Entries tagged with “Arvella Gray”.

Willie MabonMichelleI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Willie MabonInterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Willie MabonI'm HungryI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
James BrewerI Don't Want No Woman, She Got Hair Like Drops Of RainI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
James BrewerInterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
James BrewerBig Road BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Eddie Boyd Five Long YearsI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Eddie Boyd InterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Eddie Boyd Her Picture In A FrameI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Johnny YoungWhy Did You Break My HeartI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Johnny YoungBetter Cut It OutI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Sunnyland SlimIt's You BabyI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Sunnyland SlimSunnyland's JumpI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Walter HortonTrouble In MindI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Walter HortonLouise LouiseI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Walter HortonLet's Have A Good TimeI Blueskvarter Vol. 1
Washboard SamBooker T BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Washboard SamAll By MyselfI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
John Lee GrandersonEasy StreetI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
John Lee GrandersonInterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Avery Brady Gangster's BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Avery Brady InterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother MontgomeryWest Texas BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother MontgomeryInterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother MontgomeryUp The Country BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Arvella GrayJohn HenryI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Arvella GrayInterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
St. Louis Jimmy Can't Stand Your Evil WaysI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
St. Louis Jimmy Poor Boy BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Big Joe WilliamsSouthern BluesI Blueskvarter Vol. 3
Big Joe WilliamsRootin' GroundhogI Blueskvarter Vol. 3

Show Notes:

Today's show is part one in a series of shows devoted to Chicago blues of the 1960's. Today we spotlight remarkable recordings made for a documentary titled I Blueskvarter, Swedish for In Blues Quarters. The bulk of today's notes come from Scott Baretta who wrote the notes for the series; Scott also edited the Swedish blues magazine Jefferson, is currently the host of the Highway 61 radio show for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, is head writer and researcher (with Jim O’Neal) for the Mississippi Blues Trail, and former editor of Living Blues magazine. In fact it was through Scott that I got a copy of the first volume of I Blueskvarter  more than a decade ago.

Olle Helander
Olle Helander

These recordings were made by Olle Helander, a radio host for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation who traveled to Chicago in 1964 for the express purpose of recording the blues. In addition there were trips to New Orleans and Memphis all of which were the raw material for the 21 part documentary radio series I Bluekvarter which first aired on Swedish Radio in the Autumn of 1964. Outside of poor sounding bootlegs, these recordings sat on the shelf for over thirty years until release in the beginning in the late 1990's by the folks who run the Swedish blues magazine Jefferson. The recordings were released as three 2- CD sets and feature intimate recordings by Willie Mabon, James Brewer, Champion Eddie Boyd, Yank Rachell, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Walter Horton as well as Babe Stovall, Snooks Eaglin and others. The recording trip documented on this show wasn't Helander's first to "the blues quarters".  In 1961 Helander spent several months visiting the music scenes of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago. Helander arrived in Chicago with the vague idea of investigating the blues, but initially had no luck tracing down blues artists until a chance meeting with the guitarist Big Joe Williams. Hiring Williams as a guide, Helander soon met up with Willie Dixon, Chicago’s premier blues talent scout and producer, as well as a number of the artists he would record in 1964: Sunnyland Slim, Arvella Gray, James Brewer, Little Brother Montgomery, and St. Louis Jimmy Oden.

Unlike his 1961 trip, Helander returned in 1964 with a clearer mission. In order to insure good sound quality, Helander hand-picked the sound-technician Hans Westman, whom he regarded as Swedish Radio's best, and armed with a portable Nagra tape recorder and four channel mixer, they set off to the States. The two landed in New York on May the 4th, and after making the rounds in the city’s jazz scene over the next days, arrived in Chicago on the 11th. Helander and Westman spent several days preparing their recording sessions, spending time with Willie Dixon, as well as Pete Welding of Testament Records and DownBeat magazine, and Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records. The blues recordings commenced on May 14th. Not having the budget to book a conventional recording studio, the only suitable place they could find was the Sutherland Lounge, at 4569 South Drexel Avenue in Chicago’s South Side. Conducting sessions on five separate occasions, they would leave Chicago with ninety-nine full takes from fourteen different artists/units. Below you will find background on some of today's featured artists.

For me, and others whose opinion I value, the recordings made by Walter Horton are a high water mark. As Barretta writes: "It’s probably no accident that Helander chose as his introductory theme Walter Horton’s 'Trouble In Mind', the eerie sounds of his lonesome harmonica, accompanied sparsely by Robert Nighthawk on guitar, about as far as one could get from the schlager and pop music dominating the Swedish charts of 1964. As a rather shy, quiet I Blueskavrter Vol. 1individual, Horton never had much taste for leading his own bands or recording sessions. Horton was much more comfortable in a supporting role and as writer Neal Slavin wrote “was one of the few musicians capable of elevating the slightest material into something approaching a masterpiece.”

