Friday, January 10, 2014

Essential Recordings - Chicago/The Blues/Today!

In 1966, Vanguard Records issued the three LP set, Chicago/The Blues/Today!  To say it sent shock waves through the music world would be an understatement.  While all of the artists on these recordings had previously recorded over the past ten to fifteen years, their exposure was limited mainly to black audiences who bought their singles on labels like Chess, Veejay, Duke/Peacock, or others,  plus a few white kids who happened to hear their songs on the radio and became interested in the blues from there.

With the release of this set, all of these artists became exposed to a wider audience....those people who bought albums instead of singles, who were, at the time predominantly white and predominantly rock & roll fans who had heard whatever blues they had previously heard through the efforts of British performers like the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, and others, along with American artists Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield.  Now, they were hearing the music from the original sources, which had to be exciting for these new blues fans.

In 1966, the blues was losing a lot of its original core audience as many black listeners were gravitating to the new sounds of soul music from Memphis, Philadelphia, Detroit, and other locales, so all of the artists on this collection suddenly found their services in demand by a whole new set of fans that they probably never expected to have.  More than any other recording of it's time, Chicago/The Blues/Today! played a pivotal road in expanding the audience for blues throughout the country, and eventually the world.  It's impact is still being felt nearly fifty years later.

The artists represented on Chicago/The Blues/Today! were Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, J.B. Hutto, Otis Spann, James Cotton, Otis Rush, Homesick James Williamson, Johnny Young, Johnny Shines, and Big Walter Horton.  They truly did represent the music of the Windy City at that time, but most of these artists (with the possible exception of Guy, Wells, and Spann) were probably not widely known outside of their core audiences in Chicago.

Sam Charters
Sam Charters was a noted blues historian, who at the time has mainly focused on country blues, but had reissued many blues recordings on the Vanguard Records label, which was noted for its folk records.  Unlike many historians, Charters knew that the blues was still alive and well, not a musical dinosaur to be viewed in a library somewhere.  He sought and got permission from Vanguard to record these "new" artists, but since he was limited in budget and some of them were under contract with other labels, he opted to do union-approved 4-6 song sessions for each artist, putting three acts on a album.

Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
The first volume featured Junior Wells & Buddy Guy, J.B. Hutto and his Hawks, and Otis Spann.  Wells put his band (Guy - guitar, Jack Myers - bass, and the great Fred Below on drums) through a tight five-song set, including a heartfelt tribute to one of Wells' mentors, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), who had passed away earlier in the year, some of his familiar tunes ("It Hurts Me Too," "Messin' With The Kid, and "All Night Long (Rock Me Baby)"), and a new song ("Vietcong Blues").  Guy's guitar work is impeccable, some of his best....Junior Wells always seemed to bring out his best.

J.B. Hutto
J.B. Hutto was strongly influence by Elmore James and his fiery slide work and enthusiastic singing is magnificent here.  It's a truly inspired performance from Hutto, bass player Herman Hassell, and drummer Frank Kirkland.  Only one of his five songs goes over three minutes, but each song is loaded with energy and intensity.  If you've not heard Hutto before (he passed away in 1983), chances are that you've heard his nephew, Ed Williams of Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials, who continues his uncle's legacy.  However, it is recommended that you check out Hutto's recordings themselves, which are uniformly fine.

Otis Spann
Otis Spann was nursing a cold on the day of his recordings, so his voice sounds a bit froggy on a couple of the tracks, but that's okay because that splendid piano is what you'll be listening for and enjoying, and there's plenty to be heard.  Accompanied by drummer S.P. Leary, Spann rips through an exuberant five-song set, proving with these five songs that Spann was one of the finest post-war blues piano players, if not the finest.

James Cotton
The second volume featured James Cotton (billed here as Jimmy Cotton), Otis Rush, and Homesick James Williamson.  Cotton, who had been the harmonica player in Muddy Waters' band since 1957 but had recorded on his own previously, teams with Spann, Leary, and James Madison (guitar).  Among his selections are "Cotton Crop Blues" (which he had previously recorded for Sun Records), a moody version of "Black Night" (titled here as "The Blues Keep Falling"), and a frenetic version of the early rock & roll classic, "Rocket 88."  Cotton has been one of the most consistently-recorded blues artists since the 60's, recording several albums during each decade, and is still going strong despite throat issues that have rendered him unable to sing.  He can still blow the back off that harmonica though, even at age 78.

