Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Steps from the Blues

On Sunday, Bobby "Blue" Bland passed away in Memphis, TN at the age of 83, from an undisclosed illness.  He enjoyed a career that spanned eight decades, beginning in Memphis-area gospel groups in the late 40's and continuing until just a few weeks before his death.  He's a member of the Blues Hall of Fame (1981), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992), the Memphis Music Hall of Fame (2012), and was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 1997.

When I started listening to the blues, every record store I visited had a fairly small blues collection, usually a couple of columns or rows.  Among the regular names that I saw in those rows were artists like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, and a host of artists who recorded for local labels, most notably Malaco Records out of Jackson.  These artists included Z.Z. Hill, whose "Down Home Blues," became a standard in the mid 80's, former Stax Records stalwarts Little Milton Campbell and Johnnie Taylor, and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

Bland with B.B. King 
Bland had numerous recordings on display, and not just the Malaco selections, but many with MCA Records, with whom he had recorded through the early 80's, and even a pair of albums with B.B. King.  When I started building my blues collection, one of the first albums I bought was a Malaco recording by Bland (Blues You Can Use).  Though I had seen pictures of him, I'd never heard him sing because, well, that sort of music didn't get played a lot on the stations I listened to.  The rock stations didn't play it and the R&B stations didn't, either.

When I heard him, I thought....not a bad voice, suitably gritty, expressive, a little weather-worn from the years, but very effective.  Then I heard it......the squall.  I didn't know what it was called then, but the first time I heard it, I stood straight up, which was hard to do because I was driving at the time.  I was totally caught off guard by that sound.  It basically sounded like a combination grunt and snort.  I was like....what the devil!!!!  I couldn't listen to it for awhile, because he did it on just about every song.

A few days later, I was talking to one of my co-workers, a blues fan from way back and told him I had bought a Bobby "Blue" Bland tape.  He looked at me and asked, "What did you think?"  I told him basically what I said in the previous paragraph and he started laughing.  I continued to listen to Bland because, by then, I had found a station that played blues (WMPR 90.1 FM in Jackson) and they would play some of his new releases, but I never heard any of his older stuff, and didn't really know how long he had been recording.

A few months later, my friend suggested I check out a few of Bland's earlier recordings, one called Two Steps From The Blues in I did, and my whole perspective changed.  That was a great place to start, because Two Steps From The Blues, released in 1961, is one of the greatest blues albums ever and maybe THE greatest soul/blues album great song from start to finish.  Throughout his early career, Bland sought that perfect blend of blues, gospel, and soul and, with this release, he came as close to perfection as anyone ever before or since.  When I heard this masterful voice at the height of its power, I understood what all the fuss was about.

I also got to see him perform a few months later.  Back in the 90's, Jackson, MS had an annual Zoo Blues show, which benefited the city's zoo.  Bland appeared there on a regular basis, so I decided to come see him.  While I still didn't know a lot of his music, I was amazed at the response he got from his fans, especially the women.  He would do that squall and they would scream frantically.  He sounded great that day and he had the audience eating out of his hand for the duration, just as he had for the previous 40 years.

Bobby "Blue" Bland was born Robert Calvin Brooks in late January, 1930.  He later took the name "Bland" from his stepfather, Leroy Bland.  He moved to Memphis with his mother in his late teens, soon singing with several of the area's gospel groups.  Bland's vocal style was influenced by several diverse sources, including Frank Sinatra (Bland is often called "The Sinatra of the Blues"), Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and even B.B. King, for whom he served as valet and driver during the mid 50's.  He recorded for Chess and Modern in the early 50's, but didn't have any success to speak of and went into the army in late 1952.

By time Bland was discharged in 1955, he had improved considerably, recording for Duke Records, and backed by a marvelous band and an all-star list of guitarists, who are regarded as some of the best ever today.  Guitarists like Roy Gaines, Clarence Hollimon, and Pat Hare provided excellent backing for the remainder of the decade as Bland enjoyed hit after hit ("I Smell Trouble," "You Got Me Where You Want Me," "Don't Want No Woman," "Farther Up The Road," "I'll Take Care of You," and "Little Boy Blue").

