Friday, July 27, 2012

Recommended Reading - When I Left Home - My Story

I started listening to the blues seriously in the mid 1980's, and as I listened to various blues artists (and blues/rock artists), I also read about them.  Many of the guitarists I read about, such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, cited similar musical influences, including Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy.

Buddy Guy showed up on many guitarists' lists.  They all mentioned his showmanship, but they talked more about what he played.  I remember one of them saying that he was "Hendrix before there was a Hendrix."  I had been listening to Jimi Hendrix since my last year of high school and had picked up several of his compilations.  He was an amazing talent, for sure, but this talk of Guy being "Hendrix before Hendrix" really piqued my curiosity.

Unfortunately, being curious was about all I could do because I couldn't find very many recordings of him.  Being a college student on a tight budget, it wasn't like I could hit the mail order circuit at the time and the local record stores near home and at school didn't have the biggest blues sections either, so it took me a while to track any of his recordings down.  I did hear other artists cover his songs, like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I wanted to hear the original....the source.

I managed to find a few here and there on various collections.....Chess had started reissuing a few compilations and Atlantic Records had issued a four-volume series of their huge blues catalog that featured some tracks with Guy and Junior Wells.  I liked what I heard, but really wanted to hear more before I formed a definite opinion.

I finally managed to track down a few albums, a pretty wide-ranging set.  I first picked up Stone Crazy, Guy's recording done in France with his brother, Phil that was picked up domestically by Alligator, then the Guy/Wells Blind Pig collaboration, Drinkin' TNT & Smokin' Dynamite.  After those, I found one of my favorites, Vanguard's A Man & The Blues, then MCA Records reissued a couple of his Chess albums.

B.B. King and Buddy Guy
In a matter of a few months, I had a pretty good idea of how Buddy Guy sounded. The Chess recordings were more restrained.  There were flashes of brilliance on the occasional song ("Leave My Girl Alone," "Stone Crazy," "Let Me Love You," "First Time I Met The Blues," etc...), but there was also a lot of material that was geared more toward R&B that really didn't suit Guy.  I much preferred A Man & The Blues (discussed here) and the manic energy of Stone Crazy.

When I got to see Buddy Guy live, just prior to his big early 90's comeback, it was a mixed bag.  At JazzFest in the late 80's with Junior Wells, I was really impressed with his playing and his overall manner onstage.  When I saw him solo, just over a year later, he was sort of frustrating as he stopped playing songs in the middle, jumping to something else and just generally treating it as a big goof.  He did catch fire on "Five Long Years," but it wasn't enough for me, as far as that show went.  Hopefully, I just caught him on a bad night.

Of course, since then, he has really taken off.  He released his breakthrough, Damn Right I've Got The Blues, right after that and has enjoyed lots of success since then.  Now, there is plenty of Buddy Guy product out there.  He releases a new disc every couple of years, plus most of his old releases are still available.  He appears on TV, whether it's the late night circuit or appearances on the Food Network with Emeril.  He's won countless BMA's and Grammy Awards.   Probably after B.B. King, he's the most beloved living blues man out there.

It only makes sense that at the height of his fame and fortune, Guy would write his autobiography.  Really, there's not a more appropriate time for When I Left Home to hit the bookstores.  I was looking forward to reading it, mainly because Guy was collaborating with David Ritz.  Ritz has assisted with several excellent musical biographies and autobiographies, including Ray Charles (Brother Ray), Etta James (Rage To Survive), B.B. King (Blues All Around Me), the Neville Brothers (The Brothers), and Marvin Gaye (the biography, Divided Soul).  Ritz does a fantastic job of letting the artists tell their stories, and they really seem to open up to his approach.

Guy begins in Louisiana, working in the fields with his parents.  He talks warmly about his mother, who battled health problems, but never stopped loving her son, and his father, who encouraged him when he developed an interest in music and playing guitar.  He came from a loving family who worked hard to help him achieve, sending him to live with his sister in Baton Rouge to help him earn a better living.  Guy also talks about the mysterious stranger who bought him his first guitar and his greatest influence as a guitarist and performer, Guitar Slim (the subject of a future FBF post).

Guy developed as a musician well enough to record a demo and received enough encouragement to pursue his dream in Chicago.  We experience the ups and downs Guy encountered after settling in Chicago..his frustration at finding a job, and, finally, his opportunity to play his music.  Though he was doing what he'd always wanted to do, it was still a struggle making ends meet with a growing family, low-paying wages at gigs and in the recording studio, and unscrupulous people in the music business.

