Friday, February 28, 2014

My Favorite Things - Five Go-To Albums

Believe it or not....this month marks Friday Blues Fix's FOURTH year of existence in the blogosphere.  I never would have thought that I would still be posting once a week, but so far, so good.  I have really enjoyed doing this, I've met some interesting people, music fans (from all over the world) and musicians that I probably never would have met otherwise, so I really appreciate all the folks who have stopped by for a visit over the past four years.

Everybody who listens to music has a list of albums that, if they happen to see them on the shelf, they have to grab them and give them a spin.  You know how sometimes when you're flipping channels and you run across one of your favorite movie, you just have to stop and watch it, no matter what part of the movie is on when you run across it?  That's what I'm talking about here......those discs that you have to hear when you run across them in your collection.  I have a lot of those on my shelf, so I sometimes listen to four or five a week.  This week, we will look at five of my "go-to" albums.....a pretty diverse set if I do say so myself, but I've actually listened to all of these over the past couple of weeks.

Son Seals - Midnight Son (Alligator Records):  I've talked about Son Seals several times over the past four years.  A lot of people talk about their Desert Island Discs (a topic for a future FBF post) and when I compile my list, there will definitely be a Son Seals recording on that list.  There's a pretty good chance that Midnight Son will be on that list.  Everything just clicks on this album....there's plenty of Seals' stinging guitar work (some of his best) and his roaring vocals are at their peak, too.  What kicks this disc a notch above his others is the addition of a horn section on many of the tracks.  When Seals tears into the opening track, Ray Charles' "I Believe," he pretty much makes it his own.  A lot of these songs stayed in his repertoire for the rest of his career, such as "Four Full Seasons of Love," "Telephone Angel," and the amazing "On My Knees."  This record just gives and gives and gives.  The first two Son Seals records I owned were this one and Live and Burning (which we devoted an entire post to nearly four years ago).  Seals released those two back to back and it's hard to imagine a better consecutive set of releases by any blues artists.

Robert Jr. Lockwood - Just The Blues (Bullseye Blues Basics):  Lockwood spanned the entire history of the blues until his death in 2006 at 91, learning the blues first-hand from Robert Johnson, his step-father, but also becoming one of the first bluesmen to pick up an electric guitar in the late 30's.  Along the way, he picked up some serious jazz influences and served as a session guitarist on many future classic recordings for Chess Records.  His success as a solo artist came later, beginning in the early 70's with recordings for Delmark and Trix Records.  In the late 70's and early 80's, he cut a pair of albums for Rounder Records with Johnny Shines, another musician who traveled the country with Robert Johnson.  Though their roots were in the acoustic blues of the Mississippi Delta, their two recordings for Rounder strayed pretty far from one might consider their norm, with lots of jazz and swing influences in the music.  This set, from Rounder subsidiary Bullseye Blues (part of their Basics series) collects some of Lockwood's finest moments from those two recordings, which are now both out of print.  A few of the tracks team Lockwood and Shines together to great effect, but several feature Lockwood with his regular band as well (Shines had suffered a stroke before their second album, so he was limited to vocals).  The thing I always have liked about Robert Jr. Lockwood's music is how he was able to absorb other influences into his brand of blues and transform it into something new and exciting to hear.  There's never a dull moment on any of his recordings.

Eddie C. Campbell - That's When I Know (Blind Pig Records):  I think that I would like to meet Eddie C. Campbell, based on what I've heard on his recordings.  His songwriting has a unique down-home perspective and I love his guitar work and his soulful vocals.  When That's When I Know was released in the mid 90's, Campbell had just returned to the U.S. after an extended stay in Europe with a cassette tape full of new songs, but had also spent time during a few visits stateside putting together a few tracks for this album.  The finished product puts all of it together and it is a good one, with lots of Campbell's highly original version of West Side blues that throws a heavy dose of funk into the mix.  Campbell launched another comeback a few years back with a pair of great releases on Delmark Records, but currently he is recovering from a stroke he suffered last year.  Hopefully he will be able to return to full strength in the near future.  In the meantime, this is just one of several outstanding Eddie C. Campbell releases to choose from.

