I recently wrote an article on the reissue of Mike Shea’s legendary film on Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free. Barry Mazor wrote an excellent piece on the release for the online version of the Wall Street Journal.

The Spiders
The Spiders

I got word recently that fine the R&B singer Chuck Carbo passed away on July 11th after a lengthy battle with cancer. I first became acquainted with Carbo with the two excellent comeback records he cut for Rounder: Drawers Trouble (1993) and The Barber's Blues (1996). I recall these records getting quite a bit of play on my radio program at the time. I soon tracked down his early recordings with the Spiders, a fabulous New Orleans vocal group who had a string of R&B hits in the 1950's, led by Carbo and his brother Chick. Just about all these sides can be found on Bear Family's 2-CD The Imperial Sessions. After the Spiders Carbo cut a number of 45's, only a few that I'm familiar with, and returned to music after a long absence. Carbo's passing has been well covered and below are links to some of the obituaries.

offBeat Obituary

The Times Picayune Obituary

WWOZ Obituary

I Didn't Want To Do It [Spiders] (MP3)

Love's All I'm Puttin' Down [Spiders] (MP3)

I'm Slipping In [Spiders] (MP3)

21 (3×7=21) [Spiders] (MP3)

Stompin' Everywhere [Chuck Carbo And The Clowns] (MP3)

I Shouldn't But I Do [Chuck Carbo] (MP3)


Roosevelt holts: Presenting The Country Blues

Roosevelt Holts was a country bluesman of considerable skill who in a small way was caught up in the blues boom of the 1960's, finally getting the opportunity to record scattered sides and a couple of LP's in the 1960's and 1970's. Holts, who was born in 1905, likely would have achieved greater recognition if he had gotten the chance to make records in the 1920's and 1930's as David Evans emphasizes in his liner notes: "If he had been able to get to a record studio in the 1930's, his records would now be highly prized collector's items, reissued on albums and talked about by blues fans everywhere. He might have even been "rediscovered" and brought north to the cities for concerts and coffee house engagements before an audience of young whites who were not even born when he recorded his famous numbers." None of this happened of course and Holts toiled in relative obscurity while those who did make records in the early days were rediscovered and achieved adulation among those "young whites." These were men like Son House, Bukka White, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt to name the bigger stars. There were several artists from the same era who, like Holts, never got that early break but were swept up in the blues revival net and went on to achieve a measure of success such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Pete Williams.

Why Holts never achieved equitable recognition is unclear but we owe a debt to his patron, folklorist David Evans, who is responsible for just about all of Holts' recordings. It was Evans' investigation into Tommy Johnson in the late 1960’s that brought Holts to light. Evans uncovered and recorded a slew of still active musicians who learned directly from Johnson including Boogie Bill Webb, Arzo Youngblood, Isaac Youngblood, Bubba Brown, Babe Stovall, Houston Stackhouse, Tommy’s brother Mager Johnson and Roosevelt Holts.  K.C. Douglas, Shirley Griffith and Jim Brewer were others who learned directly from Johnson but were recorded by others. As Evans recalled in an interview to Rob Hutten "I followed a trail of musicians connected with Tommy Johnson. Babe had known Tommy slightly and Roosevelt knew him a lot better, and that led to two of Tommy's brothers and any number of other singers that had been associated with Tommy Johnson."

Holts was born in 1905 near Tylertown, Mississippi, and he took up the guitar when he was in his mid-twenties. He started to get serious about music in the late 1930's when he encountered Tommy Johnson. Johnson had married Holts' cousin Rosa Youngblood and moved to Tylertown with her. Around 1937 both men moved to Jackson playing all around town and surrounding towns. During this period he also played with Ishmon Bracey, Johnnie Temple, Bubba Brown, and One Legged Sam Norwood. Holts eventually settled in Bogalusa, Louisiana where Evans recorded him.

Evans began recording Holts in 1965 resulting in two LP's (both out of print): Presenting The Country Blues (Blue Horizon,1966) and Roosevelt Holts and Friends (Arhoolie, 1969-1970) plus the collection The Franklinton Muscatel Society featuring his earliest sides through 1969 which is` available on CD.  In addition selections recorded by Evans appeared on the following anthologies (all out of print): Goin' Up The Country (Decca, 1968), The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (Matchbox, 1972), South Mississippi Blues (Rounder, 1974 ?), Way Back Yonder …Original Country Blues Volume 3 (Albatros, 1979 ?), Giants Of Country Blues Vol. 3 (Wolf, 199?) and a very scarce 45 ("Down The Big Road" b/w "Blues On Mind") cut for the Bluesman label in 1969.

