Music Reviews


You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues

Junior Parker was an extraordinary blues singer and harmonica player who laid down some superb material over the course of a twenty year career (1952-1971) before his life was cut short just prior to his fortieth birthday. It's inexplicable, then, why he has such a low profile among blues aficionados. He hit the charts a fair bit through the 1960's for Duke, retained a strong following among the black club audience but failed to break through to a wider audience. As such he was virtually ignored by the new white blues audience of the 1960's. If Parker is mentioned at all these days it's usually in association with his 1953 number "Mystery Train" which was picked up by Elvis.

Parker died in November 1971 during an operation for a brain tumor. Before he passed he sailed into the 1970's in promising fashion cutting a pair of terrific albums; You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues circa 1970/1971 for Groove Merchant and I Tell Stories Sad And True for United Artists which was released in 1972. Parker's singing on these albums, to quote critic Tony Russell, "could be used as a manual of blues singing;" his singing is a model of control and phrasing, almost delicate with it's high, fluttering range, with every line placed perfectly for maximum effect. His harmonica playing is quite and melodic, parceled out in small but effective doses.

It sounds old fashioned, maybe even trite, but Parker really knew how to put across a song. He was a marvelous interpretor, a skill ably demonstrated on You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues a collection of mostly standards and revivals of his old numbers. The gorgeous "Five Long Years" sets the tone with his languid, delicate phrasing matched by a stripped down, very mellow backing group. Parker takes his time on exquisite versions of "That's Alright", "Tin Pan Alley", "Sweet Home Chicago" and the fluttering vocal of "Man Or Mouse" a revival of a 1967 chart hit for Duke. "Way Back Home" is a funky, infectious soul/jazz instrumental sporting some fine, nuanced harmonica playing from Parker. Neither the album or the recent Blues Discography has a listing for the band but I was told that it was The Crusaders. This jibes with the overall sound, the fact that the song "Way Back Home" was written by member Wilton Felder and that The Crusaders also backed B.B. King during this period.

The date on I Tell Stories Sad And True is 1972 which means this must have came out posthumously and marks this as Parker's last date. As such it makes one acutely aware of what a loss Parker's untimely passing really was. Parker's singing is every bit as good as the previous album as he once again puts his deeply personal stamp on a set of blues standards and stretches out quite a bit more more on harmonica which is certainly welcome. He's backed by crack band including Wayne Bennett on guitar, Phil Upchurch on bass and a horn section that includes James G. Barge and Willie Henderson. The highlight is easily the nearly eight minute cover of Joe Hinton's "Funny How Time Slips Away." Parker delivers this as a hip, spoken rap, intermittently singing the song's poignant lyrics in a hushed, gorgeous delivery. As the album opener it nearly overshadows the rest of this fine album. Parker puts across everything else in classy, intimate fashion including the Percy Mayfield numbers "Stranger In My Home Town", "My Jug And I" plus standards like "Going Down Slow" and "The Things I Used To Do."

As befitting his undervalued status, Parker's recorded output seems to slip in and out of print. You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues seems to have been recently reissued on CD and can also be found in it's entirety on Way Back Home: The Goove Merchant Years. I Tell Stories Sad And True has not been issued on CD as far as I know.

Five Long Years (MP3)

Funny How Time Slips Away (MP3)

 

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Blues Scene USA Vol. 4 Blues Roots: The Mississippi Blues Vol. 1

I've been listening to quite a bit of country blues recorded in the 1960's and 1970's. There of course are the big names, the fabled blues rediscoveries of Son House, Skip James, Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White among others. A parallel to this was a large body of recordings, in many case field recordings, of less famous artists who never had the opportunity to record before. Again there were acclaimed discoveries like Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams but also a slew of lesser known worthy performers like Roosevelt Holts, Shirley Griffith, Houston Stackhouse, Jack Owens and many others. Unfortunately many of these recordings haven't fared well in the reissue market which is the case with the recordings on Storyville's Blues Scene USA Vol. 4 also issued as Blues Roots: The Mississippi Blues Vol. 1.