Hi Times:  The High Records R&B Years (The Right Stuff):  Last year, around this time, I made a trip with family and friends to Memphis.  We went to Beale Street and rambled around a bit, and I picked up this CD while I was there.  In the mid 80's, I had discovered the wonderful music of Al Green and from there, I backtracked and found some other great music from the same era from singers like O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and Ann Peebles.  All of these artists recorded for Hi Records, the Memphis soul label that picked up the slack when Stax Records went under.  Under the guidance of the legendary producer Willie Mitchell, Hi Records was a driving force in soul music until changing times and musical preferences eventually ground things to a halt.  In the early 90's, the label was covered extensively by a box set and several "Greatest Hit" CDs from each of these artists, along with this sampler set of some of the label's finest moments.  It would be impossible to capture it all on a single disc, but this CD does pretty darn good with multiple songs by Green, Clay, Johnson, and Peebles.  I would have loved to have heard another O.V. Wright tune, but the one that's here ("Precious Precious") is a keeper.  If you're a soul or blues fan, chances are that you've heard most of these before, but this is a great place to get them all together.

Charlie Rich - Pictures and Paintings (Warner Brothers/Sire Records):  If all you know about Charlie Rich is his successful run of country hits in the 70's, you haven't even scratched the surface.  Rich started out as a songwriter and session musician for Sun Records in Memphis, backing artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Justis, Johnny Cash, and Billy Lee Riley.  All of his recordings for Sun subsidiary Phillips International, Smash, and later Epic Records were catagorized as country, but also showed lots of influences in jazz, R&B, and the blues.  Rich learned to play piano as a kid from a black sharecropper, so the blues weighed heavily into his music.  However, the only recording Rich ever did that captures his true musical persona was his final recording, Pictures and Paintings.  Peter Guralnick, who had sung Rich's praises in two of his books, served as a co-producer on this recording, and the blues are present in every note played.  You can sense the inspiration and perspiration that Rich put into this recording, almost as if he realized it was his last opportunity to play it like he wanted to (he died in 1995, three years after this album's release).  The best track is the last one, an absolutely stunning version of "Feel Like Going Home" that will bring tears to your eyes with its raw emotion (below is a demo version that he did at the time), but there are so many good performances on this one that you will play it over and over, just like I did.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Mount Slidemore

Friday Blues Fix has explored the "Mount Rushmore" topic several times with various subjects over the past couple of years, including a Mount Rushmore of Chess Records, Swamp Blues, and one featuring the four greatest blues pioneers (in our opinion).  This week, we will look at the Mount Rushmore of blues slide guitarists....a daunting task to say the least, and one that will probably offer a few differing opinions among our visitors, which is cool because there is certainly a wide field of contenders for the top four spots.

Tampa Red
Tampa Red - Many fans that are new to the blues may be scratching their heads right now, but Hudson Whitaker (a.k.a. Tampa Red) influenced numerous blues guitarist with his unique "single-string" slide technique, including Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James.  He was one of the first, if not the first, black musician to play a National steel resonator guitar, in the late 20's, and this is where he picked up his bottleneck guitar style, which was later an influence not just in the blues, but also indirectly to rock guitarists.  He was also one of the first blues men to move to Chicago from the South and make it big.  Oh, yeah....and he played a mean kazoo, too.  

Red played on hundreds of recordings over his 30-year career, his own sessions and sessions with artists like Sonny Boy Williamson (Version 1, John Lee Williamson), Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, and many others, becoming one of the first Chicago blues guitar legends while excelling on acoustic and electric guitar.  Newer fans may not have heard Tampa Red, but they have heard many of his songs, including "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," "Black Angel Blues," "Love Her With A Feeling," and "It Hurts Me Too."  Billed as "The Guitar Wizard," Red combined the rural Delta sound with a more urban feel, helping to pave the way for the Chicago blues that we all know and love today.

Robert Nighthawk
Robert Nighthawk - Nighthawk learned to play slide guitar from listening to Tampa Red, and later returned the favor by influenced many other notable slide masters, starting with Earl Hooker and Muddy Waters.  We've discussed the guitar wizardry of Robert Nighthawk here previously.  He probably would have been better known if he had been prone to stay in one place for an extended period, making it hard to pin him down for recording sessions.  His wandering nature, generally shy nature, and seeming contentment just to play the juke joints and clubs from Chicago to Helena all contributed to his limited number of recordings, but man, what he did record was incredible.  He had the smoothest, cleanest sound and his warm, burnished vocal style was pretty distinctive, too.  Though his recording catalog is fairly slim, he was a huge influence on a lot of other great slide guitarists, one of whom took what he did and moved it to the next level.

