Blues Access Spring 2000
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Rooster Pickin's  
rooster music: the first 2000 years (part 2) 

Weíre back with another round of great songs for you, plucked from the vaults of the Roosterís fortified desert island henhouse. If you missed out the first time around, hereís how it works: Over the course of several columns Iíll be selecting 101 examples of what I call Rooster Music, the kind of stuff Iíve been playing for the last 15 or so years on my Blues From the Red Rooster Lounge syndicated radio show. Rooster Music is, of course, blues first and foremost, but it also includes some R&B, deep soul, some gospel and even ó as is the case this issue ó a little jazz.

As you can tell, the Roosterís a guy who knows what he likes. Fortuitously, other people seem to dig it enough to have kept me working all these years.

Weíll repeat our warning from last issue: This is not a "greatest blues songs of all time" list. If thatís what youíre looking for there are numerous commercially-available collections that will fit the bill. What weíve got here is a very personal take on what constitutes soul, the element that all of these share in common.

For this round weíre pretty much sticking to classic material by artists you should be familiar with, although these wonít usually be their best-known songs. Next time we plan to include a lot more contemporary music. In any case, we hope to expand your listening horizons a bit and generate some animated discussions around the old CD player.

OK, back to the matter at hand. The nervous musicians out in the audience are starting to squirm in their seats. So would you bring out the first envelope, please?

21. "Blind Man," Little Milton
Greatest Hits, MCA/Chess (recorded 1964)

Since weíre featuring Milton in this issue, itís only fair that he bats lead-off on this list. Hereís a guy who has played as many chitliní circuit one-nighters as anybody, who has had bigger hits than this one, who didnít even record the original version of the song, who has made lots of recordings in the 36 years since this came out and who is better known to contemporary listeners for his soul-blues forays with Malaco. So how did I happen to pick "Blind Man"? The short answer is that I heard it again on the radio the other night and it still managed to kick me to the curb.

The songís origins are muddled. The writing credit goes to "Deadric Malone," the pseudonym of notorious Duke Records owner Don Robey, and bandleader Joe Scott, who no doubt earned that distinction for his arrangement that was used on Bobby Blandís version, cut in early 1964. The lyrics most likely came from some down-and-outer who brought it to Robeyís door in exchange for enough cash to buy a bottle or a poke.

At that time Chess Records viewed Milton as the labelís answer to Bland and they had him put out a cover version on their Checker label. While there was little change in the arrangement, Little Miltonís vocal was tougher and more energetic, and it resulted in his first real chart success for the label.

22. "I Smell Trouble," Bobby Bland
I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, Vol. 1 MCA (recorded 1956)

Like one blues neophyte I heard describe a Bobby Bland performance ("Whatís with that sound he makes? I thought he was choking!"), a contemporary listener might wonder about the singerís powerful attraction to people of a certain generation ó especially black women. Ah, but back in the í50s and í60s, when Bobby, now 70, was at the top of his game, he was a genuine blues superstar and sex symbol who drove audiences wild with that shouted melismatic gargle.

From the early í60s on Bland made his reputation as a soul-blues balladeer, a role he has polished in his latter-day career on Malaco. But his records from the í50s are full of fire, complemented in this case by Clarence Hollimonís down-in-the-alley guitar work. The song ó another "Deadric Malone" creation ó is flat-out, searing blues. Bobby simply drives the lyrics, about a man who smells trouble "way over yonder, up there ahead of me," right through the roof. Itís a sound that presaged other, bigger hits that were soon to follow: "Farther Up the Road," "I Pity the Fool," "Turn on Your Lovelight" and "Yield Not to Temptation." All great, but none better than this one.

23. "Blues at Sunrise," Albert King
Live Wire/Blues Power, Stax (recorded 1968)

Iíve got a personal history with this one. Having listened to it under optimally altered conditions, I was inspired to attend my first live blues concert in 1969, King Albert at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C.

