1960’s Blues


Show Notes:

Ann Arbor PosterIt's not much of a stretch to call Otis Spann the greatest of the post-war Chicago piano men. Perhaps his only rival was Little Johnny Jones, who like Spann, never made it past his his fortieth birthday. Spann was born in Belzoni, Mississippi and inspired by local piano players Friday Ford and Tolley Montgomery, sibling of Little Brother Montgomery. He won a talent contest at age eight and began playing local vaudeville acts. After his mother died in the mid-40's he headed to Chicago where his father and aunt lived. After playing with Morris Pejoe and others, he heard from Jimmy Rogers that Muddy Waters needed a piano player and he was promptly hired in 1951. Between 1953 and 1969 and played on the bulk of Waters' Chess recordings. He also became a key session pianist backing Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Junior Wells, Chuck Berry and many others.

Starting in 1960 he launched a solo career parallel to his day job with Muddy Waters. Despite being an almost daily presence in the Chess studios, he cut only two sessions as leader. His own Chess output was limited to a 1954 single, "It Must Have Been the Devil," that featured B.B. King on guitar, and sessions in 1954 and 1956 that remained in the can for decades. Chess may not have been impressed but the sides hold up well and I've decided to play them all for this feature. Spann cut albums for numerous labels including Candid, Prestuge, Bluesway,Otis Spann Storyville, Testament, Spivey and Vanguard among others. Spann rarely sounded less than inspired but he was occasionally ill served by his record companies and his sidemen. Unqualified successes include his Candid recordings with Robert Lockwood (issued in it's entirety with bonus cuts, but out of print, as the Complete Candid Recordings: Otis Spann/Lightnin' Hopkins Sessions) as well as those for Storyville and two albums for Bluesway (issued together on Down To Earth: The Bluesway Recordings) backed by the Muddy Waters band. Also quite good are The Blues of Otis Spann, hailed as one of the best blues albums ever made in Britain and The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (reissued with many bonus cuts as the 2-CD set The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions) finding Spann backed by three-fifths of Fleetwood Mac. Less successful are recordings made for Vanguard, Prestige and the two albums for Spivey which have never been issued on CD.

Mahalia Lucille Jenkins began as a church gospel singer in Mississippi and continued to practice when her family moved to Chicago around 1952. She met Otis Spann in the 1960’s. The two began a musical collaboration and would later marry. Lucille and Otis performed regularly at college gigs and would record together until Otis passed in 1970. Lucille continued to work in music performing at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and making a few recordings before passing in 1994.

Cry Before I Go LPLucille was a strong, gospel inflected vocalist who at times could be quite affective while at other times her vocals leaned to the histrionic side. Her 1960's recordings are all in the company of her husband and she's featured on recordings Otis did for Bluesway, Vanguard and Spivey. A couple of her best sides, "Chains of Love" and "Love With A Feelin’" (both on Chicago Blues Masters Vol. 3) were cut for World Pacific in 1968, and both featured in our show. There is also Last Call, recorded live in 1970, three weeks before Otis Spann passed, featuring Lucille taking all the vocals. Overall this is a depressing listening experience and not the way anyone would choose to remember Spann. In the 1970's Lucille sang "Dedicated to Otis" at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival which is on the 2-LP companion album, cut her only album, Cry Before I Go, for Bluesway in 1973 and waxed the 45's Country Girl Returns Part 1 & 2 and Woman's Lib for Torrid.


Shirley Griffith: Saturday Blues

When I mention Shirley Griffith to anyone I invariably get the same two questions – he's a man and his name is Shirley? and Shirley Griffith who? Yes to the first question and I'll spend the rest of this post explaining the latter. In short Shirley Griffith was a deeply expressive singer and guitarist who learned first hand from Tommy Johnson as a teenager in Mississippi. Griffith missed his opportunity to record as a young man but recorded three superb albums: Indiana Ave. Blues (1964, with partner J.T. Adams), Saturday Blues (1965) and Mississippi Blues (1973). The fact that all three albums are out of print goes a ways in understanding why Griffith remains so little known. He also didn't benefit all that much from the renewed blues interest of the 1960's; he never achieving the acclaim of late discovered artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, the critical appreciation of a Robert Pete Williams or the excitement surrounding rediscovered legends like Son House, Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt. He did achieve modest notice touring clubs with Yank Rachell in 1968, performed at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 and appeared at the Notre Dame Blues Festival in South Bend, Indiana in 1971. Griffith passed away in 1974

