On The Chicago Scene

It's inevitable, if perhaps unfair, to judge the music of the rediscovered blues artists of the 1960's with the recordings they made in their prime in the 1920's and 1930's. Sleepy John Estes held up quite well in what was a very successful comeback; he cut several solid albums for Delmark and performed at festivals all over the US, Europe and even the Far East. On The Chicago Blues Scene is a remixed, remastered version on the 1968 album Electric Sleep, the title a play on the psychedelic records of Muddy Waters (Electric Mud) and Howlin' Wolf (This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album), the latter called "birdshit" by Wolf for what it's worth.

Fortunately label owner Bob Koester was wise enough to forgo the psychedelic route, instead putting Estes in a modern Chicago blues context. Koester recalls the genesis of that decision: "…later that year (1964) in a sub-cellar jazz club in Dusseldorf, while John was touring Europe for the first time with the American Folk Blues Festival John sat in at an impromptu session with Hubert Sumlin, (Howling Wolf's guitarist), Sonny Boy Williamson, Sunnyland Slim and some other local musicians. I was amazed at how comfortably John was able to sing with such relative modernists. I promised John that one day we would cut an album with such a sound…"

On The Chicago Blues Scene is that album finding Estes backed by Sunnyland Slim on piano, Jimmy Dawkins on guitar, Carey Bell on harp, Odie Payne on drums and various bassist including Earl Hooker. Estes voice had coarsened over the years but he remained an expressive, still plaintive singer who's style remained utterly distinctive. Big Bill Broonzy aptly called Estes style "crying the blues", a good description of Estes high pitched, fragmented singing which, although blurred on these later recordings, is still highly expressive. As he did on his prior Delmark records, Estes draws extensively from his early records turning in fine versions of "Laura Had A Dream (originally titled "Little Laura Blues"), "Divin' Duck Blues"and a particularly strong take on "Everybody Oughta Make A Change" featuring some sensitive harmonica from Carey Bell. Bell also shines on "May West" a thinly veiled version of "Hobo Jungle" which he first cut in 1938 with Hammie Nixon on harmonica. "Sweet Little Flower" seems to be one of the few new numbers while the oddly titled "Newport Blues", a tribute to John Kennedy, was recorded on the album In Europe as "Blues For JFK."

All in all a worthwhile project that holds up quite well some 40 years down the line. The band acquits themselves well, playing with sensitivity and restraint, and Estes remains a striking and captivating singer. Still after listening to this record I can't help but hear the echo of those marvelous, poetic early sides when he was in the full flower of his creativity. If you haven't heard them I urge you to check them out.

Everybody Oughta Make A Change (MP3)

May West (MP3)

 

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Show Notes:

Cool Drink of Water 78Lots of country blues on deck for today's mix show. I've been re-listening to Tommy Johnson quite a bit lately and thinking about his influence. For a musician who cut just a handful of sides in 1928 and 1929 he was vastly influential. While his initial records sold well his influence stems mainly from those who learned directly from Johnson. David Evans began researching Johnson in the 1960’s, discovering many musicians who still performed Johnson’s songs and made field recordings of many of them during this period. He also wrote the excellent Tommy Johnson in 1971 which I've recently reread. Roosevelt Holts and Shirley Griffith both knew and learned songs from Tommy Johnson when they were living in Mississippi but didn’t record until the 1960’s. Holts cut records for Blues Horizon and Arhoolie and Griffith cut records for Bluesville and Blue Goose – all out of print. Jim Brewer moved to Chicago from Mississippi and became a street musician mainly playing on Maxwell Street. He appears on various anthologies and cut two records for Philo and Earwig – both out of print. We play Brewer's version of "Big Road Blues" which is one of the best versions I've ever heard. We also play one of Johnson's classics, "Cool Drink of Water Blues", and "Trouble Hearted Blues" by Johnson's close friend Ishman Bracey.

Rowdy Blues 78There's a bunch more country blues including classics like "Delta Blues" by Son House recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1941. Willie Brown was also recorded during this session backing House and cutting "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor." In addition to performing alongside Robert Johnson and Son House he appeared on many of the seminal sides cut by Charlie Patton between 1929 and 1934, including a legendary 1930 Paramount label session which also yielded two of the three existing Brown solo cuts, "M & O Blues" and "Future Blues." Brown may or may not be the artist who cut one 78 as Kid Bailey in 1929. The debate will likely never be settled but it certainly sounds like Brown to my ears. Regardless, "Rowdy Blues", is a magnificent tune. Moving up to Memphis we opened the show with "Going To Germany"by Cannon's Jug Stompers. This is one of my favorite songs by the group spotlighting the terrific harmonica and singing of Noah Lewis.

