Friday, December 16, 2016

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #20

Believe it or not, this is the 20th Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue post for Friday Blues Fix.  This has been one of our favorite themes over the years, dating back to FBF's early days as a weekly email to co-workers.  For those unfamiliar with the format, we offer a song from the early days of the blues (Something Old), a song from a recent blues artist (Something New), a blues artist covering a rock song or vice versa (Something Borrowed), and finally, someone who epitomizes the blues.....usually a legendary artist (Something Blue).

This time around, we're going to do something a little different.....actually we did it a while back and it was fun to do, so here we go again.  What we're going to do is take one particular song, a blues classic, and show four variations of it.  This time around, we're going to be looking at a song written by Willie Dixon, called "Spoonful."  Now, you may associate that tune with Howlin' Wolf, and you'd be correct in assuming that.....but there's more to it than meets the eye, and it's interesting to see who else has covered it in their own unique fashion.

Charley Patton

Willie Dixon actually derived "Spoonful" from a couple of earlier songs that date back to the early recording days of the blues.  The earliest song was Papa Charlie Jackson's "All I Want Is A Spoonful," and in 1927...."Cocaine Blues," by Luke Jordan.  The song that Dixon's version most strongly resembles is Charley Patton's "A Spoonful Blues," which he recorded in 1929 for Paramount Records.  The lyrics of the song use "a spoonful" as a metaphor for the cravings and desires of men, usually sex, love, alcohol, or drugs, and the numerous, sometimes dangerous and deadly ways they try to find and satisfy those cravings.  For "Something Old," here is the harrowing "A Spoonful Blues," from Charley Patton, one of the most influential of all blues men.

In 2015, guitarist Joe Bonamassa performed a tribute concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado for Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.  He set it up as a fund-raiser for his Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation.  There was an album released of the concert, Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, which was broken down into three parts, a Waters set, a Wolf set, and a Bonamassa set.  Bonamassa's Wolf set included a roaring version of "Spoonful," which will serve as "Something New" for us this week.  In addition to the music, there are snippets of interviews with Waters and Wolf included, so it provides a bit of history to the two blues legends.

In 2010, Robert Plant formed a new band, the Sensational Shape Shifters.  The former Led Zeppelin front man and his band mates frequently mixed rock with blues, folk, reggae, and world music during their fabled career, but with his new band, he does even more, even covering many of his Led Zeppelin hits in interesting and unique ways.  After hearing a recent set, I wondered how these bands who had popular songs some thirty or forty years ago were able to continue to play them without a staleness or going-through-the-motions vibe kicking in.  I think this is how Robert Plant does it, by playing around with the musical arrangements or the instrumentation, or even the vocal delivery.  I guess you can only play "Whole Lotta Love," so many times without it getting routine.  Anyway, Plant and his new group released a download-only live album, Sensational Space Shifters, in 2012.  It included a mix of Plant's solo work, Zep's hits, and a few "borrowed" tunes, one of them being, you guessed it, "Spoonful," which makes it our "Something Borrowed" tune this week.


Howlin' Wolf and Hubert Sumlin

Of course, "Something Blue" has to be Howlin' Wolf, the man who made the song famous with his powerful rendition in 1960.  The first time I ever heard "Spoonful" was on the late 60's version from Cream on my college roommate's Eric Clapton compilation album.  When I heard the Wolf's version, it was on a Chess Records anthology cassette in the late 80's, a collection that featured two tracks from the Wolf....this one and "Smokestack Lightning,"  Needless to say, it was an electrifying experience for a blues neophyte and it put Cream's version far in the rear view mirror.

I'd never really heard anyone sing like the Wolf, but there were other things that made this song special, such as Hubert Sumlin's stinging, steely guitar, Willie Dixon's throbbing double bass, and Otis Spann's skittering piano runs.  The Wolf's raspy, harrowing vocals, though, were what put this song over the top.  There have been many covers of this song over the years......Etta James, Jimmy Witherspoon, Canned Heat, Ten Years After, George Thorogood, Delbert McClinton, the Grateful Dead, and many, many others, but none of them come close to approaching the intensity and ferocity of Wolf's version.

Interesting tidbit to consider.......Otis Rush once reported that Dixon first offered him "Spoonful," but it didn't suit Rush's tastes, so Dixon offered it to Wolf.  Probably a good move on everyone involved's part.  Rush might have turned in a strong version himself, but there's no question that this song was MADE for Howlin' Wolf.

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