James Brewer was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi on 1920 and moved to Chicago in the 1940's where he spent the latter part of his life busking and performing both blues and religious songs at blues and folk festivals, on Chicago's Maxwell Street and other venues. In 1962, however, he was offered an opportunity to play blues at a concert at Northwestern University and also began a regular gig at the No Exit Cafe which lasted for two decades. He went on to play major festivals and clubs in the United States, Canada and Europe. His first recordings appear on Blues From Maxwell Street (Heritage, 1960), cut several sides for Pete Welding in 1964, the same he was recorded during the making of the documentary And The Is Free and cut the full-length albums Jim Brewer (Philo, 1974) and Tough Luck (Earwig, 1983).

John Lee Granderson, Avery Brady and Arvella Gray all performed on Maxwell Street, and all under-recorded. In addition to the full length Hard Luck John (issued posthumously in 1998), Tennessee bluesman John Lee Granderson cut sides on other Testament compilations with further sides appearing on various anthologies. Among those Granderson played with were Robert Nighthawk, Big Joe Williams and Daddy Stovepipe. Brady's first recordings were made for this documentary. A few more songs by Avery were recorded that year and few in 1965 that were issued on the Testament and Storyville labels. He never recorded again. Gray made his first recordings in 1960 (released on the Heritage label) and in early 1964 he made sides for his own Gray label, selling the 45's on the street. In 1964, like James Brewer, he was also recorded for the documentary And This Is Free. He was regular performer on Maxwell Street on Sundays. Gray's only album, 1972's The Singing Drifter was reissued on the Conjuroo label in 2005.

Captured were several artists active in the pre-war years incluing Washboard Sam, St. Louis Jimmy and Little Brother Montgomery. Washboard Sam was one of the most popular and prolific blues artists of the 30's and 40's. Between 1935 and 1949 he recorded hundreds of sides for RCA's Bluebird and Victor labels. His last commercial session was a date with Big Bill Broonzy for Chess in 1953. These recordings were his first recordings in a decade. St. Louis Jimmy Oden made his debut back in 1932 but when recorded for these sessions he was mainly working as a songwriter, although he did cut a full-length album for Bluesville as recently as 1960.

In addition to Little Brother Montgomery, several other pianists were captured during the trip including Willie Mabon, Eddie Boyd and Sunnyland Slim. Mabon made his debut in 1949 but it was his 1952 debut release on the Parrot label, "I Don't Know," topped the R&B charts for eight weeks after being sold to Chess. From then on, Mabon was a Chess artist, returning to the top R&B slot the next year with "I'm Mad" and the Top Ten "Poison Ivy" in 1954. Although he didn't score any he big hits after Chess he continued cutting solid sides for  Federal in 1957, Mad in 1960, Formal in 1962, and USA 1963-64. He moved to Paris in 1972.

I Blueskavrter Vol. 2In 1941, Boyd settled in Chicago. He backed Sonny Boy Williamson on his 1945 classic "Elevator Woman," also accompanying Bluebird stars Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red, and Jazz Gillum on wax. Boyd made his 1947 debut for RCA staying with the label through 1949. Boyd reportedly paid for the date that produced "Five Long Years" himself, selling the track to JOB Records where it topped the R&B charts during 1952. Al Benson signed Boyd to a contract with his Parrot label and promptly sold it to Chess. At Chess he waxed "24 Hours" and "Third Degree," both huge R&B hits in 1953 and several other fine sides. Boyd became enamored of Europe during his tour with the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival, so he moved to Belgium. He recorded prolifically during the late '60sand in the early '70s settled in Helsinki where he played often and lived until his death.

For more than 50 years Sunnyland Slim rumbled the ivories around the Windy City, playing with virtually every local luminary imaginable and backing the great majority in the studio at one time or another. Slim moved to Chicago in 1939 and set up shop as an in-demand piano man, playing for a spell with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson before making his debut in 1947. Slim recorded prolifically until his death in 1995.



J.D. Short

I suppose it sounds rather romantic spending your time roaming around the south with a tape recorder recording blues but for all the rewards and exciting discoveries it’s a stressful enterprise, not to mention a precarious way to make a living. These days hardly anyone one does it anymore and the sad fact is that blues has largely disappeared as integral part of African-American rural communities; most of the old timers have passed on and few of the younger generation are interested in blues, particularly traditional blues. Much has been written about John and Alan Lomax who scoured the south and beyond making landmark recordings for the Library of Congress from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. Less well known are those that followed in the Lomax’s footsteps; there was folklorists and researchers such as David Evans, Sam Charters, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Art Rosenbaum, Pete Welding, Chris Strachwitz ,Bruce Bastin, Bengt Olsson, Dick Spottswood, Kip Lornell, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, Siegfried A. Christmann and Axel Küstner. Some were hunting for the famous names who made records in the 1920’s and 1930’s, others were seeking to fill in biographical blanks regarding some of the older musicians coveted by collectors and then there were those who were seeking to document the blues tradition as it still existed in rural communities, men like George Mitchell and Peter B. Lowry. This was a very different undertaking than 1960’s blues revival which sought out and put back on the circuit such legendary artists of the past as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt. The field recordings made during this era were a sort of a parallel undercurrent to the more famous artists. What they recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960’s was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture.

