Friday, November 29, 2013

Blues Legends - Skip James

Skip James (photo by Dick Waterman)
I actually read about Skip James before I heard him.  I was reading Peter Guralnick’s book, Feel Like Going Home, which devotes a chapter to the Mississippi blues man.  Let’s face it; if Peter Guralnick writes about any musician, if you’re a music fan at all, you are going to want to find out more about his subject.  The best thing about Guralnick’s writing is that he shows his subjects as they are or were, warts and all, and allows the reader to make his own determination about them.   His chapter on James was a classic example of this, so I was eager to hear his music.

Finding Skip James recordings was quite a challenge in the late 80’s, so it took me a while to track them down.  The first recording I was able to find was from his 60’s “rediscovery,” the Vanguard recording, Today!  Upon listening, I was amazed because, quite honestly, I had never heard anything like him.  James sang in a haunting, almost eerie falsetto, and his guitar work was unique as well.....delicate finger-picking coupled with heavy, hypnotic bass lines, which gave it a deep, resonant sound.  The Vanguard recording was almost crystal clear, too, so it really stood out.  James also played piano (his first instrument) on several tracks, though it was less compelling than his guitar….sort of scattershot, sometimes chaotic, at times.

Skip James was born Nehemiah Curtis James on June 9, 1902, in Yazoo City, Mississippi, about 45 minutes northeast of Jackson, but was raised near Bentonia,  about fifteen miles south of Yazoo City.  His mother worked as a cook and nanny for some wealthy landowners, and his father was a bootlegger-turned-preacher who left the family when James was around five.  Due to his circumstances, with his mother working for an influential family, his upbringing was probably a little better than most of his peers at the time and he had an opportunity to get a better education than many. 

When James was ten, his mother bought him his first guitar, for $2.50.  He was able to hear several local musicians in the Bentonia area, including Henry Stuckey, Rich Griffith, and the Sims brothers, Charlie and Jesse.  James reportedly taught himself to play guitar and piano, but Stuckey reportedly taught him how to play some songs, including “Drunken Spree,” a popular tune at the time.  Stuckey had served in France during World War I, and had encountered some black Bahamian soldiers playing guitar with an odd tuning, which he learned and brought back to Bentonia with him, teaching the style to James and others in the area. That style came to be known as the “Bentonia School” of Delta Blues.  James also took piano lessons from a cousin in order to play the organ in church.

A young Skip James
In the 1920’s, James left Bentonia and lived and worked at a road construction camp near Ruleville, MS and worked in various locations in the Mississippi Delta with road- and levee-building crews.  During this time, he wrote one of his earliest songs, “Illinois Blues,” about his experiences as a laborer.  While working in Arkansas, he met a piano player, Will Crabtree, who was an influence on his style.  James eventually settled In Memphis, where he worked as a piano player in a brothel until around 1924, when he moved back to Bentonia, likely due to the passage of Prohibition.

James stayed in Bentonia for six years, sharecropping and bootlegging whiskey, (he also attended a theological seminary in Yazoo City during this time).  He started playing his guitar more and began performing with Stuckey at dances and fish fries in Bentonia, Sidon, Yazoo City, and Jackson, where he attracted the attention of H.C. Spier, who owned a music and mercantile store in Jackson, but doubled as a talent scout for Paramount Records.  In February, 1931, James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin and recorded 26 tracks at the Paramount studios (18 of which were released), some of his own originals and a few spirituals. 

During the Paramount session, James recorded several future classic songs, such as “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (as vivid a picture of the Great Depression as there possibly can be), “I’m So Glad,” “Devil Got My Woman,” “Special Rider Blues,” and “22-20 Blues.”  He had been known as “Skippy” up until these recordings (because of his habit of “skipping” from town to town), but Paramount mistakenly labeled him as “Skip” on his records, so the new name stuck.

These are some of the finest pre-war blues recordings.  James’ falsetto vocals would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck on these early recordings.  Robert Johnson, in particular, was influenced by these tracks.  He later reworked “22-20 Blues” into his own “32-20 Blues,” and “Devil Got My Woman” inspired his classic “Hellhound On My Trail.” 

Very few copies of James' recordings exist today and the ones that do are typical of surviving Paramount recordings…..very bad sound due to inferior production materials.  Paramount was a division of a furniture company and sold records only so people who bought their phonographs would have something to play on them, so they pressed their records on cheap shellac and sold them at low prices 

Unfortunately, James’ records did not sell very well, due in part to the Depression, but also probably due to their dark and moody subject matter.  In addition, Paramount only paid James $40 plus the train ticket for his efforts (most labels paid $20 or so per side), so James declined further recording opportunities and, after a reunion with his father, who had become a minister, he moved to Texas and began attending seminary classes, and he also formed a gospel singing group to back his father’s sermons. 