The recordings were made by noted writer, researcher and Testament label owner Pete Welding who had this to say about these performances: "…The music has been revealed as a living continuum, thanks to recordings – such as this album – made in the Sixties which have introduced the music of a large number of carriers of the state's characteristic musical traditions. The most notable new performer of this blues renaissance was the gifted, exciting Fred McDowell, who sang and played as though time stood still, so fully had his powerful music been shaped by the old precepts. And after him comes a large body of singers, guitarists, harmonica players, violinists, etc., all of whose music is firmly allied to the oldest strains of the Mississippi blues. …For them, music was largely something to be self-generated in the family circle or for friends and neighbors; moreover, the music they created was by and large still shaped by the older traditions."

These recordings were made circa 1964-1965 mainly in St. Louis and Chicago where many of these performers had migrated. The big names here are Johnny Young, Big Boy Spires, who made a batch of highly regarded sides in the 1950's, and the prodigiously recorded Big Joe Williams who had a recording career stretching back to 1935. The rest will only be known to the most seasoned collector: Bert Logan, Russ Logan, Roosevelt Charles, Coot Venson, Avery Brady, Willie Lee Harris, Jimmy Brewer, Ruby McCoy, Jimmy Brown, Big John Henry Miller, Jimmy Lee Miller

Big Joe Williams appears on six of the cuts taking vocals on the sturdy "Long Road Blues" a loose variation of "Big Road Blues" with Coot Venson on harmonica. Backed by Big Joe, Venson takes the vocal on "Sugar Mama"(Big Joe played on the original by Sonny Boy Williamson I in 1937) laying down some fine down home harp. "Goin' Back Home" and"I Can See My Baby In My Dreams" are wonderful numbers that hark back to the old string band sound with Big Joe supported by violinist Jimmy Brown and harmonica blower Willie Lee Harris who both take vocal chores. Big Joe also backs the wonderful, raw voice Ruby McCoy on "Rising Sun Blues" who's singing, Welding accurately notes, "conjures up the ghost of Bessie Tucker." Big Joe's Uncles, Bert and Russ Logan, are featured on the ancient sounding, ramshackle, yet compelling "Four O'Clock in the Morning."

Arthur 'Big Boy' Spires cut a handful of brilliant down home sides for Checker and Chance in the 1950's and unissued sides in the 1960's for Testament before arthritis cut his career short. His burnished voice sounds marvelous on the gently propulsive "21 Below Zero" backed by Johnny Young on guitar. His Testament sides were cut at the same session and it's a shame they haven't been released. Johnny Young turns in a superb solo version of "Pony Blues" showing off his deep roots.

Chicago residents Avery Brady and Jimmy Brewer both hailed from Mississippi and still retained strong roots to their home state. The sadly under recorded Brady waxed only a handful of sides and sounds terrific playing throbbing, rhythmic guitar on "I Don't Want You No More" featuring his strong, plaintive vocals. Brewer delivers the albums' tour-de-force, a surging, powerhouse version of Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues." It's a beautifully sung number as Brewer plays percussive, intricate guitar, snapping the strings for added intensity. It also underscores just how influential Tommy Johnson was, something that became especially evident with the field recording of the 1960's, in particular the recordings made by David Evans. Brewer cut two full length albums both unfortunately out of print.

Big John Henry Miller was another Mississippi performer who's sole recording, "Down Here by Myself", is a hypnotic, powerfully sung number that makes one wish he had recorded more. Perhaps the finest singer in the collection is Roosevelt Charles. This track appears to be an anomaly having been recorded by Harry Oster in 1960 at Angola Prison. Charles was prolifically recorded in 1959-1960 by Oster although many sides were never issued. Charles was a modest guitar player but a magnificent vocalist with a deep, burnished voice employed to gorgeous effect on "Bye Bye Baby Blues." Charles is featured on several prison anthologies and on the long out of print Vanguard album "Blues, Prayer, Work & Trouble Songs."

Jimmy Brewer – Big Road Blues (MP3)

Roosevelt Charles – Bye Bye Baby Blues (MP3)

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oakland Blue

Once again we dust off and review another fine out of print blues record. Oakland Blues was arranged/directed by Jimmy McCracklin and contains excellent performances cut in 1968-69 by three severely under recorded artists: L.C. "Good Rockin'" Robinson, Lafayette Thomas and Dave Alexander. The record was issued on the World Pacific label (originally Pacific Jazz) which was mainly a jazz label although they issued some good blues records notably by Big Joe Williams (”Hand Me Down My Old Walking Stick”), George Smith (”Blues With A Feeling: A Tribute To Little Walter”), Luke ‘Long Gone’ Miles (”Country Born”) and “Down South Summit Meeting” by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Joe Williams among others. Some of this material has been issued on CD by Capitol/EMI which owns the rights but Oakland Blues remains long out of print.

