Muskie's Juke Joint, which follows Big Road Blues, will be doing a special extended program which will take over my time slot next week airing from 5PM to 10PM. Dave Moskal will be doing his final show after hosting Muskie's Juke Joint for the past fifteen years. I'll be sitting in for a bit plus there should be a bunch of special guests. Make sure to tune in, it should be lots of fun! Big Road Blues will resume on February 17th. Muskie's Juke Joint will continue with Dave's longtime fill-in Doc taking the reins.
Sun 3 Feb 2008
In my continuing attempt to raise the profile of piano blues here's a show devoted to some of the best barrelhouse and boogie-woogie piano of the 1920's and 1930's. Last year I did several piano based shows including a spotlight on the remarkable group of Texas piano men who who made records 1920’s and 30’s. This show, which takes it's title from a line in Romeo Nelson's "Head Rag Hop", is a much broader look at early piano blues featuring some of the best piano records of the era.
I remember exactly when I became enthralled with the early piano blues. I was was in Tower Records in NYC (still in in high school) browsing through blues records when I stumbled across the LP The Piano Blues Volume Twenty: Barrelhouse Years 1928-1933. I soon realized that this was the tail end of a groundbreaking piano series on Magpie Records. The Magpie series was the first attempt to present the the full breadth of piano blues in a systematic fashion. Each volume was built around a particular theme, featured excellent notes and terrific sound quality with records culled from the vast collection of producer Francis Smith (sadly I've heard that Smith is in the end stage of a terminal illness). The series concluded in 1984 after twenty-one volumes and has yet to be surpassed. A number of years ago Yazoo Records launched their own piano blues series also using 78's from Smith's collection. As far as I can tell the series has stopped but they issued a number of excellent collections all of which are featured on today's show. A list of their piano compilations can be found here and they've also issued single artist collections: Dreaming the Blues: The Best of Charlie Spand and The Way I Feel which spotlights Lee Green and Roosevelt Sykes.
While the piano blues is something of a declining art form it flourished on record in the 1920’s-30’s and with the boogie-woogie craze of the 1940’s. To quote Peter J. Silvester's A Left Hand Like God: A History of Boogie-Woogie Piano: "Originating in barrelhouses and entertainment spots that served the black labor force who worked in the lumber and railroad industries throughout the deep south, it could be heard later at rent parties in Chicago, buffet flats in St. Louis and other black urban centers like Birmingham, Al and several towns in Texas among others. When the music evolved into boogie-woogie entering New York nightclubs like Café Society, pianists such as Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons became stars. In the 1940’s the boogie-woogie craze hit big but faded by the 1950’s."
Today's show stops just short of the boogie-woogie craze, spanning 1928 to 1939. This was an era before mass media and many of today's recordings bear a distinct regional style. As Bob Hall wrote: "At the start of the recording era blues piano consisted of a variety of distinctive regional styles, particularly in Southern states such as Texas and Mississippi, and there were 'schools' of pianists in many of the major cities having significant migrant black populations, for example Birmingham, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago." St. Louis, for example, was an extremely fertile piano town boasting piano men like Roosevelt Sykes, Peetie Wheatstraw, Henry Brown, Aaron Sparks, Walter Davis, Stump Johnson, Eddie Miller among many others. It's not surprising that Chicago had a lively scene including Pinetop Smith, Jimmy Yancey, Romeo Nelson, Cripple Clarence Lofton and others. Birmingham and Detroit were another prime piano towns with Jabbo Williams, Walter Roland and Cow Cow Davenport from the former and Charlie Spand, Will Ezell from the latter. In future shows I plan to do several piano programs with a narrower, regional focus.
Sun 27 Jan 2008
JSP Records is a record label founded in 1978 by John Stedman (John Stedman Productions). These days they mostly issue box sets of public domain jazz and blues records. Among the box sets issued include single artist sets on Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and regional compilations like Atlanta Blues, Memphis Masters, East Coast Blues, Texas Blues and many others. These 4 and 5 CD sets are very cheap and you do get lots of great music for your buck pus they're nicely packaged with usually good, if sometimes brief, notes. The remastering, particularly on the pre-war collections, vary greatly from set to set but are often a sonic upgrade to Document but usually can't compare to labels like Yazoo and Revenant. Also one thing that bothers me is that are consistent errors such as mislabled tracks or artists which probably means JSP is throwing these on the market too quickly.
I've been thinking about remastering quite a bit lately. Overall Yazoo does an excellent job bringing the music to the surface but you still get a fair amount of hiss and crackle. To be honest I have no problem with this as some of the technologies major labels have used like No-Noise, while removing all surface noise, leave the records sounding sterile, lifeless and artificial. Also Yazoo used the original 78's as the source where JSP does not. I wish JSP would be more transparent regarding remastering and told us a bit about their remastering actually entails.