Over the next ten years, James became an ordained Methodist minister (in 1932) and an ordained Baptist minister (in 1942), though he never led his own church.  He remained with his father until he returned to Bentonia in the mid 50’s, following his mother’s death.  He remained in that area for the rest of the decade in obscurity, driving a tractor, cutting timber, and supervising plantation workers, only play music occasionally during that time.

Though Skip James himself was below the radar, his recordings were most definitely not.  During the blues revival of the early 60’s, those Paramount sides resurfaced and were held in high regard by blues scholars and enthusiasts.  Three such people, musicians John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Harry Vestine (later of Canned Heat) began searching for James in 1964 and found him in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital, where they tried to persuade him to appear at that year’s Newport Folk Festival.

Skip James at Newport, 1964 (photo by Lawrence Shustack)
James was skeptical, understandably, of getting back into the “music racket,” as he called it, but he finally agreed to play at Newport in July.  While he was a bit rusty on guitar, his amazing voice was as solid as ever and he set the place on fire during his fifteen minute set, and was called back for a later performance that was equally electrifying.

While there, he bonded with another recent “rediscovery,” Mississippi John Hurt, whose gentle brand of blues was the complete antithesis of James’ dark work.  Despite their musical differences, the two toured together frequently for awhile.

Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James at Newport, 1964 (photo by Dick Waterman)

However, this may have worked against James' comeback, in that his management only had him opening for Hurt, which earned him little money and probably delayed his opportunity to get a recording contract.  Had he recorded an album immediately after that Newport appearance, his fortunes might have been much greater.  Eventually, he hired Dick Waterman, who took many of these great Newport pictures, as his manager, but the opportunity had been squandered for bigger success, and when James appeared at the next Newport festival, the buzz had disappeared and he was just one of the crowd looking for a record deal.

James eventually recorded several albums during this period, a pair of wonderful releases on Vanguard that mixed remakes of his old songs with stunning new material, plus equally fine albums on labels like Takoma and Melodeon.  Eric Clapton recorded a rock version of James’ “I’m So Glad,” with the band Cream, which enabled James to enjoy some royalties as composer (though he reportedly hated the Clapton version).  He was also able to tour overseas, appearing at the American Folk Blues Festival in Germany in 1967,

Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last very long.  When Fahey, Barth, and Vestine had found him in that Tunica hospital, he was in the beginning stages of a battle with cancer, which ultimately claimed his life in October of 1969, at the age of 67, after he had relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He is buried in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, next to his wife.  James seemed to realize his time was short, and indicated so in one of his newer songs, "Sick Bed Blues," which contains the devastating line, "He may get better, but he won't get well no more."

Skip James was an interesting character, to say the least.  His entire life was a struggle between the church and the blues…..he moved back and forth between the two, sometimes straddling the fence.  As a youth, he reportedly worked as a pimp while in Arkansas and Memphis.  He also claimed to have killed a man during his rambling days in the early 20’s.  Yet, he also spent many years traveling, preaching, and leading his Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers. 

An intensely proud man, he held his own work in high esteem, but often disdained the work of other blues artists, and often refused to share musical ideas with others.  He was suspicious of others, very introverted, and difficult to even get along with, at times even seeming to view his own adoring fans with contempt if they tried to get too close to him.  Waterman told of one such incident in his book, Between Midnight and Day:

Skip, having more than his share of vanity, reveled when a fan rained compliments upon him.  He would listen with great interest, nodding his head at particularly lavish offerings.  But he could be curt when his privacy was invaded.  One night at a club a young man walked into a small dressing room uninvited and committed a cardinal sin against any professional musician:  he took Skip's guitar out of its case and began to play one of Skip's songs.  The young man played with little talent but great enthusiasm.  At the end of the song, he smiled at Skip, "Hey, man, do I have you down or do I have you down?"  Skip took the guitar from him and put it back in the case.  Then he turned and spoke without emotion, "Skip has come and gone from places that you will never get to."

Despite all of these issues, he has been cited by many blues and rock artists as an influence.  In addition to Cream, Deep Purple also covered “I’m So Glad.”  As we noted a few months back, Canned Heat singer/harmonica player Alan Wilson cited James as his biggest influence as a vocalist.  James' recordings, pre-war and post-war, have been issued and reissued multiple times.  In the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, viewers got to see blues man Chris Thomas King perform James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” (even though he was portraying Crystal Springs blues man Tommy Johnson), and the 1931 version of “Devil Got My Woman” was featured in the movie, Ghost World.

