Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas Baby

If you're like us here at FBF, you'll soon be waking up to the sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas, with kids or grand kids, nieces or nephews opening presents, relaxing and enjoying time with family and relatives, and eating as much food as humanly possible while praying that you still fit into your clothes when you go back to work in a few days.  What better way to get into the spirit than to hear some good old Christmas blues from some of your favorite artists.  Remember, even though it's a holiday of celebration, folks even get the blues during Christmas time.  Here we go.........

First up is John Lee Hooker and his ragged and raw "Blues For Christmas."  Hooker recorded this track for Chess in the early 50's, during his first brief stay with the label.  Hooker bounced around quite a bit, returning to Chess during the 60's, after several other stops in between.

Next, you have the great B.B. King, with "Christmas Celebration," from 1962.  We lost the great man earlier this year, but his music will live on forever, thank goodness.

Houston has had a whole bunch of great ladies sing the blues, and Ms. Trudy Lynn is one of the finest.  One of my Houston-area buddies turned me on to her music and I'm certainly glad he did.  If you're not familiar with her, you need to check out some of her music.  Hopefully, FBF will do so in the near future.  Meanwhile, check out "Christmas Time Comes But Once A Year," a tune she recorded during her stint with the late and much missed Ichiban Records.

Here's one of my favorite Christmas blues tunes, Sonny Boy Williamson's "Santa Claus."  Sometimes, when you listen to his recordings for Chess, it sounds almost like he was making the lyrics up on the spot.  I don't know if that's the case here, but I wouldn't be surprised a bit.  I just think it's cool that he was able to rhyme "Santa Claus" with "Dresser Drawers."

Another favorite is Eddie C. Campbell's "Santa's Messin' With The Kid," a holiday reworking of the Junior Wells' classic tune.  Campbell suffered a stroke and heart attack while he was touring in Germany in February of 2013, and his wife organized a fund raiser to help pay for him to fly back to the states for treatment.  Nearly two years later, this past January, he was able to play again at East Gate Cafe in Oak Park, IL.  He's still recovering and hopefully he will be hearing more from him soon.


We know that Santa's primary focus year round is to give, give, give to others.  It only makes sense that every once in a while, as Albert King states below, "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," a funky tune he recorded for Stax in the early 70's.

Of course, you can't talk about Christmas blues songs without bringing up the great Charles Brown, who recorded two of the best ever Christmas blues songs......."Please Come Home For Christmas" and "Merry Christmas Baby."   Brown originally intended to be a Chemistry teacher, graduating from Prairie View A&M in the early 40's with a degree in Chemistry, and later worked as an apprentice electrician before settling in Los Angeles in the late 40's, as part of the Three Blazers.  Brown influenced a number of blues and soul piano men, notably Ray Charles, who started out very much in a Charles Brown vein before he went on to invent Soul music. Brown continued to work, but thanks to the efforts of Bonnie Raitt, he enjoyed a nice comeback in the early 90's, before passing away in 1999.  Here are Brown's two beloved classic Christmas blues.

Friday Blues Fix wishes all of its readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  We will return next week with our Top 20 releases of 2015, so be sure and come back for that next Friday.  For now, we'll sign off with one more tune......Charlie Musselwhite's splendid version of "Silent Night."

Friday, December 18, 2015

Roots of Rock II

When I was in my late teens and starting to really get into music in a big way, I began to read about many of my favorite artists of the time.  One of the interesting things about most of their stories was how much of their music was influenced by the blues or by R&B music that they listened to while growing up.  Artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, etc.....were not only influenced by the blues and R&B, but they faithfully covered tunes by their influences and even gave them some recognition (which actually benefited many of those influences who were still alive).

Way back in April of 2011, Friday Blues Fix took a look at three longtime rock favorites that had their origins in the blues......Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" (featuring the original with covers from Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers), Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out" (covered by the Allmans) and Lead Belly's "Black Betty" (covered by Ram Jam).  It's past time to revisit this topic, so let's look at three more classic rock tunes that have their roots in the blues.

Clapton's Just One Night album

One of my favorite Otis Rush tunes is "Double Trouble," but the first time I ever heard the song was on Eric Clapton's 1980 live album, Just One Night.  Clapton's version was a dynamite 8-plus minute reading that featured some of his best guitar work (backed by fellow guitarist Albert Lee, who pushed Clapton to new heights for several years as part of his band) and a pretty fiery vocal to boot.  It was one of the better moments in an otherwise inconsistent album, and I played it frequently.  It's pretty obvious that Clapton was a fan of, and strongly influenced by, Rush in the way he approaches this song.  I didn't find out who Otis Rush was (or that he was born just twenty minutes or so from where I live) until a few years later, when I happened to find a couple of his songs on an Atlantic Records blues compilation.

