Friday, February 22, 2013

Magic Blues

This week's post was going to be a completely different subject, but we will have to postpone it for a week or two.  Most blues fans will understand, I hope.

As I've mentioned here before, my journey toward becoming a blues fan really started from my love for rock and roll and soul music.  However, I needed something else, maybe a combination of the two with the electric rock guitar work of artists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and the gritty soul vocals of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.  That's what I found with the blues.  It was that simple at the beginning.

Starting with the music of B.B. King, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, I kept digging deeper, discovering the Chess sounds of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin' Wolf, then the urban blues of the late 50's/early 60's with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Otis Rush.  From there I moved back and discovered the pre-war blues from Robert Johnson (who I had heard earlier, but didn't fully appreciate until I had actually absorbed the blues that followed him and was influenced by him), Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White.  

Later on, I filled gaps, taking in the assorted jump blues and R&B-based blues that were popular in the 40's and early 50's, then I delved deeper into regional blues sounds in Texas, California, Mississippi, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region, Chicago, Detroit, East Coast, etc....  The blues may be simple music, but a lot of people play it a lot of different ways and I love every bit of it.

I say all this to say that of all the blues music I've heard over the past 25+ years, all the various styles and genres and sub-genres of music that I've experienced, whether blues, rock, jazz, soul or whatever, there have been very few artists who have moved me the way Magic Slim did when he played the blues.  

Magic Slim passed away on Thursday morning (February 21).  He had been on life support, fighting a desperate battle with various ailments concerning ulcers, his lungs, and his heart that have built up over his 75 years of living.  The rumor that he had passed began circulating on Wednesday night and spread like wildfire to the point where it was posted just before 10:00 pm, Chicago time, that the big man was on life support, but it was obvious from the briefness of the statement that he faced an uphill climb.

Since I've followed the blues as a fan, there have been a lot of deaths that hit hard.  Stevie Ray Vaughan's death was really tough because it was so sudden and tragic after he had seemingly regained control of his life.  Luther Allison's death was also tough, in part due to the sudden diagnosis of inoperable cancer, which hit his fans like a 2 x 4, especially those who had seen him play one of his marathon shows just days or weeks before.  Within a month, he was gone.  

There were other deaths that were tough to take, like Junior Wells, Michael Burks, Johnny Copeland, and Albert Collins.  When Collins died, we didn't have the internet to give us instant news, so a lot of his fans (me included) didn't realize he was sick until they saw the obituary in the newspaper.  As we've discussed on this blog before, death is a regular part of the blues fan's existence because so many of the artists are past middle age and many played just as long as they were able to, like Honeyboy Edwards, Pinetop Perkins, and B.B. King (who, despite his age, continues to amaze....I honestly cannot imagine the blues world without B.B. King in it.  When (if?) that day ever comes, it will be a most sad day indeed).

Slim's death is really hard to take because he has been such a constant for so many years.  I mean, he was putting out new CDs almost yearly, either on Blind Pig or Wolf Records.  He toured constantly and when he performed, it was always memorable.  Even though you pretty much knew what you were getting when you heard him, he still managed to surprise you somehow.  

As I wrote last year, since I first heard Magic Slim back in the late 80's and early 90's, he's been my favorite.  Sure, I have others that I like almost as much, but Slim is the one I always return to when I need a dose of the real, unleaded, downhome, greasy, gritty blues.  That raw and ragged guitar work, that driving, nonstop, always-dependable boogie rhythm, those gravelly vocals, and that million dollar smile are just the epitome of blues to me.  If I had to provide someone with an ultimate definition of the blues, I would point to Magic Slim.

Since Wednesday night, I've been reading the many tributes posted on Facebook at his page and on other people's pages.  There are lots of great stories and some really nice tributes from longtime fans and friends and I'm sure there will be many more to come.  The blues world really comes together during times of grief and its almost therapeutic for fans to read these comments and reminiscences.   

