Friday, January 25, 2013

Blues Legends - Elmore James

Elmore James
Learning about music in the late 70's and early 80's, I heard about Elmore James before I actually heard Elmore James.  I was preparing a research paper for my senior year of high school.  My paper covered the first two years of the Beatles' musical journey, focusing on their days in Germany.  One of the books I read discussed their musical influences, and of course, all of them had a diverse set of rock n' roll, R&B, soul, country, and blues influences, particularly Ringo Starr, who listed Elmore James as one of his favorites.  This naturally made me curious, because I had heard of most of the other musical influences cited, but not Elmore James, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

Now, back in those days, "digging a little deeper" was not the simple task it has become over the past decade or so, with the internet pretty accessible either at home, in a library, or a place of business.  Back in the day, at least when dealing with something music-related, it meant either going to the library and looking something up or maybe finding a recording of some sort at the local record store.  In 1980, neither was a sure bet as far as searching for blues information, and true to form, I struck out.  The only music books in our libraries were devoted to either early rockers like Elvis, Dylan, or the Beatles, so I couldn't even find enough information about Elmore James to even know where to look for him in a music store.  My paper got written and I moved on to other things that 17-year-olds enjoy to do and forgot about Elmore James.

Almost ten years later, I finally got to hear Elmore James.  I found a cassette tape of some of his recordings (the very one I discussed in last week's post) and ordered it, having never heard anything he'd ever recorded.  By that time, I did know that one of his songs was called, "Dust My Broom," and that it was an old Robert Johnson tune.  I had heard Johnson's version and, even though I wasn't sure what "dust my broom" meant, I liked it.  Still, I wanted to hear Elmore James' version.

The first thing I noticed was that "Dust My Broom" was not on this collection.  Instead, there was a slight variation called, "Dust My Blues," which James recorded a couple of years later on a different label.  The second thing I noticed was that I could care less.  From the opening notes of "Dust My Blues," I was hooked!  I had heard the familiar guitar riff by now from numerous other blues artists (face it, any guitarist who's ever put a slide on his finger is going to play an Elmore James riff one way or another), but I had never heard it just like Elmore James played it.....with the fierce determination and fire he had. It was almost like the strings were being shredded sometimes.

And those vocals....loud, sometimes cracking, occasionally even hysterical-sounding.  Whatever your feelings about him, everyone who ever listened to Elmore James knew......they KNEW.....that he felt the blues to the very core of his being.  How many bluesmen over the years have stated that you can't fake the blues?  When one listens to Elmore James perform, you know he ain't faking!!

Even better, James' sound wasn't limited to that one riff, though he played it again and again and again....and then again in as many ways as he could.  His single string playing was marvelous as well, inspiring as many guitarists as his slide playing.  That's the trap that people occasionally fall in when they listen to Elmore James, and other blues artists like Magic Sam, John Lee Hooker, etc......  Artists during the 50's and 60's focused on recording singles, not albums, so sometimes in an effort to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak, artists would recycle familiar guitar riffs that were successful one time into newer songs.  At the time, people were just listening to juke boxes and these songs would come out far enough apart that nobody really paid it that much attention.  However, over the past twenty or thirty years, when artists' bodies of work are collected into albums or CDs, sometimes the repetition is easier to spot because the songs are all grouped together.  Anyway, Elmore James was no one trick pony, as evidenced by any blues fan who's looked at his catalog beyond the "Dust My Broom" riff.

Elmore James was born on January 27, 1918, in Richland, MS....there are several Richlands in Mississippi....this particular community is north of Jackson in Holmes County.  He was born Elmore Brooks, taking his mother's last name, but later took the name of his stepfather, Joe Willie James.  He began playing guitar at the age of 12, first playing a diddley bow and later making a one string instrument made out of a broom handle and a lard can.  Pretty soon, he was playing dances at country suppers and juke joints, under the name Cleanhead or Joe Willie James.

James was, like many guitarists at the time, strongly influenced by Robert Johnson and Tampa Red.  He mostly limited his working area in his early years to the area around Belzoni, MS, but would sit in with artists who were passing through such as Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller version), and even Howlin' Wolf.  Eventually, he started his own band and toured the southeastern U.S. with Williamson until Uncle Sam came calling in the early 40's during WW II.  After serving in the Navy at Guam for three years, he ended up in Memphis, working with Eddie Taylor and his cousin, Homesick James Williamson.