In that era of musical explosion when young hippies were flocking to San Franciscoís rock ballrooms to hear the exciting blues-influenced psychedelic bands of the day, promoter Bill Graham made sure his audiences paid their props to the originators by bringing in many of the blues greats as opening acts. So it was that Albert found himself on stage at the Fillmore West in front of a crowd where the term "people of color" meant either tie-dyed or paisley. No matter, he proceeded to launch into a piercing set, highlighted by this nearly nine-minute-long emotion-drenched foray.

24. "House Rockiní Blues," Howliní Wolf
Howling Wolf Rides Again, Flair/Virgin (recorded c. 1951)

Chester Burnett became a Chicago blues legend with his fantastic recordings like "Smokestack Lightniní," "Spoonful" and, of course, "Red Rooster" for Chess Records. He was a powerful force, a total original whose style has spawned loving imitators like the late Booba Barnes and Tail Dragger, among many others.

Not as well known are the early recordings he made in Memphis, first with Sam Phillips (who was leasing these tracks to Modern Records in Los Angeles, and, on the side, to Chess), and then directly with Joe Bihari of Modern and his top talent scout, one Ike Turner. While nothing about the Wolf could ever be called "polished," these sides are even more raw and stripped down than what he did in Chicago.

"House Rockiní Blues" begins with a great bit of boogie woogie piano (presumably by Turner) and this classic intro: "Good eveniní everybody, the Wolf is cominí in town. You havenít never seen the Wolf." He goes on to introduce guitarist Willie Johnson, drummer Willie Steel, the unnamed "piano man," and a non-existent violin player. It choogles along with some quintessential Wolf rapping, as he exhorts the band to "blow your top."

I saw Wolf toward the end of his life, when he had been in and out of the hospital. He wore thick glasses and performed sitting down, a pick-up band behind him. Long gone were the days when he would wear overalls and roll around the stage like some wild thing that charged out of the Mississippi mud.

And he still kicked ass!

25. "Born in Poverty," Jimmy Dawkins (with Andrew Odom)
All for Business, Delmark (recorded 1971)

One of the truest-sounding blues Iíve ever heard. Born in Louisiana, singer Andrew Odom came to Chicago in his early í20s, and when he sings about going to bed hungry, you believe him. Known for his vocal resemblance to B.B. King (he was nicknamed "Big Voice" and "B.B. Junior"), Odom recorded a couple albums under his own name. But this session with guitarists Dawkins and Otis Rush, with Sonny Thompson on keyboards, is such a potent distillation of West Side blues that itís the song Iíll always associate with Andrew. (The rest of the disc is pretty great, too.)

26. "Lookiní Good," Magic Sam
West Side Soul, Delmark (recorded 1967)

While weíre on the subject of West Side Chicago musicians, I vividly remember coming across this album in a used record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in 1971. The LP I bought was on the Goody label and turned out to be a Mafia bootleg. I had heard of Magic Sam (born Sam Maghett), that he had died at age 32 in 1969 and that every Chicago guitarist Iíd ever seen interviewed had referred to him with reverence.

No surprise then that his high-pitched guitar and matching vocals just about bowled me over when I got the record home and listened to it. As good as all of it was, the tune I dropped the needle on over and over was this instrumental, with Sam playing lead against Mighty Joe Youngís rhythm guitar.

There are several Magic Sam releases available on CD, though most are lo-fi recordings. This one (now justifiably in the Blues Hall of Fame) and Black Magic (also on Delmark) stand heads above the rest as far as albums go. There is also an exceptional collection of his singles for the Cobra and Artistic labels released as West Side Guitar 1957Ė1966 on Paula Records.

27. "Lover Man," Charlie Parker
Legendary Dial Masters, Jazz Classics/City Hall (recorded 1946)

Bird came out of the fiercely swinging Kansas City scene of the late í30s. His first important gig was in the legendary band of Jay McShann, who knew all about the blues (and, incredibly, is still playing them today). Along with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, Parker went on to forge a radical new sound in jazz: be-bop. But even amidst the fractured tempos and flurries of notes, he never quite wiped the blues off his shoes.

