Friday, May 29, 2020

Big Finds at the Little Big Store (Part 1)

I'm one of those grumpy old guys who still likes to listen to CDs and go to record stores.  I still find a good many of the former, but they're just not at the latter when I find them.  As most folks know, the record store is a dying breed....even a record department in a store is almost a thing of the past.  Two of the things I enjoyed doing when I would venture out shopping was go to a book store or a record store.  These days it's hard to do either one of those things.

On Memorial Day this year, I was around Jackson, MS with a few hours to kill, so I did some driving around the area.  About twenty miles south of Jackson is a little town called Raymond, where there's a Civil War battlefield park, a cemetery, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker (The McCoy Brothers....20's - 40's recording artists who wrote "Corrine, Corrina," "When The Levee Breaks," and "Why Don't You Do Right"), and The Little Big Store, a used record store located in the old depot building that I had not visited in ten years or more

The Little Big Store buys and sells albums, tapes, CDs, magazines, books, posters....just about anything music-related, and the store is packed from one end to the other with product.  It's easy to spend several hours in there just looking around, overwhelmed at what's available.  Well, I had a few hours, and it just happened to be open that day and I was the only one in there besides the owner, so I had the place to myself.

I thumbed through the albums for a bit, even though I don't even have a record player anymore.  I just like to look at the covers and admire the creativity that went into producing them.  There was a nice selection of books available from a number of musical genres, but I have so many to read right now, I didn't add to my stack.

I walked over to the blues CDs, not really looking for anything in particular, and started flipping through the five or six rows, which is a considerable improvement from the blues selection in the last few record stores I've stumbled across.  The last time I'd been in The Little Big Store, there wasn't a lot of selection, but have mercy, that wasn't the case this time.  I guess a lot of people now probably sell their CDs after converting them to digital format, but I had a lot of great ones to consider for purchase this time.

I finally settled on four, and at $5 apiece, I thought I got a steal for each one.  I had been trying to locate some of them for a couple of years now and most were priced out of my range at places where I had looked....not tremendously expensive, but more than I wanted to pay for them.  For example, I had checked online for a couple of these the night before and the lowest prices I found were about five times what I paid for them (plus overseas shipping).  I thought I'd spend the next few weeks discussing each one of the treasures I found.

This week's selection is a set from a Texas bluesman from the 50's and early 60's named Frankie Lee Sims.  For a long time, the only thing I knew about Frankie Lee Sims was that he had a song on an ACE Records anthology (Kings of the Blues) that I'd picked up in the late 1980's.  Later on, when Jimmie Vaughan released "Six Strings Down," in tribute to his late brother, he made a reference to Sims as one of those blues stringers still going strong in Heaven.  Based on the other guitarists Vaughan acknowledges in the song, I figured he would have to be something special, so I've looked for some of his music off and on ever since.

In the late 40's/early 50's, Sims was part of the Texas country blues scene along with Lightnin' Hopkins, Lil' Son Jackson, Smokey Hogg, and others.  In Sims' All Music Guide bio, Bill Dahl wrote, "Sims developed a twangy, ringing electric guitar style that was irresistible on fast numbers and stung hard on the downbeat stuff."  He first recorded for Blue Bonnet Records in the late 40's, then recorded a number of tracks for Specialty Records, one of which was "Lucy Mae Blues," the track he is probably best known for.  In the late 50's, he joined Ace Records (Johnny Vincent's label) and recorded several sides.  He passed away from pneumonia in 1970, at age 53.

The CD that I found this week was called Lucy Mae Blues, and it collects all of Sims' Specialty recordings, issued and unissued, from his singles, his one album, and a few alternate takes.  In some ways, Sims reminds me of Hopkins, but his guitar playing is fairly unique and he sounds good on the upbeat songs and the more mellow tunes, too.  He has a relaxed, almost soothing delivery.  Some of my favorites include the title track, "Long Gone," "Walking Boogie (Part 4)," "Frankie's Blues," "I'll Get Along Somehow," and "Frankie Lee's 2 O'Clock Jump."