The five L.C. Robinson tracks that make up side one are, incredibly, his first recordings since waxing a lone record for the Rhythm label back in 1954 ("If I Lose You Baby" b/w "Why Don't You Write To Me"). He also cut four sides for the Black & White label in 1945 as the Robinson Brothers with his brother A.C. Robinson. Robinson was a dynamic performer who played guitar and fiddle, but was really known for his incredible steel guitar style. Robinson's fluid steel playing and laconic, yet impassioned singing is heard in fine fashion on "Clean Your House" the blazing instrumental "Jack Rabbit Boogie" and the shuffling "Bring My Baby Back Home" the latter two featuring some sparkling boogie piano from Dave Alexander. On "Train Time" he proves himself equally capable playing standard guitar. These tracks, sans the latter, also boast the sizzling guitar work of Lafayette Thomas which makes a nice contrast with Robinson's steel playing. Robinson only got a couple of more opportunities to record; in the 1970's he cut the outstanding House Cleanin' Blues for Bluesway which has not been issued on CD and the excellent Ups And Downs for Arhoolie which has been reissued with bonus tracks as Mojo In My Hand.

Lafayette Thomas was a brilliant T-Bone Walker influenced guitar player who's stinging fret work can be heard on numerous recordings by Jimmy McCracklin, Jimmy Wilson, Roy Hawkins, Juke Boy Bonner and many others. He was the perfect session man, one who made every record he was on sound better. During his lifetime only a scant fifteen sides were issued under his own name (a number were left unissued). The three songs here were unfortunately his last recordings under his own name. Thomas is in masterful form cutting loose on the rocking "Party With Me" laying down knotty, blistering T-Bone Walker like runs while putting it on simmer on "I Had A Dream" backed prominently by L.C. Robinson's shimmering steel guitar and the insinuating, mellow blues of "A Fool's Way Of Doin' Things" the latter two showcasing Thomas' fine soulful singing, an aspect of his talent that usually gets overlooked. As far as I know the only recordings he did after these were some 1970's session work with Sugar Pie DeSanto.

Pianist Dave Alexander (later known as Omar Sharriff) makes his debut here with three songs in the company of heavyweights Albert Collins and George "Harmonica" Smith. Collins was hooked up with Imperial during this period which may be why he's listed as the Houston Twister although Pete Welding mentions him by name in the liner notes. Perhaps the best number is the six minute "Love Is Just For Fools" a fine low down ensemble cut underpinned by big toned, mournful blowing from Smith and crisp stinging guitar from Collins. For his part, Alexander is a deliberate, easy going vocalist and versatile pianist at home playing boogies or more introspectively. "Good Soul Music" is more in a rock and roll vein boasting some wailing harp and rollicking boogie piano while "Highway 59"is a steamy instrumental with a bit of a soul-jazz feel featuring excellent ensemble playing from everybody. Alexander has recorded sporadically since this session cutting a pair of albums for Arhoolie in the early 1970's and after a lengthy hiatus a record in the 1990's with his latest issued in 2004.

Lafayette Thomas – Party With Me (MP3)

Dave Alexander – Love Is Just For Fools (MP3)

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Down Home Blues Classics: New York & The East Coast States 1943-1953

In the immediate post-war era the music was rapidly changing, R&B was on the rise and and older blues styles were falling out of fashion. Yet for awhile at least, there was still a market for rural down home blues as evidenced by the popularity of artists like Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Smokey Hogg. Between 1944 and 1964, more than 600 record companies tried their hands at recording blues. Many failed or had limited success while others grew and became major players. This was “the last grand hurrah of local blues recorded for, and often by, local entrepreneurs, neither folkloric nor college oriented, but music for the culture from which it grew." This is the music the Boulevard Vintage label has been tapping into for the last few years with a series of well conceived multi-CD sets each based on a specific geographic region.