Roosevelt Holts I've heard most of these recordings and I think Presenting The Country Blues is among his best although I know a couple of folks who prefer Roosevelt Holts and Friends which features him on electric guitar. Holts is a fine singer, possessing a strong burnished voice and a rhythmic, delicate guitar style as Evans describes: "Roosevelt's guitar style is one of the most subtle to be found on records, with its delicate touch and rhythmic shifts. He often extends his guitar lines beyond the expected standard patterns to produce greater variety." Lyrically Holts draws on songs he learned as a younger man as well as the vast storehouse of floating blues verses. Among the covers are Leroy Carr's 1928 classic "Prison Bound Blues" and Memphis Minnie's 1930 number "She Put Me Outdoors" although Holts takes it at a much slower tempo. "Prison Bound Blues" was likely picked up from Tommy Johnson who was known to play the number. As for the latter number he may have picked it up through Minnie's husband Joe McCoy who was active on the Jackson scene before he moved to Memphis. Johnnie Temple was also part of the rich Jackson scene and Holts covers his celebrated "Lead Pencil Blues" which Temple cut at his first session in 1935. Of this song Evans writes "this style of guitar playing with its subtle rhythm shifts between duple and triple patterns, is a splendid example  of the type of music then current in Jackson." Holts picked up a number of songs from Tommy Johnson and on this album turns in superb readings of "Big Road Blues" and "Maggie Campbell Blues." Holts also recorded Johnson's "Big Fat Mamma Blues" on a compilation. A couple of Holts' friend appear on this record including Babe Stovall from Tylertown who was the one who introduced Evans to Holts. His second guitar on "Feelin' Sad And Blue" adds some extra rhythmic push to the song with the two complementing each other superbly. Harmonica blower L.H. Lane plays on "The Good Book Teach You" as Holts lays down some fine bottleneck. Apparently the two had known each other for some time and he just popped into the studio for this one song before leaving minutes later. Holts is a good bottleneck player as he also demonstrates on the moving gospel number "I'm Going To Build Right On That Shore" and "Another Mule Kickin' In My Stall."

Unfortunately, outside of one collection, all of Roosevelt Holts' recordings are out of print which I suppose is fitting for an artist that was largely neglected during his lifetime. Hopefully the Blue Horizon label, who are in the midst of an extensive reissue of their catalog, will see fit to re-release Presenting The Country Blues.

Maggie Campbell Blues (MP3)

Feelin' Sad And Blue (MP3)

I'm Going To Build Right On That Shore (MP3)

Another Mule Kickin' In My Stall (MP3)

The Good Book Teach You (MP3)

Big Road Blues (MP3)

Blind Lemon Jefferson - Rambler Blues

Rambler Blues (MP3)

As we continue to reprint the blues ads that appeared in the Chicago Defender we turn to Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the biggest male blues artists of the 1920's. He was also the most heavily advertised blues artist, just behind Lonnie Johnson and Bessie Smith, with forty-four ads appearing in the Chicago Defender between 1926 and 1930. Today we spotlight "Rambler Blues" recorded September 1927 and "Hot Dogs" from June 1927.

In 1925 Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount recording scout and taken to Chicago to make his first records either in December 1925 or January 1926. Though he was not the first country blues singer/guitarist, or the first to make commercial recordings, Jefferson was the first to attain a national audience. His extremely successful recording career continued until 1929 when he died under mysterious circumstances. He recorded 110 sides including alternate takes. Jefferson's first session produced "I Want To Be Like Jesus In My Heart" b/w "All I Want Is That Pure Religion" using the name Deacon L.J. Bates. It was the second session, however, that made Jefferson a star. "Got The Blues" b/w "Long Lonesome Blues" hadn't been on sale long in the spring of 1926 when Paramount asked him to record it again because of the huge demand for the record. This was unheard of for a male blues artist. Prior to Jefferson the blues had been recorded primarily by women backed by piano or bands. This was reflected in the ads in the Chicago Defender which featured women almost exclusively, women such as Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, Clara Smith and Bessie Smith among others. Tony Russell describes Jefferson's impact: "Jefferson offered instead blues sung by a man playing guitar – playing it, moreover, with a busyness and variety that showed up many of those pianists and bands as turgid and ordinary. The discovery that there was an audience for Jefferson's type of blues revolutionized the music business: within a few years female singers were out of favor and virtually all the trading in the 'race' market (jazz aside) was in men with guitars."

