|B.B. King||Gamblers' Blues||Blues Is King|
|B.B. King||I'm Gonna Do What They Do to Me||Blues On Top of Blues|
|Charles Brown||I Want To Go Home||Legend!|
|Jimmy Witherspoon||No Rolling Blues||The Blues Singer|
|Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry||When I Was Drinkin'||I Couldn't Believe My Eyes|
|John Lee Hooker||Back Biters and Syndicators||Urban Blues|
|John Lee Hooker||I'm Bad Like Jesse James||Live At Cafe Au Go-Go|
|Otis Spann||Nobody Knows Chicago Like I Do||Down To Earth|
|George Harmonica Smith||Help Me||...Of The Blues|
|Johnny Young||I Gotta Find My Baby||I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping|
|Roy Brown||Woman Trouble Blues||The Blues Are All Brown|
|Big Joe Turner||Cherry Red||Singing The Blues|
|T-Bone Walker||I'm Gonna Stop This Nite Life||Stormy Monday Blues|
|Jimmy Rushing||Bad Loser||Livin the Blues|
|Mel Brown||Seven Forty-Seven||Eighteen Pounds of Unclean Chitlins|
|Rev. Gatemouth Brown||I Come To The Garden And I'm Going Through||After Twenty-One Years|
|Big Joe Williams||Franklin Street Blues||Don't Your Plums Look Mellow Hanging On Your Tree|
|Homesick James||Fayette County Blues||Ain't Sick No More|
|L.C. Robinson||House Cleanin' Blues||House Cleanin' Blues|
|Earl Hooker||End of the Blues||Do You Remember The Great Earl Hooker|
|Andrew ''Big Voice'' Odom||Take Me Back To East St Louis||Farther On Down The Road|
|Jimmy Reed||I'm Just Trying To Cop a Plea||The New Jimmy Redd|
|Jimmy Reed||I've Got To Keep on Rollin'||Big Boss Man|
|Sunnyland Slim||Mr. Cool||Play The Ragtime Blues|
|Lucille Spann||Cry Before I Go||Cry Before I Go|
|Cousin Joe||Evolution||Cousin Joe Of New Orleans|
|Roosevelt Sykes||Dirty Double Mother||Dirty Double Mother|
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. To give the new label legitimacy B.B. King, who was recording for ABC at the time, saw his releases put out on BluesWay (his Blues Is King was the label's first release). BluesWay seemingly signed every major bluesman available, including Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Otis Spann, Joe Turner, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, Roy Brown, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry among others. In addition to these seasoned performers the label issued records by deserving lesser knows, issuing the first LP's by Lee Jackson, Lucille Spann, Andrew Odom and L.C. Robinson. Legendary jazz producer Bob Thiele (he was the main producer at ABC/Impulse between 1961-69) was instrumental in getting the BluesWay label started but entrusted day to day operations and producing to others. Early sessions were produced by Bill Syzmzyck, Ed Michel, Bob Thiele, with later sessions handled by Al Smith. Al Smith was Jimmy Reed's manager and bandleader, and after Vee-Jay folded in 1966, a producer of soul sessions for ABC and blues sessions for ABC BluesWay. Smith inked a 25-LP production deal with BluesWay in 1973. Twenty of these albums subsequently appeared. After the label folded all interests were bought by MCA who are now owned by Universal.
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The label has been spottily reissued 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 catalog to languish. The BluesWay label has a decidedly mixed reputation, cutting many very good records and many downright bad ones. Producer Al Smith has been the target of much of the animosity against the label summed up by writer Pete Lowry in a 1974 Living Blues review: "Finally I get a chance to take a swipe at Al Smith. Unfortunately, he is no longer able to enjoy it, but I'll go on anyway. 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." No doubt Lowry is accurate in his assessment but to be fair, as he notes, the label issued quite a number of very good records that deserve a better fate than to languish in limbo. In this article we selectively trawl through the BluesWay catalog spotlighting some of the releases featured on today's program. Hopefully MCA will see fit to to create a proper BluesWay reissue series but until then vinyl may be your only option (where known I'll try and list records which have appeared on CD – reissues have appeared on Charly in the late 80's as well as Off-Beat and One Way in the 90's although these now appear to be out of print. The BGO label has reissued several BluesWay records all of which appear to be in print).
