Friday, July 29, 2011

Blessed Blues

You may not know who Johnny Jenkins, a.k.a. "Blessed," was, but he's linked to several musicians that you probably do know.  The Macon, GA native was a major factor in launching or influencing the careers of two legendary artists.  However, due to bad luck, bad timing, and some career choices that maybe could have been altered, Jenkins never made it out of the southeastern part of the U.S. while the artists he helped influence reached superstardom.  Record producer Phil Walden, who signed Jenkins to Capricorn Records in the late 60's once said, "I was convinced he could have been the greatest thing in rock and roll."

Jenkins was born in Macon in 1939 and fell in love with blues and R&B while listening to a battery-powered radio.  He built his first guitar out of a cigar box and rubber bands, playing for tips.  He played the guitar left-handed and upside down.  Jenkins became a local favorite and with his talent on guitar and his handsome features, he seemed destined for future stardom.  In the late 50's, Phil Walden, who would later found Capricorn Records, heard Jenkins on a radio show and soon began booking Jenkins' band, The Pinetoppers, at local events.  The Pinetoppers had a young lead singer named Otis Redding, who Jenkins first heard at a talent show.  Redding, still a raw talent at the time, mainly served as a gofer and valet for the group.

The Pinetoppers:  Johnny Jenkins is at center, Otis Redding to his left with the microphone
Jenkins scored a regional hit in the early 60's, with the song "Love Twist," and had an opportunity to record a follow up with Stax Records in Memphis.  Since Jenkins didn't have a driver's license, Redding drove him to the session and, after Jenkins' session fell apart, there was some 40 minutes of extra time in the studio.  Redding was persuaded to take a turn at the microphone and recorded "These Arms of Mine," with Jenkins on guitar.  The song became a hit and launched Redding's career.

Phil Walden originally envisioned Jenkins and Redding recording as a duo, with Redding providing the vocals and Jenkins providing the fireworks with his inventive guitar and flamboyant stage antics.  However, when Jenkins was approached to join Redding's band, he refused......ironically, because of a fear of flying.  So Otis Redding went on to stardom and legendary status, and Jenkins returned to touring the Southeastern part of the U.S., working regular day jobs as a logger and a mechanic, and playing frat houses and juke joints.  He was able to record another regional hit, an instrumental for Stax sister label, Volt, called "Spunky," in 1964.  Around this time, Jenkins' acrobatic style of playing guitar attracted the attention of a young Jimi Hendrix, who was visiting relatives in Macon when he happened to catch Jenkins' act and soon began emulating him.  Hendrix and Jenkins later played together at the New York club, The Scene, in 1970.

After Redding's death in 1967, Phil Walden began concentrating on Jenkins' career again, and teamed the guitarist up with several members of the Allman Brothers band, on one of the first Capricorn recordings, Ton-Ton Macoute!  The recording was originally intended to be a solo release for Duane Allman, but the Allman Brothers Band took off and it was shelved until Walden got Jenkins to record vocals over several of the tracks.  Jenkins absolutely made the most of his opportunity with stellar performances on tracks like Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone" (with Allman on dobro), Bob Dylan's "Down Along The Cove," and two tracks that just ooze with swampy atmosphere......"Blind Bats and Swamp Rats," and the incredible "I Walk On Gilded Splinters."  The latter track was penned by Dr. John and features Duane Allman on dobro.  It has been sampled by other artists, including Beck ("Loser") and Oasis.  Ironically, Jenkins didn't play much guitar on this release, with Allman and Pete Carr handling the majority of the tunes, but his vocals, reminiscent of Hendrix at time (especially on "Gilded Splinters") were a perfect fit for the material.  Ton-Ton Macoute! is considered by many to be a textbook example of Southern blues/rock.

Unfortunately, though the record was a critical success, sales didn't match up.  By the time Ton-Ton Macoute! was released, Walden and Capricorn had shifted their focus on their latest success, The Allman Brothers Band.  Jenkins recorded a second album in the mid 70's, which never saw the light of day.  Disappointed and bitter, he faded into the background., performing mostly at local venues and drifting into obscurity.

Over a quarter of a century later, in 1996, Walden was able to persuade Jenkins to record again, for his newly reformed Capricorn label.  Blessed Blues was a perfect blend of new songs and classic tunes.  Jenkins worked with keyboardist Chuck Leavell, guitarist Jack Pearson, and some of Muscle Shoals' finest session musicians, and he sounded like he'd never been away from the recording scene, even re-recording his first hit, "Love Twist," this time around as "Miss Thang."