To me, the best part of When I Left Home is when Guy talks about his fellow blues men....Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, Magic Sam, Little Walter, B. B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Spann, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters.  There are dozens of anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, some sad, some frightening, several hilarious, and all entertaining.

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
Of course, there are several sections devoted to Guy's longtime partner and friend, Junior Wells (a relationship we discussed here).  The two worked together for nearly 20 years, but their relationship was tempestuous at times.  Guy really doesn't pull any punches dealing with any of his musical associates, particularly Wells, Dixon, Waters, Chess Records boss Leonard Chess, and several others.  At the same time, he acknowledges his debt to each of them for helping to make him the artist and legend that he is.

He also talks fondly of the artists who have been influenced by his music, such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and Janis Joplin.  The sections recalling Vaughan's death at Alpine Valley, and Waters' decline and death are especially poignant.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Buddy Guy
If you're not a fan of Buddy Guy's before you read When I Left Home, you will be before you finish reading it.  Guy has a real knack for telling these stories and you get the feeling that he's talking to you.  Though he comes off as flashy and sometimes cocky onstage, you don't get a lot of that in this book.  If you are a fan of the post-war Chicago blues and even the modern era blues, you will want to read this book.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Blues Brothers - Jimmy and Syl Johnson

Jimmy and Syl Johnson

This is a tale of two brothers.....two brothers who play the blues.  They both had winding paths to get to where they are today, with side trips to the soul side along the way, but they have both left their mark on the blues, together and separately, taking elements of blues, soul, and gospel and mixing it all together.

Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson in 1936.  He moved with his family to Chicago in 1950, where his neighbor was none other than Magic Sam (the middle Thompson brother, Mack, played bass for Magic Sam in the 60's).  Growing up, Syl sang, played, and recorded with Magic Sam, Billy Boy Arnold, Junior Wells, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin' Wolf.  In the late 50's, he cut his own recording for Federal Records (where he changed his last name from Thompson to Johnson), with Freddie King backing on guitar.  In the 60's, he recorded for Twilight and Twinight Records, recording such soul classics as "Come On, Sock It To Me," "Different Strokes," and "Dresses Too Short."  He also touched on then-current political issues with songs like "Is It Because I'm Black" and "Concrete Reservation."

Jimmy Thompson is Syl's older brother by eight years.  He, too, made the move to Chicago in 1950, but worked as a welder, playing guitar on the side (he learned while in Mississippi from childhood friend and neighbor, Matt "Guitar" Murphy).  After nearly a decade, he began gigging around Chicago with a harmonica player named Slim Willis.  During that time, he also changed his last name to Johnson.  In the 60's, he focused more on the soul side due to the prospects of making more money, so he ended up leading bands that backed artists like Garland Green, Otis Clay, and Denise LaSalle, while managing to release an occasional instrumental single along the way.

Both artists hit their stride in the 70's.  Syl Johnson signed with Hi Records out of Memphis.  He enjoyed his greatest success with Hi, recording three albums and sides like "Take Me To The River," "We Did It," and "Back For A Taste Of Your Love."  However, Johnson, like many of Hi's other soul artists, had to contend with the enormous success of their labelmate, Al Green.  After Hi folded in the late 70's, Johnson recorded a couple of albums for his own label, Sharma, which included his last hit, "Ms Fine Brown Frame."

Jimmy Johnson ventured back into the blues world in 1974, when he joined Jimmy Dawkins' band as rhythm guitarist.  In 1975, he toured Japan with Otis Rush and found his way onto Rush's live Delmark release, So Many Roads - Live in Concert.  In 1978, he finally stepped forward as a front man, recording four tracks as part of Alligator's Living Chicago Blues series.  That led to a pair of fine releases for Delmark in the late 70's and early 80's (Johnson Whacks and North/South), plus a 1983 French release (Heap See) subsequently released by Alligator a couple of years later as Bar Room Preacher.  Those three releases propelled Jimmy Johnson to the upper ranks of Chicago bluesmen.

The mid to late 80's was a tough time for both Johnson brothers.  Syl Johnson's music career faded and he took a job as a deputy marshal, then he started a fast-food fish restaurant business, and semi-retired from music.  Jimmy Johnson was still riding a hot streak when his band van swerved off of an Indiana highway, killing bass player Larry Exum and keyboard player St. James Bryant, and seriously injuring Johnson.  After the accident, Johnson decided that he would take an extended break from the music business.