"Lover Man" dates to a notorious session cut in L.A. for Ross Russellís Dial label. Parker, not the most stable of individuals to begin with, was hurt by the cold reception he received upon coming to California from the creative jazz cauldron of New York City. He needed a quart of whiskey to get through the session, then went back to his hotel and set fire to his room, earning himself a stay at Camarillo State Hospital.

This emotional turmoil is reflected in what he recorded that night, and especially this song, one of the most anguished pieces of music you will ever hear. Itís said that Parker never forgave Russell for releasing this, but we should be grateful a hundred times over that he did.

28. "Crying Blues," Charles Mingus
Blues & Roots, Atlantic (recorded 1959)

Speaking of bluesy jazz (and of disordered minds), we present to you one of the absolute geniuses of 20th century music. Mingus was one wigged-out cat who managed to combine the art of arrangement and composition with group improvisation, often to breathtaking effect. Some of his excursions (especially when saxophonist Eric Dolphy was in his group) were as outside as anything Coltrane ever did. Others swung ferociously.

If you feel intimidated by jazz, or think itís too sophisticated, too intellectual, or too something, this is a great place to get over it. Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun suggested that the great bassist record a whole album of blues. "He wanted to give them a barrage of soul music: churchy, blues, swinging, earthy," said Mingus, and thatís exactly what he delivered on Blues & Roots. If I were exiled to spend eternity at Bob Jones University, this is one of the discs Iíd have to have with me.

The song weíve chosen is a slow blues that begins with a sexy Booker Ervin tenor saxophone, followed by bass and piano solos before everyone joins in to complement the leaderís vocal wails. Itís a treasure.

29. "Insane Asylum," Koko Taylor
What It Takes, MCA/Chess (recorded 1967)

Willie Dixon was Kokoís patron saint at Chess Records, and his fingerprints ó along with his voice ó are all over this one. Wrapping up our mini-theme of mental instability that began with Bird and Mingus (who was familiar with the inside of Bellevue) is this little passion play, a sort of demented "St. James Infirmary" with a happy ending. Dixon goes out to the asylum, finds his baby there and asks her whatís up with that. Taylor, in her best "Madwoman of Chaillot" voice, shrieks that without his love sheíd rather hang there, but he can let her be his slave and save her from an early grave. He decides thatís cool and off they go into the Thorazine sunset.

30. "Burniní Hell," John Lee Hooker
Hooker íN Heat, EMI (recorded 1970)

I have so much personal attachment to this album. At the time I certainly was aware of the blues and, like many people my age, was enamored of numerous blues-rock bands of the era. Then I picked up this two-LP set on a whim and everything changed. The first disc features Hooker solo or with simple accompaniment from Alan Wilson on harp or piano. With John Lee stomping out the beat with his foot and intoning so low, I just heard everything I liked in music peeled away to its most basic, bedrock layer. I was Hooked.

Canned Heat, often maligned as simply a psychedelic "boogie" band, was actually anchored by three blues scholars, Bob Hite, Wilson and guitarist Henry Vestine. "Burniní Hell," a song Hooker originally cut for Riverside in 1959, is such a bald statement of belief (or non-belief) that itís shocking in its honesty. Wilsonís harmonica perfectly matches the feel of the song, so much so that Hooker says in an aside, "I donít know how he follow me, but he do." Together they create an unholy energy that builds in intensity until John Lee growls, "I donít believe in no heaven / I donít believe in no hell / When I die where I go / Canít nobody tell." If a presidential candidate had the balls to stand up and say this heíd get my vote in an instant.