The BluesWay label issued seven albums by B.B. King between 1966 and 1970. Hands down the best of the bunch was the first one, 1966's Blues Is King which ranks as one of King's best live recordings, perhaps just a notch behind the seminal Live At The Regal cut two years previously. Recorded at a Chicago club, B.B. turns in sizzling performances of "Tired Of Your Jive", "Don't Answer The Door" and a spectacular "Night Life." The rest of B.B.'s output during this period is very solid including 1967's Blues On Top of Blues with brassy arrangements of songs like "Paying the Cost to Be the Boss and "Worried Dream" while 1968's Lucille is sparser, most notable for the ten minutes of "Lucille." 1969's Completely Well was B.B.'s breakthrough album featuring "The Thrill Is Gone" while Live & Well is divided evenly between live and studio material and contains "Why I Sing The Blues" and was his first LP to enter the Top 100. His Best – The Electric B.B. King is not a "best of" but a collection of previously issued items as singles and studio leftovers and features strong material like "Don't Answer The Door" a #2 R&B hit, "Paying The Cost To Be The Boss" and "All Over Again." 1970's Back Alley was a "best of" collection. All of B.B.'s output from this period has been reissued on MCA with some titles on BGO.
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In addition to B.B. King, BluesWay brought heavyweights Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker into the fold. With his contract for Vee-Jay over, Al Smith brought Reed over to BluesWay where he cut five albums for the label between 1966-1968; The New Jimmy Reed Album, Soulin', Big Boss Man, Down In Virginia and I Ain't From Chicago. These are mostly solid outings, finding him mostly singing his classic material and were guitar heavy featuring, in addition to Reed, Eddie Taylor, Lefty Bates and Wayne Bennett. A selection of BluesWay material appears on the CD Jimmy Reed Is Back issued on Collectables. Walker cut three records for the label: Stormy Monday in 1967, Funky Town in 1968 and Dirty Mistreater in 1973. These aren't essential T-Bone records, although quite credible, with Walker playing well featuring a sympathetic band, particularly pianist Lloyd Glenn with the two sounding particularly good together on "Going To Funky Town." Walker revisits a number of his early classics like "Cold Hearted Woman", "Stormy Monday" and "I'm In An Awful Mood", updating these numbers with some 60's styled funk that generally comes across well. The latter two records have been reissued on BGO.
Between recordings under his own name and session work, Earl Hooker was prolifically recorded by BluesWay in 1969 less than a year before he passed away. Hooker was on the West Coast recording for Blue Thumb when he began working club dates with his cousin John Lee Hooker. Hooker was working with BluesWay at the time which is how Earl Hooker's BluesWay association began. The first date was a session with John Lee Hooker which went so well that producer Ed Michel offered to make an album with Earl on the spot. Both the John Lee Hooker album If You Miss 'Im…I Got 'Im and Earl Hooker's Don't Have To Worry were recorded on May 29, 1969 with the same personnel, adding Andrew Odom to Earl's date since he was insecure about his vocals. Considering the quick, no nonsense nature of the recording the results came off exceptionally well. It's inexplicable why Don't Have To Worry hasn't been issued on CD in it's entirety (5 songs appeared on the anthology Simply The Best with one additional song on Blues Masters, Vol. 15: Slide Guitar Classics). Despite his vocal insecurities Hooker sounds confident on "You Got To Lose" and "Don't Have To Worry" (originally called "Do Right Baby" as recorded by Billy Gayles in 1956). Odom's robust, booming vocals are particularly good on "The Sky Is Crying" and "Come To Me Right Away, Baby" while Big Moose Walker takes the vocals on the remarkable "Is You Ever See A One-Eyed Woman Cry?" Hooker stretches out on the instrumentals "Hookin'" and adaptation of "Honky Tonk" and sounds even more inspired in an update of "Universal Rock" a song he first cut in 1960. If You Miss 'Im…I Got 'Im is a very strong outing with Earl and his crew giving a unique twist to Hooker's sound. Hooker's wah-wah is heard to good effect on on moody numbers like "Lonesome Mood", "I Wanna Be Your Puppy, Baby" and lays down some nice slide flourishes on the title track. This has been reissued on CD on the BGO label. BGO has also reissued the other John Lee Hooker BluesWay albums: Urban Blues, Simply The Truth and Live At Cafe Au-Go-Go. The other Earl Hooker album released was 1973's posthumous Do You Remember The Great Earl Hooker which were sides originally cut and released for the Cuca label in the early 60's. This has been reissued on CD by Catfish as There's a Fungus Amung Us but which is likely out of print itself.
