Sat 8 Mar 2008
By the time he succumbed to a heart attack in 1971 Curtis Jones was a sad, embittered man who – rightly I would say – viewed himself as the forgotten man of the blues, watching from the sidelines while others from his era were greeted with far more enthusiasm and fame. His passing was greeted with little fanfare and in a final indignity his grave was unceremoniously sold eight years later because no one had paid for its upkeep.
The intervening years have done nothing to raise to Jones' profile; his records have not been well represented on the reissue market and mention of his music to fellow blues fans is often greeted with indifference. To put it frankly his records are considered "boring" by most blues fans. The very qualities which made him popular among the black record buying public of the 1930's and 1940's were not exactly the qualities white enthusiasts prized. His talents were perhaps too subtle for the new white audience: his deep, unfussy piano playing was very much in the service of the song and decidedly unshowy, he was an expressive singer with a high, tight tenor with a way of putting across a song that really connected with the audience and he was an exceptional, imaginative lyricist. As Tony Russell wrote, somewhat uncharitably, in the Penguin Guide To Blues: "…Over the next four years [1937-1941] Jones turned out dozens of blues-and-trouble compositions, sung in the bleak Texas manner of men like Black Boy Shine to tidy, unexciting piano accompaniments."Closer to the mark was Paul Oliver who in the notes to In London wrote: "He is the bluesman's blues singer. All that he plays and sings is blues, but it cannot be lightly asserted that he represents the blues of Texas, where he was born, or of the West where he worked for some years. His is not merely 'Chicago blues', though he lived there for a quarter of a century. And how does one type a blues singer who has made Paris, France, his home?"
|Courtesy American Folk Music Occasional, 1970|
Our story picks up in Europe where Jones settled in the early 1960's after almost twenty years without stepping into a studio, outside of a couple of 1953 sides for Parrot. Before packing his bags for Europe he waxed a pair of fine stateside comeback records; Trouble Blues (Bluesville, 1960) and Lonesome Bedroom Blues (Delmark, 1962) which found his talents undimmed by the passage of time. Over in Europe he would record two more superb albums; In London (Decca, 1963) and Now Resident In Europe (Blue Horizon, 1968) reissued, remastered and rounded out with unissued sides as Curtis Jones: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions. It was Mike Vernon who we have to thank for both sessions as he writes in the excellent liner notes: "To be totally honest, Curtis Jones represented a bygone era and his particular style and sound was not at one with the current trends and developments in the blues world at the time. …It should be remembered that I, in particular, had been the only producer who had the courage to record him – not once, but twice. Most others might well have not taken the risk, if the truth were to be told."
I, for one, am glad he took the chance as it paid off handsomely. The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions consists of the original ten songs plus brief interview, a batch of alternate takes and the previously unissued "Blues On The Scene." Backed by a strong rhythm section of Brian Brocklehurst on upright bass and Dougie Wright on drums, Jones is in superb form stretching out with some gorgeous piano solos and singing marvelously on this well recorded date that features songs he hadn't recorded before. Jones sounds particularly extroverted on a number of selections including the shuffling "You Don't Have To Go" stretching out with some sparkling piano work, the insistent drive of "Cherie", positively cooks on the bouncy, declamatory "Gee, Pretty Baby" and delivers the spirited, inventive instrumental "Dryburgh Drive" (named after the street the studio resided on). Jones is at his plaintive best on the lovely ballad "I Want To Be Your Slave" and displays his skills as a guitarist on several sparse numbers. Guitar was his first instrument and he first revealed his talent on the instrument on his Decca album. His picking is basic but effective on on solo numbers such as "Morocco Blues", "Jane", "Blues On The Scene" and the heartfelt, beautifully sung "Soul Brother Blues." As on all of the Blue Horizon reissues, packaging is excellent with lengthy notes, nice photos and pristine sound.
Listening to The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions prompted me to reacquaint myself with In London which I hadn't listened to in ages. I've been informed that this has made it on to CD on the Deram label which may itself be out of print although copies look to be still available. Despite extremely lean times, Jones sailed into his 1960's comeback as an artist at the height of his powers as he ably demonstrates on In London backed by sympathetic band featuring bassist Jack Fallon, drummer Eddie Taylor and Alexis Korner on guitar on a few numbers. The program is a mix of old classics like "Lonesome Bedroom Blues", Alleybound Blues", "You Got Good Business" plus items he had been playing for his European audiences, numbers like Percy Mayfield's “Please Send Me Someone To Love”, the rollicking instrumental, "Young Generation Boogie", based on the Ray Charles instrumental "Rockhouse" and the charming "Syl-Vous Play Blues." Jones revives classic piano pieces including an elegant version of "The Honeydripper", "Curtis Jones Boogie", his version of the timeless "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" and the rocking "Shake It Baby." Of the guitar pieces, "Skid Row" is the standout, the kind of seedy life blues tale Jones so excelled at conjuring up. Paul Oliver provides a fine set of notes for the original LP which have been reprinted in Blues Off The Record.
Both of these records come recommended and one hopes that the reissue of The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions will spark some renewed interest in Curtis Jones although that may be, admittedly, wishful thinking. I'll be spotlighting the music of Jones in an upcoming radio program so keep an eye out. For a well written piece on Jones I make available, with the author's permission, an article written in Jefferson magazine no. 124, 2000: Curtis Jones: The Lonesome Bedroom Blues (PDF)
You Don't Have To Go [Blue Horizon Sessions] (MP3)
Soul Brother Blues [Blue Horizon Sessions] (MP3)
Shake It Baby [In London] (MP3)
Syl-Vous Play Blues [In London] (MP3)