Today's abbreviated show is part two of our look at field recordings made in the 1960's and 70's. Today's program spotlights recordings made by Paul Oliver, David Evans, Sam Charters, William Ferris, Fredric Ramsey Jr. and Bruce Jackson. In the second hour we present Truckin' My Blues an hour-long special which introduces listeners to the stories and sounds of four older Southern bluesmen—and to the efforts of Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, to help lift these musicians from poverty and obscurity.

In the opening set we spin a couple of tracks recorded by Sam Charters.  Charters' fieldwork, extensive liner notes, production efforts, and books served as an introduction to many who had never heard of artists like Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson. Charters also began his work as a field recorder during the '50s, and this research would result in his first book in 1959, The Country Blues. "…The Country Blues was the first full-length treatment of the topic," wrote Benjamin Filene in Romancing the Folk, "and its evocative style inspired thousands of whites to explore the music." A companion album, also titled The Country Blues, would simultaneously be released on Folkways. Charters compiled vintage blues reissues, produced numerous albums and did extensive field recording, much of it released on the Folkways label.

Baby Tate's "When I First Started Hoboing" comes from the film The Blues (read loner notes) which  was begun as, Charters wrote, " an effort to document aspects of the blues that couldn't be put on to a phonograph record. In 1961 and 1962 I was doing a great deal of recording in the South, and in Memphis I became interested in not only the sound of Furry Lewis's guitar style, but in the patterns of movement in his hands and fingers as he played. Out of this came the long trip through St. Louis, Memphis, Louisiana, and South Carolina in the summer of 1962 that led to the film. It was shot under very severe limitations of equipment and film knowledge with a hand held Bolex 16 mm camera, and the sound track was recorded with a portable Ampex machine and a small battery operated Uher. The Blues was finished early in 1963, and was premiered at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in January, 1963"

J.D. Short recorded two sessions in the early '30s for Paramount and Vocalion, then quickly faded into obscurity. Charters recorded Short at his transplanted home base of St. Louis in 1961 while Charters was passing through the area making similar field recordings of Henry Townsend, Barrelhouse Buck Edith North Johnson, Henry Brown, and Daddy Hotcakes. Short's recordings have recently been reissued on CD as part of the Sonet Blues Story. As Charters writes in the notes: "The recording that we did in his house that summer – mostly in the kitchen to get away from the noises in the street – was his last, but we didn't have any idea of it. I was filming him for a sequence in 'The Blues' and trying to get his ideas about the backgrounds and the aesthetics of the blues for 'The Poetry Of The Blues' so we recorded a lot of music – new versions of songs he'd done before – new songs – and his own comments about the styles and the music." Short unexpectedly passed away shortly after this session at the age of 60. Short also did a 1958 session with pal Big Joe Williams which was released on Delmark as Stavin' Chain Blues.

Also in the first set we play a recording by another early field recorder, Frederic Ramsey. Ramsey traveled all over the South photographing black life.Much of his fieldwork is to be found in Music From the South, a 10-volume set of recordings that was released on Folkway. His book "Been Here and Gone," about black culture was published in 1960.In 1958, folklorist Frederic Ramsey, Jr. recorded someone named Cat-Iron in Buckner's Alley in Natchez, Mississippi. Ramsey wrote a detailed poetic description of his discovery of Cat-Iron for The Saturday Review which, alas, offered no background on the artist. A biographic cipher, Cat-Iron's sole testament is Cat-Iron Sings Blues and Hymns, described in the 1958 Folkways catalogue as "old-time Negro songs and guitar style."

We also play a pair of tracks from the CD accompanying William Ferris' new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. Ferris has written and edited 10 books, including the influential Blues from the Delta, and created 15 documentary films, most of which deal with African-American music and other folklore representing the Mississippi Delta. Ferris has produced several albums and made numerous field recordings.

On part one of this feature we played several recordings made by David Evans. It was Evans’ investigation into Tommy 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 began making field recordings in 1965 when he spent about five weeks taping blues artists in Mississippi and Louisiana. The collection Goin’ Up The Country released on Decca in 1968 collects some of the best performances he recorded. The album was reissued in 1976 on Rounder and Rounder also released South Mississippi Blues in 1973, another collection of field recordings from the same period. The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1972) was issued as  the companion LP to Evans’ Tommy Johnson biography. Today's selection, Ranie Burnette's "Shake ‘Em On Down", comes from the album Afro-American Folk Music From Tate And Panola Counties, Mississippi . The collection is a survey of the hill country, just east of the more famous Mississippi Delta, which has been compiled from recordings made by David Evans in 1969 -71, together with three takes from Alan Lomax’s famous 1942 visit there.

The earliest tracks come from 1960 and were made by Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz and come from the albums Conversations With The Blues, a companion to Oliver’s landmark book, and recordings the men made of Alex Moore and the Black Ace which were subsequently issued on Arhoolie Records. Conversation With The Blues is a series of interviews in the artists own words, compiled from interviews with over sixty blues singers. In the Summer of 1960 blues scholar Paul Oliver and his wife made a trip through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to interview and record older blues artists for a series of programs sponsored by the BBC. Among those recorded were Sam Chatmon, K.C. Douglas, Big Joe Williams, Butch Cage & Willie Thomas, Robert Curtis Smith among several others.Oliver was also in Chicago were he organized a recording session resulting the album Blues From Maxwell Street which features tracks by Arvella Gray, James Brewer, Daddy Stovepipe and King Davis.

