Thu 13 Dec 2007
While there are a few modern day blues mandolin revivalists, the instrument has largely consigned to the dustbin of history. Although little-heard on commercial recordings after the 1940s, the mandolin played an important role in blues and early rural black music. The mandolin can be heard on numerous recordings of the 1920’s and 1930’s particularly on several black string band and jug band recordings. Johnny Young was the most famous of the post-war mandolin players who after waxing a couple of exciting 78's for Ora Nelle and Planet/Old Swing-Master circa 1947-48 didn't resurface on record for fifteen years. Thankfully the 1960's and 70's were a different story with Young recording for Testament, Arhoolie Vangaurd, Spivey, Blue Horizon, Blues On Blues, Bluesway as well as a number of of other scattered sides. Young played traditional Chicago blues, rooted in the 40's and early 50's, and didn't share much in common with more modern upstarts like Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Magic Sam. He also had one foot in his home state of Mississippi, his music still tied to the southern blues style of the 1920's and 30's and the vibrant string band tradition.
The general consensus ranks his Arhoolie recordings among his best but for my money his Bluesway album, I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping, is one of his finest and one that gets unjustly ignored. Of course it doesn't help that the album has been long out of print and that the Bluesway label doesn't have the best reputation. Producer Al Smith has been the target of much of the animosity against the label summed up writer Pete Lowry in a 1974 Living Blues review: "Here was a strange man-I don't know if he was any kind of bass player, but he surely produced some screwed-up sessions. I won't go into artist "relations," but merely deal with the sessions; there have been some predictable characteristics. Lousy liner notes, replete with phonetic spelling (to be kind), incomplete or wrong personnel data, as well as often incomplete or disordered listings of the tunes… As for the records themselves, they varied from good to near disasters. The results of Al's Special Ninety Minute Album Sessions included inconsistent levels on instruments, as if the warm up/test stuff was mixed for release (as was most likely the case!), some strange sounding stuff (out-of-synch echo units), and just total lack of programming. Al seems to have assembled albums in the order recorded, with no concept of the album as a programmed whole. For an artist to survive this sort of "production" he had to be damn good, or be having a better than average day in the studio."
In 1969 Young cut a record for Blue Horizon that was titled Fat Mandolin in the UK. I've had the US version for years which goes under the less inspired title of Blues Masters Vol. 9. My impression of this one has been less than favorable although admittedly I hadn't listened to it in years. Apparently I'm not the only one as Mike Vernon relates: "To the best of my recall, the album got little press coverage. It was, of course, certainly reviewed by the blues magazines of the time but with little real enthusiasm." Now with the release of Johnny Young: The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions it's time for a reassessment. For his part, Young had scorn for both labels: "Them people really cheated me, man. You know how much they gave me to make the LP? $50."
After listening to the The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions I've revised my opinion of theses sessions and have to say they hold up quite well although I don't think they rival the Bluesway and Arhoolie recordings. Mike Vernon's assessment is right on the mark: "What you will be listening to is tough, straight ahead, no messin' Chicago blues, echoing the great 40's era, as exemplified in the work of Big Maceo Merriweather and John Lee Williamson." Young plays mandolin on the bulk of the cuts aided by members of Muddy Waters' band: Otis Spann, Sammy Lawhorn, Paul Oscher and S.P. Leary. Young was a warm, powerful singer and magnificent mandolin player. Thankfully this set features a good dose of his rippling mandolin work on numbers like "Moaning And Groaning", "Lula Mae" which suffers from a very abrupt fade, "Prison Bound" and a rocking version of "Stealin' that fades just when things are really cooking. The latter track is one of three unreleased tracks, the others, "Go Ahead On (With That Funky Broadway Sound", a slow number despite the title, and "Johnny's Mess Around" are fun but a bit loose and aimless. The band, as to be expected is very good and of course Spann is always a joy to hear. While overall a very solid set, there's a spark missing, a sense of excitement and energy that's lacking.
That spark is clearly evident on I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping a 1973 outing that was to be his final album. Young died the following year. Young's brawny, rippling mandolin playing is better recorded then the Blue Horizon, much more up front in the mix, and there's a crackling energy lacking in the earlier session. The band locks into a rock solid groove behind their leader: Louis Myers, Bill Warren and Richard Evans. The pianist is uncredited but may be Bob Reidy who Young had been playing with for several years and who appears on a Blues On Blues LP from around the same time period. Young plays mandolin on every track and there's an innate sense of swing beginning with the chugging title track, not only an instrumental showcase for Young's mandolin prowess but also for the band, including blistering guitar from Myers and in-the-pocket drumming from Bill Warren. Several of the same songs appear on both albums with the Bluesway versions superior; those include "Lend Me Your Love", "Train Fare Out Of Town" and a knockout version of "Deal The Cards." There's not a bad track to be found with favorites going to "I Gotta Find My Baby", "Stop Breaking Down" and the jumping shuffle "I Know She's Kinda Slick." Vocally young has rarely sounded better and the album as a whole serves as a clinic on blues mandolin playing.
Just about everything Young cut is worthwhile and despite some caveats I would certainly recommend the Blue Horizon set. Blue Horizon has been doing a superb job with their reissue series with all the releases boasting excellent sound and notes plus bonus tracks. Now if only someone would do this for the Bluesway catalog which, outside of a few which have made it onto CD, have languished in the cut out bin for far too long.
Moaning And Groaning [Blue Horizon](MP3)
Stealin' [Blue Horizon](MP3)
Deal The Cards [Bluesway] (MP3)
I Know She's Kinda Slick [Bluesway](MP3)