Down Home Blues Classics – New York & The East Coast 1948-1954, as the notes state, "emphasizes the contribution to post-war blues made by singers from the Southeast and the Mid Atlantic states where many gravitated to New York. These performers tended to prefer a lighter and more melodic style than those from the Mississippi Delta who subsequently brought the blues to Chicago and Detroit." The bulk of these recordings, in fact, were recorded in New York.

Many of the names here will be familiar to collectors including pre-war heavyweights like Blind Willie McTell, Curley Weaver and Brownie McGhee. McTell is still magnificent on these 1949 sides for Regal and Atlantic revisiting one of his finest numbers,"Love Changing Blues", plus the ragtime flavored "Kill It Kid" and "Talkin' To You Mama." McTell's long time partner Curley Weaver also transitioned into the post-war era in fine form as he demonstrates on a remake of the lovely "Some Rainy Day" and displays some deft ragtime guitar on "Trixie." We're also treated to a half dozen well chosen sides by Brownie McGhee with partner Sonny Terry sounding more spontaneous and livley then some of their later recordings which were geared to the white folk crowd. Indeed it's important again note that the music here was recorded before the folk blues boom; it was music created by and for African-Americans.

One of the pleasures of this series has been the spotlight on lesser known artists and this collection is chock full of fine long forgotten performers who are little known outside of the serious blues collector. We get generous helpings by artists such as Ralph Willis, Leroy Dallas, Carolina Slim, Gabriel Brown, Alex Seward, Dan Pickett among many others. Husky voiced Leroy Dallas cut only eight sides, four of which are included, and sounds exuberant in a jumping small band combo with Brownie McGhee and pianist Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis on "Jump Little Children" and "I'm Goin Away." Ellis is one of the few piano players included and sounds marvelous on "Dices Dices" sporting his pounding barrelhouse piano. Ellis waxed seven sides between 1945-1947 and it's a shame none of his other numbers are included. He did cut a fine self titled record for Trix in 1977 that's well worth tracking down.

As Paul Garon notes, the influence of the popular Blind Boy Fuller looms large on many of these recordings. There's many raggy, Fuller influenced guitar players such as the wonderful Julius King who's entire four song output is here including the jaunty "I Want A Slice Of Your Pudding" replete with kazoo. The mysterious Boy Green cut only two sides in 1944, both included, and bears a strong Fuller influence particularly on the infectious rag "Play My Juke Box." Carolina Slim seems to draw influence from Fuller and Lightnin' Hopkins while rough voiced singer Robert Lee Westmoreland plays a National Resonator like Fuller on his two recorded sides, covering Hopkins on a slide driven version of "Hello Central, Give Me 209." Other fine guitar players include the shadowy Dennis McMillon who's deft finger picking on "Paper Wooden Daddy" is a standout and the remarkable Dan Pickett, a long time favorite of collectors, who synthesized a number of early guitar styles to create his own, and had an exciting, rapid fire vocal delivery showcased on an update of Buddy Moss' "Ride To A Funeral In A V-8."

As usual with Boulevard Vintage sound is quite good and the notes very informative. It should also be noted that last year JSP issued the 4-CD box Shake That Thing!: East Coast Blues 1935-1953, which can be seen as a companion set, and has the complete recordings of Gabriel Brown, Dan Pickett and Ralph Willis. Boulevard Vintage also has 4-CD sets of Chicago and Texas blues and most recently 2-CD sets focusing on Memphis & The South and California & The West Coast that are equally good.

Julius King – I Want A Slice of Your Pudding (MP3)

Dennis McMillon – Paper Wooden Daddy (MP3)

 

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Memphis & The South 1949-1954 California & The West Coast 1948-1954

It's hard to keep up with glut of blues reissues mostly pumped out by European labels taking full advantage of the fifty year copyright law. One label that deserves attention is Boulevard Vintage who for the past few years have been putting out intelligent, well conceived multi CD sets of post-war down home blues. The label has zeroed in on a very specific, rich vein of blues history, roughly 1945-1955 when a whole slew of enterprising small labels were catering to an audience that still craved down home blues. As Paul Vernon writes: "The migratory patterns from south to north to west added an essential ingredient to the new market for blues recording. Urbanization created tastes for a music that fit the new times and locations , contributing to the birth of what we now recognize as Rhythm & Blues. In Chicago, the southern rural styles, as we now all surely know, were connected directly to 110-volt wall sockets and booted through fuzzy amplifiers to create the sound that would eventually go around the world. Yet there was still an audience for the rough, exciting music of southern juke joints and street corners, of local radio broadcasts and house parties. Who was going to service that market?" The answer can be found on the 110 songs spread across Boulevard Vintage's two latest 2-CD sets.