Born in Hughes Springs, Texas, Babe Kyro Lemon AKA Black Ace was raised on the family farm, and taught himself to play guitar, performing in east Texas from the late 1920s on. During the early 1930s he began playing with Smokey Hogg and Oscar "Buddy" Woods, a Hawaiian-style guitarist who played with the instrument flat on his lap. In 1937 Turner recorded six songs Decca Records in Dallas, including the blues song "Black Ace". In the same year, he started a radio show in Fort Worth, using the cut as a theme song, and soon assumed the name. In 1941 he appeared in The Blood of Jesus, an African-American movie produced by Spencer Williams Jr. In 1943 he was drafted into the United States Army, and gave up playing music for some years. However, in 1960, Arhoolie Records owner Chris Strachwitz and paul Oliver persuaded him to record an album for Arhoolie (reissued on CD as I Am The Boss Card In Your Hand). His last public performance was in a 1962 documentary, The Blues, and he died of cancer in Fort Worth, in 1972.

In 1929, Alex Moore made his debut recordings for Columbia Records and recorded again in 1937 for Decca Records. It was 1951 before Moore recorded again with RPM/Kent. However, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Moore performed in clubs in Dallas and occasionally other parts of Texas. He was recorded by Paul Oliver and Chris Stratwichz in 1960 (reissued as From North Dallas To The East Side), and those subsequent recordings saw him obtain nationwide recognition.

Our final selection, the nearly ten minute "I Got Too Much Time For The Crime I Done", comes from the remarkable album Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown issued on  Takoma in 1965. The recording was made by Bruce Jackson in 1965 at Texas’s Ramsey Prison Farm of a fellow named Johnnie B., or J. B., Smith. As far as I know this is the only LP devoted to a single unaccompanied singer of prison work-song. From the liner notes: "Smitty – J.B. Smith – is eleven years into a forty-five year sentence that begun in 1954; he is 48 years old. This is his fourth time in prison in Texas and he does not expect to be paroled for some time. For him, a song like “No More Good Time in the World for Me”, though it draws heavily on the general inmate song vocabulary, is completely personal; the situation applies to him almost without qualification.” J.B. Smith: “The oldtimers still sing. That is, if whoever is carrying (in charge of) the squad will let them. In some cases the boss won’t let them sing. …The young men don’t get a chance to work with the older men and they haven’t experienced working with older men. A lot of them have never been in the system before. And the crews they work with don’t even know the songs, the worksongs that they work by. But once they get to working with the older men, they learn the songs and they try to carry them on when they can. But like I said, in most cases they can’t because they’re not permitted."

In the second half of the program we air Truckin’ My Blues Away. From the notes: "This music-rich hour-long special introduces listeners to the stories and sounds of four older Southern bluesmen—and to the efforts of Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, to help lift these musicians from poverty and obscurity. The musicians cover a wide swath of the South: Boo Hanks from Virgina, Va.; Captain Luke from Winston-Salem, N.C.; Eddie Tigner from Atlanta; and Little Freddie King from New Orleans. In their own words and performances, these men bring us the story of a music, an era and a culture that are uniquely American.The program is co-produced and co-written by Richard Ziglar and Barry Yeoman, who traveled around the South collecting interviews and field recordings of the musicians. Yeoman, who co-produced our Gracie Award-winning program 'Picking Up the Pieces,' narrates."

Mississippi John HurtGot The Blues (Can't Be Satisfied)Avalon Blues
Skip JamesCrow JaneToday!
Guitar NubbitGeorgia Chain GangBlues Town Story Vol. 1
Babe StovallWorried BluesRuff Stuff - Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
Scott DunbarIt's So Cold Up NorthGive My Poor Heart Ease
The Sparks BrothersDown On The LeveeDown On The Levee
Charlie ''Speck'' PertumWeak-Eyed BluesCharlie ''Specks'' McFadden 1929-1937
Mack Rhinehart & Brownie StubblefieldTPN MoanerDeep South Blues Piano 1935-1937
Montana Taylor & Bertha 'Chippie' HillMistreatin' Mr. DupreeThe Circle Recordings
Memphis SlimI Am The BluesThe Sonet Blues Story
Memphis SlimEl CapitanBad Luck & Trouble
Blind Connie WilliamsPapa's Got Your Bath Water OnI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1
Drink SmallYou Can Call Me CountryI Know My Blues Are Different
Arvella GrayHave Mercy, Mr. Percy Pt. 2Blues From Maxwell Street
Ma RaineyLeaving This MorningMother Of The Blues
Mary JohnsonFriendless Gal BluesMary Johnson 1929-1936
Bessie SmithSlow And Easy ManThe Complete Recordings (Frog)
The Four BlazesWomen, WomenMary Jo
Jimmy WitherspoonYou Gotta Crawl Before You WalkSings the Blues Sessions
Blind Lemon JeffersonOne Dime BluesThe Best Of
Blind Willie McTellMama, 'Taint Long Fo' DayThe Classic Years 1927 - 1940
Peg Leg HowellAway From HomePeg Leg Howell Vol. 2 1928-1930
Rev. Gary DavisI'm Throwin' Up My HandsMeet You At The Station
Sonny TerryCrow JaneThe Folkways Years 1944-1963
Jr. WellsI’m A StrangerMessin' With The Kid
Homesick JamesFayette County BluesAin't Sick No More
L.C. RobinsonStop NowHouse Cleanin' Blues
Charlie PattonMean Black CatPrimeval Blues, Rags, and Gospel Songs
Charlie PattonElder Greene BluesScreamin' & Hollerin' The Blues
Blind Pete & George RyanBanty RoosterBlack Appalachia
Buster BennettI'm A Bum AgainBuster Bennett 1945-1947
Joe "Mr. Google Eyes" AugustRough And Rocky RoadThe Very Best Of
Hattie BurlesonSadie's Servant Room BluesSunshine Special
Hattie HudsonBlack Hand BluesI Can't Be Satisfied Vol. 1