In 1992, Syl Johnson discovered that his song, "Different Strokes," had been sampled by, like, a kajillion rappers, including Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, M.C. Hammer, the Geto Boys, and others.  It encouraged him to do two things.....first, he went to court and eventually, he won all the rights to his Twilight and Twinight recordings, which led to steady paychecks coming in.  Second, he decided to hit the road again, building a new band, touring, and eventually recording for Delmark (Back in the Game and Talkin' About Chicago) and Antones (Bridge to a Legacy) in the late 90's and early 2000's, mixing remakes of his classic songs with some exciting new compositions steeped in soul and blues.  Jimmy Johnson resurfaced in 1994, with a fine release on Verve Records (I'm A Jockey), followed by Every Road Ends Somewhere for Ruf Records in 1999.  Both records were well-received by fans and critics.  Jimmy, like Syl, mixes blues and soul seamlessly.


Interestingly, Jimmy Johnson's version comes in more from the blues side and Syl's, naturally, comes in from the soul side......two different ways of accomplishing the same thing.  In 2003, the brothers got together on a disc, the cleverly titled Two Johnsons Are Better Than One.  It's an excellent disc for both.  They do several songs together, then an equal number of their own individual tracks.  They released a live disc, Brothers Live, a few years later, but have been away from the studio since then.

Jimmy, now 83, and Syl Johnson, who just turned 76, are both still active, performing together and separately when they get a chance. 

Essential Listening

Syl Johnson has several compilations of his music.  There's one that captures his Twilight/Twinight recordings, and one that collects his Hi Records output as well.  For those who want a little more, The Complete Mythology captures all of his pre-Hi releases in a mammoth box set.  The later recordings with Delmark and Antones are also worth a listen.  He's lost very little of his game over time.

Unfortunately, there's not a compilation of Jimmy Johnson's recordings yet, but they are uniformly good.  Bar Room Preacher is my favorite, but Johnson Whacks and I'm A Jockey are not very far behind in the pecking order.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Unsung Bluesmen - Baby Boy Warren

Baby Boy Warren
Detroit has always had a relatively fertile blues scene, but only one Detroit bluesman, John Lee Hooker, enjoyed lasting fame.  There have been dozens of others, like Eddie "Guitar" Burns, Johnnie Bassett, Alberta Adams, Calvin Frazier, Harmonica Shah, Little Sonny, and Dr. Ross, who were and are very good at what they do.  The larger blues scene in Chicago, which is very similar in style to the Detroit brand of blues, has always gotten the bulk of attention.

One of the unsung bluesmen of the Detroit scene was Robert "Baby Boy" Warren.  For about six years, from the late 40's to the mid 50's, Warren compiled a pretty impressive catalog of recordings for a variety of labels, but didn't receive much attention beyond the Motor City.  In recent years, a lot of blues historians have reconsidered Warren's place in the history of the blues.  He was an above average guitarist and a very good songwriter.

Warren was born in 1919, in Lake Providence, LA.  His family moved to Memphis when he was only three months old.  He was one of 12 children, and he got the nickname "Baby Boy" from his older brothers when he was a kid.  He always loved music and was working as a musician when he was in his early teens, having learned to play guitar from his older brothers.  He was a regular at Handy Park in the 30's, with others like Howlin' Wolf, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and Little Buddy Doyle, one of his songwriting mentors (another was Memphis Minnie).  He also appeared on the King Biscuit Time radio broadcast in the early 40's with Sonny Boy Williamson.(Rice Miller version).  Soon after, he migrated to Detroit to work for General Motors and play guitar on the side at local clubs.

Boogie Woogie Red
Warren first recorded in 1949, with piano man Charley Mills.  Five singles appeared on several different labels, like Prize, Staff, Gotham, and Federal.  In 1950, he teamed with another piano player, Boogie Woogie Red, to release singles for Staff, Sampson, and Swing Time.  Among the high points of these sessions were songs like "My Special Friend Blues" and "Mattie Mae."