Otis Rush

However, when I heard Rush perform this song a few years later, as part of the Antone's 10th Anniversary Anthology series, my sock were promptly blown off.  Though Rush's version on this disc was only about half the length of Clapton's version, the energy and sheer intensity of Rush's performance is just incredible.  I've heard several different versions of "Double Trouble" from both artists over the years, but these are still the best two to my ears, with Rush's Antone's version ranking as the undisputed champ.

Rush initially released "Double Trouble" as a single on Cobra Records in 1958, backed by Willie Dixon on bass (who also produced), Ike Turner (guitar, the distinctive vibrato parts), Little Brother Montgomery (piano), and others.  It also inspired versions by Paul Butterfield and John Mayall in later years in addition to Clapton's.  As you might have surmised, the song also inspired the name for Stevie Ray Vaughan's band.

Led  Zeppelin

Next up is "When The Levee Breaks."  Most people associate this song with Led Zeppelin because it was one of many standout tracks on their epic fourth album (commonly called Led Zeppelin IV). This album basically set the stage for hard rock to this day.  The band's version of this blues classic really served as a foreshadowing of future blues-rock ensembles like the North Mississippi Allstars, the droning, hypnotic guitar, the ghostly harmonica, the hard-driving percussion, the sweaty swampy atmosphere.  For many Led Zeppelin fans, "When The Levee Breaks" is as defining a moment for the band, and their fourth album, as "Stairway To Heaven."

Kansas City Joe and Memphis Minnie

The original version of "When The Levee Breaks" was written by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife/musical partner Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas).  It was written about the terrible 1927 flood that damaged a huge part of the Mississippi Delta and surrounding areas and caused the migration of many of the Delta's residents, mostly African American to the midwest (Chicago, St. Louis, etc..).  Many of the residents of Greenville, MS were forced to evacuate to one of the few levees that was relatively unscathed, in fear that this levee, too, would be compromised and further damage cause.  That was the basic theme of the song, and many others from other blues artists of the time.  The song was originally released in 1929, on Columbia Records.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page made changes to the song structure on the band's version, modernizing it for public consumption, and taking advantage of their monster drummer John Bonham, who played the drums at the bottom of a stairwell, which gave them their distinctive sound, and singer Robert Plant's haunting harmonica backing.  The band kept most of the original lyrics, however, even giving her co-composer credit on the track.

The Animals

Back in 2005, a powerful video circulated on the internet that showed pictures of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  Picture after picture of damage and desolation were accompanied by the haunting "House of the Rising Sun," which was a huge hit for the British rock group the Animals in 1964 (#1 in the U.S. and U.K.).  The song enjoyed a bit of a resurgence after Katrina and several oldie stations (at least those in my area) began playing it regularly.  The song itself, at least the Animals' version, deals with someone who has fallen upon hard  times in New Orleans, and Eric Burdon's distinctive vocals and the pulsating keyboards from Alan Price are what make the song really stand out, even now...over 50 years later.

Josh White

This song's origins are a bit harder to track, because it actually has, in part, been traced to a 16th Century English folk ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake."  The "Rising Sun" was referred to as a house of ill repute in a couple of traditional English songs and eventually made its way into the song.  The setting of the song was moved from England to New Orleans at some point, probably by American performers.  It was recorded many times, the first known was in 1933.  Roy Acuff recorded it in 1938, Alan Lomax recorded several people singing it during his Library of Congress musical expeditions, and Woody Guthrie recorded in 1941.  Josh White recorded it a couple of times, changing some of the lyrics along the way and this updated version was recorded by a variety of singers, including Glenn Yarbrough, The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Andy Griffith(!), Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the Chambers Brothers.  Lead Belly also recorded it a couple of times, 1944 and 1948.  Here's one of his versions, along with readings from Acuff, White, and Dylan.  

Hope you've enjoyed this look at the roots of rock.  We will revisit this topic again soon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Boogie Chillen!!!