Show Notes:

We cover a wide swath of blues spanning from 1927 through 1976. Along the way we spotlight some fine piano blues, several superb blues ladies, lots of pre-war blues including twin spins of Charlie Patton and two by Memphis Slim. Among the featured piano players are a couple from St. Louis; Aaron "Pinteop" Sparks and Charlie McFadden. According to Henry Townsend McFadden could play a little piano but on his records deferred to others including Roosevelt Sykes, Eddie Miller and Aaron "Pinteop" Sparks. McFadden was a marvelous vocalist who possessed a plaintive, laid back delivery and was a good lyricist to boot. McFadden used the name "Speck" Pertum when he recorded for Brunswick, nicknamed for the glasses he always wore. Based in St. Louis, he toured extensively with Roosevelt Sykes, traveling as far south as Texas. McFadden cut two-dozen sides between 1929 and 1937 for a variety of different labels. According to Townsend he passed sometime in the early 1940's.

The Sparks BrothersThe Sparks brothers were based in St. Louis and cut four sessions, the first for Victor and the other three for Bluebird, between 1932 and 1935. Milton cut two songs for Decca in 1934 under the name Flyin’ Lindberg. Aaron backed a number of St. Louis artists at their second session: Elisabeth Washington, Tecumseh McDowell, Dorotha Trowbridge, James “Stump” Johnson and Charlie McFadden.Townsend remembered the brothers well:   “He [Marion] just kept getting better and better and got to playing for illegal joints y’know. …Pinetop was doing a lot of house-party playing and uh ’cause this was a trend then. We would go from house-party to house-party and make some money to pay the rent. We’d go from place to place like that I mean it’d be announced at this party before it was over that there would be such and such a place to get their rent paid and Pinetop would play for those kind of parties where they had a piano–and I kinda went around him quite a bit.” Now at that time Milton wasn’t singing, Pinetop was the star when it come to singing. And so just out of nowhere Milton decided he was going to sing and he’d start. …Aaron got the name Pinetop because “He was very good at the number that Smith made [Pinetop Smith's "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie"]. Today's selection, “Down On The Levee”, is a typically sensitive mid-tempo number featuring Milton’s fine, mellow delivery and some wonderful right hand flourishes from Aaron.

Mack Rhinehart and Brownie Stubblefield were a piano/guitar team that cut a dozen sides in 1936 and 1937. Rhinehart also recorded solo as Blind Mack in 1935 but only two of his ten  sides were ever released.  According to Blues & Gospel Records some twenty-two sides by the duo remain unissued. Nothing is known about the duo although noted researcher David Evans called Rhinehart "a major artist" with "an outstanding recorded legacy."

Better known is Montana Taylor who was born Arthur Taylor in Butte, Montana, where his father owned a club. The family moved to Chicago and then Indianapolis, where Taylor learned piano around 1919. Later he moved to Cleveland, Ohio. By 1929 he was back in Chicago, where he recorded a few tracks for Vocalion Records, including "Indiana Avenue Stomp" and "Detroit Rocks". He then disappeared for some years but was rediscovered by jazz fan Rudi Blesh, and was recorded both solo and as the accompanist to Bertha "Chippie" Hill who sings on today's track, "Mistreatin' Mr. Dupree." His final recordings were from a 1948 radio broadcast. Taylor died in 1954. Taylor's final recordings are collected on the CD Circle Recordings on the Southland label.

Bertha "Chippie" Hill

We showcase several fine blues ladies including stars Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith plus lesser known singers like Mary Johnson, Hattie Burleson and Hattie Hudson. From 1928 we hear Bessie in top form in "Slow And Easy Man." The Columbia Records 1927 catalog gave prominence to Bessie as "The Empress of the Blues" and listed a full three pages of her recordings. The advertising read: "Wherever the blues are sung, there you will hear the name of Bessie Smith, best loved of all the Race's blues singers. Bessie has the knack for picking the songs you like and the gift of singing them the way you want them sung. Every year this famous 'Empress of the Blues' tours the country appearing before packed houses."  Like Bessie Ma Rainey made her debut in 1923. Born in 1886, she said that she added blues in her act in 1902 and by the 1920's it certainly dominated her repertoire. Our selection, "Leaving This Morning", is one of eight numbers she cut in 1928 backed by the team of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey.