Born in 1907 near Brandon, Mississippi Griffith was certainly old enough to have made records in the 1920's and 30's and in fact had at least two opportunities to do so. In 1928 his friend and mentor, Tommy Johnson, offered to help him get started but, by his own account, he was too "wild and reckless" in those days. In 1928 he moved to Indianapolis where he became friendly with Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. In 1935 Carr offered to take Griffith to New York for a recording session but Carr died suddenly and the trip was never made. It was Art Rosenbaum who was responsible for getting Griffith on record and who also precipitated the comeback of Scrapper Blackwell. Rosenbaum produced Griffith's Bluesville albums. "I recall one August afternoon", he wrote in the notes to Saturday Blues, "shortly after these recordings were made; Shirley sat in Scrapper Blackwell's furnished room singing the Bye Bye Blues with such intensity that everyone present was deeply moved, though they had all heard him sing it many times before. Scrapper was playing , too, and the little room swelled with sound. When they finished there was a moment of awkward silence. Finally Shirley smiled and said: 'The blues'll kill you. And make you live, too.'"

Writing about another older musician who only recorded late in life, Tony Russell had this to say: "Through this streaked glass one can discern the outlines of a younger, quicker musician who unfortunately never recorded." It would have been interesting to hear how Griffith sounded when he was younger but it's hard to imagine him sounding much better than on these late recordings. His singing is superb on these recordings; warm, controlled and expressive, often drawing out his phrases in a relaxed, easy manner. His guitar playing is subtle, melodic and gently propulsive and contains hidden depths upon repeated listening. His guitar work stands on it's own as evidenced on a pair of instrumentals: the bouncy "Shirley's Jump" from Saturday Blues and the gently driving "Delta Haze" from Mississippi Blues. Griffith clearly absorbed elements from both Tommy Johnson and Scrapper Blackwell and his synthesis of their styles makes for compelling listening.

Shirley Griffith: Mississippi BluesBoth Saturday Blues and Mississippi Blues are absorbing recordings and there's little discernible difference in quality even though they were recorded eight years apart. On the latter record his singing, still superb, has lost perhaps a bit of the smoothness of the earlier record. Tommy Johnson obviously made an indelible impression on the young Griffith one that is clearly evident on marvelous renditions of Johnson signature pieces "Maggie Campbell", "Bye Bye Blues" and "Big Road Blues" that glow with the power of the originals. Griffith was also inspired by Johnson's long time friend and partner Ishman Bracey where he learned "Left Alone Blues" and the ironic "Saturday Blues (both recorded at Bracey's first 1928 Victor session) with it's classic couplet derived from Johnson's "Cool Drink of Water Blues:" "She's the meanest woman that I ever seen/I ask for water, she gives me gasoline." Much of Griffith's repertoire is traditional or based on standards from the 1930's such as "Meet Me In The Bottom" recorded by Bumble Bee Slim and others, a lovely version of "Mean Mistreater Mama" also recorded by Bumble Bee Slim as well as Tampa Red, Peetie Wheatstraw's "King of Spades", "Shaggy Hound Blues" which shares some lines with "Saturday Blues" and blues of more recent vintage in Mercy Dee Walton's "One Room Country Shack." Other notable songs, likely traditionally based, include the strutting "Cool Kind Papa From New Orleans", "Flying Eagle Blues" and "River Line Jump" (versions appear on both albums) a number he put together with some Jackson pals containing the haunting lines: "I'm goin' some place I ain't never been before/Over In France, on the killin' floor."

Given his low profile I'm not sure how likely it is any of Griffith's albums will be reissued on CD any time soon. Bluesville has reissued many of their albums on CD and doesn't seem to be putting out any new reissues and no one has picked up the Blue Goose catalog, a sister label to Yazoo, which issued some fine records in the early 1970's. As a side note I don't own a copy of Indiana Ave. Blues although not for lack of trying. I've been outbid twice on eBay and judging by what the winners paid they obviously wanted this record much more then I did!



Show Notes:

The American Folk Blues Festival was an annual event that featured the cream of American blues musicians barnstorming their way across Europe beginning in 1962. German jazz publicist Joachim-Ernst Berendt first had the idea of bringing original blues performers to Europe and thought that European audiences would flock to concert halls to see them in person. Promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau would bring this idea to reality with the help of Willie Dixon. Dixon acted as talent scout, agent and recruited Chicago artists for the tour. The first festival was held in 1962, and they continued almost annually until 1972, after an eight-year hiatus reviving the festival in 1980 until its final performance in 1985. The impact of these annual tours had a profound impact on those that were in attendance. Future stars such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page any many others were in the audience and were directly influenced by what they saw. The rise of blues based bands like the The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Animals can be directly attributed to the AFBF.