31. "Throw Your Time Away," Frank Edwards
Done Some Traveliní, Trix (recorded 1972)

Iím sure my pen pal Pete Lowry will be thrilled that I brought this obscurity to light. Born in 1909, "Black Frank" was a guitarist/harmonica player who called Atlanta home. He hung with locals like Blind Willie McTell, Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss, fair pickers every one. He recorded a few sides for Victor in 1941 and two more for Regal in 1949 with backing by Weaver. Lowry rediscovered him in 1971 and soon brought him into the studio to make his only album.

This is nothing-fancy acoustic blues, not at all like the Delta variety or any other particular strain I can identify. The song has a nice airy effect, with Edwardsí vocals accompanied by his rack-mount harp and chorded guitar on the backbeat, with light rhythm guitar provided by Steve Carson. The liner notes claim that itís a song about "the ways of young girls," but I donít hear it. More like how we canít stop the passage of time. Whatever, there is something very infectious about it.

32. "I Found a Love," Wilson Pickett & the Falcons
In the Midnight Hour, Rhino (recorded 1961)

The Wicked soon would go on to even greater success as a solo act with numerous top-of-the-chart hits, but this one didnít do too shabbily. Originally issued on LuPine and then picked up by Atlantic, it made it to #6 R&B and #75 pop on Billboardís listing. Not bad for a song whose lead singer sounds like he was ripped by the vocal cords directly out of some Holiness church. (And in case youíre wondering whether thereís still gospel music that sounds like this, check out lead singer Lloyd Fradieu of the Crownseekers from Marrero, Louisiana.)

This is essential Detroit soul music, pre-Motown, with backing vocalists that included future heavies Eddie Floyd and Mack Rice. Aside from Pickettís tonsil-tearing vocal, what makes the tune just perfect is Robert Wardís "Chinese" guitar playing, adding just the right edge to a deliciously lo-fi sound.

33. "Forgive Me Darling," Robert Ward
Fear No Evil, Black Top (recorded 1990)

Dry Branch, Georgia, native Ward was the leader of the Ohio Untouchables (later to become, without him, the Ohio Players) when he lived in Dayton in the í60s. In addition to backing Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd, he recorded numerous sides for labels like LuPine and Groove City (available on CD as Hot Stuff from Relic Records) throughout that decade before settling in as a studio guitarist for Motown. (Thatís Robert on the Tempsí "Papa Was a Rolling Stone.")

He eventually moved back to Georgia, and obscurity, until the efforts of Black Topís Hammond Scott to locate him paid off in 1990 when Ward came into a New Orleans studio to re-cut several of his regional hits and a bunch of new tunes. "Forgive Me" is essentially one anguished phrase repeated over and over, with Wardís watery guitar lines providing a spidery balance to the gospel groove.

One of my great musical memories is seeing Robert perform solo (with occasional vocal help from his wife Roberta) at Storyville in New Orleans in the early í90s. Itís not often that just one man and an unaccompanied electric guitar can cast a spell on a room, but thatís what he did.

There hasnít been a new Robert Ward CD since 1995, so another comeback is overdue.

34. "Stop!," Lonnie Mack
Attack of the Killer V, Alligator (recorded 1989)

One guitarist who picked up on what Robert Ward was putting down was Lonnie Mack; in fact, this live disc also features a strong performance of "I Found a Love." Hailing from the Cincinnati area, Mack enjoyed chart success at the age of 22 with two instrumentals: his own "Wham" and a version of Chuck Berryís "Memphis." He eventually veered off into country (releasing songs like 1974ís "Rednecks Need Loviní Too"), but in 1985 he planted himself firmly in the blues camp with Strike Like Lightniní, produced by Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was also a musical collaborator on the disc.

Stevie once told me that Lonnie Mack had the greatest soul shout of all time, and he puts it to good use on "Stop!" Even at just over nine minutes thereís no wasted time, as it slowly builds and builds with great fretwork and an emotional delivery that culminates with Lonnie wailing at his woman, "Youíve got to stop hurting me."