Blind Lemon Jefferson - Hot Dogs

Hot Dogs (MP3)

By all accounts a good portion of Jefferson's large repertoire consisted of reels or dance songs. "Hot Dogs" is a buck-dance tune as Jefferson plays some formidable ragtime flavored guitar over mostly spoken patter with a few snatches of singing. And yes, that's Jefferson tap dancing during the song a fact that's prominently mentioned in the accompanying ad. The style is strongly similar to the style of his fellow Paramount star Blind Blake. "Rambler Blues" is a straight blues and one of my favorites by Jefferson with its seamless marriage between vocal and guitar:

Well, it's train time now, and the track's all out of line (2x)
And I come here soon, I wanna catch that Number Nine

I am worried and bothered, don't know what to do (2x)
Reason I'm worried and bothered, it's all on the 'count of you

When I left my home, I left my baby cryin' (2x)
She keeps me worried and bothered in the mind

Now, don't your house look lonesome, when your baby pack up and leave (2x)
You may drink your moonshine, but, baby, your heart ain't free

If you take my rider, I can't get mad with you (2x)
Just like you're takin' mine, I'll take someone else's too

I got a girl in Texas, I've got a brown in Tennessee (2x)
Lord, but that brown in Chicago have put that jinx bug on me


And This Is Free

After languishing out of print for many years, Mike Shea's legendary film on Chicago's Maxwell Street Market, And This Is Free, has finally been reissued by Shanachie and I imagine news of this will stir up quite a bit of excitement in blues circles. Shanachie has done an exemplary job with the packaging; housed in a soft covered fold out set is a two disc set containing the 50 minute documentary And This Is Free, the 30 minute documentary Maxwell Street: A Living Memory, some fascinating archival footage, an interview with sound man Gordon Quinn, a separate CD of performances by artists associated with Maxwell Street plus an illustrated 36 page booklet.

The history of the film and music recorded by Mike Shea over the course of sixteen Sundays on Chicago's Maxwell Street in 1964 has an interesting if convoluted history, and I find it odd that none of this is mentioned in the lengthy booklet. Disappointed by the film's reception, Shea let the tapes languish in a warehouse for years until the 1970's when all the footage not included in the original edit was thrown out. At some point a VHS of the film was issued but I'm unclear exactly when. Fortunately the audio tapes had been stored separately so all the original music had been preserved. Rounder records first put some of this music out in 1980 under Robert Nighthawk's name as Live On Maxwell Street 1964. At the time of release these recordings were incorrectly credited, both for the songs, publishing and for much of the personnel. It also turns out that the performances themselves were edited, giving two decades of listeners an incomplete and historically incorrect picture of those recordings as they were originally captured. Finally in May of 1999 the 2-CD set And This Is Maxwell Street was released in Japan on the P-Vine label produced by Studio IT and issued in 2000 in the US by Rooster Records with an additional CD containing a 44 minute interview of Nighthawk conducted by Mike Bloomfield. The set contains all the original unedited recordings made in conjunction with the film.

Arvella GrayWhile music makes up much of the backdrop of And This Is Free, all the performances are truncated and it's sad to think of all the amazing footage that was lost. Still the 50 minutes of And This Is Free is a fascinating, riveting street level view of this remarkable open air market, all the more important now that urban renewal has virtually erased it from existence. Ira Berkow, who wrote Maxwell Street: Survival In A Bazaar, and contributes to the booklet, described it 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 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." This part of Maxwell street is evocatively told in Maxwell Street: A Living Memory through the stories of the children and grandchildren of the original Jewish immigrants and through some wonderful archival film and photographs.