Presenting The Country BluesWe also feature some great more modern guitarists, relativity speaking, including Eddie Taylor and Earl Hooker. Both men had the ability to sound just like Robert Nighthawk when they chose to and Taylor does just that on the sizzling "The Moon Is Rising" featuring Kansas Red on vocals and drums. Red drummed and sang with Nighthawk in the 1940's and he likely learned the song from Nighthawk during this period who in turn picked up the song from Ivory Joe Hunter's 1945 hit "Blues At Sunrise." Hooker also picked up plenty from Nighthawk but sounds like his own man on the infectious instrumental "The Leading Brand." Son Seals heard Nighthawk when he played at his father's Dipsy Doodle Club in Arkansas although he was more influenced by local hero Albert King. Here we close the show with "Going Back Home" off 1977's Midnight Son my favorite album by Seals.

As usual we play a number of out of print records. In the early 1970's Sunnyland Slim cut the fine, albeit oddly titled, "Plays The Ragtime Blues" for Bluesway backed by Carey Bell and the Aces. Like a good chunk of the Bluesway catalog this fine date remains unavailable on CD. Also on Bluesway, and yes out of print, is Johnny Young's "I Can't Keep My Foot From Jumping." This is an all mandolin outing for Young and I really think one of his finest sessions. Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Spires cut a handful of brilliant down home sides for Checker and Chance in the 1950’s and unissued sides in the 1960’s for Testament before arthritis cut his career short. His burnished voice sounds marvelous on the gently propulsive “21 Below Zero” backed by Johnny Young on guitar. This one comes off the excellent compilation "Blues Scene USA Vol. 4: Mississippi Blues" on Storyville." Junior Parker is best know for his classic Sun and Duke singles like "Feelin' Good, "Mystery Train", ""Next Time You See Me " and "Driving Wheel." He still sounded great on the album "You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues" circa 1971 backed by The Crusaders. The pairing works exceptionally well as you can hear on Parker's revival of his old number "Man Or Mouse." Sadly Parker died in November 1971 before he reached his fortieth birthday.

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Johnnie Jones
Johnnie & Letha Jones

The group cut two exceptional sessions in March and November of 1950 once again prominently featuring Jones' vocal abilities. "195o Blues" opens with a watery, flowing slide solo and settles into a a marvelous sing along vocal, with both men wonderfully complimenting each other in an easy, playful manner. Tampa's slide is particularly incisive as the two sing: "I've been you're dog baby, since 1934, (spoken: And that's a mighty long time)/But this is 1950 and I won't be you're dog no more." Harking back to Tampa's early days is the rollicking "It's Good Like That" a boogie update of his big hit "It's Tight Like That" while "Love Her with a Feelin'" is an inspired remake of 1938's " Love With A Feeling" and 'Sweet Little Angel" was cut in 1934 as "Black Angel Blues" and originally waxed by Lucille Bogan in 1930, although Tampa claimed the composition for his own. The latter song was a hit for Robert Nighthawk who cut it in 1949 as "Sweet Black Angel" (the flip "Anna Lou" was another Tampa song) and later covered by B.B. King as "Sweet Little Angel" in 1956. "New Deal Blues" was another notable number from these sessions prominently spotlighting Tampa's ringing slide as Jones urges him on with spoken asides.

1951 followed a similar pattern with two four song sessions in March and July. There was plenty of high energy, good time music including the rocking "She's Dynamite", "Boogie Woogie Woman", "She's A Cool Operator" which put the focus less on Tampa's guitar, but not his kazoo, all featuring Jones' ample, rock ribbed piano playing. For the first time Jones takes the lead vocal on the insinuating "Early in the Morning" and takes a fair share of the humorous "I Won't Let Her Do It" which harks back to 1942's "She Want to Sell My Monkey" where Big Maceo played the role that Jones does. Tampa's slide resurfaces on the marvelous "Green And Lucky Blues" another song B.B. King would later record.

Around this time, Letha Jones (Johnnie's wife), recalled: "Tampa stopped having a band. I think he got sick or he got tired, he kept saying he was gonna retire. He quit playing out in the clubs." While Jones and Payne continued to play on Tampa's records they had since teamed with guitarist L.C. McKinley and later with Elmore James. Playing with Tampa also got Jones noticed by rising star Muddy Waters who employed Jones on a 1949 session that produced "Screamin' And Cryin." Through Muddy he also recorded two seminal numbers for Aristocrat in 1949, "Big Town Play Boy" and "Shelby County Blues." By 1952 Jones, Payne and Knowling became Elmore's backing band, The Broom Dusters, appearing on dozens of classic sides.