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Ed Michel was so impressed with results that additional sessions were set the following week for Big Moose Walker and Andrew Odom. For the Odom date Michel backed him with jazz veterans Panama Francis on drums and Jimmy Bond on stand-up bass. Hooker for his part was asked to play it straight, without slide or wah-wah. Odom is in fine form and the chemistry between Hooker is faultless with Hooker getting plenty of room to cut loose. The album was released as Farther On Down The Road. Among the highlights are the moody "Stormy Monday", the bouncing "Don't Ever Leave Me All Alone" and a crackling version of "Farther Up The Road" (2 songs appear on Simply The Best). The record wasn't treated well by the critics as Mike Leadbitter clearly expressed in a 1973 edition of Blues Unlimited: "What a bitter disappointment! Muffled sound, endless boring songs and total lack of variation. What have BluesWay done to my heroes?" The album was finally released in 1973 and virtually sank without a trace. Despite Leadbitter's assessment this is a worthwhile release and well worth resurrecting on CD. On the other hand Leadbitter gave a rave write up to Johnny "Big Moose" Walker's Rambling Woman (recorded five days after the Odom session) in the January 1971 issue of Blues Unlimited: "He plays piano with the sort of boogie-woogie drive you just don't hear anymore, and has a nice husky voice-this is an exceptionally good blues album." Walker delivers fine originals including the witty "Footrace" (originally cut in 1961 as "Footrace To a Resting Place" and in 1967), the organ driven "Rambling Woman" (originally cut in 1967), "Baby Talk" with everybody stretching out on instrumentals "Moose Huntin'" and "Moose Is On The Loose." The session is slightly marred by Otis Hale's electric tenor sax. Hale was a guy Walker picked up in the park after hearing him play and disappeared after this session to (thankfully) never record again.
In the summer of 1969 Ed Michel signed up Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon and the duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Brown and Witherspoon usually worked with pick-up units and Hooker was selected to worked with them as well as backing Sonny & Brownie following Michel's idea of putting their sound in an urban blues context. Jimmy Witherspoon was recorded first with the album released shortly after Hooker's death under the title Hunh!. The record is decidedly mixed, basically a long jam session, featuring Mel Brown, Jimmy Bond and Charles Brown. This is a laid back affair with some solid jams including "Bags Under My Eyes", "You Can't Do A Thing When You're Drunk" and the 12 minute plus of "Pillar To Post." Witherspoon had also recorded an earlier album for BluesWay in 1969 titled Blues Singer. Tracks from these albums together with several unreleased recordings from the same sessions were released as Never Knew This Kind of Hurt Before – The BluesWay Sessions on the UK-based Charly label in 1989. Hooker, Brown and Bond were brought back the next day, with the addition of drummer Ed Thigpen, tenor Red Holloway and singer Dottie Ivory for Charles Brown's session which was titled Legend! when released. Again a jam session atmosphere prevailed but this time the results were much better, in fact the album is a remarkable one, and ranks as one of the finest BluesWay dates. Brown reworks his old classics in a more modern context resulting in terrific new versions of "New Merry Christmas Baby", "Drifting Blues" and the stunning "I Want To Go Home" all featuring some beautiful and thoughtful playing from Hooker and superb tenor from Holloway. This record has been issued on CD on the Off-Beat imprint. As for Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, their playing and singing are as good as ever but the record never really gels. Michel was obviously not pleased with the results, with the record issued only four years later as I Couldn't Believe My Eyes. The record was chiefly notable for being Hooker's last studio appearance. This has been reissued on CD by the BGO label.
One of the things BluesWay should be applauded for is giving lesser known deserving bluesmen an opportunity to record. It was on BluesWay that artists such as L.C. Robinson, Lee Jackson, Lucille Spann, Cousin Joe and the aforementioned Big Moose Walker and Andrew Odom recorded their first full length records. On the short list of truly great BluesWay recordings one would have to place L.C. Robinson's House Cleanin' Blues. Robinson was an immensely talented steel guitar player, strong vocalist and fiddle player who had only one single from 1954 and a handful of tracks on a 1968 World Pacific LP to his credit. House Cleanin' Blues is a flawless set featuring Robinson's distinctive steel guitar on the blazing title track plus a batch of equally potent originals like "Separation Blues", "My Baby Crossed The Bay" and some outstanding fiddle on the brooding "Summerville Blues." Sadly Robinson recorded only once more for Arhoolie. Lee Jackson was a distinctive Chicago guitarist who had waxed a handful of singles in the 50's and 60's for Cobra, C.J. and Bea and Baby as well as appearing on records by Willie Dixon, Little Walter, St. Louis Jimmy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim and others. His Lonely Girl is a very solid Chicago blues outing – although it could probably have been better with more rehearsal – featuring his slightly reverberated, jazzy guitar on fine cuts like the title track, "Juanita" (first cut by him in 1961) and "When I First Came To Chicago." The band is solid with Carey Bell being a real standout. Lucille Spann had made a handful of recordings with husband Otis and after his death in 1970 and cut a fine tribute to him immortalized on the out of print Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1972. Her lone album, 1972's Cry Before I Go, was quite good, spotlighting her strong, raspy, gospel vocals (she sang in church in Mississippi and Chicago) backed by a terrific Chicago ensemble of Detroit Junior, Mighty Joe Young, Eddie Taylor and Willie Smith. Highlights include the title cut, the hard luck "Meat Ration Blues" and the superb "Country Girl" which evolves into an impassioned tribute to her late husband. New Orleans singer/pianist Pleasant Joseph was introduced to Al Smith through Roosevelt Sykes who was acting as a talent scout for the label. Between 1945 and the early 50's he cut a slew of of swinging sides with top drawer session men that highlighted his witty wordplay and made him a big draw on the New York scene. If you want to know where Dr. John found his inspiration look no further than Cousin Joe. Joe hadn't record in nearly a decade when he made the exceptionally good Cousin Joe Of New Orleans, backed by a sympathetic combo that finds Joe in energetic and humorous form as he updates his classic numbers like "Beggin' Woman", "Chicken A-La-Blues" and "Evolution Blues."