Elmore James
Elmore James - Without a doubt, James' signature riff is the most duplicated slide lick in all of bluesdom.  No blues guitarist can play slide guitar without repeating that riff at least once in their repertoire.  James himself repeated it on numerous tracks of his own over the years, but it's most identified with his reworking of Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom."  Despite his distinctive style, James was influenced by Robert Johnson and Tampa Red, among others, and he recorded several of Red's songs during his career and made them his own.  We discussed Elmore James a while back at FBF....the number of blues guitarists that he's influenced (basically everybody) and the number of songs of his that are recognized as blues standards.  Though there could be some debate about who belongs on Mount Slidemore, there's not any way that Elmore James can be left off this list.

Earl Hooker
Earl Hooker - Though Robert Nighthawk taught and influenced him, Earl Hooker took slide guitar to previously unreached heights.  Like Tampa Red, Hooker played on numerous sessions besides his own, though he wasn't nearly as prolific with his own recordings as Red was.  He was so good that the consummate slide guitarist, Muddy Waters, enlisted him to play slide on Waters' "You Shook Me," one of Hooker's finest performances on wax.  As good as he was playing slide, he was equally impressive playing other styles, moving easily from the blues to R&B, jazz, and even country when the mood hit him, but it's his slide guitar playing that sets him far above the pack.  He bounced around from label to label, was somewhat limited vocally, and was as notorious a wandering musician as Nighthawk was, but the only way that it could be argued that Earl Hooker doesn't belong on Mount Slidemore is if the person arguing against it had never heard him play.  For more info on Hooker, go here.

That's it for this list.  I do realize that I left several of the greatest, and most influential slide guitarists off of Mount Slidemore.....Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson immediately spring to mind.  Waters has been on two of my previous three Mount Rushmores, so I decided to give somebody else a spot in his place.  Robert Johnson deserves a monument of his own.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #12

Once again, it's time for one of FBF's most popular topics.  For those new to the blog, Something Old represents a blues artist from the Old School of blues.....could be from the 1920's through the 1980's.  Something New represents either a relative newcomer to the blues or a new album that you might enjoy.  Something Borrowed can be either a blues artists covering a song from a different genre (rock, country, jazz, etc....) or an artist from another genre covering a blues song.  Something Blue is an artist who is considered the epitome of the blues.  Pretty simple and straightforward, right?  Let's proceed.....

For Something Old, let's go way back to the 1920's and a singer named Sam Collins, or Crying Sam Collins.  Collins was born in 1887 in Louisiana, but was raised in McComb, MS, so he learned to play the blues in south Mississippi, not in the Delta.  He recorded in the late 20's and early 30's, with his earliest recording, "The Jailhouse Blues," being released in 1927.  He sang in a falsetto voice for the most part and was a fine slide guitar player.  He recorded under several different pseudonyms, including Jim Foster, Jelly Roll Hunter, Big Boy Woods, Bunny Carter, and Salty Dog Sam.  He wasn't well-known during his life (he died in 1954), but when interest in country blues was rekindled in the 60's, he was represented on several albums released during that time.  I first heard him on a couple of the Yazoo Records collections on Mississippi blues artists and he was one of the 36 artists featured on the Yazoo/R. Crumb card series, Heroes of the Blues (see picture).

The song we're featuring today should be a familiar one, "Midnight Special Blues."  Collins recorded his version in 1927 for Gennett Records, but the song dates back to the 1800's, originally believed to be a prisoner work song referring to a passenger train called the Midnight Special.  The song has been recorded numerous times, but most people are probably most familiar with the versions by Leadbelly, or Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Johnny Rivers (whose version was used as the theme song on the 70's late night music program, The Midnight Special), or maybe Andy Griffith's version on his TV show in the 60's.  A country band first released it in 1926, but Collins was the first to release it as a blues song.  Just do a YouTube search for "Midnight Special" and you'll be surprised at the number of artists that have recorded the song.

