Friday, September 18, 2020

Vintage Blues - The Dirty Dozens

Several years ago, I heard a couple of tracks on an anthology collection from the UK label, JSP Records from Jimmy Rogers and Left Hand Frank Craig. It sounded like a fairly intimate session, maybe performed in a small English club. I think that was what captured my attention. There wasn’t a lot of musical accompaniment, bass and drums, and the focus was on Rogers and Craig.


It was recorded in the late 70’s, some of it in the 100 Club in London and some in JSP Records head John Stedman’s living room. The sound quality is not exactly pristine, but it is not bad. I’m not sure about the history of Rogers and Craig… long they played together, how often, etc….but they have an excellent musical rapport. Rogers was the second guitarist for years behind Muddy Waters and no one played that role better. He plays the same part behind Craig, a great lead guitarist who was criminally under recorded over his career. 

JSP released the set a few years ago as The Dirty Dozens and it’s worth seeking out for fans of traditional Chicago blues. Rogers sings on nine of the fifteen tracks and most of these songs will be familiar to his fans. His vocals leave you with a warm feeling inside. Craig’s six songs are equally fine and they pair pulls out a completely unplanned, unrehearsed version of the salacious title track that’s a lot of fun, too. 

Craig, as the nickname implies, a left-handed guitarist, played with Rogers, Junior Wells, Jimmy Dawkins, and many others over the years over a quarter century. He ended up migrating to the west coast not long after these sessions, for health reasons, and passed away in 1992. He has a live album, Live at the Knickerbocker Café, that’s hard to find, plus four tracks on the first volume of Alligator Records’ Living Chicago Blues series, a four-volume set that should be in any blues fans’ collection.

FBF did a profile of Rogers many years ago. He had a nice, two-part career, starting in the 40’s with Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Big Bad Smitty (as a harp player), and Waters and later enjoying some solo success with Chess before stepping back in the 60’s. He returned in the early 70’s and recorded several memorable albums for a variety of labels. He passed away in late 1997. If you’re not familiar with The Dirty Dozens and you like basic Chicago blues, this is a great set of blues to unwind with.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Do Right Man Returns

I’ve wanted to write about Dan Penn since I started this blog.  He is truly one of the unsung heroes of soul music, no question.  Peter Guralnick gave a wonderful account of Penn and the rest of the cast of characters who came in and out of the soul music scene in Memphis and Muscle Shoals during the 60’s at FAME and American Studios in his book Sweet Soul Music (I’ll say it again…..if you only read one book about soul music, though I can’t imagine why you would limit yourself in that way, THIS is the book you should read) back in the mid 1980’s.  I was already into R&B and rock, but I ventured deeply into southern soul music after reading it and from there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the blues (with Guralnick showing the way with two other books, Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway).

Penn was born in Vernon, AL and was a performer as a teen in local bands around Muscle Shoals.  He soon became a regular at FAME as a performer, songwriter, and producer, writing and selling “Is A Bluebird Blue?” to Conway Twitty in 1960.  The song became a hit for Twitty, and encouraged Penn to keep at it.  In 1966, he ventured to Memphis to work with Chips Moman at American Studios, and teamed with organist Spooner Oldham.  The pair produced a number of hits, including Bobby & James Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet”, a few for the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Cry Like A Baby”), “A Woman Left Lonely” (recorded by Janis Joplin and, later, Charlie Rich), “Out of Left Field” (recorded by Percy Sledge and, on his last album, Gregg Allman), and “Sweet Inspiration” (recorded by the Sweet Inspirations and, later, by the Derek Trucks Band).


Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham
Two of his most memorable efforts were collaborations with Moman.  In 1967, James Carr recorded “The Dark End of The Street,” a song that has been recorded by numerous soul and blues artists.  Penn calls it “the best cheatin’ song.  Ever,” and it’s hard to argue with his thinking.  Over the years, I’ve heard it performed by soul, blues, country, and pop artists and it’s a perfect fit for all of those genres.  Around the same time, Aretha Franklin recorded Penn and Moman’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”  Franklin almost didn’t record it because her husband/manager, Ted White, had a major argument with FAME Records owner Rick Hall and the couple angrily departed the Muscle Shoals  studios with the song not quite completed.  She ended up finishing the song in NYC a few weeks later with her sisters singing backup. 


Besides the ones listed above, most folks have heard “You Left The Water Running” (recorded by Otis Redding, James & Bobby Purify, Barbara Lynn, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and Wilson Pickett) and “It Tears Me Up” (recorded by Percy Sledge).  Penn’s name comes up frequently when discussing great soul tunes of the 60’s, and many that should have been.

Penn and Presley
What's not as well known about Dan Penn is that he’s as good a singer as most of the artists who covered his songs.  James Carr battled emotional issues that eventually sidelined him as a performer, but he turned himself inside out to record “The Dark End of The Street” for Moman, who commented “What would I do if I wanted James to cut one of my songs?  Easiest thing in the world.  Just get Dan Penn to sing it.  He’d sing it, and all of a sudden James Carr could sing it.  He had to sing it, ‘cause Dan sung it so good.”  Penn recorded numerous tracks while with FAME and they were the stuff of legend for years since few, if any, were ever released.  Fortunately, Ace Records in the UK has issued these sides on a pair of CDs and listeners can hear for themselves what the fuss was about.