Sometimes I receive inspiration for posts in the most unusual places.  A few weeks ago, I drove down to south Mississippi to attend a community college football game (my oldest daughter plays on the drum line in the local college band).  During the second half of the ballgames, the bands usually stretch out and play a lot of different tunes they've learned during the school year.  With about ten minutes to go in the game, the opposing team's band launches into, of all tunes, "Boom Boom," by John Lee Hooker!!

John Lee Hooker was the first authentic old school blues man I saw perform live.  Back in 1987, I went with my friend Scotty to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time.  We went to a midnight performance on the Riverboat President by the Fabulous Thunderbirds & Friends......a line-up which included Katie Webster, Duke Robillard, Lazy Lester, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Rockin' Sidney, and the Roomful of Blues Horns.  What I didn't know prior to arriving (the trip was sort of last-minute) was that John Lee Hooker was going to be opening the show.

Now, I had seen Hooker on TV and in the movies.  He was part of the Blues Brothers movie, of course, and I had seen him on a few concerts that aired on Public Television over the years, so I kind of knew what to expect.  He came out onstage, I think he was probably close to 70 at the time, and he looked his age as he ambled to his stool at center stage.  I think he was carrying his guitar with him, but he was dressed sharp in a suit and matching hat.  He mumbled a few words into the mic, which I was unable to hear because everyone around me was still talking and continued to talk after he started playing (one of my FAVORITE things about attending a concert).

About three songs in, he launched into "Boom Boom," which was one song that everyone there was familiar with, so everybody began to stop chattering and started listening.  By the time he finished playing about thirty minutes later, the room was pretty much quiet and focused on him.  He played 12-15 songs and talked between several of the songs.....mostly asides regarding the boat like, "Whoa, is this boat movin'?"  Then, he stood up, took a bow, and ambled off stage just like he ambled onstage.  

Not long after this appearance, maybe a couple of years, Hooker was in the spotlight again with his album, The Healer, for which he won a Grammy.  That album was loaded with guest musicians, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, and Johnnie Johnson, and earned Hooker a lot of attention.  I picked up this album a few weeks after it was released, and at the same time, I found a collection of hits and rarities that the label released about the same time as The Healer.  It was called The Hook:  20 Years of Hits & Hot Boogie, and collected several of his major hits and mixed in a few seldom-heard tunes as well.  I have to say that, at the time, I preferred The Hook to The Healer.  With The Hook, you got the essence of John Lee Hooker's style.  With The Healer, you got what sounded like Hooker accompanying others.  There were some good songs on The Healer, but even a novice like me understood what was up.

So even though The Healer wasn't John Lee Hooker at his best, it nevertheless served its purpose by introducing him not only to a lot of new blues fans, but also to music fans in general.  Hooker's profile increased considerably, especially on TV with commercials and in magazine ads.  He also continued to record throughout the 90's, releasing a new album every couple of years until he passed away in 2001.

For a listener who's getting into Hooker for the first time, the sheer volume of his catalog can be was for me.  I wasn't sure where to get started initially, once I heard the first couple.  However, the great thing about listening to John Lee Hooker is that it really doesn't matter where you get the beginning going forward, near the end going backward, or in the middle going in either direction.  He maintained a pretty amazing consistency throughout his career, whether he recorded as John Lee Hooker, John Lee Booker, Texas Slim, Little Pork Chops, Johnny Williams, the Boogie Man, Johnny Lee, Delta John, or Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar.

Hooker recorded for multiple labels under those different names, but he started out with Modern Records under his own name, where he first recorded "Boogie Chllen" in 1948.  His dark and moody vocal, accompanied by only his guitar and his foot keeping time, was unlike anything that was being recorded at the time for the R&B charts.  Soon, the song was perched at the top of the charts, followed by several other hits......."Hobo Blues," "Crawling King Snake Blues", and "I'm In The Mood," sometimes using Eddie Kirkland as a second guitarist.

Hooker finally settled in at Vee-Jay Records in 1955.  Vee-Jay added a band to his recordings, not that Hooker hadn't previously recorded with bands (his time-keeping was interesting, to say the least), but his new label had some pretty impressive sidemen to choose from.  Two of them were guitarist Eddie Taylor and harmonica player Jimmy Reed.  The versatile Taylor, who backed Reed on all of his classic Vee-Jay hits, played on several of Hooker's Vee-Jay hits as well ("Dimples," "Baby Lee"), but Hooker enjoyed a long and prosperous stay with the label through 1964, releasing the aforementioned "Boom Boom" in 1960, which actually made the pop charts and spawned several covers from British blues bands the Yardbirds and the Animals.