James soon made it back to Canton, MS, where he began developing his signature sound, working in his adopted brother, Robert Holston's electrical shop.  Using parts from the shop, he reworked his amps to the point where they produced the raw, distorted sounds that would later become such a part of rock guitar some fifteen or so years later.

Still nervous about his abilities, James recorded a single track for Lillian McMurray's Trumpet Records out of Jackson, MS in 1951.  He had previously recorded for Trumpet as a guitarist on several Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love tracks and McMurray cut his song at the end of one of Williamson's sessions.  James didn't even stick around long enough to record a "B" side for his single....McMurray ended up putting a local singer's track on the flip side, but the song, "Dust My Broom," became one of the biggest R&B hit of 1952 and catapulted Elmore James into the spotlight.

L to R:  Homesick James, J. T. Brown, Elmore James
James ended up recording for the Flair and Modern labels soon after his big hit and those tracks were followed by a short session with Chess Records.  Also during this time, James started assembling his band, the Broomdusters, a talented group that included two former Tampa Red associates (piano player Johnny Jones and, for a spell, drummer Odie Payne), plus Homesick James on rhythm guitar, and tenor sax man J. T. Brown.  This powerful group could go head to head with any of the local Chicago bands and hold their own or better.  They were loud and proud with James' slashing slide work, Jones' muscular piano work, Homesick's solid-as-a-rock rhythm work and Brown's distinctive tenor sax.

In the early 50's, James was diagnosed with a heart condition that sometimes put him on the musical sidelines.  After he recorded several sides for Chief Records in 1957 (including the first version of "It Hurts Me Too"), his heart forced him to withdraw to Canton, MS, where he worked as a DJ and repairing radios for a time.  Soon, he returned to Chicago and cut some more sides for Chess, then released some incredible sides for Bobby Robinson's Fire label that included "The Sky Is Crying," "Look on Yonder's Wall," and "Shake Your Moneymaker."

Unfortunately, James ran afoul of the musician's union in Chicago and had to return to Mississippi until things were sorted out.  When he returned to Chicago in May of 1963, James was ready to get back on track with his recording career when he suffered his third heart attack.  This one was fatal, and James died on May 24 in Chicago.  There were plans for James to participate in the American Folk Blues Festival in Germany later that year, but it was not to be.  After a wake attended by over 400 blues luminaries, James' body was brought back to Ebenezer, MS, where he was buried.  He was only 45 years old.

Though Elmore James didn't get to reap the benefits of blues recognition like Muddy Water, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and other contemporaries, he managed to influence blues guitarists like Homesick James Williamson, J. B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, Lil' Ed Williams, and Johnny Littlejohn, rockers like Brian Jones, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, and Jimi Hendrix (who billed himself as "Jimmy James" during his early career as a tribute).  Even today, James' influence can be heard in the music of Derek Trucks via his connections with his own band and the Allman Brothers.

Elmore James left a pretty impressive body of work for multiple labels over a short time.  It has been collected many times over in various formats.  Some of his best Meteor/Flair/Modern tracks can be found on Let's Cut It:  The Very Best of Elmore James.  His Fire and Enjoy sessions have been assembled by Collectables (in three volumes), and his Chess sides have also been collected frequently.  However, the disc that captures most of his best material and covers the entire length of his recording legacy is Rhino's The Sky Is Crying:  The History of Elmore James.  It's track after track of sheer brilliance and should be part of every blues fan's collection.  I strongly encourage you to dig a little deeper though.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Taking Inventory

The first few weeks of the new year are always sort of different, musically speaking.  There's a couple of weeks between the releases timed for Christmas sales and then the new releases that kick off the new year.  For the first time in a while, I am caught up with my new listening.  This has enabled me to go back and listen to some of my old favorites while I wait for what I hope will be as great a set of new releases in 2013 as I got to hear in 2012.  This week, FBF will look at a few of those old favorites.

