison, and Louis Myers.  Sam's tracks (which featured Eddie Shaw on saxophone) included the somber "That's Why I'm Crying," and were a sign of things to come with both Magic Sam and Delmark.  Sam's guitar work was as powerful as ever, and he had really come into his own as a singer, with just the right blend of blues and soul in his delivery.

It was at Delmark where Magic Sam released two of the finest blues albums of the 60's and quite possibly, of all time.  West Side Soul was given the only five-star review ever awarded to a blues album in the jazz magazine, Down Beat, and was called "a perfect album" by author Peter Guralnick.  In the late 80's, Living Blues published a list of their Top Ten Desert Island Discs and included West Side Soul on the list.  Highlights of the disc included the upbeat opener, "That's All I Need,"  "Feelin' Good" (a nod to  John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun"), the B.B. King-influenced "I Don't Want No Woman," and the ultimate cover of the ultimate cover tune, "Sweet Home Chicago" (freely adapted by the Blues Brothers in their movie....listen for the boys' shoutout to Sam just before playing it).  Throughout, Magic Sam sounds like the connector between B.B. King's sophistication and Buddy Guy's edginess on guitar and his vocals are incredible.

In 1968, Magic Sam recorded his Delmark follow-up, Black Magic.  To some blues fans, this disc was even better than its predecessor.  For this release, Sam added the saxophone of Eddie Shaw, and Shaw's punchy sax fills lifted songs like "I Just Want A Little Bit" and "You Belong To Me."  Black Magic boasted an even more powerful set of songs, such as "What Have I Done Wrong," "I Have The Same Old Blues," and a remake of "Easy Baby."  To me, Black Magic is even better than West Side Soul, as Sam seems to have perfected that winning mix of urban blues and soul music.

Magic Sam seemed poised for bigger and better things.  Based on his two successful Delmark releases, he was a hot topic for music magazines.  Reportedly, a deal with Stax Records was in the works.  However, years of constant touring, excessive drinking and neglect had taken a toll on Sam's body.  After a triumphant appearance at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, he suffered a cardiac episode in the summer of 1969 and was ordered to take it easy for a few months.  However, he was in high demand, so he ended up in Europe for the American Folk Blues Festival, then returned to play some dates in California.  Upon returning to Chicago, he died on the morning of December 1, 1969, from a heart attack.  He had complained of heartburn when he first woke up and collapsed as he went to his room to lie down.  He was only 32 years old.  Black Magic had just been released a few days earlier.

Though Magic Sam died young, he influenced countless blues musicians that followed, such as his old schoolmate, Magic Slim, Robert Cray, Bobby Radcliff, Jimmy Dawkins, Larry McCray, and dozens of others.  We're left to speculate just where Sam would have gone with his music from this point....would he have stayed true to the blues, or moved more toward mainstream soul, or taken his music in a completely different direction.  We'll never know for sure what direction he would have followed, but it would have been an exciting journey for sure.

Every blues fan should own West Side Soul (which was just reissued with improved sound and some added notes and pictures) and Black Magic, but there are some other Magic Sam releases worth having, such as the collection of Cobra and Chief recordings from the early 2000's.  There's also a decent set recorded in the early 60's between his Chief and Delmark tenures called The Late Great Magic SamThe Magic Sam Legacy, also from Delmark, features alternate takes and previously unreleased material from his two studio albums. 

From all accounts, Magic Sam had to be heard live to really be appreciated.  There are three sets that capture Sam in live performance.  Delmark has released two of them, Live and Rockin' Wild In Chicago.  Both have inferior sound in some cases and can make for rough listening at times, but Sam's greatness is there to be heard.  The third set is the out-of-print Magic Touch, which is also worth a listen if you can find it.