 In 1954, Miller came to Detroit to sit in with Warren on a few tracks, including "Baby Boy Blues," "Chicken," "Sanafee" and "Chuc-A-Luck."  The last two tracks eventually made it to Excello.  A couple of other tracks from that session ended up on JVB , and later on in the year, Warren recorded a couple of tracks for Blue Lake Records with Calvin Frazier on guitar and Boogie Woogie Red on piano, and a session for Drummond Records that included a reworking of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down."

According to blues scholars, Warren's songwriting and style owed a strong debt to Robert Johnson.  His lyrics were highly original and often were loaded with wit and humor.  Plus, he was backed by some of Detroit's finest musicians in Frazier, Boogie Woogie Red, Washboard Willie, and others on his handful of singles.  Despite all this, he didn't receive a lot of attention at the time and he faded from the music scene for most of the 1960's.

Warren resurfaced in the 1970's to play several festivals in Detroit and Ann Arbor, then with Boogie Woogie Red in Europe in 1972.  He also played for several years with the Progressive Blues Band in many Detroit blues venues, headlining with Willie D. Warren.  In July of 1977, he died from a heart attack and was buried in Detroit.

Blues historians all agree that even though there were blues singers who could sing better and blues guitarists who could play guitar better, there were very few who had a way with a lyric like Baby Boy Warren.  It's a shame that his output was limited to less than two dozen sides, but all of those are worth listening to.  If ever there was an early era blues artist deserving of wider recognition, it would be Baby Boy Warren.

There have been several attempts during the years to collect all of Warren's recordings onto one disc.  Although there aren't any collections in print right now, they can be found.  Official's Stop Breakin' Down has pretty decent sound and an interview with Warren in the liner notes, so try to find it if you's usually available on Ebay.  If not, there's a 4 CD collection of Detroit Blues from JSP Records in the UK that has several Warren tracks with great sound, along with some other excellent artists from the Motor City.  Either way, Baby Boy Warren deserves to be heard.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Recommended Reading - My Cross to Bear

I got the new Gregg Allman autobiography, My Cross to Bear for Father's Day, and have been reading it steadily ever since.  I've followed The Allman Brothers Band off and on since I began seriously listening to music.  Unfortunately, by that time, the band was on its downside after numerous battles over drugs, money, jealousy, and creative differences.  The only things I really remembered was Allman's whirlwind romance with Cher and the band's late 70's comeback, which fizzled out after a couple of years following two mediocre recordings and the public's changes in musical styles and tastes.  I really had no idea about the band's beginnings and how close they came to becoming the greatest rock band of all time.....for a while, they could have been the greatest.

The Allman Brothers Band's original lineup - Seated (L to R) Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks. Standing (L to R) Jaimoe, Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley

The Allmans' brand of rock was a heady mix.  The members came from a wide variety of music, individually playing rock, pop, country, folk, blues, and jazz at one time or another.  All of these influences were given room to breathe in their music, but it was most definitely the blues that played the biggest part in the band's beginnings.  Blues standards like "Stormy Monday," "One Way Out," "Trouble No More," and "You Don't Love Me" were, and continue to be, a big part of their repertoire.  These guys got the blues....they understood them, moreso than most, probably owing in part to their being raised in the south, the birthplace of the blues....the blues just come naturally to most folks down here. They listened to the big AM stations down here, like WLAC out of Nashville, where the blues was played on a regular basis.

Their lineup was unusual for the time in that it featured two lead guitarists (Duane Allman and Dickey Betts), two drummers (Butch Trucks and Jaimoe), a monster bass player (Berry Oakley), and a keyboard player who also happened to be an incredible singer (Gregg Allman).

Duane Allman rapidly developed into one of the best guitarist ever and it was his musical vision that guided the band in its earliest days, and still does, to an extent.  He loved blues and soul music (playing on numerous sessions backing artists like Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, John Hammond, and Aretha Franklin), and was turned on to jazz by Jaimoe.  He and Gregg had played and recorded in a couple of bands in the mid to late 60's, but Duane chafed at the demands of the record companies, who wanted more of the 60's pop and rock that saturated the music charts at the time.  By the time he made his way back south, he had a pretty good idea what he wanted, but wasn't sure about who was going to help him do it.  In time, though, it all fell together, and one of the greatest blues/rock bands ever got started.