Blessed Blues captures Jenkins at his rough and ragged best.  Here are a couple of songs from the disc, including an original co-written by Pearson ("It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues") and a Elmore James cover ("Mean Mistreatin' Woman") that capture Jenkins pretty well, including some lead guitar from him on the James song (slide guitar by Pearson).  Fortunately, he wouldn't have to wait another twenty-six years between releases.

In 1999, Jenkins released a new album on the Mean Old World record label, which was a Georgia-based indy label.  The disc, Handle With Care, included several of the songs that Jenkins did for the aborted mid 70's album, combined with some new recordings.  The best thing about this release was that Jenkins finally got to play all of the lead guitar, so listeners could at last get a taste of what all the fuss was about in the late 50's and early 60's.  While his vocals had begun to decline a bit, he made up for it with his spirit and sheer soulfulness.  Check out these tracks.....Jenkins opens up his soul on the autobiographical, mostly spoken-word variation of Ashford and Simpson's "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," "Cry Like A Man," the rousing soul track that opened the album, and a tasty instrumental, "Bashful Guitar." 

Jenkins followed up Handle With Care with All In Good Time, which consisted of mostly cover tunes, several instrumentals, and a few gospel tracks.  Though not as cohesive as its predecessor, it feels more like a group of friends getting together and playing the music that they love.  Jenkins sounds really good on guitar and he does a good job on the cover tunes, especially the hymns.  Check out these tracks....the instrumental "Big Bad Wolf," and a heartfelt cover of William Bell's tribute to Otis Redding. 

After Redding was killed, Jenkins moved between mourning his friend and sometimes expressing his bitterness with some contemptuous remarks about Redding, particular as quoted in Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music.  Over time, the bitterness faded, and Jenkins realized that, like most of us, sometimes we play a big role in creating the bumps we encounter on the road of life.  Thankfully, he didn't let the bitterness consume him to the point where he considered no longer making music.

Jenkins never recorded again, but continued to perform regularly in the Southeast until his death on June 26, 2006, after suffering a stroke.  Like a lot of bluesmen, his career was fraught with missteps, bad decisions, bitterness, and hurt, but unlike a lot of bluesmen, he was able to make the most of second, and third, and fourth chances, thanks to a little help from his friends.  Though he will always be known mostly for the careers that he influenced in some ways, as you can hear, he was a pretty impressive and unique artist himself.  All of his recordings are available and all are worth having.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More Blues From The Magnolia State

Over a year ago, Friday Blues Fix took a look at some of the Mississippians currently helping to keep the blues alive.  This week, we revisit the Magnolia State with a look at more Mississippi bluesmen, past and present.  Since everyone is familiar with the usual Mount Rushmore figures of Mississippi Blues (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King......your mileage may vary on who would make up that quartet, but that's another post for another week), we will be focusing on some of those that you might not be familiar with, both living and dead.

It was announced this week that Mississippi blues legend Honeyboy Edwards is retiring from the music scene due to health reasons.  This is a devastating blow to blues fans all over the world.  Edwards has been an incredible source of information about the pre-war blues era (especially Robert Johnson) for numerous writers and interviewers over the years and served as a source of encouragement to blues musicians all over the world.  The 96-year-old maintained a very active schedule up until recently.  He was the last of the pre-war bluesmen and if you were able to see him perform, you were in for a treat.  Fans wishing to send him get-well wishes can do so by emailing  Friday Blues Fix wishes Honeyboy a long and enjoyable retirement.

James "Son" Thomas was a regular sight at most of the Mississippi Delta Blues Festivals until his death in the early 90's. He was one of the most visible artists in the state, due to being the subject of several books, notably Bill Ferris' Blues From The Delta, and he even appeared on several documentaries, commercials, and television shows. He was also a renowned sculptor and his replicas of human heads often brought him more money than his music did. His son, Pat Thomas, has continued his father's legacy, both as a musician and an artist, appearing on the recent M for Mississippi documentary. Thomas was a talented singer and guitarist who even got an opportunity to play at the Jimmy Carter White House in the late 70's. Here's one of his classic tunes, "Beefsteak Blues. By the way, if you happen to visit Thomas' grave in Leland, MS, you will see the opening verse of this song engraved on Son's tombstone.