I do know that I will be playing a lot of Slim's music this I need an excuse....I usually listen to one or two of his CD's each week anyway and spent most of December listening to the Zoo Bar series and his latest Blind Pig release.  If you're not familiar with Magic Slim, you can start anywhere and move backward or forward.  There are 30 or so albums of his music available in one format or another, plus a few DVD's.  It's all good and all blues all the time.

We don't usually get a lot of comments here, but if you would like to share your thoughts, or tell a Magic Slim story, you are always welcome to do so in the Comments below.

I'm almost positive that there's a big reunion going on up in Blues Heaven and the Magic Man is jamming away with his brother, longtime bassist Nick Holt, and his rhythm guitarist from the late 70's/early 80's, Coleman "Alabama Jr." ("Daddy Rabbit") Pettis, and the clouds are rocking.  R.I.P. Magic Slim.  It was quite a ride.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mount Swampmore

Believe it or not, this week marks the third anniversary of Friday Blues Fix.  Thanks again to all you loyal participants who stop by weekly.  Hopefully, we will continue to make it worth your while for many more years to come.

Once again, it's time to visit one of FBF's most popular topics, constructing one of the various Mount Rushmores of the Blues.  Previously, we've covered Chess Records (Mount Chessmore) as well as an "All Time" Mount Rushmore of the Blues (Mount Bluesmore).  This week, Friday Blues Fix will focus on the Sounds of the Swamp...namely Excello buckle in and hang on while we look at what could be called Mount Swampmore.

(As always, your opinions may vary from mine.  I would love to hear from anyone who thinks there should be a different face somewhere in the formation, so drop me a line if you have soemtbody else in mind)

Lightnin' Slim - Slim (born Otis Hicks) was the Father of the Louisiana Swamp Blues sound.  His attack was pretty straight forward, gritty vocals with rudimentary electric guitar attack backed by harmonica and drums.....the country blues plugged into that magnificent atmospheric echo-ey production that was so exclusive to the recordings being produced by Excello in their Crowley, LA studios.  His music sounds easy, but if it was, everybody would be playing it, and there hasn't been anybody who played it quite like Lightnin' Slim.  Songs like "Rooster Blues," "I'm Evil," "Bad Luck and Trouble," and "I'm a Rollin' Stone" are Swamp Blues at their finest.  There may have been others who sold more records and maybe achieved a little more popularity down through the years, but Lightnin' Slim was the one who put the music on the map and paved the way for others to follow.

Slim Harpo - To me, there are a couple of no-brainers that will adorn this monument, and Slim Harpo (born James Moore) is one of them.  Though he came a decade after Lightnin' Slim, he achieved a bit more success than his predecessor.  His music wasn't as intense and cathartic as Slim's could be.....not even close, but his country-flavored vocals, mixed with the occasional rock & roll rhythms, and his laid-back delivery was appealing to a wider and more diverse audience, so Harpo enjoyed a bit more commercial success over his career with such classic tunes as "Baby, Scratch My Back," "I'm A King Bee," "Rainin' In My Heart," "I Got Love If You Want It," and "Te Ni Nee Ni Nu."  Harpo's music was not only covered by black musicians, but also numerous white musicians, both in the U.S. and over in Europe.  It was music that appealed to people of all colors, and it still does.

Lazy Lester - In 1987, I got to see Lazy Lester (born Leslie Johnson) perform with some of his biggest admirers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, before I even knew what Swamp Blues was.  I had no idea what it was, but I knew I liked it after I heard him.  Lester started out backing Lightnin' Slim on harmonica and graduated to recording his own songs in the mid 50's, doing so until the mid 60's, resulting in such blues standards as "I Hear You Knockin'," "Sugar Coated Love," "The Same Thing Could Happen To You," "Ponderosa Stomp," and "If You Think I've Lost You."  Then, he just stopped playing music for a long time, resurfacing in the late 80's and recording five or six great discs that sounded like he'd never been off the scene.  He is still active today, and if you've not experienced Lazy Lester in action, I strongly recommend that you seek him out first chance you get.

The last choice was tough, because there are so many artists who could easily fill this slot, such as Silas Hogan, Lonesome Sundown, Raful Neal, Kenny Neal, Katie Webster, Larry Garner....see what I mean.  Any of these musicians would fit into that spot seamlessly.