I recently picked up the Ace Records anthology disc, Kings of the Blues, which we discussed here a couple of weeks ago.  Since then, I've been listening to some other anthology sets that I have picked up over the past few years.  When I first started listening to the blues, I figured out pretty quick that collections featuring various artists provided a great way to listen to a lot of different artists at once, while saving some money in the process.  From that entry point, you can always expand your collections of the artists you like by picking up CDs or mp3's of your favorites.

In the late 90's, Testament Records released a couple of cool collections, one featuring a boatload of slide guitarists (Down Home Slide) and one showcasing harmonica players (Down Home Harp).  On Down Home Slide, there are 19 fantastic sides (14 previously unreleased) from artists like Big Joe Williams, Eddie Taylor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James, and Johnny Littlejohn (hear "Slidin'" below) plus great tracks from lesser-known guitarists like John Henry Barbee, Elijah Brown, Blind Connie Williams, and Arthur Weston.  The real highlight for me was the three previously unreleased live tracks from 1964 featuring Robert Nighthawk backed by Johnny Young (on guitar or mandolin) and Little Walter on acoustic harmonica.  One of the tracks is his classic, "Anna Lee" (one of my all-time favorites), and the other two are covers of Jimmy Rogers' "That's All Right," and Little Walter's "Everything Gonna Be Alright."  If you like slide guitar, this is a wonderful collection.

Down Home Harp has 22 tracks, 21 previously unreleased!  It's a well-balanced mix between urban Chicago-styled players (Little Walter, with Nighthawk on one track and Young on another, Big Walter Horton, Billy Boy Arnold (hear "Mattie Mae" below) and more country blues-oriented blowers like Coot Vinson (his "Thinking About Your Apples" is below), Doctor Ross, Willie Lee Harris, Driftin' Slim, and the Slim Willis Quartet.  For fans of blues harmonica, this is as essential as it gets.  It's a wide-ranging collection that has something for fans of every variation of blues harmonica.  I love to play these two discs together.  "Down Home" couldn't be a more correct way to describe these recordings.

Speaking of Robert Nighthawk, I managed to track down his early 50's recordings for Aristocrat (Chess) Records.  This might be a good time to plug Amazon, because if you happen to click on one of the titles that I link to Amazon, and you end up purchasing an item from them, then since I am a member of Amazon Associates, I receive a small percentage fee for everybody involved gets something out of the deal.  This past month, after nearly three years of attaching links to Amazon with every post, I finally earned TEN DOLLARS and therefore received a gift card from Amazon.  I spent the card on two CDs, one of which we will discuss in the future (hasn't arrived yet) and the other was the aforementioned collection of Nighthawk's Chess sides, called Sweet Black Angel.  This is the only source of this material since the 90's MCA/Chess compilation, The Aristocrat of the Blues, went out of print, and this import features all of Nighthawk's Chess sides, except for one alternate take.

Nighthawk's material is always a treat to listen to.....his slide work is never less than marvelous and these rank with his best work.  The title track has been recorded by dozens of blues artists including B. B. King and Buddy Guy, and this version of "Anna Lee Blues" is my favorite.  It's available for a very small amount of money from Amazon, so I would definitely take the time to check it out if you're a fan, because these sides are hard to find elsewhere.  While you're at it, check out Nighthawk's other recordings, especially Delmark's Bricks in My Pillow and his 1964 Maxwell Street set, which is available on it's own by Rounder Records (and was featured on one of FBF's earliest post, way back in 2010), or as part of the incredible set, .....And This is Maxwell Street.

One of the great Ace Records collections that I found years ago, was this set of early B. B. King sides from the 50's.  Do The Boogie:  B.B. King's Early 50's Classics features 20 of King's earliest recordings from Modern Records.  There are plenty of familiar tunes here like "Woke Up This Morning (My Baby's Gone)," "Everyday (I Have The Blues)," "Why I Sing The Blues," "I Gotta Find My Baby," and "When My Heart Beats Like A Hammer" (below), and many of these are alternate takes of the originals that have interesting variations from the released versions.  It shows that King was always trying to expand his sound and reach in different directions.  To me, King's 50's and early 60's recordings rank with his best work.  Later on, he sort of fell into a creative rut in the late 70's and 80's, but bounced back strongly in the 90's.  During his developing years in the 50's was when King truly worked his way into the title he holds now.....King of the Blues.  This is a great place to hear the early B. B. King, plus it's hard to pass up that picture of King in his fashionable shorts (I can't believe those didn't catch on).