It was in the late 50's where Bland picked up his most distinctive vocal trait, the squall.  He picked that up from Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father, who used it during his sermons at times, notably in his "The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest" sermon.  The incredible "Little Boy Blue" is the first track where Bland used this technique, and it stands as one of his finest vocal performances.

Another key component of Bland's sound were trumpet player Joe Scott, who was part of Bill Scott's band that backed Bland in the beginning.  Scott soon was serving as a mentor for Bland, not only doing horn arrangements, but also helping Bland perfect his singing.  Throughout the 60's, guitarist Wayne Bennett's elegant, T-Bone Walker-styled guitar work was a mainstay on Bland's recordings, most especially the singer's exquisite take on Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues."

The 60's brought even more hits for Bland.  Songs like "Turn On Your Love Light," "Yield Not To Temptation," "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," "Call On Me," and "I Pity The Fool" (a radio hit long before Mr. T copped the phrase) are familiar to most blues fans today.

In the early 70's, Duke owner Don Robey sold all his record labels to ABC Records, so Bland moved there and recorded through most of the 70's.  Bland's work with ABC wasn't as strong....he and Joe Scott had parted ways.....though he did release two albums with B.B. King that are still popular today, and he fulfilled a lifelong dream by releasing a country album.  He did release some noteworthy songs, like "This Time I'm Gone For Good" and "Ain't No Love In The Heart of The City."

Bland recorded for ABC (which soon merged into MCA Records) until 1983, when he moved to Jackson, MS-based Malaco Records, which was a perfect fit, given the label's interest in southern soul blues from the likes of Z.Z. Hill, Latimore, and Little Milton.  He struck gold right out of the box in 1985 with Members Only, which featured the excellent title track that sent Bland back into the R&B charts.  Though his vocal gifts had declined quite a bit since his beginnings (and he became increasingly dependent on the squall, which can be heard on the second tune below, "Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time"), he stayed within his limitations and his delivery was still without peer, so he remained a blues superstar with ten releases over the next eighteen years where he continued to blend blues, soul, and even country.  Though Bland didn't record again after 2003, he continued to tour, even after his health began to decline over the past few years.

Bland has influenced countless singers over the years, including Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, Mighty Sam McClain, Eric Clapton, and O.V. Wright.  "Further Up The Road" has been a big part of Clapton's live show for several decades, and Morrison has recorded several songs associated with Bland since his mid 60's beginnings.  Mick Hucknall, formerly of the 80's pop group Simply Red, recorded a tribute disc to Bland, Tribute To Bobby, in 2008.

Sad to say, we may never again hear or see a performer of the power and magnitude of Bobby "Blue" Bland.  These days, it's almost required for every blues singer to be a guitar slinger to achieve any significant measure of success in the genre, but Bland instrument of choice was his voice and few played that instrument better than he did.  He will be missed and probably never replaced.

Selected Recordings

(I should probably call this my favorite recordings...there are dozens of choice Bobby "Blue" Bland albums out there that collect his best moments with Duke, ABC, and Malaco.  These are my choices and cover things pretty well, but please don't just take my word for it....find as much as you can and enjoy all of it)

If you only have one Bobby "Blue" Bland album, it might as well be his masterpiece, Two Steps From The Blues.  You will miss out on several other hits from later in his career, but this is one of the best blues albums ever and there's not a bad song on it.  However, it's not recommended to only own one Bland disc under any circumstances.  There are several single disc sets of his Duke hits, such as MCA's Greatest Hits Volume One, The Duke Recordings, or there's a two volume set from the UK's Ace Records (The "3B" Blues Boy and The Voice) that is a little more comprehensive.  I prefer the two Ace sets myself......more bang for the bucks, but the MCA set may be easier to find.