Penn has recorded sporadically over the years, releasing Nobody’s Fool in the early 70’s and the magnificent Do Right Man in 1994, where Penn returned to Muscle Shoals and recorded some of his classic tunes from the 60’s, along with some pretty impressive newer songs.  Penn and Oldham teamed up for a series of shows in the UK in 1998 and Proper Records released a live CD and DVD, called Moments From This Theater that’s one of my favorite live recordings.  Penn’s vocals are just amazing, blending grit, sweetness, vulnerability, and most of all…..soul.  Penn has also released a few “demo” albums on his own Dandy label over the past fifteen years that he recorded at home.  I’ve only been able to track down one of these so far, Blue Nite Lounge, which was very enjoyable.


A few weeks ago, Penn released Living On Mercy, his first full-blown studio release in 26 years.  Recorded in Nashville and Muscle Shoals, Penn sounds as good as ever.  The session is relatively laid back and relaxed and the songs, mostly new, are very strong.  At 78 years old, he’s still got it.  He sounds just as good as he did on Do Right Man...if anything, his voice is an even better fit for this music.  If you're reading this, more than likely, you've heard some of Dan Penn's songs from other artists.  I'm telling you now that no one does Dan Penn's songs better than Dan Penn.

Friday, September 4, 2020

New Blues For You (Sort of) - September, 2020 Edition

In my spare time (such as it is), I contribute CD reviews to Blues Bytes, a music site sponsored by the Phoenix Blues Society.  I've been contributing reviews for almost 21 years and I really enjoy's as close to a hobby as I have, I guess....other than listening to the blues.  I've gotten to hear a lot of great music that I probably would have missed otherwise.  Occasionally, I like to tip my fellow FBF'ers off to some great new releases, and while the ones I'm discussing today aren't exactly new, they definitely deserve to be heard by as many blues fans as possible.  Extended reviews of each of these will be up in a week or so in Blues Bytes' September issue, but this will give you a sneak preview.  Here we go.......

When I started listening to the blues in the mid-80's, one of my first purchases was an Alligator Records sampler called Genuine Houserockin' Music.  It featured a track from Jimmy Johnson called "You Don't Know What Love Is," and I loved it because it was such a great mix of blues and soul with Jimmy's distinctive guitar and his soulful, gospel-influenced vocals.  Over the years, I managed to track down most of his albums and was never disappointed.  Every Day Of Your Life (Delmark) was his first album in at least 20 years and it came out late last year.  Johnson does nine tunes here, four songs with two different bands, and one song with him singing and playing piano.  He wrote half of the tunes and they're all keepers, and he does a marvelous job on the cover tunes.  The album came out around the time that Johnson celebrated his NINETY-FIRST birthday.  He sings and plays like a blues man half his age.and I get the feeling he's not close to hanging up his guitar.  Blues fans don't know how fortunate they are to still have Jimmy Johnson making music and I hope he doesn't stop anytime soon. 

 A few years ago, I got to review this great album called Broken Chains by a singer/songwriter/guitarist named Kern Pratt, from Greenville, MS.  His latest release, Greenville, MS...What About You? (Endless Blues Records), is even better.  Pratt wrote three of the songs and the other seven tracks are covers of some of his favorite songs.  He grew up in the Mississippi blues scene and met a lot of the area's blues legends when they shopped in his dad's hardware store, becoming immersed in their music at a very young age.  He's a very expressive singer with a lot of soul and his guitar playing is superlative, really standing out on some of the slow burners on the album.  He's assisted on these tracks by producer Bob Dowell, who plays a host of instruments as well, along with slide guitarist Chris Gill and Memphis-based guitarist Jeff Jensen, along with Gregg Allman's horn section (Marc Franklin and Kris Jensen), and Muscle Shoals legend Clayton Ivey.  Check out Pratt and Jensen wailing away on Bobby Rush's classic, "Chicken Heads."

Waylon Thibodeaux, known as Louisiana's Rockin' Fiddler, has released a couple of entertaining albums on Rabadash Records over the past decade, both of which deftly blend Cajun music with rock, soul, Swamp Pop, and the blues.  His third release for the label, Here We Go Again, focuses firmly on the blues, with guest appearances from bass player Benny Turner, guitarist Josh Garrett, harmonica player Johnny Sansone, and Rabadash head man and keyboardist John Autin, who also produced.  Thibodeaux is a great singer in a variety of genres and his fiddle playing is always a pleasure to hear...he even used an effects pedal to great effect on several tracks.  His own songs cover a wide range of styles from Cajun to country with an emphasis on the blues and he covers songs from the late, great David Egan, J.J. Cale, Edgar Winter, and Willie Nelson.  Few people realize what an effective instrument the fiddle is when playing the blues, but everywhere I've heard it was a perfect fit.  Thibodeaux certainly doesn't do anything to disprove my previous thoughts.  If you like the blues, or any of the great music that's found in the Pelican State, you will love this disc.

In Case You Missed It.....

Longtime readers of FBF are aware that Walter "Wolfman" Washington is one of my favorites, ever since I saw him perform at Jazz Fest in 1987.  He's the total package for me, a fierce guitarist, a dynamite singer, and comfortable playing blues, soul, funk, and jazz.  He has a rock solid catalog of music dating back to the mid 80's and there's not a clunker in the bunch.  A few years ago, I found Triple Threat, a collaboration with Washington, organist Joe Krown, and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. that I'd never even heard of, at Amazon and snatched it up.  All three artists are mainstays of the Crescent City music scene and this album shows why.  It's a mix of blues, funk, and soul, fairly evenly split between instrumentals and vocals from Washington.  After listening, I can't understand how I let this one slip by me the first time around.  The trio have released a couple of additional albums, including a live set at the fabled Maple Leaf, that I definitely have to track down, but this one will do for now.