One blues artists that has not received nearly enough attention here at Friday Blues Fix is Elmore James.  We intend to correct that slight in the near future.  In the meantime, I highly recommend "Let's Cut It" The Very Best of Elmore James.  This set covers James' recordings from the 50's when he was with the Modern, Flair, and Meteor labels.  Of course, this set doesn't include his monster hit, "Dust My Broom" (it does have a variation called "Dust My Blues"), but the material that is here ranks with his best recordings.  James might be mistaken by some as sort of a one-trick pony, based on the numerous tracks he recorded using the "Dust My Broom" riff, but this set shows that there was much more to enjoy.  One of my favorite Elmore James tunes is "Sunnyland," where there's nary a "Dust My Broom" riff to be found.  Count on hearing more from Elmore James here at FBF in a few weeks.

Yet another first rate collection from Ace is the two volume collection of Bobby Bland's best Duke recordings.....The "3B" Blues Boy - The Blues Years 1952 - 1959 and The Voice - Duke Recordings 1959 - 69.  I was late in arriving to the Bobby "Blue" Bland bandwagon....when I started listening to the blues, I focused on the guitar slingers, harmonica aces, and piano wizards, so a performer like Bland, who "just" sang, wasn't my cup of tea.  Yes, I was an idiot, but I eventually came around, especially after listening to Bland's immortal, quintessential soul/blues album, Two Steps From The Blues.  He didn't "just" sing....his voice was an instrument and he was as masterful with it as B. B. King was with Lucille.  Bland's most familiar tunes are actually split between these two discs, but you will discover some amazing music that you might have missed otherwise while waiting for the familiar ones.  There have been several compilations of Bland's Duke sides, but these two are my favorites from start to finish.

Finally, I also dug out my set of Magic Slim's Zoo Bar series, released on the Austrian label, Wolf Records.  This is an interesting five-volume set that Wolf released during the 90's that highlighted various performances by Slim and the Teardrops from the late 70's/early 80's to the mid 90's at the Zoo Bar, a blues club in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.  Slim and the band have played the club for many years, and he eventually moved his family from Chicago to Lincoln.  I plan to devote a whole post to this series in the future, but I can tell you that all five volumes are lots of fun to listen to and they give you a glimpse at the early stages and continued development of Magic Slim and the Teardrops, from the Alabama Jr. Pettis days all the way through the John Primer years.  You also get to experience the band's vast repertoire as well, as they cover an impressive range of tunes that includes a ton of familiar tunes by folks like Muddy Waters, Little Milton, Jimmy Reed, Lonnie Brooks, and Albert King, plus a few interesting covers like "Ode To Billy Joe," "Reelin' and Rockin'," and "Green Onions."  If you're a fan of Magic Slim's, this is an indispensable collection, just five of many great Magic Slim releases from Wolf Records.

It's been an enjoyable couple of weeks spent revisiting some old favorites, but I'm excited about all the new releases during the new year.  You'll be hearing more about many of them here at Friday Blues Fix.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Things That He Used To Do - The Life and Music of Guitar Slim

Guitar Slim was a man born ahead of his time.  A flamboyant showman, masterful guitarist, and powerful singer, the New Orleans guitarist influenced nearly all of the blues performers who emerged from Louisiana and Mississippi during the 50's....artists such as Buddy Guy, Earl King, Guitar Shorty, Albert Collins, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons, and Chick Willis to name just a few.

Guitar Slim was known to wear bright red, green, and blue suits, with matching shoes and hair.  For most performances, he had an assistant who trailed him during his shows, carrying an extra 300 feet of so of guitar cord, in case Slim decided to walk out into the audience (or out into the street) during one of his guitar solos.  He would sometimes play while riding on the assistant's shoulders, or even stop traffic during an extended solo.  According to Buddy Guy, when he saw Guitar Slim perform, that was he knew what he wanted to do...."play like B.B., but act like Guitar Slim," which is something he continues to do to this day, even making Slim's biggest song a part of his repertoire.