Son Thomas pictured with a few examples of his artwork

Othar Turner was a part-time musician and a full-time farmer. He specialized in playing fifes that he made himself from river cane. Fife players were once numerous in the Delta, but Turner was one of the last ones when he passed on in 2003. He was also famous for his Labor Day picnics when he would slaughter and cook a goat in an iron kettle for his friends and family while entertaining with his band, the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. Eventually, it grew from a family gathering to include fans from all over the world. Turner died in 2003 at the age of 94. His daughter Bernice, who had been living in a nursing home for some time suffering from cancer, died that same day. She was 48. Funeral services were held for Othar and Bernice and a procession leading to the cemetery was led by Turner’s band, with 13 year-old Sharde' Thomas, Othar's granddaughter, at its head playing the fife, as taught to her by her grandfather. Turner played many traditional tunes with his band. This is one of them…..”Granny, Will Your Dog Bite?” Not the usual blues sounds you hear at FBF, but blues nonetheless.

Next up is R.L. Boyce, who got his start in Turner’s band, playing the bass drum.  Boyce is also a guitarist and has weekly houseparties of his own in Como, MS on Sundays.  The recent documentary, M for Mississippi, captured one of these parties on film, which was a study in chaos.  It was not only filmed but the music was recorded for a soundtrack.  Recording engineer Bill Abel worked out of the back of a Volvo station wagon, with sound equipment where his back seat used to be.  He did all this during a thunderstorm with wires of all kinds coming from the house to the Volvo outside.  The interview with Boyce was also classic, riddled with multiple interruptions ranging from barking dogs to drunken partygoers….all captured on film.  If you haven't seen the documentary yet, you really need to check it out.  Here’s Boyce during a visit to Jimbo Mathus' Delta Recordings Studio in Como, MS

Another star of the M for Mississippi documentary is Terry “Harmonica” Bean. Bean is a relative youngster in the blues, in his late 40’s. He plays guitar and harmonica and sings. He started out as a stud athlete in high school, working on a baseball scholarship, but suffered a career-ending injury. He took up the blues and now tours throughout the state and the country. He was also recorded for M for Mississippi, at the Ground Zero Blues Club, singing “I’m A Bluesman.” Bean once was only a harmonica player, but was encouraged to learn to play the guitar by fellow harmonica player John Weston after Bean's band stood him up a couple of times.  The clip below, though hard to see, features Bean with T-Model Ford at Red's in Greenville.  The song is "Red's Hideaway," which would serve as this blog's theme song if I could ever figure out how to do it.

Speaking of one-man bands, here’s the previously mentioned Bill Abel, from Belzoni, MS. In addition to his recording engineer skills, Abel is also a noted painter and musician who makes and plays guitars made out of cigar boxes. Very cool. He recently released his own disc, called One-Man Band, and played all the instruments on it with no overdubs at all.  Below is from Abel's appearance at the 2008 Mississippi Delta Hip Hop Festival, where he plays Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied" on a homemade diddley bow made of a cigar box, broom stick and string, sounding better with a one-stringed instrument than many guitarist sound with six strings. 

When New Orleans native Corey Harris decided to record his Mississippi to Mali disc in the early part of the last decade, he was going to use Othar Turner, but Turner passed away the week before recording was to begin. Harris decided to use Turner’s band with his granddaughter, Sharde' Thomas, in her grandfather’s place, and they appear on several songs on the disc.  Fortunately, there is some footage of Harris and Othar Turner performing together, in the clip below, the pair tackle the blues standard, "Sittin' On Top Of The World."  

Mississippi to Mali took Harris from the Mississippi Delta to Africa and he used both Mississippians (Turner’s band along with Sharde' Thomas, Bobby Rush and Sam Carr) and Africans (Ali Farka Toure and his band) to help him make music.  It's a remarkable record, showing that there's actually little difference between the blues as it developed in the Mississippi Delta and at the origin point in Africa.  Harris is one of the few modern country blues artists these days, but has begun to move more and more toward world music, notably reggae, to the point where his last few releases have been pretty much devoid of blues.  Hopefully, he will return to the blues in the near future.

There are plenty more Mississippi bluesmen out there today that we will check out another time.  We owe a huge debt of gratitude to record labels like Broke & Hungry, Cat Head, Hill Country, Fat Possum, and numerous others for getting these artists on record.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Ten Questions With........Who??!!!

Sorry, but the regularly scheduled post for today was going to be a Ten Questions  Unfortunately, due to some serious procrastination on my part (I would try to get some counseling about it, but I keep putting it off), it will have to be postponed for a few weeks, but trust will be worth the wait.  In the meantime, I decided to do a Ten Questions post with someone who always happens to be available........your humble blogger.  Here's your opportunity for find out more about me than you ever really wanted to know.

Okay, so what's the deal with all the cats on this Blog?

You know, I didn't even think about that until someone sent me an email and said, "Wow, you must really like cats."  The truth is that my family has three cats (and two dogs) and they're all quite photogenic, whereas I am most definitely not and I thought a picture of one of them would look better than a picture of me in the About Me section.  The main picture on the page is my favorite Bill Steber picture and it just looked like a good "title picture" for the blog.

One interesting thing about the cats is when I get a chance to plug in some blues around the house, they usually come to where I am and hang out, so I guess they do have good taste in music. 

Can you, like Buddy Guy, remember the first time you met the Blues?

I was walking through the, not really.  The first time was probably when I saw B. B. King on Sanford and Son, way back in the mid 70's.  That was my favorite show when I was growing up and I can remember King being on there.  I remember the song he sang ("How Blue Can You Get"), his band, and most of all, his guitar.  I don't guess I was what you would call "hooked" (I was only nine or ten at the time), but I can remember later I would watch whenever he appeared on the Tonight Show (with those LOUD horns that would almost drown him out).  I always liked him and loved to hear him play Lucille.  Still do.

Who were some of the artists that led you to become a Blues fan?

Man, where do I start?  As I mentioned on a previous post, I have to give a nod to the Blues Brothers, like most people my age who started listening in the late 70's/early 80's.  They led me to some other great music.  Others include Eric Clapton, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc...  I used to find whatever I could read about them, mainly to find out where they got their sound.  They all pointed out similar sources.  All of them referenced B. B. King, naturally, but they also cited some other less familiar (to me) sources.  Clapton talked about Buddy Guy and Albert King, as did SRV.  The T-Birds mentioned some of the Excello artists, like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Jerry McCain (I loved the T-Birds' version of McCain's "She's Tough").

I also listened to lots of soul and R&B during that same time period.  I started out with the contemporary stuff and gradually went back to the older soul recordings from Atlantic, Stax, Motown, and whatever else I could find in print back in the early 80's.  I really dug folks like Bobby Womack, who sort of bridged the gap between the older stuff and the new, and a lot of the legends like Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, etc...As I stated a few weeks ago, Clarence Clemons' Rescue was a big factor in starting me on the path, too. 

As I've said in the past, I enjoyed both genres (rock and soul) equally, but there was something missing from both of them that I wanted (even though some of them were closer to it than I thought at the time).

What led you to realize that the Blues were what you were looking for?

A little recording called Showdown!  That was where it all came together for me.  I wrote about this at length a few months back, so I won't rehash, but that's the one that opened the floodgates.  After I heard it, I knew what I wanted and where to look for it.  Only thing was that most record stores' Blues sections were basically desert wastelands (kind of like now, at least the ones that are left), so there wasn't much product out there.  This actually sort of worked out for me because instead of being overwhelmed with choices, I would find maybe one or two interesting releases per visit, so I wasn't overloaded with a bunch of music at once.  Alligator always had a few of their recordings on the shelves, and there was always plenty of B. B. King.  I was even able to track down a couple of Robert Cray's early recordings just before Strong Persuader was released.  Since I was from the south, there were also lots of recordings from the soul/blues side of the aisle, with Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Bobby Bland, Z. Z. Hill, Latimore, Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, etc....

What did you use for sources of information to find out more about the Blues?

This was all before the advent of the internet, so I bought lots of books and magazines.  Most of the guitar magazines would do an annual Blues issue, so I would grab those up whenever they were published.  One really helpful one was the annual Blues issue of Guitar World from around 1987 (SRV was on the cover).  Inside was an article called "Who's Who of the Blues," and it showcased around twenty-five or thirty blues guitarists, some of whom I had become familiar with and some that I'd never heard of.  That was a BIG help.  Other magazines, like Guitar Player and Musician were helpful, too, but the best thing I ever did was subscribe to Living Blues when I got a chance.  I later started picking up other magazines, like the late, great Blues Access, Blues Revue, 78 Quarterly, Magic Blues, and the British magazine, Juke Blues.

As I've discussed previously, the books by Peter Guralnick were indispensible (Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, Sweet Soul Music, Searching For Robert Johnson), as was Deep Blues, by Robert Palmer, Rythm Oil from Stanley Booth, and autobiographies from B. B. King and Honeyboy Edwards, too.  There were many more that I've already discussed in depth here.  These not only enabled me to learn more about the artists I knew, but also helped me to discover others.

Did the music inspire you to become a musician yourself?

Sure, I wanted to.....who hasn't dreamed at one time or another about becoming a musician?  Unfortunately, I was never really musically inclined....that and the school I attended had little to no music program when I was going through, so maybe at one time I could have been, but just missed the boat.  I also can't carry a tune in a bucket.....I think people started a petition to get me to stop singing out loud in church.  What it really inspired me to do was write, especially after I read the various Guralnick and Palmer books about musicians.  That was what I wanted to do.  I always enjoyed writing, but had a hard time finding something to write about that really interested me.  Then I stumbled onto Blues Bytes.

How did you end up writing for Blues Bytes?

I had just started using the internet around '97, and was surfing for anything with "Blues" in the title.  I found some neat sites, but one of the coolest was Blues Bytes.  They were a monthly online publication that reviewed new Blues CDs.  I got to the point that I eagerly awaited each issue.  It was run by a guy from Phoenix named Bill Mitchell, who I started emailing from time to time. 

I had been reading it for about a year or so, when he happened to put on the site that he would love to have some other people write reviews.  He had a lot of irons in the fire and was having a hard time keeping up.  I jumped at the offer and offered my services, reviewing three or four CDs I had bought that month (one from Chizmo Charles, a couple from Larry Garner, U. P. Wilson, and one by Johnny "Guitar" Watson).  I've been reviewing CDs (approaching 800 total) for Blues Bytes since September of '99 and it's still a lot of fun.  Blues Bytes won the Blue Foundations "Keeping The Blues Alive Award" in the Internet category in 2006.  I've been able to meet lots of people through the site....musicians, publicity folks, managers, etc...people that I never would have met otherwise, and am grateful that Bill Mitchell gave me the opportunity to do something I'd always wanted to do.

So how did Friday Blues Fix get started?

Actually, it started at work.  I emailed a song to one of my friends that was sort of related to what we all do (Jimmy Johnson's version of "The Highway Is Like A Woman") just for a hoot one day.  After that, I just started sending a song out to him and some of my other co-workers who liked the blues every once in a while.  It usually was on a Friday morning, for no real reason that I can remember.  One day when I was sending it, I just put Friday Blues Fix in the title box.  Soon, one song became two or three, and I started writing little bits about each song.  Then, I started doing themes (like "Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue") and featuring certain artists. 

After a while, word got around, and others started wanting me to send it to them, too, so I did.  This went on for about two years, then new email policies came out and there were bandwidth issues and our IT guy told me it might be a good idea to cease and desist with the big non work-related emails, so I shut things down.  A couple of the regular recipients were disappointed and told me so, and then they suggested I start a blog. 

I had thought about doing a website several years earlier and had even drawn it up like I wanted it to look (I'll have to find it and post it one day), so it seemed like a good idea.  By doing a blog, I could include more information, like pictures and least I could when I learned how to do all that.  So one day, in February of 2010, I decided to give it a try and here we are a year and a half later.

How do you go about creating a post every week?

As I said a few weeks back, I don't know how people are able to do interesting posts every day or at least a couple of times a week.  It takes me several hours during the week to do one post that that I hope people find interesting.  I usually brainstorm on Sunday nights and come up with a couple of ideas (unfortunately that didn't happen this week), then on Monday, I try to write up the post and maybe grab a few pictures and videos to use.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I find songs to attach (mostly from my collection).  Thursdays, I don't do much but look it over and make adjustments, if needed.  Of course, this entire process is subject to change on a weekly basis.

What are some of the coolest things that you've experienced since starting the blog?

It's been really cool to get emails from people in other countries that have happened upon the site.  It still blows my mind that I can write something here in Smalltown, MS and it's being read by people all over the U.S., and in England, Japan, Egypt, Poland, France, Italy, Mexico, Denmark, Spain, Australia, Israel, and Russia.

But the coolest thing was when I was interviewed about the blog for the local newspaper and my mug was plastered on the front page of the paper.  Unfortunately, they opted for me instead of one of the cats.

Anyway....that's it for Ten Questions With.....this week.  I hope you enjoyed it and I promise to do better next week.  As always, I appreciate your continued support and visits.  I hope that FBF is improving and continuing to maintain your interest. 

Before I go this week, I really wanted to tip my hat to some people who encouraged me to write and blog about the blues over the years.  A guy from Houston, TX named Jim Shortt played a big part in helping me get started.  He shared some great anecdotes about the Houston music scene, helped me iron out the rough spots on those early CD reviews, and turned me on to some fantastic music in the process.  Jim passed away about three years ago, long before I got this started, but I would like to think that he would approve of it.  Also, a big thank you to everyone else (too many to name without leaving somebody out) who has been there with suggestions and encouragement.

Hope to see you next week.  In the meantime, why don't we close with some music.....

Here's a ragged but right clip of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, taped at Legends sometime in the early 90's.....just two guys who enjoy playing together, and we're certainly glad that they did.

The early 90's edition of Magic Slim and the Teardrops, with John Primer on guitar, Jerry Porter on drums, and Slim's stalwart brother, the late Nick Holt on bass.

Now check out Jimmy Johnson, from the mid 90's, taped in Germany. Johnson is still going strong in his early 80's. Look for a post on him in the near future.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Five More Albums You Might Have Missed (Version 2.0)

Over time, even if you are on the cutting edge of new blues releases, some excellent albums manage to slip through the cracks, depending on when they're released, what other great releases come out around the same time, or even how low your funds were at the time.  We here at Friday Blues Fix consider it a public service keeping our devoted audience informed about discs that they might have missed the first time around, so check out these five hidden gems.

James Armstrong - Sleeping With A Stranger (Hightone):  Hightone Records definitely had a pretty hot streak with new blues artists, beginning in the mid 80's with Robert Cray, and the late 80's with Joe Louis Walker.  They hoped to strike gold again in the mid 90's with James Armstrong.  The young Californian certainly had the pedigree....his father was a jazz guitarist and his mother was a blues singer, and as a youngster he backed Albert Collins, Big Joe Turner, and Smokey Wilson.  Armstrong himself was a fantastic songwriter, a powerful, soul-inflected singer, and a better-than-average guitarist.  All of these elements came together perfectly on this debut recording from 1995, and the future seemed boundless for Armstrong.

Unfortunately, in 1997, Armstrong and his young son were attacked and nearly killed by a drug-crazed robber who broke into their home.  Armstrong was stabbed several times in the shoulder and his injuries were so bad that months of rehab were required.  He was left with limited motion in his left hand and was forced to adjust his playing style, taking up slide guitar to improve his dexterity.  He has released two subsequent albums since the injury, using others to play lead guitar (Joe Louis Walker and Doug MacLeod) on occasion.  Fortunately, Armstrong's composing skills and singing skills are still intact and his guitar work is improving.  All three of his discs are worth having, but Sleeping With A Stranger is the most complete of the three. 

Tim Lothar - In It For The Ride:  I met Tim Petersen several years ago on the old Blues Access message board.  He was searching for an old Fred Below article from Living Blues and I sent him a copy of it.  At the time, he was playing drums for one of Denmark's premier blues bands, Lightnin' Moe and the Peace Disturbers.  We kept in touch off and on, and after a prolonged absence, he emailed me and told me he was learning to play guitar and was going to send me a copy of his debut CD that he had just released.  I was surprised not only that he had learned to play guitar so quickly, but that he was confident enough to record an album of him playing guitar.  When I got it in the mail, I was astonished at how good it was, both his fretwork and his singing.  It was an amazing release. 

In It For The Ride was his second solo release, and it was even better.  His guitar work really grabs you and his singing is impressive as well.  This disc is a mix of original tunes and covers of some great pre-war blues.  If this one finds its way to your stereo, you'll have a hard time taking it off. Below is a video compilation that Lothar made of one of his shows in 2009, with a few songs from this CD.

T. D. Bell & Erbie Bowser - It's About Time (Spindletop):  You won't find a truer album title.  Guitarist Bell was one of the unsung heroes of Texas guitar, influencing dozens of guitarists in the Austin area.  Bowser was a rousing piano man.  This wonderful release from the Spindletop layer, which put out an incredibly impressive catalog of recordings during its short life, was nominated for a Handy in 1992 and deservedly so.  Bell and Bowser split the vocal duties on a dozen tracks of mostly cover tunes.  The duo had played together off and on since the 50's, but formed the Blues Specialists in the late 80's and played together until Bowser's death in 1995.  Bell passed away in 1999.  This disc is a fine testament to these underrated pair's talents.  This is Texas Blues at its best.

The Fremonts (Featuring Mighty Joe Milsap) - Mighty Crazy (Wooden Monkey):  This CD might make you think you've gone back in time to the late 50's/early 60's-era Chess and Excello blues recordings.  The band, out of San Diego, is that authentic in their approach, and frontman Milsap's vocals bring to mind Frank Frost or Sam Myers.  The band tackles vintage songs from Frost (see video of "Pocket Full of Money" below), Myers, Muddy Waters, and Lazy Lester and almost make them their own.  Simply put, if you like that old school style of blues, then you will love the Fremonts.  This was one of my favorite releases in 2006.

Pete Mayes - For Pete's Sake (Antone's):  For years, Texas Pete Mayes was a regular on the Houston area music scene, his warm, comfortable vocals mixed with some of the best guitar this side of T-Bone Walker.  Mayes took the best of Walker and combined it with other guitar masters like Wes Montgomery, Lowell Fulson, B.B. King, and Kenny Burrell.  His recording opportunities were rare (one recording by the infamous Roy Ames never yielded Mayes a dime), so it was wonderful that Antone's finally gave Mayes the chance to record and boy, did he capitalize.  One of my email buddies from Houston said that For Pete's Sake was "Super Pete Mayes."  In other words, it was the guitarist at his best.  He mixed several Walker-style tracks ("Pony Tail," "House Party," and "Alimony Blues," heard below) with some solid R&B and soul and handled them all with ease.  My Houston friend told me that Mayes' late success couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.  I'm glad he was able to make the most of his best recording opportunity. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

New Blues For You - From the Delta to Chicago

Charley Patton
For many blues fans and musicians, there's a close race over who was actually the King of the Delta Blues.  For most, the choice is Robert Johnson, but for a lot of fans, Charley Patton holds the title.  Certainly at the time (late 20's/early 30's), Patton was the acknowledged king.  He was the closest thing to a celebrity on the blues circuit at that time, playing all sorts of gatherings, parties, juke joints.  His records were heard all over the South.  He was adept at playing blues, popular songs of the time, country and western, and hillbilly.  He was a major influence on many of the artists of that time, including Robert Johnson and Son House and later artists like John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf.

Patton was a master showman back in the day, playing the guitar down on his knees, behind his back, or over his head.  He would also throw the guitar in the air while performing.  He was also a groundbreaking guitarist at that time....and that voice!  Though he was a small man, standing about 5' 5", he had a rough gravelly voice that supposedly could be heard 500 yards away in those pre-amplification days.  Listening to Patton sing on those old Paramount recordings, you will fully realize where Howlin' Wolf picked up his vocal style.

Patton was born in central Mississippi, around Edwards, MS, but his family moved to the Delta when he was a youngster, settling around Ruleville, MS, near Dockery's Plantation, a huge 10,000 acre cotton farm and sawmill, widely considered by many to be the birthplace of the Delta blues due to the number of musicians who came from or spent time there, such as Patton, Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, Howlin' Wolf, Tommy Johnson, and Son House.  Patton died about twenty miles from Dockery in 1934 at age 42, but he left 60 recordings found on those difficult-to-hear Paramount Records.  To many, if he's not the King of the Delta Blues, he's at least the father of them.

Fast-forward some seventy-five years plus into the future and you'll find Reverend Peyton, leader of The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, one of the best of the recent surge of country blues bands that have given the genre a huge shot in the arm over the past few years.  Peyton regards Patton as THE King of the Delta Blues and is willing to come to blows over it.  Peyton feels so strongly about this that he has recorded a magnificent tribute to Patton, to be released on July 19 on SideOneDummy Records, called Peyton on Patton

It's a spare, but powerful recording, mostly featuring Reverend Peyton solo with his rough-hewn vocals and slashing guitar, though his wife, Washboard Breezy, adds washboard percussion on a couple of tracks and backing vocals on one track, "Elder Greene Blues," and drummer Aaron "Cuz" Persinger provides interesting percussion backing......drumming with his hands on an old tobacco barrel.

Reverend Peyton in front of Dockery Farms (photo by Bill Steber)

Peyton recreates eleven of Patton's most beloved songs on Peyton on Patton, including a high-octane 90 mph version of "A Spoonful Blues," "Mississippi Boweavil Blues," "Tom Rushen Blues," "Green River Blues," and "Shake It and Break It."  He also delves into Patton's gospel sides,  including "Jesus Is A Dying-Bed Maker," "Prayer of Death, Part 1," and "You're Gonna Need Someone (When You Come To Die)." 

Central to the disc are three decidedly different versions of the classic "Some of These Days I'll Be Gone," first on conventional acoustic guitar, a second "hopped-up" version on banjo, and a third version featuring some lovely slide guitar.

Peyton's masterful guitar work is the highlight of this disc.  His goal in making this recording was to stay as true to the original music as possible.  He did the entire recording in one day, using one microphone...the same way Patton had done it over eighty years earlier. 

Over eighty years after his first recordings, Charley Patton's music is still influencing musicians.  Not many artists can claim that sort of staying power, but there's still much to be heard in those scratchy old recordings.

Peyton on Patton is highly recommended listening.  When you get down to it, it's nothing more than Reverend Peyton paying tribute to one of his guitar heroes, but each note played and sung shows that was a labor of love for the good that we are fortunate enough to hear for ourselves..

Another tribute disc that's just out is the two-disc set, Chicago Blues:  A Living History - The (R)evolution Continues.  This set is a sequel to the 2009 double-disc set, Chicago Blues:  A Living History.  Like its predecessor, the new disc provides neophytes with an introduction to this great music, and it offers longtime fans a fresh take on some familiar Chicago classics. 

Many of the same artists return on the new disc - Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Carlos Johnson, Billy Flynn, Carlos Johnson, Johnny Iguana, and Felton Crews, but there are some additional guest stars this time around.  Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Zora Young, James Cotton, Ronnie Baker Brooks, and Mike Avery all make guest appearances.

The songs presented represent Chicago Blues from the early 40's (Lonnie Johnson's "He's A Jelly Roll Baker," courtesy of Arnold) to the late 90's (Ronnie Baker Brooks doing his own "Make These Blues Survive").  Some of the tunes will be familiar (Jimmy Rogers' "Chicago Bound," by Primer, Magic Sam's "Easy Baby," from Sam's cousin Mike Avery, Elmore James' "Yonder Wall," via Junior Wells from Billy Branch (see below), but there are some outstanding tunes here that may be unfamiliar to most blues fans, such as Floyd Jones' "Stockyard Blues" (by Lurrie Bell), Tampa Red's "I'll Be Up Again Someday (by Arnold), and a great cover of Robert Lockwood Jr.'s "My Daily Wish, featuring Arnold, with guitarist Flynn and piano man Iguana.

The guest stars also shine on their tunes.  Buddy Guy reprises his hit, "First Time I Met The Blues," as only he can.  Magic Slim is reunited with longtime bandmate Primer on Chuck Willis' "Keep A-Drivin'."  James Cotton raises the roof on "Rocket 88," with Iguana and guitarists Flynn and Rico McFarland.  There are several heartfelt tributes, with Zora Young pays tribute to her mentor, Sunnyland Slim, on "Be Careful How You Vote," Baker Brooks covering his father Lonnie's "Don't Take Advantage of Me," Carlos Johnson's nod to Otis Rush ("Ain't Enough Comin' In"), and Lurrie Bell honoring his dad, Carey, with "Got To Leave Chi-Town." 

Closing out the disc is a rollicking version of Muddy Waters' "The Blues Had A Baby (and They Named it Rock and Roll)," with the four principals (Branch, Arnold, Bell, and Primer) each taking the mic and ending things in fine fashion.  This is a great sequel, possibly even better than the original, due to the wide range of covers, many rarely heard.  While it would be nice to have some younger Chicago musicians paying tribute to these artists (most of the "honorers" range from late 40' to early 70's), this collection will open the eyes (and ears) of some younger blues fans.