After Vee-Jay, Hooker was still prolific, recording for several labels during the late 60's (Chess, Verve, Impulse, BluesWay among them), and teaming up with the blues-rock band Canned Heat to release the best seller Hooker 'n' Heat in 1970.  By now, based on the covers of his tunes by British bands and the album with the highly regarded Canned Heat, it was obvious that Hooker was a big influence on many of the up-and-coming rockers.  It's hard to find a rock band during this time period that didn't cover a Hooker song or incorporate his relentless boogie sound into their own.  He was a huge influence on ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons (listen to "La Grange," as fine a musical tribute as you'll ever hear).

The 70's found Hooker more or less hitting a wall.  Though his output during the decade was consistent, it wasn't quite as, um, magical as his Vee-Jay days, though he did have some peaks to go along with the valleys, though his minimalist approach was often compromised by more rock-oriented arrangements at times.  The appearance in The Blues Brothers movie in 1980, did bring him some much deserved attention, but it wasn't until he connected with guitarist Roy Rogers, who helped him record The Healer (and served as producer) that Hooker began his real upward climb.

In his last few years, Hooker enjoyed a nice level of prosperity that often eluded blues men.  He owned several house, and received a lot attention for his appearances in TV commercials, and released several popular albums during the 90's.  I didn't listen as much to these as I did to his older fare because, as stated above, Hooker was sometimes overwhelmed by the guest stars.  You can't blame him, though......these records sold very well and the recognizable guest list was definitely a factor in that.

Though Hooker has been gone for fourteen years, passing away in June of 2001, he remains a major influence on not only blues guitarists, but even rock and country guitarists.  Whenever anybody plays that hard-driving endless boogie riff, it's hard not to think of John Lee Hooker doing the same thing during his 50-plus year career.

A few suggested John Lee Hooker albums (for those just getting started):  This are some of the discs in my collection and I think they provide a pretty good starting point for new fans, covering a wide range of his career.....a couple of compilations and one of my favorite albums.  Others may have their own favorites, but these are mine.

The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948-1954 (Ace Records):  This is a nice collection of Hooker's early recordings....24 of his best-known songs.  He recorded a lot of these tunes multiple times, but these are the first versions and the deepest and rawest blues he ever made.......just him, his guitar, and his stomping foot for percussion.  This is a nice place to start, but I would recommend maybe starting with his newer material and backing up.  This is pretty raw and intense.

The Hook - 20 Years of Hits (Capitol):  This set collects some of Hooker's best work for Vee-Jay, plus a few rarities.  I would probably start with this one.  These are some of his most familiar tunes, the way they're most often heard.  You could probably find a better collection of his Vee-Jay hits, but this is the one I found and it works fine for me.

The Definitive Collection (Hip-O):  This is a pretty solid overlook of Hooker's career, going from his Modern recordings all the way through The Healer and mixing in some tunes from Vee-Jay and Bluesway and a few surprises.  It's about as comprehensive as you'll get on a single disc. It really shows that Hooker's sound did change over the years, but really the primal nature and raw urgency of his blues remained undiminished over his 50+ year career.  For those who want a more comprehensive set than this, check out Rhino's two-disc Ultimate Collection.

Sittin' Here Thinkin' (32 Jazz):  Late 50's recordings with not much information, although it sounds like Eddie Kirkland on second guitar.  This is a pretty laid-back, easygoing set.  I really enjoy putting this one on when I'm unwinding.  Most of the songs are slow-paced, with a very hypnotic feel and really take their time developing.  Again, there are probably better sets that Hooker has done over the years, but I find myself listening to this one an awful lot.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Too Many Irons in the Fire

It happens every once in a while to everybody:  you get too many things going on at one time and so something has to be set to the side for a bit.  Well, that's what is happening this week at FBF.  Your humble correspondent is burning the candle at both ends.....getting ready for the holidays, doing some unexpected traveling, trying to do end-of-the-year stuff at work, and catching up with the stack of CDs that need to be reviewed for the upcoming December issue of Blues Bytes.....all while battling a nasty cold.  Therefore, Friday Blues Fix is taking the week off.  

Sorry to disappoint our regular visitors, but while you here we invite you to check out some of our earlier posts to see what you might have missed.  There will be something new of interest for you when we return next week.