However, I opted for one Ernest L. "Tabby" Thomas to fill the fourth and final spot and I don't think many could argue.  Though he didn't score a lot of hits over his career (the Crescent City-flavored "Hoodo Party" was his biggest hit in the early 60's), he is most widely known for his Baton Rouge blues club, Tabby's Blues Box and Heritage Hall, which he opened in the late 70's/early 80's.  The Blues Box played the blues and only the blues, mostly by local talent, so even when the music hit a dry spell, Thomas' club allowed most of these local Swamp Blues artists ample opportunity to play and a friendly venue to boot.  Most of the artists mentioned above played at the Blues Box and many others, too.  Even Thomas' son, Chris Thomas King (you may have seen him in O Brother Where Art Thou) got his start in the club.  Thomas continued to perform and record over time...his 1999 release, Swamp Man Blues, updated the Swamp Blues in an impressive fashion and wasn't heard by nearly enough people.  He suffered a major stroke in 2004, but has recovered to the point where he can sing.  The Blues Box had to close around that time as well, due to an overpass that was being constructed in the area.  Thomas still hosts a radio show on WBRH in Baton Rouge that plays nothing but the blues every Saturday afternoon.  For not only playing the Swamp Blues, but also providing a longtime venue for so many others to play them, Tabby Thomas gets the fourth and final spot on Mount Swampmore.

2013 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees

Soul/Blues singer Otis Clay

Pianist Little Brother Montgomery

Arranger/Songwriter Henry Glover

Early Chicago Guitarist Jody Williams

The Blue Yodeler - Jimmie Rodgers

Blues Guitarists' Guitarist Earl Hooker

Contemporary Bluesman Joe Louis Walker

New Orleans Studio Wizard  Cosimo Matassa

Friday, February 8, 2013

New Blues For You (Winter 2013 Edition)

Before we get started this week, a little information to share with you.......A couple of weeks ago, Chicago blues man Eddie C. Campbell suffered a heart attack and stroke while touring in Germany.  Campbell is now out of ICU and is slowly recovering, but is paralyzed on his right side.  His prognosis for recovery is dependent on him receiving the proper medical care, which will include therapy, but he has no medical coverage in Germany and flying home is going to be a challenge as he will need a medical escort or, in the best case scenario, an air ambulance, which will cost around $80,000.  A "Bring Eddie Home" benefit is scheduled on February 17th at Rosa's Lounge in Chicago, and will feature area blues musicians, such as Eddie Shaw, Eddy Clearwater, Deitra Farr, Zora Young, Jimmy Johnson, Lurrie Bell, and many others.    If you're too far away to make the show, there's a link to Paypal ( where you can make a contribution.  If you're not able to donate, please keep Campbell and his family in your prayers.

2013 looks to be getting off to a good start as far as new blues recordings go, possibly improving on what was a pretty impressive 2012 list of standouts.  This week, Friday Blues Fix will look at five new releases that deserve to be heard by all respectable blues fans as soon as possible.  As always, you can find expanded reviews of each of these CDs in a future issue of Blues Bytes.

4 Jacks - Deal With It (EllerSoul):  The latest blues super group features Texas guitarist extraordinaire Anson Funderburgh, singer/drummer Big Joe Maher (of Big Joe and the Dynaflows), keyboardist Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton's bandleader) and Nashville bass player Steve Mackey.  This disc is a pretty well-rounded set of blues and roots music, opening with the funky title track, a Booker T.-styled instrumental, and moving from smooth jump blues to urban blues to soul to raucous rockers.  Most longtime blues fans know that Funderburgh and Maher are pretty skilled at all these styles, but McKendree and Mackey provide a tight rhythmic backing that makes an excellent release even better.  This is one that you really need to seek out and, while you're at it, take a look at the remainder of EllerSoul Records' wonderful catalog of recordings.  Meanwhile, check out the band in action on this great instrumental from the disc, "Texas Twister."