Anyway on to today's show which spotlights the following recent JSP box sets: The Road To Robert Johnson & Beyond, Lightnin' Special Vol. 2, Ma Rainey: Mother of the Blues, Crescent City Bounce: From Blues to R&B In New Orleans, When The Levee Breaks: Mississippi Blues – Rare Cuts 1926-1941.
I've reviewed some of the sets so just follow the links for more about each one. You'll notice that this part one and I'll be certainly doing a follow-up. The JSP sets keep rolling in and a couple of interesting new ones include A Richer Tradition – Country Blues and String Band Music 1923-1942 and That's What They Want: Juke Joint Blues – Good Time Rhythm & Blues 1943 – 1956.
Fri 25 Jan 2008
I would imagine all but the most seasoned collector has ever heard of blues singer Willie Headen. I for one certainly had not but I have blind faith in the good folks at Ace Records plus a collector's curiosity, so I picked up the Willie Headen collection Blame It On The Blues with no idea what to expect. Ace, as most folks know, issues terrific post-war blues reissues circa the 40's through the 60's, very collector oriented, loaded with previously unreleased tracks and in depth notes. Blame It On The Blues spotlights an exceptional blues singer who recorded a handful of excellent 45's in his five year on-off-on stint with Dootsie Williams’ Dootone, Dooto labels and the offshoot Authentic imprint. Headen cut singles between 1954-1959 achieving marginal success with 45's continuing to be issued through 1960 when a bunch of them were compiled for the now collectible Blame It On The Blues LP. Headen had just enough success to keep stringing along before quitting the music business in 1959 when he married. He reemerged briefly in 1969 cutting some soul sides for Kent. None of this led to any success; when Dootise Williams first found Willie he was working as a shoe-shine man at a barbershop on 103rd Street, and when liner note writer Jim Dawson found him he was still shining shoes, this time in the lobby of a Wilshire Boulevard office building in West Los Angeles. It also probably didn't help that Headen's records were listed variously as by Willie Headed, Hayden, Clifford Chambers (?) or that the same record showed up on different Dootone imprints. All that should pretty much dispel any romance associated with the recording industry.
It's a cliché to say that Headen deserved a better fate but well he did, although it's always a gamble what the public will latch onto. I’m sure Dootsie Williams would say the same. Bandleader, record man and entrepreneur, Williams is best known for the string of doo-wop records that he made in the mid-50's with groups like the Medallions, Calvanes with 1954’s "Earth Angel" by the Penguins being by far the most successful. He also cut his share of blues (Ace's Blues for Dootsie and Dootone Rock 'N' Rhythm And Blues are worth investigating) by the likes of Helen Humes, Roy Milton, Big Joe Turner, Mickey Champion, and Filmore Slim among others.
Headen possessed a light, supple, soaring vocal style ably tackling proto-soul, doo-wop, vocal group, rockers and blues ballads. He had an easy, expressive delivery, adding some convincing grit on the blues numbers. If I had to make comparisons, Clyde McPhatter would come to mind. It was smoldering blues ballads where Headen excelled; numbers like the gritty, low-down title track (two versions are included), the languid "Everybody Has A Fool", two versions of "Piece Of Mind" sporting some fine piano work from Memphis Slim, "You Can't Fool The People" and the witty "You Can Be Replaced." Headen was versatile as he proves on the hip shuffle of "Cool Cat", the bluesy shuffle of "Sunset & Vine" underpinned by some rollicking piano, really cuts loose on the torrid gospel tinged, doo-wopper "I Wanna Know" backed by the 5 Birds plus convincing rockers like "Fun On Saturday Night" and "Turn The Hi-Fi Down." Ace has done their usual thorough discographical detective work uncovering a number of alternates and unissued items although even their efforts failed to dig up a copy of the intriguingly "I’m Still Getting My Licks." The only knock against Ace is their stubborn refusal to list session details for each track. In this case they can be forgiven as a quick perusal in Blues Discography 1943-1970 shows no information listed on the backing bands. It's a shame as Headen was backed by some terrific West Coast combos featuring lots of slinky T-Bone Walkeresque guitar, wailing sax and rippling piano work.
Blame It On The Blues may well describe Willie Headen's footnote of a recording career, but while fame and fortune eluded him this varied collection brings into focus an exceptionally talented blues singer. Ace promises to make Headen's Kent singles available and I for one can't wait.
Blame It On The Blues (MP3)
I Wanna Know (MP3)
Sun 20 Jan 2008
Today's show reflects a number of things I've been listening to lately including some new collections, some that I finally got around to listening to and and few older ones I've be reexamining. I keep buying those budget priced JSP box sets which the label churns out so frequently I have a hard time keeping up. In fact I literally had a stack of them that I finally got around to, several of which are featured on today's program. I have mixed feelings about JSP; on one hand these 4 and 5 CD sets are very cheap and you do get lots of great music for your buck and they're nicely packaged with usually decent notes. The remastering, particularly on the pre-war collections, vary greatly from set to set but are often a sonic upgrade to Document but usually can't compare to labels like Yazoo and Revenant. There's also some evidence that they've simply pilfered the transfers from other collections, most notoriously on their Charlie Patton box set which was clearly lifted from Revenant's masterful Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds of Charlie Patton. Also the sets feature troubling errors like wrongly titled tracks and the omission of certain tracks on sets that claim to be the complete recorded output of a particular artist.