Of the lesser known ladies, Mary Johnson of St. Louis (sometimes billed as “Signifying Mary”) made her debut in 1929. She cut just shy of two-dozen songs, achieved modest success and never recorded again after 1936 despite living until 1970. Johnson was blessed with superb backing musicians throughout her brief career that elevated her recordings above many of her contemporaries. She was accompanied by either Henry Brown, Judson Brown, Roosevelt Sykes, or Peetie Wheetstraw on piano, many selections featuring trombonist Ike Rodgers, guitarists Tampa Red and Kokomo Arnold and violinist Artie Mosby. Hattie Burleson and Hattie Hudson both hail from Dallas. Hudson cut one 78 in Dallas in 1927.Texas blues singer Hattie Burleson recorded four tracks in Dallas, TX, for Brunswick Records in October 1928. Two years later she recorded three sides in Grafton, WI, for Paramount Records. Little else is known about her life, save that she lived in the famed Deep Ellum area of downtown Dallas, where she operated a dancehall for a time. Her "Sadie’s Servant Room Blues" is a rare protest song dealing with domestic service:

Missus Jarvis don't pay me much
They give me just what they think I'm worth
I'm gonna change my mind, yes change my mind
Cause I keep the servant room blues all the time

I receive my company in the rear
Still these folks don't want to see them here
Gonna change my mind, yes change my mind
Cause I keep the servant room blues all the tim

We spin a pair of tracks apiece by Memphis Slim and Charlie Patton. From Slim we play tracks form two excellent 1960's records: Sonet Blues Story cut for Verve in 1967 and  Bad Luck & Trouble cut for Candid in 1961 a session he shared with Jazz Gillum and Arbee Stidham. The former session is a nice date featuring excellent contributions from guitarist Billy Butler and tenor man Eddie Chamblee. Slim is in majestic form on today's number, "I Am The Blues." The latter date finds Slim running through some favorites and offering up some spoken commentary about the songs' originators like Leroy Carr, Big Maceo and Curtis Jones.

We return again to Charlie Patton who we spotlighted at the end of November. I never get tired of listening to Patton and this time we spin a couple of tracks I didn't get to last time: "Elder Greene" and "Hammer Blues." "Elder Greene" was likely a song Patton picked up from his mentor Henry Sloan.  As David Evans noted the song is "related melodically to versions of "Alabama Bound," a song that Patton’s niece identified in Sloan’s repertoire. Of the latter number Evans writes  "'Hammer Blues' there are brief mentions of serving a sentence on a road gang and being shackled in preparation for a train ride to Parchman Penitentiary in northern Sunflower County. It is not known whether these verses refer to an experience of Patton or of one or more of his friends."

We play some more modern blues, relatively speaking, from the 1960's. Among those are cuts by L.C. Robinson (House Cleanin’ Blues) and Homesick James (Ain’t Sick No More) cut for the Bluesway label. ABC-Paramount formed the BluesWay subsidiary in 1966 to record blues music. The label lasted into 1974, with the last new releases coming in February, 1974. The label issued over 70 albums, numerous 45's plus several titles that remain unreleased. The label has been ill served reissue wise with only a handful of releases issued on CD, usually by labels other than the parent company MCA, and in many cases these CD's themselves are out of print. MCA has largely left the catalogue languish. The BluesWay label has a decidedly mixed reputation, cutting many very good records and many downright bad ones. At some point I'll be doing a feature on the Bluesway label.



Show Notes:

Robert Nighthawk, Maxwell Street 1964

Today's show is called Maxwell Street Blues in tribute to Mike Shea's legendary film on Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free, which at long last has been re-released by Shanachie Records. And This Is Free was filmed over the course of sixteen Sundays on Chicago's Maxwell Street in 1964. The Maxwell Street open air market was a seven- to ten-block area in Chicago that from the 1920s to the middle 1960's played host to various blues musicians — both professional and amateur — who performed right on the street for tips from passerbys. Maxwell Street is an east-west street that intersects with Halsted Street just south of Roosevelt Road. Although there were many fine stationary department stores located in it, the area's most notable feature was its open air market, precursor to the flea market scene in Chicago. One could almost buy anything there, legal and illegal. In need of jobs and quick cash, fledgling entrepreneurs came to Maxwell Street – many say it was the largest open-air market in the country – to earn their livelihood. In 1994, the Maxwell Street Market was moved by the City of Chicago to accommodate expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was relocated a few blocks east to Canal Street and renamed the New Maxwell Street Market.

Among those who got their start on Maxwell Street were Little Walter, Earl Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor among many others. Those that appear in the film include Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Jim Brewer and Arvella Gray, all of whom were recorded performing live on the street. All the music recorded during the filming was issued domestically in 2000 on the Rooster label on the 3-CD set And This Is Maxwell Street and we will be hearing several of these cuts on today's program. We will also be playing a number of cuts from the Ora Nelle label which was run by Bernard Abrams from his Maxwell Street Radio and Record shop located at 831 Maxwell Street, tracks by Big John Wrencher, Maxwell Street Jimmy, John Lee Granderson and James Brewer (all long time fixtures on the Street) plus some pre-war sides that reference Maxwell Street. In addition we will be playing excerpts from an interview with Gordon Quinn who was the sound engineer on And This Is Free.