Bland's ABC/Dunhill/MCA work was not quite as consistent as his Duke recordings, with more forays into MOR territory and even country, but there were some nice moments.  Dreamer is one of the better albums from this era, or His California Album is another good choice, or even one of the Bland/B.B. King collaborations.  However, MCA's Greatest Hits Volume Two, The ABC/Dunhill/MCA Recordings puts most of his choice tunes on one disc and would be a good choice as well.  There is also a fine two disc set, The Anthology, that covers Bland from 1952 to 1982

For Bland's Malaco recordings, you really can't go wrong with any of them.  My favorites would be Members Only, Midnight Run, or Memphis Monday Morning.  While his voice wasn't what it was, he was still very good.  A couple of years ago, the label released a "Best of" set that covers things pretty nicely, Unmatched:  The Very Best.

For other media options, there's a biography (Soul of the Man:  Bobby "Blue" Bland, by Charles Farley), or you can check out Peter Guralnick's excellent profile of Bland from his book, Lost Highway:  Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians.  Malaco released a DVD capturing one of Bland's late 90's performances on Beale Street that shows the old tiger still had plenty in the tank.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"Lazy Lester Rides Again" Rides Again

Lazy Lester

This week, Leslie Johnson, a.k.a. Lazy Lester, turns 80 years old.  One of the first blues performers I got to see live was Lazy Lester.  He was part of a revue headlined by the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Jazz Fest way back in 1987 that featured Dr. John, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Duke Robillard, the Roomful of Blues horn section, Katie Webster, and Lazy Lester.

I will have to admit that the acts I went to see were the T-Birds, Hooker, Dr. John, and Bonnie Raitt.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the other acts, none of whom I had heard of prior to that night.  Katie Webster came on the stage throwing plastic crawfish out into the crowd and proceeded to pound the piano into submission, the Roomful of Blues horns were awesome, and Duke Robillard teamed with the T-Birds for a couple of swinging tunes.

When they introduced Lazy Lester, this tall, sweaty guy wearing a baseball cap, a sweaty tank top and ragged work pants slowly walked out and took his place at center stage.  I said to myself, "This ought to be interesting."  As the band started into the first song (I'm pretty sure it was "Sugar Coated Love"), Lester seemingly woke up and rocked the house down.  He only did two songs (I think the other was "The Same Could Happen To You," because I remember him and Kim Wilson battling away on harmonica), but the crowd just went nuts.....and so did I.

When I got home, I started looking feverishly for a Lazy Lester recording....any Lazy Lester recording.  Naturally, given that it was the mid 80's, there was nothing to be found.  I didn't know anything about him, but soon found out that he had a bunch of hit songs in the 50's and 60's for Excello Records, starting out as a last-minute substitute for the harmonica player in a Lightnin' Slim recording session, and soon becoming Excello's utility musician on most sessions, playing harmonica, percussion, bass and guitar.

In time, he was recording his own songs, and earned the nickname Lazy Lester from Excello head Jay Miller because of his calm, laid-back style.  Some of Lester's tunes ("Sugar Coated Love," "I'm A Lover, Not A Fighter," "I Hear You Knockin'") have become blues standards and have been covered by blues, rock, R&B, and country artists.  Though Lester wrote these tunes, they were credited to Miller, so Lester received few royalties for his efforts, so, disgruntled, he basically left the music scene in the late 60's for two decades, moving from Louisiana to Michigan.

Lester resurfaced in the mid 80's, and in 1987, not long after the appearance at Jazz Fest, he recorded an album for King Snake Records.  I happened to see the ad in a Living Blues magazine and was able to track a cassette down via mail order.  The album, called Lazy Lester Rides Again, was a mix of remakes of his classic songs and a few pretty good new songs.  Lester was backed by a solid set of journeyman musicians who did a fine job, and he sounded great on harmonica and vocals.