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In addition to Cousin Joe, BluesWay recorded a number of piano players including the above mentioned Roosevelt Sykes plus two dates by Otis Spann and one session by Sunnyland Slim. Sykes was one of the great blues piano men who made his debut back in 1929 and recorded prolifically for numerous labels up until his death in 1983. On the surface his lone BluesWay date, Dirty Double Mother, would be just another brief pause in a long career and one would expect a typically professional outing if nothing else. Sykes, however, was clearly inspired turning in an exuberant performance backed by the same band as Cousin Joe plus the great sax of Clarence Ford. Ford was a veteran who's worked graced countless records by artists like Amos Milburn, Fats Domino, Snooks Eaglin, Ear King, Little Richard, Guitar Slim and many others. Ford is terrific here as is Sykes who's witty way with a lyric is heard to fine effect on "May Be A Scandal", "Double Breasted Woman" as well as stomping boogies like "Jookin' In New Orleans" and "Dooky Chase Boogie." From New Orleans BluesWay went to Chicago where they recorded two albums by Otis Spann, The Blues Is Where It's At and The Bottom of the Blues, in 1966 and 1967. The first was recorded before a small studio audience, the second featuring the debut of Spann's wife Lucille with both sessions backed by Muddy Waters and his band. Spann is in commanding form on tracks like "My Home Is In The Delta", "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do", "Heart Loaded With Trouble" and "Doctor Blues." Both records have been reissued on the MCA CD Down To Earth: The BluesWay Recordings, which seems to be out of print, and as individual CD's on BGO. The other Chicago piano player recorded was Sunnyland Slim who's oddly titled Plays The Ragtime Blues was released in 1972. Despite the title this is an exceptionally strong, well recorded set of Chicago blues finding Sunnyland backed superbly by Carey Bell and The Aces (Louis Myers, Dave Myers and Fred Below). "Get Hip To Yourself" is a terrific tough times tale with sizzling guitar from Myers with other highlights including "Mr. Cool" and the jazzy "Canadian Walk."
Alongside Otis Spann and Sunnyland Slim, Al Smith produced sessions by other Chicago artists including Carey Bell, Homesick James, Snooky Pryor, Johnny Littlejohn and Johnny Young. These sessions are definitely a mixed bag. Carey Bell's Last Night is his second album having cut a record for Delmark in 1969. The BluesWay LP is a superior outing finding Bell turning in a very strong Chicago blues record filled with plenty of inspired harp work on tracks like "Last Night", "Tomorrow Night" and instrumental showcases like "Rosa, I Love Your Soul" and "Freda." Bell receives excellent support from Pinetop Perkins, Dave Myers, Eddie Taylor and Willie Smith. This has been reissued on CD on the One Way label. With the addition of Snooky Pryor the same band backs Homesick James on his Ain't Sick No More. This is a very solid, relaxed outing with James in fine form on songs like "Buddy Brown", "Fayette County Blues" and " Money Getter." Snooky Pryor hadn't recorded in over a decade, having become disgusted with the record business, when he cut the lukewarm Do It If You Want To. It was Homesick James who directed Al Smith to his pal Snooky Pryor. Like the Cousin Joe and Roosevelt Sykes, this record was cut in New Orleans featuring some of the same band members. Pryor's brand of Chicago blues doesn't find sympathetic backing from the band and only a few songs like "The One I Crave To See" and "Do It If You Want To" rise to the occasion. Johnny Littlejohn was a fine slide player and singer who unfortunately was ill served on record so perhaps we can't totally blame Al Smith for the tepid Funky From Chicago. While Littlejohn turned in a sterling performance on his 1968 debut Arhoolie record, this one lacks the former's excitement. Littlejohn sounds muted on this recording with few tracks that stand out despite backing from a band that included Eddie Taylor, Dave Myers and Fred Below. Sadly Littlejohn's subsequent records weren't much better. Johnny Young's I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping was Young's final recording, passing not long after this superb date. Young is in top form playing mandolin on all cuts backed by a tough band featuring stellar guitar work from Louis Myers and the debut by harp man Jerry Portnoy who is uncredited. Young energetically romps through first rate numbers like "Deal The Cards", "I Know She's Kinda Slick", and "No. 12 Is At The Station" among others. This is one of Young's best dates outside of his fine late 60's Arhoolie session.