Though James (and contemporary Jack Owens, who died in 1997) were seen as the only two purveyors of the “Bentonia School” of Delta Blues for many years, the tradition does lives on today with Bentonia resident Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who records for Broke & Hungry Records, and sings many James favorites while adding his own new material to the tradition as well.

Recommended Listening

The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo Records):  This is where I first heard these wonderful recordings, but they are available from other labels.  Wherever you pick these recordings up, the sound quality is about the same, which can make for a difficult listening experience.  Some tracks sound better than others, but on nearly all of them, you get a real feel for the emotion and depth of James' performances.  It's just an amazing performance that overcomes the shoddy production values from Paramount.  However, if you're new to Skip James and want to experience his music, the best move may be to listen to his 60's recordings first, then back up to the original source material.

Blues From The Delta (Vanguard):  Both of James' original Vanguard releases (Today! and Devil Got My Woman) are worth having.  The sound on them is pristine and James had lost very little off his fast ball, despite going over thirty years between recordings.  This set collects the best tunes from both of the earlier releases, plus a few bonus tracks.  James recreated many of his 1931 recordings here and added a few new songs that were equally compelling (particularly the songs about his medical adventures).  This is where I would start listening to Skip James, but I would definitely go back to the Paramount recordings from here.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #11

I've always enjoyed doing the Old, New, Borrowed, Blue posts because they're a great way to get a wide variety of blues out there that may be new to some visitors.  If you're not familiar with the process, here's how it works.......we will look at a blues artist who dates back to either the beginnings or the formative years of the blues (Something Old), a relative newcomer to the genre who's putting a new spin on the blues (Something New), either a blues artist doing a cover of a rock or country song, or vice versa (Something Borrowed), and finally, someone who is the epitome of the blues....a man or woman whose picture you might see next to the word in the dictionary (or on Wikipedia).  As the number indicates, we've done this ten times already here at Friday Blues Fix, and I also did this topic a number of times when FBF was a weekly email to my co-workers.

Floyd Jones (photo by Pete Lowry)
For Something Old, let's take a look at one of the early Chicago blues men, Floyd Jones.  Jones was born in Arkansas, but was raised in the Mississippi Delta, where he learned to play guitar (supposedly a gift from Howlin' Wolf).  He migrated to Chicago in the mid 40's, where he picked up the electric guitar and began playing for tips on Maxwell Street with his cousin, Moody Jones, Baby Face Nelson, Johnny Young, Little Walter, and Snooky Pryor, and also on the Chicago club scene.  He recorded in the late 40's, either with or backing Pryor, Sunnyland Slim, and his cousin, Moody, for several labels....J.O.B., Chess, Vee-Jay.

Most of Jones' original compositions were dark and foreboding.  They often were about events that were occurring at the time, such as "Stockyard Blues" or "Hard Times."  Some of his songs have become blues standards, such as "Dark Road," one of the darkest of the blues songs and one you've rarely heard other artists cover.  Jones' laconic delivery of the tune was hard to top.  He also was the original composer of "On The Road Again," which later inspired the hit by Canned Heat.  Jones remained active on the Chicago blues scene, although he eventually moved from guitar to bass, until his death in 1989.  Though he didn't get to record very much after his intial run in the late 40's/early 50's, he was part of Earwig Records' standout release, Old Friends, in 1979....appearing with Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards, Kansas City Red, and Big Walter Horton.

Robert Randolph (photo by Derek Brad)
For Something New, we go to Robert Randolph and the Family Band and the tune, "Amped Up," from their latest CD, Lickety Split, on Blue Note Records.  I keep saying that I need to do a post on Sacred Steel, and I plan to do one in the near future.  Randolph got his start playing drums in church and eventually graduating to steel guitar in his early teens.  Unlike many of his fellow steel guitarists, Randolph began listening to other music, like funk, soul, jazz, and blues.  He began incorporating those sounds into his own music and soon began working on the jam band circuit with groups like The Derek Trucks Band, and his live shows with the Family Band became the stuff of legend and led to an appearance on the wonderful instrumental gospel/blues album, The Word, in 2001.

Randolph has recorded several albums over the past decade....a couple of live discs and four studio discs.  Until their most recent release, Randolph and the band had difficulty capturing the joy and manic energy of their live shows, but with Lickety Split, that's no longer an issue.  It's a wall-to-wall thrill and features the band with guitar legend Carlos Santana on two tracks and the New Orleans rising star, Trombone Shorty, appears on another.