Daddy StovepipeMany will gravitate to the film because of the music and indeed the street was a mecca for bluesman trying to hustle a few bucks from the passing crowd. The music is raw and wild with plenty of ambiance from the passing crowds as we briefly see Robert Nighthawk delivering a blistering blues boogie in a back alley to a raucous crowd and a gritty slide drenched cover Dr. Clayton's "Cheating and Lying Blues",  a too brief snippet of the great Johnny Young, Arvella Gray flaying away at his steel guitar as he delivers his signature version of "John Henry" incorporating references to Maxwell and Halstead streets. Gospel permeates the street, from street corner preachers of all stripes to Carrie Robinson backed by a full electric band, dancing like a whirling dervish, as she belts out a testifying "Power To Live Right", Fannie Brewer's lovely, introspective "I Shall Overcome" and Jim Brewer and group closing with a rousing "I'll Fly Away." George Paulus, owner of Barrelhouse Records and St. George Records, contributes a wonderful essay, Maxwell Street Blues, Mojos And Chickens, which gives a vivid portrait of the Maxwell Street blues scene as seen through the eyes of a then thirteen year old blues fan. D. Thomas Moon adds the companion essay, Talkin' 'Bout Maxwell Street, filled with recollections by former bluesman Johnny Williams, Delmark owner Bob Koester and the late Jimmie Lee Robinson among others. Adding to the overall feel is some amazing archival film of Maxwell Street in the 1940's, Casey Jones, the Chicken Man (a 95 year old who could hypnotize his chicken) and some remarkable footage of the ancient Daddy Stovepipe, complete with top hat, harmonica rack and guitar, who had been a fixture on the street since before World War II.

The CD includes performances by many who played on the street including Robert Nighthawk, Big John Wrencher, Daddy Stovepipe, John Lee Granderson, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers and others. A number of the tracks were recorded crudely at the Maxwell Street Radio Store by Bernard Abrams ( he preferred Perry Como) who issued them on his Ora Nelle imprint (named after Little Walter's girlfriend). While the music is uniformly excellent it also underscores a missed opportunity. Perhaps it's a licensing issue, but it would have been nice if the two CD's worth of music issued as And This Is Maxwell Street could have been included. Now that would be the ultimate Maxwell Street set! Also, as I mentioned earlier, it's a bit odd that this music is not mentioned at all.

All in all, with a few caveats, Shanachie has done a wonderful job with And This Is Free: The Life And Times Of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street, a lovingly packaged, trip back to a time and place that has been all but erased except in the vivid memories and footage contained in this small time capsule. Like the old Beale Street, Times Square and sadly, Mike Shea himself, Maxwell Street is all but gone. As Gatemouth Brown sang in his ode to Beale Street ("Beale Street Ain't Beale Street No More"): "My street is gone, gone to come back no more.”



Show Notes:

I'll Drown In My Own Tears CDToday's show starts and ends on a somber note with of sides by fine R&B singer Lula Reed who passed away a month ago. Reed is little remembered these days and in fact I've yet to see any mention of her passing outside of a very brief note in a newsgroup I belong to. For just over a decade, 1951-1963, Reed cut in the neighborhood of 70 sides including recordings with Sonny Thompson and Freddy King. Most of her material was firmly R&B although she was versatile, cutting straight blues, Latin tinged numbers, proto-soul and gospel. We play her most famous number, “I’ll Drown in My Tears”, as well as a couple of my favorites, "I'll Upset You Baby", "Rock Love" and "(Let Your Love) Watch Over Me", a wonderful duet with Freddy King. We don't normally play gospel but I couldn't help closing with her lovley "Just whsiper."

We play a couple of twin spins today by Bukka White and Percy Mayfield. In 1930 Bukka White met furniture salesman Ralph Limbo, who was also a talent scout for Victor. White traveled to Memphis where he made his first recordings, singing a mixture of blues and gospel material under the name of Washington White. Victor only saw fit to release four of the 14 songs Bukka White recorded that day. As the Depression set in, opportunity to record didn't knock again for Bukka White until 1937, when Big Bill Broonzy asked him to come to Chicago and record for Lester Melrose. White's record "Shake 'Em on Down" became a hit. The same year White was convicted of murder and sent to Parchman Farm prison. White cut two sides for John Lomax for the Library of Congress while in prison and when released resumed his recording career, cutting 12 sides for Okeh in 1940. We play "Fixin' To Die Blues" from that session.  White continued to play locally in Memphis but didn't record again until the 1960's. Two California-based blues enthusiasts, John Fahey and Ed addressed a letter in 1963 to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." By chance, one of White's relatives was working in the Post Office in Aberdeen, and forwarded the letter to White in Memphis. Thus began White's successful comeback. He went on to cut fine records for Takoma, Arhoolie, Biograph, Blue Horizon and others. He died in 1977. "Sad Day Blues"is from 1968 and can be found on Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis, Vol. II on Arhoolie. This album is a marvelous set of studio performances from artists appearing at the 1969 Memphis Blues Festival.