Blind James Brewer and Gospel Group, Maxwell Street, 1964, Photo by Paul Oliver

Ira Berkow, who wrote the book Maxwell Street: Survival In A Bazaar, and contributes to the booklet, described Maxwell Street this way: "It was a carnival, it was a bazaar, it was, as some believed and perhaps with some credibility, a thieves' den; it was also home to snake charmers, a horse that could count with a clop of his hoof, an 'Indian chief' in war bonnet and penny loafers, honest businessmen, the ladies of the night (and morning and afternoon), Gypsies, Jews, Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Latinos, blacks. As well as the birthplace of a number of prominent Americans. And this, more or less, just for starters." Hound Dog Taylor, a veteran of Maxwell Street, had this to say: "You used to get out on Maxwell Street on a Sunday Morning and pick you out a good spot, babe. Dammit, we'd make more money than I ever looked at. Put you out a tub, you know, and put a pasteboard in there, like a newspaper. I'm telling you, Jewtown was Jumpin' like a champ, jumpin' like mad on Sunday morning." Jewtown as the area was also known, was so named because, as Lori Grove writes in her excellent essay Historic Maxwell Street, the "Jewish immigrants were the largest and longest-standing ethnic group in the Maxwell Street neighborhood" who "established the old world marketplace and its reputation as a place where bargains could be found."

Back in 1960 Bjorn Englund and Donad R. Hill documented the blues on Maxwell street by recording some of the street's stalwarts including Arvella Gray, Daddy Stovepipe, king Davis and James Brewer. The recordings were issued in 1962 on the Heritage album Blues From Maxwell Street. The album is long out of print (i don't own this record so if anyone knows where I can get a copy let me know!) but the notes by Paul Oliver are worth quoting as they paint an evocative portrait of an era that has long passed. "At 1330 on South Halsted there is a minor intersection. The corners are crowded with people and temporary halls at anytime, but especially on Sunday, for the narrow road that cuts across Halsted is Maxwell and on Sunday morning the Maxwell Street Market is at its busiest. Maxwell Street is at once a sad an exciting place. The walls are blackened and the paint has peeled off the ill-fitting doors; garbage lies thick in the gutters and the narrow side alleys are littered with the refuse of years. To the West, the street loses its identity in the depressing anonymity of the bleak, poverty-struck roads that cross it; to the East it is an almost impassable market of stalls that suddenly give way to a vast, horizonless plain of mud and rubble and debris where an Expressway will sweep Southwards in the undated future. Amongst the rough-clad women who grope through the piles of discarded clothes and the tough, unsmiling men who pick their way through the wires, cables and electrical parts laid out haphazardly on the trestles – amongst the Blues From Maxwell Streetloiterers, the occasional sightseers and the pickpockets – are the beggars, as many as there are to be found in the shadows of the churches in a Southern Italian town, or along the shrouded streets of an "Arab Quarter." Beggars – but with one striking, exhilarating difference. These are not wheedling seekers after alms with cries of "baksheesh" or "Gawd Bless yer, guv" but proud men, creative artists, singers of the blues who accept the dimes and quarters as tokens of esteem for their paying and singing. If the blues in general has tended to become more sophisticated in recent years Maxwell Street exists as a living storehouse of the folk blues, the blues of the rambling man. And in its few hundred yards is pictured the life story of the blues singer of the streets, from the children who stand wide-eyed to the singers of  their to choice to the young men who are trying their luck and their talent on the critical audience of the market; from the tough music and manner of the street singer of many years to the fading abilities to the old men who have played in the street in all weathers for more years then they can count."

Today's program opens with a pair pf pre-war cuts. Papa Charlie Jackson is known to have busked around Chicago in the early 1920's, playing for tips on Maxwell Street, as well as the city's Westside clubs beginning in 1924. He cut some 70 sides between 1924-1934, most for the Paramount label. His "Mawell Street Blues" shows he was well aquintated with the seedier side of the street:

Because Maxwell Street's so crowded on a Sunday, you can hardly passed through
There's Maxwell Street Market, got Water Street Market too
If you ain't got no money, the women got nothing for you to do
I got the Maxwell Street blues, mama and it just won't pay
Because the Maxwell Street women, going to carry me to my grave
I live six twenty-four Maxwell, mama and I'm taking about you

Little is known about his background. Blind Percy was likely Joe Taggart who recorded mainly gospel but sound more worldly as he too sings about those Maxwell Street women on "Fourteenth Street Blues:"

Fourteenth Street women, don't mean a man no good
Go out and get full of liquor, wake up the whole neighborhood

Today's show features several tracks from the Ora Nelle label which was founded in 1947 by Bernard Abrams who operated Maxwell Street Radio and Record shop located at 831 Maxwell Street. Two 78's were released; "I Just Keep Loving Her" (Ora Nelle 711) and "Money Taking Woman" (Ora Nelle 712). The label's name supposedly came from Walter's girlfriend. These were Walter's first recordings. Additional recordings were made by Jimmy Rogers (also his first), Boll Weavil, Sleepy John Estes, Johnnie Temple which were not released at the time. All of the Ora Nelle recordings can be found on the CD Chicago Boogie 1947 on the P-Vine label, a reissue of an album originally issued on George Paulus' Barrelhouse label in the 1970's. Boll Weevil (Willie McNeal) cut a pair of acetates for the label circa 1947-48, including "Christmas Time Blues" b/w "Thinkin' Blues", and recorded once more in 1956 for another mom and pop label called Club 51.