My Cross to Bear covers the history of the band fairly extensively.  This tale has been told several times by others, but Gregg is able to present all of this from a first-hand perspective.  From their earliest beginnings, Duane and Gregg had a serious sibling rivalry, but a deep and abiding love for each other.  Gregg actually took up the guitar first, but Duane soon followed suit and became so good so fast that he soon equaled and then surpassed Gregg.  The book follows the brothers through their frustrated days with the Allman Joys and Hour Glass and finally to the formation of Duane's dream band, and those early days that ended too soon.

Of course, you can't talk about the Allmans without mentioning the drugs, the women, and the excesses that they enjoyed.  Gregg doesn't spare many details about any of this.  He also doesn't cut himself much slack either....he was as deeply into it, maybe deeper, as anybody else in the band.  There are dozens of anecdotes from this time period.  Sometimes they're hilarious, sometimes they're sad (Gregg's last conversation with Duane will tear a hole in your heart), but they're always compelling reading.

After Duane's death in 1971 and Oakley's in 1972, the band enjoyed their greatest success, but the wheels were beginning to come off for the group, and personalities began to clash (let's just say Gregg and Dickey Betts won't be attending many parties together).  Mixed in with all of this is Gregg's train wreck of a relationship with Cher, his own solo career, continued drug use and abuse, a major drug trial, money problems, and several break-ups and reunions with the band.  Eventually, the band called things off again in 1982.

Allman and Betts launched solo careers and released albums in the late 80's, even touring together occasionally.  The band reconciled in 1989, with guitarist Warren Haynes joining up.  Allman speaks highly of the new group, particularly Warren Haynes, with whom he would bond as a songwriter, and bass player Allen Woody, who he became close friends with.  In 2000, Betts was dismissed from the band for "personal and professional reasons."  Gregg Allman had finally sobered up in the mid 90's, as had most of the other band members, but Betts did not do so and became increasingly difficult to work with.  Woody died in 2000, of unknown causes.  Since that time, guitarist Derek Trucks has replaced Betts and teamed with Haynes to form a powerhouse combination on guitar that's nearly on a level with those early days, and the band has enjoyed continued success.

The Allman Brothers Band (2009 Edition) - Gregg Allman (front), Back row, L to R, Jaimoe, Otiel Burbridge, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Mark Quinones, Butch Trucks

The remainder of My Cross to Bear focuses on Allman's recovery from his addictions, his attempts to reconcile with his children, his new-found faith, and his medical issues.  Allman was diagnosed with hepatitis C (apparently from a tattoo needle years earlier) and eventually required a liver transplant.  Though he's recovered, it has forced him to cut back on his touring and appearances.  Last year, he released Low Country Blues, a set of blues standards and obscurities recorded prior to his surgery, which was basically his first straight blues recording.  He sounded as good as ever.

Probably the best thing about the book is Allman's candor in discussing these stories and anecdotes.  He doesn't shy from pointing the finger of blame where it belongs, even when it's pointed directly at him.  He takes responsibility for his actions concerning drugs, women, and even business, which makes it easier to accept when he does call things like he sees them regarding others, like Betts, Cher, Capricorn head Phil Walden, and many others.  Even when he does call others out, he still manages to speak highly of them in other cases.  He acknowledges Betts' woodshedding and hard work pulling the band together in the aftermath of Duane's death when no one was sure what would happen, Walden's efforts at helping the band achieve popularity, and even admits that Cher didn't deserve the troubles he put her through with his drug problems (though he still says she can't sing).

Also, you see a side of him that you might not see otherwise, particularly concerning his brother.  It's clear that he still hurts from the loss, even some forty years later.  These brothers shared a musical bond, but also a brotherly bond that was even deeper.

It's always interesting to wonder what would have happened to the group had Allman and Oakley not died....would they have drifted more to the rock side of blues/rock, or the blues side?  Personally, I think they would have stayed more toward blues and jazz than rock. Duane Allman seemed to be leaning toward the jazz side with his free flowing improvisation on guitar, but his brother's vocal talents would have also reflected a blues and soul side as well.  Had Duane not passed away, I have a feeling that we would have never heard a song like "Ramblin' Man," which ironically became the group's biggest radio hit, on one of their albums, and Betts might not have ever been able to expand his songwriting and talents within the band.  It's interesting to speculate about what might have been, but unfortunately that's all it will ever be...speculation.

In the meantime, if you're a fan of blues/rock, Southern rock, or the Allman Brothers, I highly recommend Gregg Allman's My Cross to Bear.  It provides a never-before-seen look at one of the best blues, rock, and soul singers currently performing.