Guitar Slim was born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, MS on December 10, 1926.  He never knew his father and his mother died when he was only five years old, so he was sent to live with his grandmother, who lived on a plantation in Hollandale, MS.  Jones learned to plow behind a mule and to pick cotton as a youngster, but he spent his spare time hanging out in the local clubs, where he was soon working with several of the local bands as a singer and dancer.

By the time he was 18, he was working with Willie Warren's band.  It was Warren who introduced Jones to the guitar.  He learned from many of the guitarists who traveled through Hollandale to perform, including Robert Nighthawk.  However, Jones was most influenced by guitarists Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (he used Brown's "Boogie Rambler" as his intro music) and T-Bone Walker.

By 1950, Jones had relocated to New Orleans, where he refined his wild stage act and adopted the name "Guitar Slim."  He also worked on his guitar sound, experimenting with new sounds with lots of distortion over a decade before any of the rockers started using it.  The voice was already there, Slim had a strong, gospel-influenced vocal style, loaded with plenty of emotion.  He started out in a partnership with Huey "Piano" Smith, playing at the Tiajuana, building his reputation.  His performances at the Tiajuana and in various smaller venues in and around New Orleans were.....well, let's hear from New Orleans R&B legend Earl King, who saw Slim regularly.

“Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, and Guitar Slim were all performing at the White Eagle in Opelousas. Slim was headlining because ‘The Thing That I Used To Do’ was a scorcher. They were all in the dressing room, and Slim came in and said, ‘Gentlemen, we got the greatest guitar players in the country assembled right here. But when I leave tonight, ain’t nobody gonna realize y’all even been here.’ They all laughed but that’s what happened. Slim came out with his hair dyed blue, blue suit and 350 feet of mike wire connected to his guitar, the valet carried him on his shoulders all though the crowd and out into the parking lot. Man, he was stopping cars driving down the highway.”

He was able to record several songs for Imperial Records in 1951 that didn't sell, then moved to the J. B. Records label, where he cut the regional hit, "Feeling Sad."  It was a new thing at the time....a blues artist recording a record using a spiritual approach, and it was a huge influence on Ray Charles, who subsequently recorded it himself and would also later played a prominent role in Slim's career.

"Feeling Sad" was a big enough hit to attract the attention of a couple of other larger record labels, Specialty and Atlantic.  Both wanted to add Slim to their label, but Specialty got the nod, probably because of their recent R&B success with other artists (Roy Milton, Fats Domino, Joe Liggins, and Lloyd Price) and due to the persuasiveness of label owner Art Rupe and A&R man Johnny Vincent.

With Imperial, Slim struck gold the first time out, recording the now classic "The Things That I Used To Do."  King recalled Slim telling him about how the song came about.....

“Slim told me he had a dream. “He was confronted by a devil and an angel. They both had a song in their hand but Slim could only chose one. Naturally Slim chose the devil’s song—‘The Things That I Used To Do.’”

For the session, Slim's manager, Frank Painia, employed Slim's regular band, adding a young piano player named Ray Charles, who ended up arranging the music for the session.  It took two days, but the final product was recorded successfully on the second day (you can hear Charles' cry of relief at the end of the song), along with "I Done Got Over It," "Letter to My Girlfriend," and "The Story of My Life"

"The Things That I Used To Do" was rushed into stores and was a huge success, staying at #1 on the R&B charts for six weeks, due to Slim's impassioned vocal and that then-unique guitar sound.  King recalled....

“Slim never played a solo off the top of his head,” said King. “He always played a solo that was married to the melody of the song. Slim got a fuzz tone distortion way before anyone else did—you didn’t here that again until Jimi Hendrix came along. Slim never used an amplifier, he got that sound playing through a P. A. set with tiny iron cone speakers. Slim always played at peak volume which made those speakers vibrate and create overtones.”

Earl King
With the #1 record in hand, Painia booked a tour of the South.  Unfortunately, Slim wrecked his new Cadillac and ended up in the hospital.  Undaunted, Painia hired Earl King to impersonate Slim for the tour and apparently, no one ever caught on.  When he recovered, Slim toured behind the song for over two years.  He recorded several more good song for Imperial, including "Sufferin' Mind" and "I Got Something For You Baby," but the new songs didn't place the same emphasis on Slim's guitar work and none of his later work was as successful as his first hit.  Specialty released him from his contract in 1956, but he was promptly picked up by Atlantic.