I'm not sure how much a lot of newer blues fans enjoy the early country blues sounds from Texas and Louisiana, and they don't always get as much play as the blues sounds from Mississippi, but it's a very enjoyable brand of blues.  If you enjoy the swamp blues of Louisiana, well, the Texas/Louisiana country blues are pretty closely related.  I was sort of a late arrival to these sounds, coming to appreciate Lightnin' Hopkins much later than I should have.  Frankie Lee Sims fits nicely into that niche, and I wonder how much further he might have gone if he had been able to capitalize on the folk-blues revival of the early 60's, as Hopkins did.

Come back next week to check out another treasure from my Memorial Day excursion.

By the way, in case you missed it over the last couple of weeks, there's been a third picture of Robert Johnson that's been revealed.   It belongs to his stepsister, Annye Anderson, who recently completed a memoir, Brother Robert:  Growing Up With Robert Johnson, with author Preston Lauterbach.  She was eleven when Johnson took the picture in a Beale Street photo booth during the 1930's.  The first picture that was first shown in the mid 80's, was also taken in a photo booth....not sure if it was at the same time, but the new picture shows a smiling, seemingly carefree Johnson that's different from the unsmiling countenance of the first picture.  I'm excited about Ms. Anderson's new book because it will be the closest look we actually have at this mysterious blues man's life and personality.  Meanwhile, here are the other two known pictures of Robert Johnson, just in case you missed them.

Friday, May 22, 2020

A "One Night Stand!" To Remember!!!

The first time I ever heard Sam Cooke sing, I think it was when I was in my early teens and I was watching one of those afternoon commercials where they sold various music collections on LP, 8 track, or cassette.  Seems like there was a set devoted to Sam Cooke....2 LPs or 1 8-track or cassette....that played snippets of his songs as the titles scrolled down the screen.  I thought he had the most amazing voice, but I had no idea who he was.  At that time, I had a pretty limited knowledge of music, but I was open to hearing new things, so that voice got my attention.

I still didn't know much about him a couple of years later when I found a collection of his music in the cut-out cassette bin at a record store, but I picked that up as soon as I saw it.  There were a few songs that I remembered from the commercial.....his song "What A Wonderful World" was a hit on the radio a few years earlier in a pop version from several stars at the time (Art Garfunkel, James Taylor, and Paul Simon), but Cooke's version was naturally much better.  However, most of the tracks on this collection I bought were laden with strings and background choruses and sort of overwhelmed his overwhelming voice at times, so I ended up not listening as much as I anticipated.  I still enjoyed that magnificent voice, but wished that there was something a little less "produced" that I could find.

Sometime during the mid-80's, RCA (Cooke's label in the 60's) launched a series of recordings paying tribute to was around the time that he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a charter member.  One of them was a compilation of his best-known songs called The Man and His Music, and it pretty much covered the bases....28 songs, even including a pair of songs from his early years as a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers (it was a major deal when he made the switch from gospel to secular music.....he was gospel music's first "teen idol," drawing a large female crowd wherever the group performed.  While it was pretty much all anyone ever needed to hear from Cooke, the same issue remained with the strings, chorus backing vocals, and pop arrangements (though Cooke was able to exert a little more control in the last years of his career...we'll discuss one of those releases, my favorite, in the future).

Original cover from 1985 release
However, around the same time The Man and His Music hit stores, another album was released.  It was called One Night Stand!  Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 and it was the answer to this listener's prayers.  It was recorded on January 12, 1963 in Miami at the city's Harlem Square Club.  Earlier, RCA had decided that the label needed a live album from Cooke and decided to capture his performance in Miami.  The club was a small spot in Miami's Overtown neighborhood and was filled with some of Cooke's biggest, most appreciative fans, many of which had followed him since his gospel days.  Cooke was backed by some of his own band (guitarist Cliff White and drummer June Gardner), along with guitarist Cornell Dupree and the great King Curtis on saxophone.