Two more sessions followed in April and November of 1952 with the addition of Bill Casimir on tenor sax. These are not up to the standards of Tampa's previous earlier sessions. "I'm Gonna Put You Down" is a driving number with Jones stretching out liberally but is otherwise unexceptional with "Look A There Look A There" in a similar mold. "True Love" has a rhumba beat but is rather tepid with the same being said for sing along numbers like"But I Forgive You" which sound a bit tired by this point. The highlight is "Got A Mind To Leave This Town" featuring a particularly sensitive vocal from Tampa.

Tampa cut his final three sessions in 1953. On January 29th 1953 Tampa Red briefly stepped away from Victor, cutting four sides for the independent Sabre label. Using the pseudonym Jimmy Eager, he was accompanied on guitar by L. C. McKinley (who was making his recording debut) and an unknown pianist and drummer (possibly Bob Call and Odie Payne). His final two sessions found Tampa in much more contemporary company. The September session featured Tampa's regular band of Jones, Payne and Knowling beefed up with RCA session guitarist Willie Lacey and harmonica player, Sonny Boy Williamson. It was a solid outing with a fairly typical Jones/Tampa duet on "So Crazy About You Baby" and "If She Don't Come Back", perhaps the best of the bunch, with some wailing harmonica from Sonny Boy. Better was Tampa's final Victor session in December with Walter Horton taking over for Sonny Boy. "Big Stars Falling Blues" with it's fine group vocal and fleet fingered guitar from Lacey is a winner although Horton is a bit submerged in the mix while the romping "Evalena" showcases Horton and Lacey at their best. "Rambler's Blues" is by far the highlight, a stunning, up-to-date blues with a rhumba lilt showcasing a terrific vocal from Tampa and a shattering harmonica solo from Horton. It's a shame the group didn't record more but it put a fine exclamation point on a long and illustrious career.

All of the Tampa/Jones sides can be found on volumes 14 and 15 of Document's complete recordings of Tampa Red. Unfortunately these may be out of print.

Love Her With A Feelin' (MP3)

1950 Blues (MP3)

She's Dynamite (MP3)

Rambler's Blues (MP3)

 

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Tampa Red

By the time Johnnie Jones had taken over the piano chair in Tampa Red's band in March 1949 Tampa had been a recording star for twenty years. Outside of a national hit in 1949 Tampa's career was on the wane and his recording career essentially ended in 1953 outside of two disappointing albums for Bluesville in 1960. Tampa suffered the fate of famous blues artists who cut some of their most memorable early on and had lengthy careers, which is in effect to have later material overlooked. Certainly Tampa's partnership with Big Maceo from 1945 to 1947 has been justly praised pairing Maceo's rolling, thundering piano with Tampa's ringing slide ranking them in the upper ranks of great piano/guitar duos. Less celebrated is the teaming of Maceo's protege, Johnnie Jones, with Tampa beginning in 1949 and lasting through 1953. Clearly the infusion of new blood, chiefly Jones' rolling two fisted piano playing and insinuating, warm vocal plus the addition of drummer Odie Payne added an exciting new charge to Tampa's music.

Before discussing his later sides it's worth providing a bit of background. One of the best things written about Tampa was Jim O'Neal's thoughtful notes to the 1975 2-LP set Guitar Wizard. He neatly sums up Tampa's significance: "Few figures have been as important in blues history as Tampa Red; yet no bluesman of such stature has been so ignored or misunderstood by today's blues audience. As a composer, recording artist, musical trendsetter and one of the premiere urban blues guitarists of his day, Tampa Red remained popular with black record buyers for more than 20 years and exerted considerable influence on many post-World War II blues stars who earned greater acclaim for playing Tampa's songs than Tampa himself often did." Tampa always adapted to changing musical styles as O'Neal observed about the later records: "His records show he was still on top of things-he was right there swinging with horns when big-band jump blues were in fashion, and he had the boogie numbers down, too; even on his last Victor sessions he had adapted to the mainstream '50's Chicago blues sound with featured harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Walter Horton. He was following trends, but also setting them too with numbers that many bluesmen were to re-record in later years."

Big Maceo had a stroke in 1946 which left him unable to play piano although he continued to sing and resorted to using Eddie Boyd and then Johnny Jones on piano. With Maceo singing and Tampa on guitar, Boyd handles the piano chores on a February 1947 session with Jones popping up on a April 1949 session. Maceo took Jones under his wing when he arrived in Chicago and helped him hone his piano style. It was Tampa who encouraged Jones to get a union card and then hired him on his first gig at the C&T Lounge in 1947.