With Atlantic, Slim cut four sides for their Atco subsidiary.  His first session got off to a rough start.

“I still recall the first session Slim did for Atlantic,” said engineer Cosimo Matassa. “When he got to the studio his voice was kind of hoarse. Lloyd suggested he swallow a spoonful of olive oil to loosen up his vocal chords. Slim went around the corner to a store but couldn’t find any olive oil. Instead he bought a bottle of castor oil and drank the whole thing. The session was sort of stop-and-go after that.”

Slim's Atco sides were very good, a little more restrained than his Imperial recordings, but still effective.  Songs like "It Hurts To Love Someone," "Down Through the Years," "I Won't Mind You," and "If I Should Lose You" were actually predecessors to the Louisiana swamp pop sound and have been covered by many artists in different genres from the area over the years.  Sadly, these records didn't sell well, but Slim was still a major attraction on the road.

Slim's downfall was liquor and a reckless lifestyle.  Friends, band mates, and doctors pleaded with him to curb his intake and slow down.  His band leader, the late bass player Lloyd Lambert, once said.....

“Slim wasn’t a good drinker.  He was the best. I tried to get him to eat and get his rest, but he said, ‘Lloyd, I live three days to y’all’s one. The world won’t owe me a thing when I’m gone.” 

In February, 1959, Slim and his band began a tour of the northeast U.S., but by then the drinking had taken its toll.  He was able to play only one song at a gig in Rochester one night.  The next night, at a show in Newark, he finished the gig, but collapsed soon after and was advised by a doctor to check into a hospital.  The next date was in New York, so the band drove there and took Slim to a doctor, but he died of bronchial pneumonia, brought on by his turbulent lifestyle.  He was 32 years old.

The bad thing about Guitar Slim's career was that it occurred during a time when very little blues was documented in the south.  Very few pictures....not many that were color, no video and not very much television was available back then.  Therefore, only a handful of pictures and no video at all exists that truly capture the talents of this artist.  Twenty years later, Slim might have achieved the popularity and success of an artist like B.B., King or Buddy Guy, or maybe even approached Hendrix, but it was not to be.  However, the music he left behind on numerous 45s and several albums, plus the numerous blues artists of the past and present who still play his songs give strong testimony of how immense his talent was.

(Some of this material was taken from Jeff Hannusch's 2001 article on Guitar Slim in Offbeat Magazine.)

Selected Discography

Sufferin' Mind (Specialty):  This set has 26 songs, several duplicate takes of songs, but all well-done.  All of the familiar tunes and hits, including "The Things That I Used To Do" and the title track, are here, making this the best available disc of Guitar Slim's Specialty sides.
Atco Sessions (Atlantic):  Slim's later output for Atco gets the short end of the stick sometimes, because none of these songs sold well upon initial release, but they're just as good, and sometimes better, than a lot of his Imperial recordings.  For my money, the Atco material is as strong as his earlier work.

Friday, January 4, 2013

My Favorite Things - Kings of the Blues

As I've mentioned before, one of the indispensable items in my building a blues collection was the Roundup Records mail order catalog in Cambridge, MA.  They had a mind-blowing list of blues recordings available that I never would have been able to find in my friendly neighborhood record stores, naturally because the primary focus of those record stores was to sell enough items to stay in business....there were many more Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Prince fans casually shopping in malls and shopping centers than there were B. B. King, Bobby Bland, Robert Cray, and Albert King fans.  Needless to say, my buying options were extremely limited as far as blues recordings were concerned when shopping locally, so for me, Roundup Records was a godsend.

One of my main sources of music from Roundup was the UK label, Ace Records.  Ace had a lot of compilation albums with music from the Kent, Modern, Specialty, Excello, RPM, and many other labels from the 50's and 60's.  They had bought the rights to license and issue these labels' catalogs to the overseas market and, thanks to Roundup, I was able to get my hands on several great collections of hits by B.B. King (including the magnificent box set, The Vintage Years), Bobby "Blue" Bland, Elmore James, and a few collections from various artists, one of these, Blues Around Midnight, I discussed about this time last year.  I actually had three collections that I really enjoyed listening to a lot back in the day, and will eventually discuss all three of them.