Upon hearing the tapes, RCA decided that the show was too loud, too raw, and maybe a little too intimate.  The label wanted a live album that would appeal more to a pop audience and lead to bigger sales.  They decided instead to release Sam Cooke at the Copa, a performance in front of a upscale, largely white audience.  Cooke's performance was toned down and most of the material was more pop-oriented.  Compared to the Miami show, it was pretty tame, though he sounds great.  However, this was more in line with what the label's vision, so it was released in the summer of 1964 and the Harlem Square Club show was put on the shelf and largely forgotten after Cooke's death in December of 1964.

The Harlem Square Club date shows Cooke pulling out all the stops in front of his oldest, and most loyal audience.  In a way, it's almost like a church performance with Cooke singing these familiar songs of his with a primal urgency that marks a change from his studio work.  He basically has the audience eating out of his hand with torrid versions of "Feel It," "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Twistin' The Night Away."  My favorite is "Somebody Have Mercy," which also features some fantastic blowing from sax legend King Curtis.  The set is just over 37 minutes, but to these ears, it's one of the best live albums I've ever heard.

Cover for 2005 release
I bought the original release on cassette in the mid 80's and recently picked up the remastered 2005 release on Sony.  On the original release, the audience was further up in the mix, so it was almost like you were in the crowd and really made for intense, sometimes exciting listening.  The 2005 release cuts the crowd noise back a bit, but not too far, and places more emphasis on Cooke's amazing vocals, which are unlike most everything he ever put to wax......there were some performances that capture the intensity and soul he displayed with The Soul Stirrers, some of them from performances we will discuss in the near future.

As mentioned above, Cooke was killed in December of 1964 under mysterious circumstances.  He had started his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961, recording a number of artists who eventually became stars in their own right.....Bobby Womack (as part of the Valentinos), Johnnie Taylor, Mel Carter, and the Simms Twins.  He recorded soul, R&B, and gospel artists.  He wrote many of his own hits, "Chain Gang," "Twistin' The Night Away," "Chain Gang," "Another Saturday Night," "Cupid," and "Bring It On Home To Me" (that's Lou Rawls singing back-up).  He had 29 Top 40 hits on the Pop charts.

Cooke was born in Clarksdale, MS and had a Mississippi Blues Trail marker dedicated to him in 2009.  Though he's not often associated with the blues, his sound incorporated the blues, R&B, and pop effectively and he has been an influence on singers in multiple genres.  Rod Stewart provided comments on the back cover of the 2005 release, concluding with "...if there weren't a Sam, there might not have been a Rod."  Listening to this release makes it easier to hear Sam Cooke in Rod Stewart's singing.  I also remember Bobby Womack doing a pitch perfect impression of Cooke on one of his mid 90's albums, and I hear a lot of Sam Cooke in Robert Cray's vocals on his most recent album, That's What I Heard.  His performance on One Night Stand!  Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963 provides ample evidence of the blues in his musical roots.  It you haven't heard it, I highly recommend it!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Revisiting The Slide Brothers

Aubrey Ghent, Darick Campbell, Calvin Cooke, Robert Randolph, Chuck Campbell
One of my iPod playlists is called "Sacred Steel," and it's one of my go-to lists that stays on my iPod about 90% of the time.  I first started listening to Sacred Steel in the early 2000's, after I happened to catch Robert Randolph and the Family Band on Austin City Limits one Saturday night.  The music was developed in the 1930's by a group of Pentecostal churches, at least in two denominations of the church.

Those two denominations (the Jewell Dominion, based in Indianapolis, and the Keith Dominion, based in Nashville) introduced steel guitar into their worship.  The sounds of the steel guitar replicate an extra singing voice at times and the new instrument was very successful in the churches in these two denominations, which have expanded to at least 22 states.