Produced by legendary British producer Mike Vernon, the whole recording was lots of fun and it ended up winning a Handy Award.  I listened to it non-stop and most of my friends loved it, too.  Soon, Lester recorded a follow-up for Alligator, Harp & Soul, and it was equally well-received, but my favorite was still ....Rides Again.

King Snake had some pretty decent recordings over the late 80's through the late 90's.  Sonny Rhodes, Raful Neal, Roy Roberts, and the band Smokehouse had some great releases for the label, but the label closed shop in the late 90's and founder Bob Greenlee died in 2004.  When the label closed down, all the releases faded away, too.

By that time, I had made the cassette-to-CD conversion, but not in time to replace .....Rides Again in my collection.  Over time, I had picked up several King Snake CDs from Rhodes and Roberts on Ebay, but was never able to find Lazy Lester's release anywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through Amazon and did a search for Lazy Lester.  Even though I didn't have the King Snake release, I had still picked up several subsequent releases that Lester had done, including two outstanding sets on the Antone's label.  As I was scrolling through, I couldn't believe what I saw.....LAZY LESTER RIDES AGAIN!!!!!  Available on CD or via download, though with a different cover from the original release.  The UK label, Ace, one of my favorite labels, had reissued it two or three years ago in its entirety, with nearly a dozen extra tracks.

When it arrived in the mail last week, I plugged it in and the great music was back, starting with "Sugar Coated Love," and working through several of his classics and some pretty good new material.  The alternate tracks were mostly different takes of the other songs, but there were two previously unreleased tracks, a laid-back swampy blues tune and a torrid instrumental.

Today's lesson is....never give up.  If you have a favorite recording from your younger days that's hard to find and/or replace, don't give up on finding it.  Thanks to this wonderful invention called the internet, nearly everything can be found and can end up in your possession, usually for a very reasonable price.  It just takes a little time and effort, but patience pays off.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm about to sit back and listen to Lazy Lester Rides Again again.  You should do the same, because there's no such thing as having too much Lazy Lester in your life.  To help celebrate Lazy Lester's birthday, you should treat yourself to some of his music!!

Friday, June 14, 2013

New Blues For You - Summer, 2013 Edition (Volume 2)

Continuing our topic from last week, Friday Blues Fix looks at five more great new releases that will either be released soon or are already thrilling blues fans all over.  As always, extended reviews of these discs can be found in current or future issues of Blues Bytes.

Boz Scaggs - Memphis (429 Records):  Scaggs' first release in five years finds him in Memphis, at Royal Studios, backed by some of the Bluff City's finest (including keyboard wizards Charles Hodges, Spooner Oldham, and Lester Snell), along with studio legends Ray Parker, Jr., Willie Weeks, Jim Cox, and the Royal Strings and Horns.  He tackles ten great cover tunes (including Willy DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl," Steely Dan's "Pearl of the Quarter," "Love On A Two Way Street," and Al Green's "So Good To Be Here"), along with two of his own fine compositions.  Somewhere in Soul Heaven, Willie Mitchell is smiling a big smile.  Scaggs also delves into the blues while he's there, with covers of tunes made famous by Tyrone Davis ("Can I Change My Mind"), Jimmy Reed ("You Got Me Cryin'"), and "Corinna, Corinna," which features Keb' Mo' on dobro.  Scaggs has always mixed the blues and R&B into everything he does, so it's really cool when he puts them out front, because to me, that's what he does best.  This is a great set of blues that just about any music fan would enjoy.