For Something Borrowed, how about Buddy Guy covering Eric Clapton? Two of Clapton's big influences were Guy and Albert King. On the original version of "Strange Brew," from Cream's album, Disraeli Gears, Clapton did his best Albert King impression on the solo. Some thirty years later, the House of Blues record label issued a Clapton album (Blues Power: Songs of Eric Clapton) as part of their "This Ain't No Tribute" tribute series that found blues artists covering classic rock & roll artists (the others in the series were the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin). Of course, some of these tributes worked better than others...the Stones and Clapton sets were both pretty good throughout and the Joplin and Dylan sets were sort of hit-and-miss. I have to admit when I looked at the track list, I was probably the least excited about this song, but Buddy Guy actually does a great job with the tune....his tight, stinging lead guitar on this track is one of the highlights of the album.....a really nice effort.

Son Seals (photo by Kirk West)
For Something Blue, we look to the late, great Frank "Son" Seals.  The first song I heard from Seals was "Goin' Home (Where Women Got Meat On Their Bones)," which was intriguing enough to encourage me to listen to more.  From there, I bought the album, Bad Axe, which included "Goin' Home," and this unbelievably intense opening track from the disc, "Don't Pick Me For Your Fool."  From that point, I was hooked and ended up grabbing up all of Seals' recordings in one format or another.

Seals' guitar sounds like it's strung with barbed wire and his throat-shredding vocals are just as engaging.  Best of all is his songwriting, which is the blues at it's best.  Face it.....anybody who could come up with a song called "Your Love Is Like a Cancer" certainly deserves to be heard.  Just check out this track and be amazed at the raw power behind Son Seals.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The "Live" Otis Rush

During the summer, I decided to plug a few gaps in my Otis Rush collection.  Many moons ago, when all my music was on cassette, I pretty much had everything by Rush that was available in that format.  Unfortunately, there were several Rush albums only available on CD that I missed and never went back and repurchased after changing to the CD format.

As I reported a few weeks ago, I looked into possibly writing a biography of Rush during the summer, but after talking to a few people, I decided to shelve that project for the time being.  I did, however, decide to go ahead and take in some of his music during the summer months, so with Amazon Birthday Gift Cards in hand, I filled in the gaps in my Otis Rush catalog.  Most of the gaps consisted of his live recordings.  Some of them, I had not heard, but had not heard good things about them.  Some of the others had just fallen through the cracks over the years.

Today, we'll be taking a brief look at the live recordings of Otis Rush on CD and DVD.  While in the studio, he was sometimes hampered by lack of quality material, or uninspired backing musicians, or maybe he wasn't at the top of his game, this was not usually a concern with his live performances, as is the case on most of these sets.

If I were starting a collection of Rush's live albums, one of the first ones I would get is his mid 70's release on Delmark Records, So Many Roads:  Live In Concert.  This set was recorded in Japan in 1975 in front of thousands of adoring fans.  It also features fellow Windy City legend Jimmy Johnson on second guitar.  Rush plays a lot of his familiar tunes here ("Crosscut Saw," "I Can't Quit You Baby," All Your Love (I Miss Loving)," "So Many Roads," etc....), and covers a few tunes originally done by inspirations (Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell's "Chitlins Con Carne," for one).  He really gives a powerful performance, both vocally and on guitar and the band gives solid support as well.  This is a great place to get started.

Actually, any of Rush's 70's live recordings, all done in about a two year span, are worth having.  Another of my favorites is the early 1976 recording that was done in Chicago as part of a radio broadcast.  All Your Love I Miss Loving:  Live at the Wise Fool's Pub Chicago (also on Delmark), features Rush with his working band at the time (a rarity for the most part on many of his live recordings) at a club in Chicago that he played on a regular basis, obviously in front of many familiar faces, so you know he was on his game for this set.  The sound is great, and you have the genuine feeling that you're in the club listening.  Many of the songs are part of his regular set list, but there is one unique track that I haven't heard Rush do anywhere else, a fantastic cover of Robert Nighthawk's "Sweet Little Angel."


Live In Europe was recorded during a 1977 appearance in France, again with his working band.  This is part of Evidence Records' reissue series of Black & Blue Records releases and Rush is in good form once again here, even channeling T-Bone Walker on "Society Woman/Love Is Just A Gamble."  For some reason, despite several good studio recordings done during the early to mid 70's, both in the U.S. and overseas, Rush's career never really did catch fire and frustrated, he took a lengthy absence from the music scene that lasted several years.

In the late 80's, Blind Pig Records released Tops, which was recorded during Rush's appearance at the 1985 San Francisco Blues Festival, returning from his hiatus from the music scene by touring the U.S., Europe, and Japan.  Backed by West Coast guitarist Bobby Murray and his band (which included future Robert Cray keyboardist Jimmy Pugh), Rush sounds like he'd never been away on these tunes, and his return was hailed by fans and peers, like Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, and Jeff Beck, who cited Rush as one of his early influences.  During this same time, he appeared at Montreux and was joined by Eric Clapton, Luther Allison, and Robert Cray, and seemed poised to get his career back on track.

That Montreux appearance was later issued as part of Eagle Rock's excellent Live At Montreux series of CDs and DVDs.  Billed as Otis Rush & Friends Live at Montreux 1986, it teams Rush with Clapton and Allison, though the lion's share of the set is Rush backed by Professor Eddie Lusk's tight ensemble.  Clapton comes out to play on about half the tracks, including "Crosscut Saw," "Double Trouble," and "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)," and Allison joins them both on the closer, "Every Day I Have The Blues."  The DVD actually features a few more tracks of just Rush and the band, and it's one of the few opportunities fans will have to see Rush perform live, and to be honest, even though I have the CD and DVD, I usually plug in the DVD as first option because there's more songs.

A lesser set from the same period Blues Interaction:  Live In Japan 1986, was released on Sequel Records in 1994.  Rush appears with a local Japanese band, Break Down, on this set and while they make a game effort, they seem to be in a little over their heads on several of these tracks.  Rush does have some nice moments on "Double Trouble," the instrumental, "Tops," that kicks off the performance, "All Your Love," and a spirited version of "Gambler's Blues" that closes the performance.  He also does James Brown's "Please Please Please," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," and Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor."  Like most Otis Rush performances, there's plenty of good work here, but pick this one up later on, like I did.


One to avoid would be Live and Awesome, on Genes Records.  While it is live, it's most definitely not awesome.  Released in 1996, it was recorded a couple of years earlier, when Rush was not in good health.  To be honest, I've only listened to about half of it.   Another one that is best left alone is a recording that's floated around for many years under one title or another for various labels that supposedly offers Rush and Little Walter at one of the Chicago Blues Festivals.  This one is similar to the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells set that has also seen many different titles and covers over the years, but Rush and Little Walter don't actually perform together.  While Rush's performances are pretty good, the sound is pretty bad, like it was recorded in front of the stage with a tape recorder or something.  Really not worth the time and money.

There is one last live set available, done in 1999 for Blues Express, and released as a CD and DVD.  Live.....And in Concert From San Francisco was recorded on a sound stage in San Francisco that was set up to resemble a juke joint.  Rush puts on a great performance.  It appears that every effort was made to make Rush as comfortable as possible, surrounding him with a four-piece horn section and a tight rhythm section.  He really stretches out on several songs, pretty much the standard fare of his sets, with a few rarities, like the instrumental, "717," and his old standard, "I Can't Quit You Baby."  Bobby Murray joins him on the closer, "Got My Mojo Working."

The DVD of this performance is entitled Live Part 1, and it's required viewing for any Otis Rush fan.  This was recorded just a few years before Rush had his stroke, which rendered him unable to play.  It's a shame because judging by this performance, there was still plenty left in the tank.  Sadly, it was not meant to be.  Rush remains one of the giants of the post-war Chicago blues, but blues fans are left to wonder how much bigger he could have actually been had he been able to capitalize on a few missed opportunities.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Five Albums You Might Have Missed (V.8 - Evidence Records Edition)

A few months ago, we took a brief look at Evidence Records and a few of the highlights of their reissue catalog.  That post led me to dig a little bit deeper into my collection of Evidence recordings.  When I travel in my truck, I usually have a box that holds about a dozen or so CDs that I rotate out every couple of months or so.  Usually, I will have a theme of some kind when I load it up, like "Magic Slim CDs," "Various Artists Anthology CDs," "Swamp Blues CDs," etc.....(yes, I'm a're not surprising me by thinking so).  The past couple of weeks, I've had an "Evidence Records Reissue CDs" collection going on, which has allowed me to revisit some classics that I'd forgotten about.  Today, FBF will look at five albums that would be a perfect fit in any blues fans collection.

Luther Allison - Love Me Papa:  This 1977 recording marked a turning point in Allison's career and life.  He recorded this disc in Paris for Black and Blue Records and while he was there, he fell in love with the city, the people, and the culture.  He was received like a rock star in Europe, quite a change from the lack of recognition he and most other blues artists got in his home country.  Allison eventually settled in Paris in the late 70's and enjoyed a successful career in Europe and Japan throughout the 80's before hitting it big back in the U.S. in 1994 with Soul Fixin' Man.

Love Me Papa finds Allison in peak form.  This nine song set is heavy on covers...three excellent tracks associated with Little Walter ("Blues With A Feeling," "Last Night," and "Key To The Highway"), Junior Parker's "Feelin' So Good" (taken here in fellow West Sider Magic Sam mode), Elmore James' "Standing At The Crossroads," and the Freddie King classic, "Goin' Down."  Allison was underrated to me as a slide player and he really tears it up on several tracks here, even playing harmonica on "Blues With A Feeling."  His originals, including the title track, an answer to one of his previous album's title cuts, "Love Me Mama," are among his best.  Allison has a lot of great recordings out there, several released since his death in 1997, but this one is probably one of his best and most inventive.  Some of his later recordings sometimes blew you away with the rock-heavy production values, but this one is pretty stripped down and basic and has a real West Side feel to it.

Sonny Rhodes - Just Blues:  This 1985 recording was done in San Francisco on a $5,000 budget.  File this one under "Shrewd Investments," because, like most Sonny Rhodes recordings, this one is a barrel of fun.  Ordinarily, Rhodes, a talented songwriter, provides most of his own songs, but on this album, six of the nine tracks are covers, though he pretty much transforms them into Sonny Rhodes songs with his performances.  He is one of the few blues artists who plays lap steel guitar and there is plenty of his handiwork with that instrument on here as well.

He covers Guitar Slim ("The Things I Used To Do"), B.B. King ("Please Love Me"), Jimmy McCracklin ("Think"), Elmore James ("It Hurts Me Too"), and one of his idols, Percy Mayfield ("Strange Things Happening").  The three original tracks are memorable, too.  "Cigarette Blues" is one of Rhodes' most recognized tunes and "House Without Love" is another keeper.  The third original is an instrumental ("East Oakland Stomp").  FBF will do a profile of Sonny Rhodes in the near future.  He's definitely an artist who is deserving of wider recognition.

James "Son" Thomas - Beefsteak Blues:  If you're riding down a Mississippi Delta highway early in the morning, this would be a pretty good soundtrack.  Thomas was many things during his life, musician, sharecropper, gravedigger, sculptor....he was also one of the last of the old-school traditional delta blues men and was featured on several documentaries in the 70's.  I got to see him at the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, MS back in 1990.  He played solo, though accompanied on a couple of tracks by Walter Liniger, and the normally raucous crowd sat silent and hung on his every word and note.

Beefsteak Blues was recorded in the early 80's for L+R Records, mostly in Germany, but there are a couple of tracks that Thomas recorded in Leland, MS.  He plays electric and acoustic guitar and sings in that wonderfully distinctive voice, covering songs by Arthur Crudup ("Rock Me Mama"), John Lee (Sonny Boy I) Williamson ("Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"), T-Bone Walker ("Stormy Monday Blues," accompanied by Chicago blues men J.W. Williams and Mose Rutues), and Elmore James ("Standing At The Crossroads").  My favorite tracks, though, are his own songs...."Highway 61 Blues," "Catfish Blues" (offered here in the nice, polite version and also in the "unexpurgated" version he used to play for his friends), and the haunting title track, the first lines of which are written on his tombstone.

Larry Davis/Byther Smith - Blues Knights:  On the surface, this seems like an odd pairing with Davis' silky smooth urban blues and Smith's gritty, hard-edged Chicago sound.  First of all, these two don't perform together on any of the tracks, although these two separate sessions was done for Black and Blue on the same day using the same backing band (Maurice John Vaughn - guitar, A.C. Reed - sax, Douglas Watson - bass, Julian Vaughn - drums).  Second of all, despite their differences in styles and delivery, this features some excellent work from both men.

Davis' career suffered through many stops and starts.  His song, "Texas Flood" is one of the classic blues tracks, but he recorded sporadically throughout the 60's and 70's, notably several tracks for B.B. King's Virgo label in the late 60's and a pair of wonderful albums in the 80's.  Smith's music is mostly self-composed, with sometimes tough, sometimes menacing, always intense songwriting that doesn't always rhyme, which can be disconcerting to some listeners.

Blues Knights offers four tracks from Davis, and they are all good.  He proves on these tracks, three self-penned, that he was truly one of the finest blues singers ever.  He gets plenty of room to testify as well, both vocally and on guitar, with a pair of these tracks clocking in at over seven minutes long (the eight-minute version of Jimmy Rogers' "That's All Right" is a standout).  Smith's six tracks are indicative of his rough and ready style.  He picks things up a notch from Davis' more relaxed session and the band responds well.  While this isn't the first set I would grab from either artist, it's worth having because both give great performances.

Fenton Robinson - Special Road:  Dubbed "The Mellow Blues Genius" by his Japanese fans, Fenton Robinson's music owed as much to jazz as the blues.  Sadly, though he was a great songwriter, standout guitarist, and masterful singer, he didn't receive his just due during his life...probably because his music was not exactly built for the hustle and bustle of a local blues club.  His recording career, like Larry Davis', started at Duke Records (where he played guitar on Davis' "Texas Flood"), where he recorded "As The Years Go Passing By."  Later, his song, "Somebody Loan Me A Dime," appeared on Boz Scaggs' debut recording in 1969, with Scaggs initially claiming credit for writing it (later settled after much time in court).  Robinson is probably best known for his three recordings that appeared on Alligator Records, beginning in the mid-70's.

Special Road was recorded in the last 80's in Holland for Black Magic Records, while Robinson and his band were on  European tour.  The set mixes several solid Robinson originals ("7-11 Blues," "Special Road," and "Nothing But A Fool") with some intriguing covers (T-Bone Walker's "Love Is Just A Gamble," Lowell Fulson's "Too Many Drivers," Roy Milton's "R.M. Blues," and "Blue Monday," an update of one of Robinson's Duke recordings).  This disc is fantastic late night listening and is a great introduction to another under-appreciated talent.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Blues Labels - Delmark Records

Most blues fans who have been blues fans for a while have at least one recording that came from Delmark Records.  Many significant blues artists have recorded for the label, played on a session for somebody else on the label, or have had an older release reissued by the label.  If you were to look at many blues fans' Top Ten Desert Island Discs (a subject for a future post), there is more than likely at least one recording from Delmark that will be included.

Delmark Records is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.  It is the oldest active record label that is still run by its founder, Bob Koester.  Since 1953, Koester, who turned 81 on October 30th, has recorded some of the finest electric blues, country blues, and jazz recordings.....some of which have served as major influences on modern blues and rock & roll artists, and it all started in a St. Louis record store.

Delmark founder Bob Koester
Koester attended college in St. Louis, studying business.  He had started collecting blues and jazz 78's as a teenager in his native Wichita, KS, but once in St. Louis, he became immersed in the St. Louis jazz scene, publishing a magazine and selling 78's by mail from his dorm.  In 1952, he opened the Blue Note Record Shop, and a year later, he recorded his first band, the Windy City Six, on what was then called Delmar Records (due to a trademark issue, he later renamed the label Delmark).

Soon afterward, Koester and others in the St. Louis area, began seeking out musicians from previous decades who might still live in the city.  They found artists like Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams, J.D. Short, and eventually were led to find Sleepy John Estes.  These artists made up the first blues recordings for Delmark.....Speckled Red's The Dirty Dozens, Willams' Blues on Highway 49 (with Short), and Estes' The Legend of Sleepy John Estes.  During this time, Koester was also reissuing several jazz albums purchased from other labels.

In 1958, Koester moved to Chicago and later bought Seymour's Jazz Record Mart, where he began recording several of the Windy City's jazz musicians.  The business relocated in 1963 and was renamed the Jazz Record Mart.  It was also during the early 60's that the folk music revival started and there was a renewed interest in blues, particular the electric style.

By 1965, Koester had decided to record a local Chicago blues artist, Junior Wells, and his approach in doing so set the standard for modern blues records.  Until that point, a blues artist was only able to release an album once they had accumulated enough singles for a label to generate a "greatest hits" album.  With Wells, backed by Buddy Guy on guitar, Koester decided to record the session with the intent of capturing the charismatic harmonica player as if he were on the bandstand playing a regular live set at a local club.  The session was a huge success and Hoodoo Man Blues was, and still is, Delmark's biggest seller.  It is still considered to be one of the greatest blues albums of all time.

The floodgates opened soon after, with classic recordings from Magic Sam, J.B. Hutto, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, Carey Bell, Robert Lockwood, Jr., and later albums from Wells, Otis Rush, Jimmy Johnson.  Delmark's success with their blues recordings enabled Koester to delve into the Windy City's burgeoning avant garde jazz scene, recording some of the genre's finest albums.

Delmark has also acquired masters from many jazz and blues labels that are no longer in business.  Some of the blues labels include United/States, Apollo, Parkway, and Pearl.  They also bought the rights to several 70's sessions (from artists like Magic Slim, Jimmy Johnson, Lacy Gibson, Eddie Clearwater, and Lonnie Brooks) that were recorded by Ralph Bass.  These acquisitions have rewarded listeners with the opportunity to hear excellent recordings by Robert Nighthawk (Bricks In My Pillow) and Junior Wells' Blues Hit Big Town, a great pair of Memphis Slim/Matt "Guitar" Murphy recordings, and Little Walter's first recordings as a front man.  The label has also released excellent live recordings from the 70's by Otis Rush and Junior Wells.

L to R:  Bruce Iglauer, Jerry Del Guidice, Bob Koester, Michael Frank
Some of Delmark's employees have gone on to bigger and better things over the years.....Bruce Iglauer went on to form Alligator Records, and others such as Michael Frank (Earwig Records), Amy Van Siegal (Rooster Blues Records), Chuck Nessa (Nessa Records), Don Kent (Mamlish Records), and Pete Crawford (Red Beans Records) all went on to release prominent recordings of their own, and several musicians, including Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield, also worked there.

Delmark released few new recordings in the early 80's, at least on the blues side, but with the advent of CDs, they began reissuing their older recordings in the new format, and in the late 80's, started releasing some new recordings from Chicago acts like Professor Eddie Lusk, Dave Specter and Barkin' Bill Smith, Willie Kent, Jessie Fortune, Jimmie Lee Robinson, and Big Time Sarah through the early 90's, along with releases from soul legend Syl Johnson and the great Robert Ward.

In recent years, Delmark has issued recordings from veterans like Jimmy and Eddie Burns, Eddie Shaw, James Wheeler, Little Arthur Duncan, Tail Dragger, Detroit Jr., Willie Buck, Eddie C. Campbell, and Johnny B. Moore, and have also tapped into the Windy City's more recent blues stars like Toronzo Cannon, Mike Wheeler, Sharon Lewis, Lurrie Bell, Karen Carroll, Quintus McCormick, Linsey Alexander, and Studebaker John.

Koester still has plenty of great recordings in the works, including a November release from Magic Sam (a live set from June, 1968), the third set of live recordings by the much-missed singer/guitarist that the label has released.  There will also be a 60th Anniversary disc available in for the blues recordings and one for jazz.

So if you talk to anyone who laments the passing of independent record labels, just shake your head and point to Delmark Records as a continuing success story, even in these days of cookie-cutter music and big corporation record labels.  Without Bob Koester and Delmark, their pioneering approach to recording albums, their consistent reissuing of great music from defunct record labels, and their relentless promotion of the music they love, the world of blues recordings would be a much different place.

To check out Delmark's extensive catalog of blues and jazz recordings, go here.  To check out the Jazz Record Mart and check out their massive inventory, visit their site here.

Ten Essential Delmark Recordings:

As you glance through these, please keep in mind that these are MY essential Delmark Recordings, and that it was really hard to limit it to just ten.  I would love to hear from you about your favorite Delmark albums.

Junior Wells (with Buddy Guy):  Hoodoo Man Blues - The Gold Standard for Chicago blues recordings.  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for this session.

Magic Sam:  Black Magic - I know a lot of people love West Side Soul, and it's tough to have to decide between the two, but I think Black Magic has a slight edge and this is my list, so.......  Sadly, it was the last chance we had to hear Magic Sam in the studio.

Various Artists:  Sweet Home Chicago - I think this is a highly underrated set that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle with the great multi-volume Chicago collections from Alligator (Living Chicago Blues) and Vanguard (Chicago!  The Blues!  Today!).  Face it.....any disc with recordings from Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Louis Myers, and Eddie Shaw deserves a spot on your music shelf.

Robert Jr. Lockwood: Steady Rollin' Man - This was Lockwood's first session as a leader and one of his best.  I probably listen to this disc as much as any in my collection.

Jimmy Johnson:  Johnson Whacks - Johnson's catalog is loaded with quality work, but this release is the cream of the crop, with a perfect mix of blues and soul.

Robert Nighthawk:  Bricks In My Pillow - Nighthawk recorded this session for United in the early 50's, so this is one of the many great reissues that Delmark has blessed blues fans with over the years.  This was my first exposure to the slide guitar master and it remains one of my favorites.

Otis Rush:  All Your Love I Miss Loving - Live at the Wise Fool's Pub, Chicago - This live date was recorded in 1976 for broadcast on a Chicago radio station to help promote Rush's Cold Day In Hell release on Delmark.  We will look deeper into this disc in the coming weeks, but this is a fantastic example of a typical 70's Rush set.

James Kinds:  Love You From The Top - Kinds was seen as the "next big thing" in the blues back in the 70's, but sort of dropped off the radar after a series of bad breaks.  This release was well received upon its release a few years ago and seemed to get Kinds back on track, but he's since battled some health issues.  Hopefully, we haven't heard the last of him.

Toronzo Cannon:  Leaving Mood - We talked with Mr. Cannon a few weeks ago and discussed this release.  Cannon is one of the many rising stars on the Chicago blues scene.  His inventive songwriting and powerful rocking guitar work are positive signs for the future of the blues.

Lurrie Bell:  Blues In My Soul - Bell's most recent release is an excellent set of Chicago blues classics reinterpreted by the talented guitarist.  Backed by a great band, Bell really tears into these songs and gives one of his finest performances.....a great listen from start to finish.