The Lucky Peterson Band (Featuring Tamara Peterson) - Live at the 55 Arts Club Berlin (Blackbird Music):  Lucky Peterson has been playing the blues since he was five years old....that's over FORTY years, folks.  He served in Little Milton's band and Bobby "Blue" Bland's band before striking out on his own at the tender age of 21.  He's been very active on the recording and touring scene in both the U.S. and the world.  Peterson's blues mixes traditional sounds with modern slices of funk and R&B.  He started out on keyboards, but has developed into an excellent guitarist over the years.  Since the mid 90's, Peterson's wife, Tamara, has been touring and recording with the band, adding some pop and jazz sensibilities to Peterson's repertoire.  In addition, Peterson's band is one of the best in the business, with Shawn Kellerman contributing some killer lead guitar throughout this performance taped in Berlin recently.  This set includes two DVD's and two CD's of the performance, plus a bonus DVD that features Peterson's band warming up the audience with several songs of their own, plus some "Behind the Scenes" clips of the band in rehearsal and an interview with the engaging Peterson.  The set itself is a mix of both Peterson's own compositions, plus some covers of traditional blues classics, and a countrified blues restructuring of Prince's "Kiss."  Peterson is a blues lifer who should actually be better known than he is, based on his talent and showmanship.  This first-rate set is a fine introduction to his talents.

The Andy T-Nick Nixon Band - Drink Drank Drunk (Delta Groove):  Andy Talamantez has been a blues fan since he was a kid, first hearing it, like most of us, from artists like Eric Clapton, but then tracing Clapton's music back to the original sources, like T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, etc...  Then, he started playing himself and was soon backing Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty.  A move to Nashville found him teaming up with Nick Nixon, a music vet who had settled down to teach music in Music City.  Drink Drank Drunk is their debut recording, and it's a dandy, produced by Anson Funderburgh and featuring two other 4 Jacks members in its line-up of backing musicians (Kevin McKendree and Steve Mackey.  The disc offers up some sizzling cover tunes, plus a few originals that hold up very well to the standards, like the one on the video linked below, "Have You Seen My Monkey."  Nixon belts out vocals like his life depends on it, blasting out vocals with hurricane force, while Andy T's fretwork is spot-on, never a note out of place, similar in style to his producer, who also plays guitar here.  Looks like this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship that, hopefully, will last for years to come.  Blues fans will certainly hope so.

Robert "Top" Thomas - The Town Crier (WildRoots):  If you're a longtime blues fan, dating at least back to the early 90's, you may be familiar with a Florida-based band called Smokehouse.  Smokehouse recorded for the late, much lamented Kingsnake Records.  Thomas was one of Smokehouse's founding members and also one of the driving forces behind the band's "Florida Swamp Blues" sound that mixed Excello-styled Louisiana blues with the Mississippi Delta blues.  Yes, it was a potent mix.  This is Thomas' debut release as a solo act and it continues the Smokehouse tradition with some of the sweatiest, swampiest grooves this side of Lazy Lester, whose classic tune, "The Same Thing Could Happen To You," gets a remodel job, with the added attraction of Swamp Sista (and FBF friend) Beth McKee's accordion thrown into the mix.  Thomas' guitar work is super and his vocals are a perfect mix of swamp drawl and delta growl, with a little bit of country thrown in for good measure.  Check out Thomas' "Lazy Miss Daisy" below and you'll get a good idea of what so much fun about this disc.

Kevin Selfe - Long Walk Home (Delta Groove):  This is another keeper from Delta Groove, from an up-and-coming star, whose previous release, Playing the Game, was one of my favorites of 2011.  Selfe, a reformed weatherman, gave up a potentially lucrative career in meteorology for the blues life, and I would say he chose wisely.  His guitar work shows amazing versatility, and his songwriting is very original, with clever, sometimes humorous lyrics and themes.  Selfe plays the blues pretty straight, with an emphasis on jump blues and shuffles, but he does mix in a few acoustic numbers, pays tribute to Magic Sam on one West Side-flavored tune, shows off some pretty fine slide work, and he also can rock the house pretty well when required.  Selfe and his band, the Tornadoes, get a helping hand from harmonica player Mitch Kashmar, keyboardist Gene Taylor (The Blasters, Fabulous Thunderbirds), and drummer Jimi Bott.  I think we'll be hearing much, much more from Kevin Selfe in the future, but blues fans will surely enjoy this one right now.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Five Albums You Might Have Missed (V.6)