The AFBF concerts have been well served on CD. The early years are collected on Evidence's 5-CD box American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1965 which also has a well written booklet by Bill Dahl. For the less committed there's the single CD American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1965: Highlights. The Bellaphon label has issued the following sets: American Folk Blues Festival 1965/1966/1967/1969 (4-CD), American Folk Blues Festival 1970/1972/1980/1981 (4-CD) and American Folk Blues Festival 1982/1983/1985 (3-CD). There's also many single CD collections. For a complete discography visit the AFBF discography. There's also four DVD's of footage available through Hip-O Records which are highly recommended.


Tommy Johnson

I've been thinking about Tommy Johnson and his influence lately. For someone who recorded so little his influence was unusually vast and long lasting; after all his recorded output only consists of six issued sides for Victor in 1928 and six issued sides for Paramount in 1929. A welcome surprise in recent years has been the discovery of several recordings of unissued material. It was Johnson's Victor sides that were the most influential and oft covered: "Cool Drink of Water Blues", "Big Road Blues", "Bye-Bye Blues", "Maggie Campbell Blues", "Canned Heat Blues" and "Big Fat Mama." Unlike the Paramount records these sold fairly well and were apparently the songs Johnson sang most often in person.

It was David Evans investigation into Johnson in the late 1960's that we owe a good deal of what we know about Johnson and it was through Evans' field recordings that Johnson's influence comes into sharper focus. Evans had this to say regarding Johnson's influence: "Johnson exerted almost no musical influence, either in person or through his records, on blues singers outside the state of Mississippi. …Furthermore, none of his songs, was a big enough hit to enter the folk tradition significantly in its recorded from. Instead, his records tended to act as a reinforcement of the playing of men who had already learned the songs from him in person, and as a stabilizing force within the tradition. …Versions of Johnson's songs derive exclusively from personal contact, though many of the artists undoubtedly heard Johnson's records at one time or other."

Evans recorded many men who learned directly from Johnson including Roosevelt Holts, Boogie Bill Webb, Arzo Youngblood, Isaac Youngblood, Bubba Brown, Babe Stovall, Houston Stackhouse and Tommy's brother Mager Johnson. Others who were directly influenced by Johnson include K.C. Douglas, Shirley Griffith, Jim Brewer, Joe and Charlie McCoy, Bo Carter, Johnnie Temple, Robert Nighthawk (at least indirectly through Houston Stackhouse) and several others. While I've been listening primarily to later recordings that bear Johnson's influence, his influence can be heard on many earlier recordings: Willie Lofton's "Dark Road Blues" (1935) and the Mississippi Sheiks "Stop and Listen Blues" (1930) were covers of "Big Road Blues", The McCoy Brothers recorded "Going Back Home" (1934) which was a version of "Cool Drink of Water Blues", Robert Nighthawk recorded versions of "Maggie Campbell Blues" in 1953 and 1964 and K.C. Douglas recorded "Canned Heat Blues" in 1956 and 1961. In addition elements from some of Johnson's songs show up in the blues of several other early blues artists.

As I mentioned it's the 1960's and 1970's recordings that I've mainly been listening to lately. Unfortunately a good many of these have never been issued on CD and many of the artists are little remembered today. Take for example Shirley Griffith, a wonderful singer and guitarist who learned first hand from Johnson as a teenager in Mississippi. Griffith missed his opportunity to record as a young man but recorded three superb albums, all of which are long out of print: Indiana Ave. Blues (1964, with partner J.T. Adams), Saturday Blues (1965) and Mississippi Blues (1973). Roosevelt Holts spent time working with Johnson and was married to Johnson's cousin. He was sixty by the time he recorded and the bulk of his slim output remains out of print including two fine albums: Presenting The Country Blues (1966) and Roosevelt Holts and Friends (1970). Also long out of print are several important collections of Evans' field recordings that gather artists influenced by Johnson. Most importantly is The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1972), the companion LP to Evans' Tommy Johnson biography featuring all songs that were in Johnson's repertoire and all of which were learned by the artists from Johnson himself. In addition there's South Mississippi Blues (1974 ?, Isaac Youngblood, Babe Stovall, Roosevelt Holts and more) and Goin' Up The Country (1968, Roosevelt Holts, Arzo Youngblood, Mager Johnson, Boogie Bill Webb and more). There was a planned (apparently compiled and notes written) companion album to Evans' book Big Road Blues but for whatever reason this was never issued.

All of this ruminating about Johnson's legacy will result in a show that I have slated for December 30, my final radio show of the year. I'll be playing many of the discussed records, several of Johnson's own sides and if all goes well an interview with David Evans who I just talked with the other day. It should be a nice way to end the first year of the show and a fitting one for a show called Big Road Blues.

Arzo Youngblood – Bye and Bye Blues (MP3)

Shirley Griffith – Maggie Campbell Blues (MP3)

Roosevelt Holts – Big Road Blues (MP3)


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