"River's Invitation" is one of Mayfield's most haunting numbers but it also has an irresistible, lilting hook. Mayfield had a keen insight into the dark side of human nature and was a penetrating student of the human condition as this song exemplifies. We pair this with one of his RCA numbers from the 1970's. Mayfield was remarkably consistent and sailed into the 70's in fine fashion cutting three very good LP's for RCA: Percy Mayfield Sings, Blues And Then Some and Weakness Is A Thing Called Man. All these albums are out of print although a 25 track compilation was issued a few years back called Blues Laureate: The RCA Years on the Raven label.

Wailin' Willie 78A couple of weeks back we did a spotlight on Down Home harmonica players and we revisit a couple of those artists including Papa Lightfoot andJoe Hill Louis . Last time we played several of Lightfoot's early singles and this time out we play the stomping "My Woman Is Tired Of Me Lyin'" from his lone album, Goin' Back To The Natchez Trace. Joe Hill Louis was a good harmonica blower in his own right but also paired up with Walter Horton on several numbers for the Sun label in the early 1950's. Horton really cuts loose on the rocking "Hydramatic Woman." For whatever reason Horton was never comfortable as leader and his best work can be found on the records of others. In a couple of weeks I'll be doing a spotlight on Horton and Little Walter. Less known is the amazing Rhythm Willie who demonstrates his impressive chops on "Wailin' Willie." Rhythm Willie was a shadowy Chicago player who made some little remembered sides between 1939 and 1950. He also played on records backing Lee Brown and Peetie Wheatstraw. He died in 1954. Scott Dirks wrote the definitive Rhythm Willie story in Blues & Rhythm 127.

As usual we spin a batch of fine pre-war blues selections. On the piano side there's Dan Stewart wonderful vocal on "New Orleans Blues" with an excellent unknown piano player. This 1928 track is Stewart's only record. "Louisiana Blues Pt. 2" is a typically fine side by Little Brother Montgomery who cut one of the best bodies of piano blues records of the 1930's. His Complete Recorded Works 1930-1936 on Document is an indispensable collection for piano fans. Another fine singer is Freddie "Redd" Nicholson who's backed by the superb Charles Avery on "I Ain't Sleepy." Avery was primarily a session pianist who was active in Chicago in the 20's and 30's. His lone record, "Dearborn Street Breakdown",  is a tremendous boogie-woogie number and makes one wish he had recorded more frequently as a soloist. We also play a couple of fine blues ladies in Irene Scruggs and Berta Lee. Bertha Lee was Charlie Patton's common-law wife and on January 31, 1934 she recorded "Yellow Bee" and "Mind Reader Blues" backed by Patton. This was Patton's final Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazzrecording session. Irene Scruggs cut some two-dozen sides between 1924-1930 backed by artists such as Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake, King Oliver and others. Her "Voice Of The Blues" is a terrific number backed by a good unknown guitarist. We play several great guitarists including Blind Willie McTell and partner Curley Weaver, Oscar "Buddy" Woods and William Moore. Born in Georgia, William "Bill" Moore was a barber and farmer in Tappahannock, VA. He cut 8 sides for Paramount in 1928.

In addition to the lesser known artists we play tracks by blues legends like Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Lonnie Johnson. Johnson's "New Orleans Blues" is a gorgeous ballad about his hometown and is particularly resonant in the aftermath of Katrina as he sings: "Dear old New Orleans/They call it the land of dreams." Johnson was just starting a successful comeback, and on this track he's teamed with acoustic rhythm guitarist Elmer Snowden who had not recorded since 1934. Elmer Snowden was the original leader of the Washingtonians, a group that would become the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The duo recorded Blues & Ballads in 1960 with enough material left over for it's sequel, Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2.


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