In the past 20 or so years, several of the guitarists have been recorded by various labels.  Arhoolie Records released several anthologies, which is where I heard a lot of them......The Campbell Brothers, Sonny Treadway, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, Ted Beard, and Randolph, who took up steel guitar at 17, starting as a drummer (the usual progression in the churches).

Randolph supplemented his gospel music with other influences after he heard recordings from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sly & The Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Allman Brothers Band, and Buddy Guy.  Randolph combined the influences with the Sacred Steel tradition and set the music world on its ear, combining gospel and secular music effortlessly (though he's moved a bit more toward the sacred side on his recent effort with satisfying results).

I still plan to devote an entire post to the Sacred Steel tradition in the near future (yeah, I know I've been saying that for nearly a decade......I'm GONNA, okay???!!!).  Today, I wanted to talk about one album in particular that I pulled out earlier in the week after hearing about the death of Darick Campbell, one of two steel guitarist in the Campbell Brothers.  A few years ago, Darick and his brother Chuck appeared with two other Sacred Steel legends mentioned above.....Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent.....on an album conceived and co-produced by Randolph which bore the name Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers.

I plugged this album a few years ago at FBF with a mini-review, but it's worth revisiting.  The set list is a mix of blues, rock, and inspirational tunes, eleven in all.  Each guitarist gets a couple of tracks to shine.  The disc opens with the ABB's "Don't Keep Me Wonderin'," with Cooke singing and the Campbell Brothers' twin steel guitars soaring (with brother Phil playing guitar as well).  The Campbells also tackle George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," with vocalist Jimmy Carter (Blind Boys of Alabama) taking the mic.

The Campbell Brothers actually team up for three more tunes on the disc, a stunning instrumental reading of "Wade In The Water" (where one can really pick up the "singing" quality of the steel guitars), Tampa Red's "It Hurts Me Too," (with vocals from Cooke), and the traditional tune "Motherless Children," which they keep pretty close to the Eric Clapton version from the early 70's.  Chuck Campbell joins Randolph on the Elmore James standard "The Sky Is Crying" (with another vocal from Cooke and bass from Hendrix alum Billy Cox) near the end of the disc.

Cooke takes center stage with his own inspirational "Help Me Make It Through," playing guitar and singing.  He also joins Ghent on two of his three featured tracks, sharing steel guitar duties on a funky take on Mylon LeFevre's "Sunday School Blues," and one of a pair of tunes from Andrew Ramsey....a blues-meets-the-church call-and-response version of "Catch That Train." Ghent also gives a spirited performance on Ramsey's joyous "No Cheap Seats In Heaven."

In addition to his appearance with Chuck Campbell on the Elmore James classic, Randolph makes a memorable appearance on "Praise You," a tune actually written by Fatboy Slim, with blues belter Shemekia Copeland, who nearly brings the roof down with her performance.  Randolph's brother Marcus, who usually plays drums, joins Robert on steel guitar on this track......the tradition continues.

The rest of the Family band (bassist Danyel Morgan, keyboardist Jason Crosby) also make appearances, as do members of the Campbell Brothers band (bassist Orlando Wright, drummer Carlton Campbell), as well as former Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton and keyboardist Marty Sammon.

The song selection is split between gospel and secular, but the delivery of the songs can be interpreted in either direction for the most part, so there's something here for the spiritual and non-spiritual to enjoy.  It's definitely worth a listen and it might pique your interest in this fascinating genre of music, which we will explore more deeply in the future.......I promise!!

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Last Show

The Allman Brothers Band - October 28, 2014
Several years ago, I took one of my daughters to the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival to see one of her favorite bands.  Some twenty years earlier, her mother and I were regular visitors to Jazz Fest, but had gotten out of the habit when additional responsibilities reared their head.  Things had changed a LOT since my last visit to the Fairgrounds in the mid 90's.......I don't think I'd ever seen as many people in one place in my life (I think attendance that day is still a Jazz Fest record) and there were a lot more major musical acts present than when I used to go.  It was really hard to work your way up to a stage to see an act.....luckily there were those huge jumbo-trons on most of the stages, so while we might have been a quarter mile from the stage, we were able to see who was actually on stage.