By the time of Tampa Red's session in March 1949 Jones had been permanently installed as Tampa's piano man. With bassist Ransom Knowling and drummer Odie Payne on board, it was an auspicious start featuring a pair of fine boogie numbers including the bouncy "It's A Brand New Boogey" and "Come On, If You're Coming" giving ample room for Jones' robust two fisted piano. The highlight was the poignant "When Things Go Wrong with You", with echoes of Tampa's 1940 classic "It Hurts Me Too", a perfect combination of fluid slide, rippling piano and wonderful duel vocal that would be one of their hallmarks. Tampa's next session in July 1949 followed a similar pattern with the romping "That's Her Own Business" and the sing along vocal of "I'll Find My Own Way." If Tampa was cutting some very up to date material during this period he never gave up his fondness for the kazoo, much to some critics lament. To be fair he played the kazoo with as much expressiveness as possible for the instrument. "Without doubt, however," O'Neal notes, "Tampa became the most popular blues kazooist of all time-for what that's worth-and he did inspire a number of other musicians to blow their own "jazz horns.""

It's A Brand New Boogey (MP3)

When Things Go Wrong With You (MP3)

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Show Notes:

Ann Arbor PosterIt's not much of a stretch to call Otis Spann the greatest of the post-war Chicago piano men. Perhaps his only rival was Little Johnny Jones, who like Spann, never made it past his his fortieth birthday. Spann was born in Belzoni, Mississippi and inspired by local piano players Friday Ford and Tolley Montgomery, sibling of Little Brother Montgomery. He won a talent contest at age eight and began playing local vaudeville acts. After his mother died in the mid-40's he headed to Chicago where his father and aunt lived. After playing with Morris Pejoe and others, he heard from Jimmy Rogers that Muddy Waters needed a piano player and he was promptly hired in 1951. Between 1953 and 1969 and played on the bulk of Waters' Chess recordings. He also became a key session pianist backing Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Lowell Fulson, Junior Wells, Chuck Berry and many others.

Starting in 1960 he launched a solo career parallel to his day job with Muddy Waters. Despite being an almost daily presence in the Chess studios, he cut only two sessions as leader. His own Chess output was limited to a 1954 single, "It Must Have Been the Devil," that featured B.B. King on guitar, and sessions in 1954 and 1956 that remained in the can for decades. Chess may not have been impressed but the sides hold up well and I've decided to play them all for this feature. Spann cut albums for numerous labels including Candid, Prestuge, Bluesway,Otis Spann Storyville, Testament, Spivey and Vanguard among others. Spann rarely sounded less than inspired but he was occasionally ill served by his record companies and his sidemen. Unqualified successes include his Candid recordings with Robert Lockwood (issued in it's entirety with bonus cuts, but out of print, as the Complete Candid Recordings: Otis Spann/Lightnin' Hopkins Sessions) as well as those for Storyville and two albums for Bluesway (issued together on Down To Earth: The Bluesway Recordings) backed by the Muddy Waters band. Also quite good are The Blues of Otis Spann, hailed as one of the best blues albums ever made in Britain and The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (reissued with many bonus cuts as the 2-CD set The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions) finding Spann backed by three-fifths of Fleetwood Mac. Less successful are recordings made for Vanguard, Prestige and the two albums for Spivey which have never been issued on CD.

Mahalia Lucille Jenkins began as a church gospel singer in Mississippi and continued to practice when her family moved to Chicago around 1952. She met Otis Spann in the 1960’s. The two began a musical collaboration and would later marry. Lucille and Otis performed regularly at college gigs and would record together until Otis passed in 1970. Lucille continued to work in music performing at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and making a few recordings before passing in 1994.

Cry Before I Go LPLucille was a strong, gospel inflected vocalist who at times could be quite affective while at other times her vocals leaned to the histrionic side. Her 1960's recordings are all in the company of her husband and she's featured on recordings Otis did for Bluesway, Vanguard and Spivey. A couple of her best sides, "Chains of Love" and "Love With A Feelin’" (both on Chicago Blues Masters Vol. 3) were cut for World Pacific in 1968, and both featured in our show. There is also Last Call, recorded live in 1970, three weeks before Otis Spann passed, featuring Lucille taking all the vocals. Overall this is a depressing listening experience and not the way anyone would choose to remember Spann. In the 1970's Lucille sang "Dedicated to Otis" at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival which is on the 2-LP companion album, cut her only album, Cry Before I Go, for Bluesway in 1973 and waxed the 45's Country Girl Returns Part 1 & 2 and Woman's Lib for Torrid.

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