Once again, it's time to take a look back at some outstanding recordings that might have fallen under the radar the first time around, or never showed up at your friendly neighborhood record store, or came from a smaller record label that didn't have the budget to get wider distribution, or just suffered from a big case of bad luck.  Anyway, Friday Blues Fix likes to think we are performing an essential public service by spreading the word about these previously hidden gems, so sit back and let's look at five discs that deserve to be heard.

Big Lucky Carter - Lucky 13 (Blueside):  Levester "Big Lucky" Carter migrated to Memphis after World War II.  Having earned his "Big Lucky" moniker based on his gambling skills, Carter was even better known for his guitar skills, backing his cousin, Ed "Prince Gabe" Kirby, in the Memphis group, the Rhythmaires (later the Millionaires).  That group recorded singles for Sun, Savoy, and several other labels during the 50's.  Carter himself recorded six downhome singles for Hi Records in the late 60's, the song "Goofer Dust," standing out among them.

Though he remained active around Memphis, he virtually disappeared until 1998, when he resurfaced with this album for Blueside that showed the 78 year old still had plenty in the tank.  Lucky 13 featured plenty of Carter's guitar work, backed by an excellent set of Memphis-area musicians, including Carter's longtime friend and playing partner, Lindbergh Nelson, on piano.  Carter wrote all the songs, including a great remake of "Goofer Dust," plus tracks like "Miss Lula Mae's Mule," "Grazing In Your Pasture," and "Pleasure For Your Treasure."  He also touches on modern topics on tracks like "Papa Is A Junkie" and "AIDS is Killing Me."  One of my favorite tracks is one of the more urban blues tracks, "We Should Be More Cohesive," which features some great, greasy blues guitar.

Sadly, this was Carter's only full length release.....he passed away on Christmas Eve in 2002 at the age of 82.  Equally sad, this album was only available as an import, so  it was hard to find in American record stores at the time of it's release, but it won several awards in France and got some good publicity from publications like Living Blues.  If you like good old, unpretentious, downhome blues, this is one that you should track down.

Sonny Treadway - Jesus Will Fix It (Arhoolie):  By now, most blues fans are familiar with the brand of gospel music known as Sacred Steel.  Focusing on the amazingly versatile steel guitar, the Keith and Jewel Dominions of the Church of the Living God has been been producing highly original, energetic, and unique gospel music since the 1930's.  Many of the genre's current artists, such as Robert Randolph, the Campbell Brothers, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and others have become recognized outside the church for their incredible skill, which has also led to much controversy within the church.  FBF will do a future post on Sacred Steel....the focus today is on this particular release from another of the genre's real talents.

Sonny Treadway has been playing in church for a number of years (his wife is pastor of the church he attends).  His playing style is a bit different from the familiar sounds of Randolph, Campbell, and Ghent in that he has more of a traditional approach.  Treadway listens to blues, jazz, country, rock, and R&B and these styles feature prominently in his approach.  It's not as dynamic and in-your-face as Robert Randolph's guitar work, but it's actually more traditional blues-oriented.  I really like the bass effect he uses on several of these tracks, which are mostly traditional church tunes, plus a couple of his own compositions.  There are no vocals.....Treadway's guitar provides the call and response, and he's accompanied only by drums and rhythm guitar.  The amazing title track opens the disc and you will probably hear it in your head for days afterward, but in this case, that's not a bad thing.

From what I've read in the past, Treadway was reluctant to release a recording like this.  He and most of the other musicians in his dominion prefer to keep the music in the church and disregard the possibilities of commercial success, which to them would be bringing more glory to themselves than to God.  Upon the release of the disc, he reportedly regretted having done so and vowed not to ever do it again, choosing to focus exclusively on making music in the church.  This means that Jesus Will Fix It will probably be the only opportunity to hear this amazing guitarist unless you happen to attend one of his church services.