Marshall Lawrence - House Call:  Lawrence calls his brand of acoustic blues "Neo Delta  Blues & Roots."  "Delta Blues on Steroids" is appropriate, too.  Lawrence's kinetic fretwork, his highly original songwriting, and his fresh interpretations of classic blues tunes really stand out.  He plays guitars, mandolins, and does all sorts of percussion, ranging from hand clapping to toe tapping to clanging on pipes.  Lawrence, dubbed "The Doctor of the Blues," wrote eleven of the thirteen tracks on House Call.  The Holmes Brothers also stop by and lend harmony vocals on a track ("Factory Closing Blues").  Lawrence's original tunes are uniformly excellent and his delivery, both on guitar and singing is very entertaining.  I haven't seen him perform live, but I think I would enjoy it immensely.  If you're a fan of acoustic blues, you'll like this one.  If you're not a fan, you will be after you listen.  You can check out all of the tunes on House Call here.  Here's a video clip Lawrence in action.

The Ruff Kutt Blues Band - That's When The Blues Begins (Vizztone): Rockabilly legend James Goode has put together another set of Gulf Coast-styled blues, hoping to exceed the success of the group's debut release, 2011's Mill Block Blues.  This time around, Goode enlists a pair of big names to take the mic.  Finis Tasby sings on six tracks (his last recordings before his debilitating stroke in November) and Zac Harmon fronts the group for several others.  Both of them do a wonderful job on these tunes, which all have a distinctive Texas or Louisiana flair to them.  Anson Funderburgh is back and dazzles with his Texas via Chicago guitar work.  As with their previous release, proceeds from the sales of this CD will benefit the HART Fund, which provides relief to blues artists in need.  Some of the proceeds will benefit Tasby as well, so it's good music for a good cause.  You can visit here and listen to one of the songs.

L to R:  Zac Harmon, James Goode, Finis Tasby, Anson Funderburgh

Hans Theessink - Wishing Well (Blue Groove):  One of Europe's most beloved blues artists for over 40 years, Theessink has been pretty active over the past three years....this is his third release.  Wishing Well is a mellow masterpiece, chock full of exquisite guitar work and Theessink's warm, burnished baritone.  He covers a wide area of American music, ranging from pre-war blues classics to Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Townes Van Zandt.  His own tunes mix pretty well with the classics, and while the tone is pretty mellow throughout, this disc is perfect for quiet nights or early mornings.  I'm a relative latecomer to the gifts of Hans Theessink, but I've certainly enjoyed what I've heard and hope to do some backtracking and see what I've missed.

The Slide BrothersRobert Randolph Presents:  The Slide Brothers (Concord Records):  I am still planning on doing a Sacred Steel post in the near future.  This CD has encouraged me to do it sooner than later.  Although Sacred Steel has been around for a number of years, as part of several related Pentecostal churches since the 30's, Randolph has played a major role in  getting the music out to a wider audience over the past decade with his Family Band.  Several other steel guitarists, all older than Randolph, have been able to achieve some measure of fame with recordings of their own.  For this collection, Randolph has brought together four of the genre's finest.....Chuck and Phil Campbell (of the Campbell Brothers), Aubrey Ghent, and Calvin Cooke.  Together, they rip through eleven gospel, blues, and rock songs.....some familiar, some not so much....that will make your jaws drop or your feet move, or possibly both.  Loaded with some noteworthy guests (including Shemekia Copeland, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and members of the Family Band) the coolest names are former Hendrix bass player Billy Cox teaming with SRV drummer Chris Layton for a killer version of "The Sky Is Crying."  This is an excellent set.

Friday, June 7, 2013

New Blues For You - Summer, 2013 Edition (Volume 1)

Greetings!  There are a lot of great new releases that are just out for listening, or will be out pretty soon.  This week, FBF will let you know about a few of them, with more to follow in the coming weeks.  Meanwhile, let's look at four or five new discs that are guaranteed to help you get through the long, hot summer.

John Primer & Bob Corritore - Knockin' Around The Blues (Delta Groove):  When I heard about this collaboration, I got excited.  Primer and Corritore are two mainstays on the blues scene, emphasis on the Chicago brand.  Primer worked his way up playing with Muddy Waters, James Cotton, and Magic Slim, while Corritore grew up absorbing the Chicago sound before migrating to Arizona to become the driving force behind Phoenix's blues scene as a harmonica player, producer, DJ, and club owner.  The set list will be familiar to blues fans, but that won't matter a bit because both are well-versed in the style and sound great, plus their backed by a powerful band consisting of Chicago blues vets (Bob Stroger, Patrick Rynn, Chris James, Barrelhouse Chuck, and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith).  Chicago blues fans should not miss this one.

Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans - Great Day In The Morning (ManHatTone Records):  The emphasis on Vickers' latest release is on positive, good-time blues.  Mixing blues with ragtime, Americana, and old-time rock n' roll, Vickers and company clearly love what they're doing and the feeling is infectious.  They mix great covers of tunes by Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie (plus they include their "Dallas Blues" single that was released last year, with proceeds still going toward the H.A.R.T. Fund) with new tunes written by Vickers and bass/fiddle player Margey Peters with themes such as A.T.M. machines, busted iPods, and expired driver's licenses.  The blues feature fiddle, banjolele, saxophones, and mandolins....not your ordinary blues, but man, it's a ton of fun to listen to.  Best of all, it will expose blues fans to lots of great earlier music that they might have missed otherwise.  I've heard all of Vickers and the Vestapolitans' four releases, and to me, this is the best of the four.

Bart Walker - Waiting on Daylight (Ruf Records):  Blues/rock fans take note.....there are several outstanding blues/rock releases that have recently been issued.  This is one of them (more next week).  Walker is a young Nashville-based guitarist who's been playing guitar since he was four years old.  At the 2012 IBC in Memphis, he won the Gibson Guitarist Award, with chops honed from working with country-rocker Bo Bice, along with assorted members of the Black Crowes, Cry of Love, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  For his second release as a front man, he enlists Legendary Producer Jim Gaines and a stellar cast of Memphis-area session musicians, and the result is sheer heaven for fans of Southern blues/rock in the tradition of the Allmans Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and ZZ Top.  Walker is a good songwriter, a great vocalist, and a spectacular guitarist.  The closing tune is one of two covers, a version of "Whipping Post," that will have you hitting "Replay."  If you only get one blues/rock disc this summer, this would be a fine selection.  Another fine choice would be.....

Jason Elmore and Hoodoo Witch - Tell You What (Underworld Records):  Elmore is a Dallas-based artist who fronts a blues/rock band and also performs as a solo acoustic act.  He adeptly plays country-flavored blues/rock (covering Buck Owens' "Buckaroo"), blues/rock, traditional blues (a dazzling tribute to Freddie King for starters, and even soul/R&B.  He blows that genre out of the water with an amazing cover of William Bell's classic Stax tune, "You Don't Miss Your Water."  Sometimes, bands try to do too much, cover too many genres and too much ground on their releases, but that is not an issue with Elmore and company.  They knock everything out of the park that they play on this disc.  This is a really impressive disc.

Rory Block - Avalon (Stony Plain Records):  Over the past several years, Block has showcased several blues legends in her "Mentors" series for Stony Plain (others include Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, and Mississippi Fred McDowell).  Each artists served as a major influence in her music and helped make her one of the finest guitarists of her era.  This latest release in the series focuses on the music of Mississippi John Hurt.  The late guitarist won lots of fans during the folk/blues rediscovery era of the 1960's with his lyrical guitar, his warm and gentle vocals, and his genial demeanor.  Though he didn't live long after his reemergence (dying in 1966), he made quite an impact.  Block covers ten of Hurt's best known songs, including the title track, "Candy Man," "Stagolee," "Frankie & Albert," and "Got The Blues Can't Be Satisfied," plus a song of her own that pays tribute to this wonderful artist.  Block's guitar work is, as always, phenomenal, and her vocals really suit this material well, and hopefully will lead others to check out the music of this great bluesman.  This is my favorite of Block's "Mentor" series to date, and I can't wait to hear who she honors with her next release.

More reviews of new releases coming in the next couple of weeks.......