For Something New, let's look to James Armstrong.  Armstrong's story is an amazing story of success, tragedy, perseverance, determination, and resurgence.  We will be taking an extended look at Armstrong's life and music in the very near future.  He will be releasing his fifth studio release next week (February 18th) for Catfood Records, called Guitar Angels, and I can tell you that it is a great album.  He's a talented and imaginative songwriter, a soulful singer, and his guitar playing is a wondrous thing, given what he's been through over the years.  Check back in a couple of weeks to read more, but in the meantime, check out a clip of the title track from Armstrong's new CD.

For Something Borrowed, let's go to Memphis for one of my favorite bands, the Daddy Mack Blues Band.  The group released a collection of rock covers several years ago, called Slow Ride, in 2006.  If I remember correctly, Daddy Mack had not even heard the majority of these songs prior to this session, which just amazed me because he nails all of them.  I really liked this version of the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," because it got that raw, greasy, grungy Memphis blues feel to it.  You can almost feel the sweaty Memphis summer heat and smell the BBQ when you hear it.  Usually, I'm not a real fan of these "blues artists doing rock" recordings, but Daddy Mack and the band (with help from harmonica ace Billy Gibson) really transform these songs, or maybe they just focus on the blues aspects of each tune and bring it to the forefront.  Either way, it's a great listen that's worth tracking down.

For Something Blue today, let's go with Magic Sam.  Today (February 14th) would have been his 77th birthday.  We can speculate till the cows come home about what Magic Sam would have done had he lived, would he have crossed over to the soul/R&B field or gone in some other direction, but we will never know for sure.  Fortunately, he left us with a lot of fantastic music to enjoy, and more keeps turning up, like Delmark's recent release of a performance at the Avant Garde in Milwaukee (discussed here a few weeks ago).  Let's sign off today with Magic Sam's blistering version of Freddy King's "San-Ho-Zay," from that performance.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Jazz & the Blues - The First Miles Davis Quintet

"At one time, the blues was a major part of jazz….anyone who’s listened to Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, or Coleman Hawkins would know this. Somewhere along the way, jazz began to branch out and expand to the point that the blues was either minimized or eliminated altogether. There are still jazz musicians who get what a big part blues plays in jazz, but they seem to be outnumbered at times and the music, to me, has suffered and declined. Jazz without blues is jazz without soul. Your mileage may vary, but this is the reason why I review blues CDs instead of jazz CDs." - from my review of Amos Garrett's recent CD, Jazzblues, from Blues Bytes, June, 2013.

I've been thinking about doing a few posts on blues and jazz and how closely they fall together on the musical family tree.  Now, I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about the blues, and I definitely don't know everything there is to know about jazz.  However, I do know enough to know that the two are closely related, or at least they were once closely related.  You wouldn't have one without the back to the early years of recording, they are completely intertwined. 

I actually began to listen to jazz before I started listening to the blues, mostly jazz guitar of the George Benson/Wes Montgomery variety.  To be honest, even though I listened to it, I didn't GET it.....I didn't understand it.  To me, it was nice, mellow, relaxing music that helped me unwind after a tough day of engineering classes.  I occasionally tried other jazz artists, like Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington, Jr., Weather Report, the Crusaders, even Miles Davis, and they were all good, but to be honest, it rarely got past my ears.  Miles Davis was the toughest.  The first recordings I got from him were his late 60's recordings and I just couldn't get him at all because he didn't even sound good to me.....kind of like a kid tooting a horn.  I continued to try to listen, buying some of his later recordings, but eventually, I gravitated to the blues and pretty much put Davis, and jazz, on the back burner for a long time. 

For years, I went on about my way with the blues, almost exclusively.  Then, in the mid 90's, I got something unusual in the mail.  I know many of you remember those Columbia House deals that used to appear in magazines and occasionally show up in your mailbox.  This was similar, only it came from a company in New Jersey called Musical Heritage Society.  MHS offered a classical society and a jazz society.  I got an offer in the mail from their Jazz Heritage Society.

From what I remember, I could choose five jazz cassettes from a list of maybe ten or fifteen choices.  The cassettes were free, but I had to pay shipping, which was like $3 or so, and buy two more albums within the next two years at regular prices.  Not a bad deal, eh?  Didn't seem like it to me, so I bought in and picked up five jazz cassettes.  The choices were all older albums from artists like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis.  I picked Coltrane, Holiday, the Duke and the Count, and one from Miles Davis called Cookin' With The Miles Davis Quintet.