Ervin Charles - Greyhound Blues (Dialtone):  If you happened to pick up the 1999 Lonnie Brooks/Long John Hunter/Phillip Walker collaboration, Lone Star Shootout, you heard a guitarist named Ervin Charles on a couple of tracks.  Charles was a big influence on Brooks and Hunter during their formative years on guitar and the pair showed their appreciation by sharing the spotlight with him on their joint release.  Sadly, it didn't lead to bigger and better things for Charles because he passed away from cancer in 2000, but Dialtone Records was able to record him before he became too ill and the result was Greyhound Blues.

Charles provides some succinct, stinging guitar work on these tracks and even sings on several tracks, though his friend (and former band mate in Charles' 70's band, the Soul Lovers), Richard Earl, takes the mic for several songs himself.  One of my favorite cuts on the disc is Charles' smoldering version of the old Memphis Slim warhorse, "Every Day I Have The Blues."  There's no telling how many versions of this song I've heard, but Charles' anguished version is one of my favorites.  Unfortunately, that's all we ever got to hear on disc of Ervin Charles, but between this disc and his tracks on Lone Star Shootout, we have a small, but pretty impressive, body of work.

Ellis Hooks - Godson of Soul (Evidence Records):  Alabama native Hooks left home at 15 to pursue a singing career, a long, winding path that took him across the U.S. and eventually to Europe.  When he returned to America after five years, he met producer Jon Tiven, who offered him a second chance to record (Hooks blew off a recording date set by fan Diana Ross several years earlier, claiming he wasn't ready).  He was ready the second time around and has since released six discs.  2005's Godson of Soul was his fifth effort.

Vocally, Hooks combines the best elements of old school Southern Soul with the feral growl of the blues.  It actually makes for some exciting listening.  Few were attempting to play and sing the blues in this manner at the time.  Hooks sounds fabulous on vocals, and he had a hand in writing most of the tunes.  Producer Tiven (guitars, sax, keys, and harmonica) and his bass-playing wife, Sally, also played on the disc, along with guest appearances from Marty Brown, Bobby Womack, Mason Casey, and Steve Cropper.  Godson of Soul shows that Ellis Hooks is as much at home singing old school soul as he is singing the blues.

Isaac Freeman and the Bluebloods - Beautiful Stars (Lost Highway Records):  About ten years ago, a good friend introduced me to the Fairfield Four, a gospel group that, I later found out, appeared on the movie, O, Brother Where Art Thou (as the gravediggers near the end of the movie).  While I loved the Fairfield Four's irresistible harmonies and their creative interpretations of old classic gospel tunes, what captivated me the most was their bass singer, Isaac Freeman.  Deep down inside, I always wanted to be a bass singer, but unfortunately I sound like Gomer Pyle on helium most of the time.  Now there are bass singers, and then there is Brother Isaac Freeman, who gets down lower than just about anybody I've ever heard.

When I found out, strictly by accident, that Freeman had released a solo album, I had to track it down.  I was intrigued as to whether a bass singer could actually carry an entire recording by himself.  Needless to say, I seriously underestimated Brother Freeman's ample talent.  Backed by the Nashville-based blues band Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods, who give this set of gospel classic songs (plus one written especially for Freeman by Garrison Keillor) a bluesy feel, Freeman's thundering bass threatens to rattle the rafters of your house and the dishes in your china cabinet.  My favorite song on the disc is one that Freeman says was taught to him by his mother, the wistful title track.  It never fails to raise goosebumps and even puts a little tear in my eye picturing a young Freeman and his mother singing this song together.  While I know gospel music may not be everybody's cup of tea, it's difficult for even the hardest of hearts to listen to Beautiful Stars and not be moved by the Spirit just a little bit.  Sadly, Freeman passed away last fall, but he remains one of the most influential voices of 20th Century music.