All that being said today's show features tracks from the following recent JSP sets: Lightnin' Special, Volume 2 of the Collected Works, Ma Rainey – Mother of the Blues, Sunnyland Slim & His Pals – The Classic Sides (1947-53), Memphis Blues – Important Postwar Blues and When the Levee Breaks – Mississippi Blues (Rare Cuts – 1926-41). I think Ma Rainey – Mother of the Blues ranks as one of JSP's more important efforts, boasting a fair amount of sonic improvement over Document. This is important because Rainey suffers from the double problem of being on Paramount, notorious for their bad pressings, and for recording a good chunk of her recordings in the acoustic recording era (pre-1926). Perhaps because of these problems Rainey hasn't been well served on the reissue market which makes this set especially valuable. Rainey was remarkably consistent, had a magnificent voice, great songs and was backed by high caliber musicians like Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds , Coleman Hawkins and Tampa Red. When the Levee Breaks is an unbeatable collection of Mississippi blues with very good sound featuring artists like Garfield Akers, Blind Joe Reynolds, Geeshie Wiley, Freddy Spruell, Son House and many more. I'll be spotlighting JSP box sets on the January 27th show.
Speaking of pre-war collections I also pulled Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds of Charlie Patton off the shelf for the first time in quite awhile. This 7-CD box is probably the most lavish ever devoted to a blues artist and the remastering, particularly on the Patton sides, is astonishing. On today's show I played two tracks from the set: Patton's "Tom Rushen Blues" and Willie Brown's "Make Me A Pallet On The Floor." Also on the Revenant label is American Primitive, Vol. II an eclectic, fascinating collection of early blues, gospel and country. Mattie May Thomas is a remarkable singer who was recorded by Alan Lomax at the sewing room of the Woman’s Camp, at the notorious Parchman Farm. Another memorable singer from the set is Pigmeat Terry, who possesses a high, whsipery, moaning voice, a bit reminiscent of the popular Joe Pullum. His "Black Sheep Blues" is worth quoting:
My mother's gone to glory
My father died of drinking in his sins
My sister won't notice me, she's to proud to take me in
I'm a black sheep in my family, and how they dog me around
Someday I'll get lucky and won't be found around
Also from the set is William Harris' marvelous version of "Kansas City Blues." Harris was a terrific singer and guitarist but virtually nothing is known about him.
Featured on today's show are two sets revolving around Tampa Red and Lightnin' Hopkins. Tampa plays guitar on Big Maceo's beautiful "County Jail Blues." The two made some wonderful recordings together in the early to mid-40's and this track has always been a favorite. Tampa again plays a supporting role, this time on piano, on Pete Franklin's terrific "Down Behind The Rise." This was part of a four song session cut for Victor in 1949. Franklin, as Guitar Pete Franklin, cut a self titled album for Bluesvile in 1961, a couple of stray 1963 cuts that appeared on a Flyright anthology and unfortunately never recorded again. From 1934 it's Tampa out front with the spooky "Witchin' Hour Blues"which reminds me a bit of Lonnie Johnson's "Blue Ghost Blues."
1964's"Live At The Bird Lounge" finds Hopkins in fine form as evidenced on "Leave Jike Mary Alone." Hopkins was a genius at weaving compelling stories from everyday life and this number is a prime example. I don't believe this one is available on CD. An associate of Lightnin’ Hopkins, L.C. Williams cut sides with Hopkins in 1947-48 for Gold Star and again in 1951 for Sittin’ In With. Williams also cut a handful of sides for Eddie’s, Freedom and Mercury. "Boogie All the Time" is an infectious Hopkins like boogie featuring some humorous spoken asides by Williams. It's Hopkins in a supporting role backing one time partner Thunder Smith on the driving "Little Mama Boogie." Smith traveled to to Los Angles with Hopkins and they recorded several sides for Aladdin together. He also cut sides in 1947-48 for the Gold Star and Down Town labels. Smith faded into undeserved obscurity while Hokins became a star.
A few other numbers worth mentioning are two that feature Earl Hooker: "Don't Have To Worry" comes from the out of print Bluesway album of the same name while Hooker is heard on 1952's "Johnny Feels The Blues" backing Johnny O'Neal who sounds quite a bit like Roy Brown. Speaking of Bluesway we spotlight Johnny Young's "Deal The Cards" off the Bluesway album "I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping." This is one of Young's best outings and it's a shame, like most of the Bluesway catalog, it's been long out of print.