Down Home Blues Classics – Memphis & The South 1949-1954 collects music recorded in locales like Jackson, MS, Memphis, TN, New Orleans, LA, Crowley, LA for labels dear to record collectors hearts such as Sun, Trumpet, Bullet, Excello, Imperial and several others. Many of the artists will be familiar to collectors and we get multiple cuts by artists like Joe Hill Louis, Arthur Crudup (moonlighting under Percy Crudup!) Lightning Slim, Papa Lightfoot, Big Joe Williams, Jerry McCain among others. What's nice about this series is that compilers tend to pull out the less anthologized, obscurer sides by these artists. So while we get the well known, and simply amazing, "Wine, Whiskey & Women" by Papa Lightfoot we also get his pounding harmonica wailer "P. L. Blues", likewise for Willie Nix's celebrated "Truckin' Little Woman"which is on board but so is the much less known flip side, the unbelievably raw, "Just One Mistake."

It's the rarer stuff, less anthologized that makes these sets so valuable. While Boogie Bill Webb is not exactly an unknown his sides are not readily available. His two cuts here are particularly welcome especially the throbbing John Lee Hooker boogie of "Bad Dog." It's too bad his two other Imperial sides weren't included. We get a batch of fine down home sides by obscure artists like Country Jim Bledsoe, the marvelous Louis Campbell (these two never before issued numbers are not even listed in the blues discography), Tommy Lee (one of only 5 known copies of this rarity) and three of the four excellent tracks the by the mysterious Little Sam Davis cut for Rockin' in 1953 featuring some of the earliest guitar by Earl Hooker.

Down Home Blues Classics – California & The West Coast 1948-1954 delves into the fascinating records made in the immediate post-war era, mainly in California, mostly by those migrating from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. As Mike Rowe writes: "Unlike New York and Chicago there had been no blues or any kind of recording industry pre-war …The music as well as the industry was starting from scratch. …It was very often of Do-It yourself triumphing over the most adverse conditions."

While the above collection had it's fair share of well known artists that's not the case here. This collection, to quote the blurb, "presents probably the rarest recordings and the least-researched artists of the post-war era …there were many experiments to delight and intrigue us along the way; eschewing the bigger names we document those attempts rather than the final result." In fact the only big name to speak of is K.C. Douglas who's four sides include his first recordings notably his celebrated "Mercury Boogie." Douglas' harmonica player, Sidney Maiden, may also be somewhat known chiefly due to an album he cut for Bluesville. Maiden takes the vocals on the wonderfully doomy "Eclipse of the Sun" and pair of strong sides from 1955.

Only hardcore collectors are likely to know obscure artists such as Black Diamond, Slim Green, Willie B Huff, Sonny Boy Johnson, Little Son Willis, Jerry Perkins among others. The preponderance of lesser names has no bearing on the music which is uniformly strong. Take Willie B Huff, a magnificent down home singer who typified the emerging slow, doomy west coast sound. All four of Huff's sides are here including superb renditions of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Hello Central" as "Operator 209" and "Short Haired Woman" as "Beggar Man Blues." Other highlights include Sonny Boy Holmes, a fine Hopkins imitator whose sole four sides are on board, Slim Green's version of Curtis Jones' Tin Pan Alley as "Alla Blues" (a song that would evolve into the West Coast blues standard "Tin Pan Alley"), all eight Swing Time sides by the wonderful pianist/vocalist Little Son Willis who sounds like Doctor Clayton – his "Harlem Blues" a cover of Clayton's "Angels In Harlem" and the mysterious Black Diamond who's two fine solo guitar numbers are his only sides.

Both of these sets come highly recommended boasting very good sound (a definite upgrade from prior reissues) and very informative notes. Boulevard Vintage also has 4-CD sets of Chicago and Texas blues that are equally good and I can't wait to see what they put out next.

Boogie Bill Webb – Bad Dog (MP3)

Louis Campbell – Don't Want Anyone Hangin' Around (MP3)

Little Son Willis – Nothing But The Blues (MP3)

Willie B Huff – Operator 209 (MP3)

 

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