While we were wandering around trying to find a place for three people to stand for over five minutes (my sister went with us), I noticed a tent that was selling Live at Jazz Fest CDs, which piqued my interest.  One of my favorite things to do when I used to go to Jazz Fest was check out the Record Tent.  I had been to the Record Tent earlier and there wasn't much there that really interested me and most of it was oppressively expensive.  The Live at Jazz Fest Tent was quite different.  I had seen some Live at Jazz Fest CDs available at Amazon, but they were very expensive there.  At the tent, they were about the price of a regular CD, and there were a lot of them to choose from.....some artists had performances recorded during multiple years.  I grabbed CDs from two of my Louisiana favorites, Walter "Wolfman" Washington and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas.  The sound was great on both of them, even though on one of the Zydeco Cha Chas' set, the vocal track was accidentally lost.

These CDs were also available on the Jazz Fest website, via Munck Music.  This company has recordings from Jazz Fest going back to 2008 (not all the bands, unfortunately, but a VERY nice selection).  There were also two sets recorded by The Allman Brothers Band from their 2007 and 2010 performances, so I picked these up last year (both are highly recommended).  While surfing Munck Music's site, I discovered that they had recorded most of the Allman's live performances since 2008, including their final recordings in 2014.  I filed that away for future reference.

This year, I finally decided to pick up the ABB's final-ever performance, at the Beacon Theatre in NYC on October 28, 2014.  I had read about the performance and decided that would be a good thing to pursue during the current situation.  It came in the mail a couple of weeks ago.

The band had decided earlier in the year to call it quits.......guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks both wanted to work with their own bands and Gregg Allman decided to tour with his own band as well (I got to see him in 2016, just before he had to pull out for health reasons.......he was pretty impressive).  The band always put together several multi-night performances at the Beacon, it was pretty much their second home during their "comeback," which lasted twice as long as their first run, and they were always in great form when performing there.

The set is a monster set, 28 songs and close to four hours long.  The band tore through nearly all of the blues classics that they introduced to many of their fans, "Statesboro Blues," "One Way Out," "You Don't Love Me," and "Trouble No More."  There were plenty of their own songs that their fans have grown to love....."Melissa," "Revival," "Dreams," "Black Hearted Woman," "Ain't Wastin' Time No More," "It's Not My Cross To Bear," "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "Whipping Post," "Blue Sky," "Mountain Jam" (with two reprises), "Hot 'Lanta," and "Midnight Rider."  There were also newer additions to the band's repertoire, "The High Cost of Low Living," Warren Haynes' ripping read of "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "The Sky Is Crying."

The band sounds fantastic......they certainly didn't go out with a whimper.  There was no let-up at all.  Haynes and Trucks were just incredible and if they didn't match the original twin guitars of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, they were riding the bumper pretty closely.  The percussion team of Jaimoe, Butch Trucks, and Marc Quinones were just relentless, and bassist Otiel Burbridge's rumbling slippery rhythm work gave the old songs new life.  Gregg Allman was in great voice and his highly underrated work on organ was superlative, as always.  The band certainly went out on a high note.

There's very little stage banter throughout the set.....fifteen to twenty seconds a spot.......until after the band returns for their first encore with, what else, "Whipping Post."  After that song concludes and the audience cheers for about two minutes, the band walks to the front of the stage.  Gregg gets a bit emotional as he recalls joining Duane and Dickey with no idea of what would be in store for him over the next 45 years.  He then tells the audience that the band would end their story by playing the first song they ever played together, "Trouble No More," and the band did just that.

I highly recommend this set to any fan of The Allman Brothers Band.  While there's a lot of the ABB's music at Munck Music's site, I encourage everyone to check out the company's other live recordings from Jazz Fest, the Peach Music Festival, the Dark Star Jubilee, the Wanee Music Festival, and many more.  I haven't heard a bad set yet.