Kings of the Blues was a real keeper of a collection.  It featured songs from three different labels of the 50's and 60's.....Combo, Modern, and Specialty.  I wasn't familiar with most of the artists, but there were enough that I did know (B.B. King, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Guitar Slim, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, and Lowell Fulson) to make it worth a listen to me.  Once I heard how good all of the tracks were, I was hooked.  Even the relatively obscure (to me) artists were worth hearing.

Most of the tracks were rarities, too.  The opening cut, B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel," for the Modern label, was actually a 45 version cut with his seasoned road band, and was a tad raunchier than his album version that used the Maxwell Davis Band.  I prefer this one to the more frequently heard album track.

Johnny "Guitar" Watson
'Sweet Little Angel" is followed by an alternate version of the groundbreaking guitarist Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "She Moves Me," another Modern track.  For a lot of people, Watson is considered more of an R&B (and later funk) star, but his guitar work, given the period of time when he was playing, is amazingly ahead of its time. If you ever get a chance, you need to check out the Rhino Records collection of his 50's sides....just phenomenal stuff.  As you'll hear on this cut, he was also an above-average R&B singer.

Other tracks from the Modern label on this set are heard from familiar artists like Lightnin' Hopkins ("Lonesome Dog Blues"), T-Bone Walker ("Sitting Here Thinking"), Pee Wee Crayton ("Wild Hop"), Johnny Fuller ("Hard Times"), Lowell Fulson ("Too Many Drivers"), and Elmore James ("Please Find My Baby").  These tracks show the diversity of the Modern label, moving from country to urban blues with ease.

Frankie Lee Sims
The Specialty label is well-represented with a wide range of tracks.  Country blues is represented by Texas guitarist Frankie Lee Sims.  Sims was a cousin to Lightnin' Hopkins and one of the more influential Texas blues men, inspiring artists like Albert Collins and Jimmie Vaughan.  He was never really able to cash in with any success though and died from pneumonia in 1970.  The mellow blues track, "I'll Get Along Somehow," was recorded in 1954, but never saw the light of day until this album was released.

Other Specialty tunes include another previously unreleased track from Texas piano man Mercy Dee Walton, called "Problem Child," a rare 1951 track, "Lonesome Old Feeling," by Georgia blues man Bumble Bee Slim (a.k.a. Amos Easton), and the Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, who does a swinging version of "Yesterday," a variation of Little Walter's "Last Night."  Chenier is a bit of an oddity on this set, but you can tell by the vocal that the King of Zydeco was a blues man at heart.

Guitar Slim
Another standout Specialty track is Guitar Slim's intense "Sufferin' Mind."  Slim was a major influence on Watson (who played piano prior to seeing Slim in action) and Buddy Guy with his raucous performances that involved a 300 foot power cord attaching his guitar to speaker and his amazing wardrobe of red, green, and blue suits with matching shoes and hair.  Slim was a rising star who flamed out too quickly...his lifestyle was as wild as his guitar work and he died at age 32, the same week Buddy Holly's plane crashed, but did Guitar Slim ever make an impact!!!  "Sufferin' Mind" and the classic "The Things That I Used To Do" are recognized blues standards today.  We will dedicate an entire post to the amazing Guitar Slim in the near future.

The Combo label was a tiny one-man label run in California from the basement in the house of bandleader Jake Porter.  Combo had a few minor hits, but eventually Porter began to focus on his own music and his career.  There are four tracks from Combo included, including this track by Floyd Dixon (a.k.a. Jay Riggins, Jr.), "Riding Mighty High," which was unreleased until this set.  Dixon also recorded for Modern and Specialty (where he cut "Hey Bartender") during his lengthy career, which lasted until just before his death in 2006.

Kings of the Blues is, naturally, out of print now.  I recently found it used on Amazon for a bargain price, so I seized the opportunity to repurchase it.  It was a lot of fun to listen to then and it's still a lot of fun....a perfect mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.  If you're able to locate a copy of it (and there were several reasonably priced copies still available at Amazon), you should give it a listen.  Like nearly everything else released by Ace Records, it's worth searching out.