Maxwell Street Alley BluesOne-Armed harmonica player Big John Wrencher was a recognizable fixture of Maxwell Street. Wrencher was a traveling musician, playing throughout Tennessee and neighboring Arkansas from the late 1940's to the early 1950's. In 1958 Wrencher lost his left arm in a car crash in Memphis. By the early 1960's he had moved North to Chicago and quickly became a regular fixture on Maxwell Street, always working on Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to nearly 3:00 in the afternoon. His first recordings surfaced on a pair of Testament albums from the 1960's, featuring Big John in a sideman role behind Robert Nighthawk. He cut the excellent Maxwell Street Alley Blues (recorded in 1969 and issued in 1978) for the Barrelhouse label (reissued on CD on the P-Vine label) and cut Big John's Boogie for the British Big Bear label in 1975. He also cut a 45 and we play "Memphis To Maxwell Street" from that record. Big John Wrencher passed in 1977.

Nighthawk's performances form the centerpiece of the recordings made on An This Is Maxwell Street. Nighthawk is present on 22 of the 30 selections. Nighthawk really stretches out on some of his old classics including the stunning medley of his two biggest hits "Anna Lee/Sweet Black Angel" as well as a storming reprise of his "Take it Easy Baby" which he first cut in 1937 for Bluebird. Nighthawk shows off his wide repertoire playing Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush", Dr. Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues" and Percy Mayfield's "I Need Love So Bad." In an interview done by Mike Bloomfield, Nighthawk, reflected on what brought him back to Maxwell Street: "Lately I went back to Maxwell St.- I been playing off and on for 24 years now. Most all music more or less starts right off from Maxwell St. and so you wind up going back there. …See it's more hard to play out in the street than it is in a place of business, but you have more fun in the street, looks like. Well, so many things you can see, so many different things going on, I get a kick out of it, I guess."

Arvella Gray

We also play tracks by Maxwell Street stalwarts Arvella Gray, James Brewer, John Lee Granderson and Maxwell Street Jimmy. Arvella Gray made his first recordings in 1960 (released on the Decca and Heritage labels) and in early 1964 he made sides for his own Gray label, selling the 45's on the street. He was also recorded by a team from Swedish Radio the same year. He was regular performer on Maxwell Street on Sundays. Gray's only album, 1972's The Singing Drifter was reissued on the Conjuroo label in 2005. James Brewer aka Blind James Brewer ("My mother didn't name me ‘Blind', she named me ‘Jim'") was born in Brookhaven, Mississippi, moved to Chicago in the 1940s spending the latter part of his life busking and performing both blues and religious songs at blues and folk festivals, on Chicago's Maxwell Street and other venues. He too was recorded by Swedish Radio, cut sides for the Heritage label, Testament plus cut the full-length albums Jim Brewer for Philo and Tough Luck for Earwig. In addition to the full length Hard Luck John (issued posthumously in 1998), Tennessee bluesman John Lee Granderson cut sides on other Testament compilations with further sides appearing on various anthologies. Among those Granderson played with were Robert Nighthawk, Big Joe Williams and Daddy Stovepipe. Charles Thomas aka Maxwell Street Jimmy, wrote Pete Welding was "one of the finest and most expressive of blues performers who regularly work the street…In his dark, urgent, powerful singing and rhythmically incisive guitar playing are strong, pungent echoes of his youth in the Mississippi delta, that spawning ground of so many great bluesmen." Jimmy recorded little, his best being his lone album, his long out of print self-titled release for Elektra in 1965. Welding's liner notes to the album paint a vivid portrait of Maxwell Street in the 1960's:"Every Sunday morning from late spring to early autumn–whenever, in fact, the weather is warm and clement–the pungent, earthy sound of the traditional blues rings loudly through the streets of Chicago. In the city's bustling open-air Maxwell Street flea market area, where one can haggle for anything form high-button shoes to a winnowing machine, the cries of the hawkers and vendors mingle sharply with the acrid, pain-filled shouts of the blues singer and the fervent moans of the sidewalk evangelist. Through most of contemporary America, street singing is a fast disappearing folk art. Municipal legislation and the compulsory licensing of peddlers have seen to that in most large US cities, and the days of the itinerant sidewalk minstel seem sadly though inevitably numbered. Except, that is, in Chicago. If anything, the art appears to be thriving here. It's tied directly, or course, to the continued flourishing of the Maxwell Street market as a vigorous facet of Chicago culture that has refused to give up the ghost in the face of urban renewal, increasing cultural homogeneity and other aspects of modern 'progress'."

Carrie Robinson, Maxwell Street 1964