The first one I plugged in was the Miles Davis Quintet.  I didn't know anything about this recording, other than it was recorded in the mid 50's and John Coltrane was in the band.  I had heard of him, but had not actually heard him before.  The quintet was completed by Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  What I didn't know at the time was that this was the first of four recordings that this quintet did for Prestige Records during one marathon session in October of 1956, recorded with the intent of capturing the energy and atmosphere of their live performances at the time.  The four recordings were titled Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin' With The Miles Davis Quintet.

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis

Davis' pre-quintet work with Prestige was equally loaded with blues performances.  The song, "Walkin'," is one of his most recognized blues tracks, and "Bag's Groove," a track he cut with Milt Jackson on vibes, is an incredible piece of music, too.  However, the blues influences are heard pretty much throughout the quintet's work.  During the time that these musicians were developing their musical chops, the blues and jazz was pretty much interchangeable, or at least the line between the two was blurred.  Davis grew up as a musician in the bands of Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker and they pretty much played everything then, so it's only natural that the blues would make up part of the mix.

Coltrane and Davis

Whether you like jazz or not, music lovers can find much to appreciate about the first Miles Davis Quintet.  With Davis on trumpet and Coltrane on tenor sax, you could not have two more opposite musical personalities.  Davis was a model of economy, preferring to say a lot with a little, a procedure that he practiced throughout his career.  Coltrane took longer solos, full, nearly running over with notes, all aggressive and angular.  Amazingly, the two styles complemented each other perfectly.  Red Garland had a very direct, but lyrical style on the keys, and the young Chambers and the veteran drummer Jones were a bedrock rhythm section.  Check out "Ahmad's Blues" below, where the rhythm section gets a few minutes to shine on their own

When I first heard Cookin', I forgot all my preconceived notions about Miles Davis.  This music was just fantastic to me.  The pieces all fell together...every note was where it should be and there was plenty of space for the music to develop and grow.  Through it all, I could hear the blues.  Behind every note played and the ones not played, too, you could hear the blues, especially with Davis and Garland.

Look, I'm not nearly smart enough to put how I knew this into words......maybe somebody who plays could explain this better than I can.  This was just one of those things that you got by feel.  When you hear this music, like other great jazz musicians then and now, you can just hear the blues in every note.  Every time Davis plays, whether he's using a mute (to me, he was the absolute finest at this) or not, I hear the blues.  One of my favorites is "It Never Entered My Mind," the Lorenz Hart/Richard Rodgers classic.  Davis just transforms that pop song into pure blues.

The Quintet later signed with Columbia Records and released 'Round About Midnight, which was actually the group's best recording.  Unfortunately, it was also their last as a quintet.  Davis had broken up the group before the album was even released.  They were actually together for less than two years, but man, what a great body of work they left behind.  They did resurface briefly in 1958, adding alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to form a sextet and recording the Davis masterpiece, Milestones.

Davis and Coltrane worked together until 1959, shortly after Davis released Kind of Blue, which is the jazz record that should be in every blues fan's collection as a textbook example of the blues in jazz.  We will talk about Kind of Blue in a future Jazz & the Blues post.

Miles Davis later formed a second, equally great quintet in the mid 60's that helped pave the way for his move to fusion with Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way in the late 60's.  I enjoy the second quintet's music, too, but to me the first quintet is still the best.  Actually, the second quintet has a multi-disc set recording their live dates at the Plugged Nickel that finds them sounding similar to the first quintet in their approach.  What I've heard of it, I've liked quite a bit.  Most of their studio work from 1965 through 1968 moved in a different direction though.

For blues fans interested in checking out some jazz recordings, but not sure where to get started, I would recommend any of the first Miles Davis Quintet's recordings.  They are listed below.  From there, you have lots of directions you can take....we'll look at some other artists in the future.

Relaxin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

Cookin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

Steamin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

Workin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige)

The Complete Prestige Quintet Recordings - All of their Prestige tracks on a four-disc set, plus assorted live tracks from the Tonight Show and a couple of radio tracks.  Great stuff and a great way to get all of their Prestige material in one fell swoop!

'Round About Midnight (Columbia/Legacy)