35. "I Wanna Know," Katie Webster
Katie Webster, Paula (recorded c. 1960)

The recently departed "Swamp Boogie Queen" was a two-fisted piano pounder, best known today for her three Alligator CDs released between 1988 and 1991. Her roots go much deeper, as she was at the keys for Phil Phillipsí huge 1959 hit "Sea of Love," played with Otis Redding and opened for him for three years, narrowly missing out on the plane crash that took his life.

She was a charismatic performer who battled back from a 1993 stroke to continue her career on stage. Her early work for west Louisiana producer Jay Miller was staunchly in the swamp blues vein, and this one blends a tenor sax with her piano playing and the kind of soulful wailing you can tell Iím a sucker for.

36. "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior," The Hightower Brothers
The Best of the Hightower Brothers, Nashboro (recorded c. 1962)

Back in 1967 a group called the Five Stairsteps did a marvelous cover of the Miraclesí "Ooh Baby Baby." They were a brother group with ages ascending regularly from their falsetto lead singer Cubie, who was something like eleven years old. Of course, when youíre eleven maybe itís not falsetto but the real thing.

The reason I mention this lesser-known footnote in the annals of soul is that the Hightowers are remarkably similar in both sound and composition. Rev. Nick Hightower and his sons first drew attention in the late í50s when kiddie-groups were a hot item. By the time "Pass Me Not" was cut, lead singer Robert Lee "Little Sugar" would have been 12 or 13. He sings in a high pure voice on the first read-through of the lyrics, but then gets into some serious soul shouting of his own. Incredibly, according to Opal Louis Nations, "Little Sugar" was still active in the gospel world as of 1995, but in a non-singing role as guitarist for Slim Hunt and the Supreme Angels.

More recently the song has made itself appealing to another brother act. As the title track of the CD on Arhoolie by Sacred Steel artists the Campbell Brothers with Katie Jackson, it is given a fantastic, inspiring, Hendrix-like reading on pedal steel guitar.

37. "Raininí in My Life," Walter "Wolfman" Washington
The Best of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, Vol. 2, Mardi Gras (recorded 1981)

Wolfman is a cornerstone of New Orleans funk whose provenance begins with his uncle, Lightniní Slim, and cousin Ernie K-Doe. It extends from his youthful stays during the í60s in the bands of Lee Dorsey (thatís his guitar on "Ride Your Pony") and Irma Thomas, to a lengthy stint as bandleader for Johnny Adams and finally the formation of his own long-running band, the Roadmasters. Heís a mercurial entertainer who can light up a room when heís on his game.

"Raininí" was recorded for Senator Jonesí Hep Me label at Allen Toussaintís Sea-Saint Studio, but the results of that fine session quickly sank beneath the waves when Jones folded the label soon after. It has since resurfaced on Maison de Soul, Charly and most recently on this waxing. This is a soulful blues ballad built on a foundation of piano, churchy organ, punchy bass, drums and Walterís sublime guitar and vocal.

38. "Losing Hand," Ray Charles
The Birth of Soul (Atlantic) (recorded 1953)

Have you ever considered that thereís probably a whole generation of young people that only knows Brother Ray as a TV soda pop huckster? Excuse me while I go over here and rip my face off.

OK, now I feel better. Let me just say that Ray has had more influence on the shape of American popular music than anyone besides, oh, God. Virtually anything he recorded for Atlantic could be on this list. Iíve always been drawn to this simple blues about a man who gambled and lost at love and doesnít understand any of it. Mickey Baker contributes some understated guitar.

In addition to his broadcasting prowess, the Rooster is the only writer to have appeared, in one guise or another, in every issue of BLUES ACCESS.

Rooster Alert: You can hear other choice slices of Rooster Music every week on the syndicated radio program Blues From the Red Rooster Lounge. If itís not available in your area, have your favorite station contact Red Rooster Radio Productions for a sample CD: (303) 443-7245.


©2000 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA