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

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