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The BluesWay label cast a wide net pulling in several classic blues shouters and those in a similar vein, cutting albums by veterans such as Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, Roy Brown and Big Joe Turner. It may have been relatively late in Jimmy Rushing's career when he recorded two albums for BluesWay, Every Day I Have the Blues and Livin' the Blues, but he was still in prime singing voice. Joined by a terrific cast of old pals like trombonist Dickie Wells, trumpeter Clark Terry, and tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate, Rushing puts across his distinctive brand of jazzy blues on tunes like "Berkeley Campus Blues," "Blues in the Dark," "I Left My Baby," "Sent for You Yesterday," "We Remember Prez" and "Evil Blues", the latter benefiting from Shirley Scott's organ and the guitar of Kenny Burrell. The end results are two fine swinging sets of vintage Jimmy Rushing. Both albums have been reissued on the Polygram CD Every Day I Have The Blues. Like Rushing, Vinson was well into a long illustrious career when he cut 1967's Cherry Red, his first recording after a five year hiatus from the studio. Backed by the fine small combo of Buddy Lucas on tenor/harmonica, Patti Brown on organ and Mike Bloomfield on guitar, Vinson turns in a marvelous session revisiting past glories like "Cherry Red", "Alimony Blues", "Somebody's Got To Go" as well as newer gems like 'Cadillac Blues" and "Flat Broke Blues." Bloomfield's playing is a real stand out. This album has been reissued on the One Way label. Big Joe Turner's 1967 album Singing The Blues finds the veteran shouter in fine form featuring ace tenor man Buddy Lucas and terrific blowing from George "Harmonica" Smith. The former album has been reissued on CD on the Mobile Fidelity label. The sixties were slow for Roy Brown. There were a few sessions for fly-by-night labels like DRA and Connie and Mobile. Chess cut four sides on him in 1963, but never released them. He became a door-to-door salesman, easing himself into the homes of older blacks with autographed pictures of the former star that was him. "I sold a lot of encyclopedias that way, he recalled. Brown cut 1968's The Blues Are All Brown (reissued in 1973 as Hard Times: The Classic Blues Of Roy Brown) which features the fine title track but the remainder is a bit lackluster.
BluesWay lists several albums that went unissued. Rocky & Val: I Stopped & Looked at the World , John Lee Hooker: Untitled Album, Jimmy Reed: Untitled Album, Little Andrews 'Blues Boy' Odom: Take Me Back to St.Louis and Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry: Untitled Album.
In closing, the BluesWay label has an uneven track record due primarily it seems to the quickie recording sessions and lack of rehearsals among musicians who in many cases hadn't play together much. Producers such as Bill Syzmzyck, Ed Michel, Bob Thiele did an admirable job considering these conditions but certainly Al Smith deserves much of the criticism leveled at him. Still there were many good records that deserve a better fate than languishing in the out of print bin. Even those that have been reissued on CD on One Way and Off-Beat in the early 90's all appear to be out of print. The BGO BluesWay reissues do appear to all be in print. Many of the LP's can be found easily on ebay although there are a few elusive ones. Hopefully MCA will see fit to due a proper reissue program of the BluesWay catalog as they did of the better known Chess catalog. At the very least they should reissue some of the better albums in there entirety like the Charles Brown, Earl Hooker, Johnny Young, L.C. Robinson and Sunnyland Slim to name a few. A very credible BluesWay box set could also be assembled, a 3 or 4 CD set say, cherry picking the best of the label. Major labels are usually indifferent about their blues holdings so I won't hold my breath but certainly the BluesWay catalog deserves a better fate.