Otis Rush
At the time of these sessions, Otis Rush had been virtually unheard from for years.  He had left Chess to sign with Duke Records, who basically sat on him for five years, releasing only one 45 during that time.  Frustrated beyond measure by this, Rush made the most of his opportunity here...these five songs are among the finest he ever recorded...two instrumentals, including his reworking of Earl Hooker's "Universal Rock" ("Rock"), and three vocals (including a breathtaking version of his old hit, "I Can't Quit You Baby").  His guitar work is inspired, his vocals are incredible, and his band (Sax Crowder on sax, Roger Jones on bass, Willie Lion on drums, and Luther Tucker on second guitar) really pushes him hard.  This is some of Rush's best studio work and it's a shame he never reunited with Vanguard for additional recordings.

Homesick James (far left) with Elmore James
Homesick James Williamson was, like Hutto, inspired by Elmore James, who was his cousin.  Williamson, in fact, was a longtime member of James' band and was reportedly present when James succumbed to his fatal heart attack.  Williamson's slide guitar work was a bit rawer than his cousin's, seemingly owing more of a debt to Robert Johnson's style at times, and his vocals were equally raw and ragged, but effective.  His four tracks, with Willie Dixon on bass and Kirkland on drums, are raw and ragged, and man, do they sound good, including a cover of "Dust My Broom," and a delightfully ragged take on his own "Somebody Been Talkin'."  Homesick James recorded and performed well into his 90's, passing away in 2006.

Johnny Young
Volume 3 is the country side of Chicago blues and features Johnny Young, Johnny Shines, and Big Walter Horton.  Johnny Young played guitar and mandolin and his band includes Horton (harmonica), Hayes Ware (bass), and Elga Edmonds (drums).  Young's style brings back memories of those early Muddy Waters recordings with the down-home meets urban mix.  The tracks where he plays mandolin are really worth a listen.  It's an instrument rarely heard in the blues these days, and Young's energetic playing is a highlight.  His six songs are a lot of fun.

Johnny Shines
Johnny Shines was one of the first blues artists I ever saw perform (on public television in the mid 80's) and I was a bit put off initially by his raw sound and his coarse vocal style.  However, as I listened to other blues artists as time passed, I grew to appreciate his music.  He traveled extensively with Robert Johnson when he was a youngster and it showed with his music.  He was an excellent slide guitarist and made the move from unplugged country blues to electric urban blues with relative ease.  However, by the mid 60's, he had pretty much quit the music business, until he was persuaded to record for Chicago/The Blues/Today!   Based on these tracks, featuring Shines with Horton, Floyd Jones (bass), and Kirkland (drums), his career was put right back on track and he recorded quite a bit for multiple labels after that, even doing a couple of recordings with Robert Lockwood, Jr., another Johnson protege.  Shines suffered a stroke in the early 80's, which affected his guitar playing, but continued to sing with that robust voice until his death in 1992.

Big Walter Horton
Big Walter Horton played on all of the tracks on Volume 3, but he gets a track of his own, an instrumental featuring a young Charlie Musselwhite on second harmonica.  Horton was regarded as one of the finest harmonica players in Chicago, but by the 60's, he was battling numerous health issues, and was by nature, very shy.  He preferred to stay in the background as a band member rather than a band leader.  His harmonica sound was distinctive and influential.  You might have seen him playing harmonica with John Lee Hooker during the Maxwell Street scene in the original Blues Brothers movie.


Even though it was originally released as three separate volumes, Chicago/The Blues/Today! is now available as a three-volume package, relatively inexpensive, with improved sound, added liner notes, and some fantastic pictures taken by Charters' wife, Ann.  There's also a picture of Jimi Hendrix that many might find interesting.  In the picture, Hendrix is listening to records and is holding several album jackets under his of which is Volume 3 of Chicago/The Blues/Today!  If that's not a ringing endorsement for blues fans that this is an essential recording, then I don't know what is.


Drew said...

Nice write up on a very important series!

I did the re-packaging design for this back in 1999 for Vanguard Records. My wife was the creative services director for Vanguard at the time and located this photo of Jimi Hendrix which we used in the 48-page booklet that was included in the 3-disk package. We felt It suggests the importance of root influences for, at the time, popular rock music. Working with Sam and Ann Charters was like getting a crash course of the Blues. Very proud to be a part of this package.

Graham said...

Thanks so much for reading. Great job on the re-packaging design. I originally debated over repurchasing the series, but the new design was what finally sold me on it.