Blues Access Winter 2001
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Rooster Pickin's  
rooster music: the first 2000 years (part 5) 

We’re getting down to the nitty gritty in our mission to select the great songs of the first two millennia. (Yes, it’s pure coincidence that they were all recorded in the last 75 years or so.) What was originally conceived of as an annotated list of 101 performances has transmuted into an imaginary (so far, at least, until some record label realizes its unbridled commercial potential) six-CD set. And as we near the end, the decisions become tougher.

But fear not. There’s a proven scientific system at work here to decide what gets in: We run each prospect by the Rooster, and whatever fluffs his feathers earns the green light. It’s not foolproof (and in light of recent current events, what is?), but the Howlin’ Fowl hasn’t let us down yet. Some of these were hits (but sometimes somebody else’s hits); more of them are less obvious. They're all selected with the idea that when you hear them, they will move you.

Of course we don’t expect you to have access to all of these — only the Rooster in his archival vastness can make that claim. Luckily, you’re not out in the cold no matter what the size of your CD collection. If you’re lucky enough to live near a radio station that carries Blues From the Red Rooster Lounge, you’ll get a dose of Rooster Music every week. Now let the revels begin.

75. "Confessin’ the Blues" Little Walter
His Best, MCA/Chess (recorded 1958)

He was the prototype for amplified blues harmonica, changing the way the instrument was played almost single-handedly. Walter Jacobs lived rough, played rough and died rough. He was a mainstay of the classic early version of the Muddy Waters Band. He came out from behind Muddy’s gigantic shadow in 1952 and managed 15 singles that made it onto the R&B charts.

Walter wrote "Confessin’ the Blues," and while it’s not an all-stops-out harmonica showcase like "Juke" or "Roller Coaster," it is an enduring composition and a performance that gives proof of his prowess as a powerful blues singer. Having Luther Tucker and Jimmy Lee Robinson’s guitars and Willie Dixon’s (somewhat distorted) bass aboard doesn’t hurt, either. The Stones thought enough of it to put it on one of their early albums.

76. "Down in Mississippi" J.B. Lenoir
Vietnam Blues, Evidence Music (recorded 1966)

Originally recorded in Chicago for the German L+R label under the supervision of the omnipresent Willie Dixon, this was first released on LP in the U.S. on John Mayall’s Polydor subsidiary, Crusade Records. Simply titled J.B. Lenoir, it was Crusade #1 — one and only, to the best of my knowledge — and featured some interesting commentary from his widow between songs. Driving across the USA in my Chevrolet in the early ’70s I got hooked on a cassette copy of it.

Lenoir (pronounced Lenore) was reputed to have a sizzling stage show and given to wearing zebra-striped sports jackets. Flamboyancy was not uncommon in Chicago night spots, but the kind of topical songs that Lenoir wrote ("Eisenhower Blues," "Vietnam Blues," "Shot on James Meredith") were anything but commonplace, as much for their cogency as for their themes. The tune at hand — a straightforward acoustic presentation — is no lightweight, as it ruminates on growing up in a state where you couldn’t always hunt rabbits, but "season was always open on me." Ry Cooder was a fan: He included a version in the soundtrack of the movie Crossroads.

77. "12:15 Slow Goonbash Blues" Shuggie Otis
Shuggie’s Boogie: Shuggie Otis Plays the Blues, Epic/Legacy (recorded 1969)

Before there were 15-year-old blues guitar shredders lurking at the apron of every stage, there was Shuggie Otis. Born to the blues as the eldest son and namesake of R&B giant Johnny Otis, his candle burned brightly as a solo recording artist for a few years before disappearing in the disco wind of the early ’70s.

Shuggie, however, is neither dead nor buried. He was an integral part of the Johnny Otis show until at least the late ’80s, has played in the background of numerous blues and R&B albums and now lives in Petaluma, California. He has raised a family and gigs around the area with his own band, described as a "unique blend of power blues, rock, jazz, funk and country."

As a young teenager he signed a contract with Columbia Records. When labelmate Al Kooper learned about it, he requested permission to record another "super session" album with Otis. The result was Kooper Session: Al Kooper Introduces Shuggie Otis, the LP that originally featured this song. "Slow Goonbash" is a long, after-hours, slow blues jam, done in one take. Shuggie plays in a single-note style reminiscent of B.B. King, with Kooper bubbling up on organ and Mark Klingman filling things out on piano.

In 1986 and ’87 the Johnny Otis Orchestra played a couple week-long gigs in the fancy ballroom of a downtown Denver hotel and Ms. Nancy and I spent several nights in attendance. The one that stands out was in front of a small mid-week crowd when Shuggie — much to his dad’s apparent dismay — simply put the hammer down, just ripping on wild electric blues riffs.

78. "Love, Life and Money" Johnny Winter
Third Degree, Alligator (recorded 1986)

Cribbed from the Little Willie John songbook (actually written by Julius Dixon and Henry Glover), this should have been a huge hit but never was, if only for the great lyric: "If it’s gonna rain down misery/Why does it all have to fall on me?" Winter and producer Dick Shurman wisely plucked it for Johnny’s third and final album on Alligator.

Another wise choice was Dr. John, whose piano melds seamlessly with Winter’s guitar playing and impassioned vocalizing. (And the good Doctor may well have suggested the song: We heard him play it — on guitar, no less! — at a festival many years ago.) Winter reins in the notes-per-second count and turns out a nicely contained version that smolders from start to finish.

79. "Lost Someone" James Brown
Live at the Apollo, Polydor (recorded 1962)

Seeing James Brown at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater in 1967 was one of those life-defining moments for this Crimson Flipster. The band was tight as nobody’s business and JB, more electric than Kool-Aid, flashed all his moves and then some.

This recording from the Apollo Theater in New York may be nearly 40 years old, but it still holds the title as the Greatest Live Album Ever Made. And if you only know James as a superbad funkster, let me assure you that nobody delivered a soul ballad any better than he. On the original LP "Lost Someone" was rudely split between the end of side one and the beginning of side two. On CD we can hear its 10-plus minutes in all their uninterrupted glory, as he masterfully works the adoring audience.

80. "I Need Your Lovin’" Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford
The Fire/Fury Records Story, Capricorn (recorded 1962)

Drummer Gardner (from Philadelphia) and keyboard player Ford, a Louisiana native, weren’t exactly one-hit wonders (their follow-up "Don’t You Worry" scraped the bottom of the Billboard pop chart and made it to #7 on the R&B listing). They were already established musicians: producer Bobby Robinson discovered them playing as the house band at Harlem’s hottest night spot, Small’s Paradise.

Still, if anyone remembers their names today it has to be for the immortal incantation that opens their debut on Robinson’s Fire label: "Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa Whoa-whoa." Lyrically, the rest of the song is a call and response of Gardner’s shouted answers played off of the phrase "I need your lovin’ every day." That doesn’t sound like much to make an R&B classic out of, but there’s a great energy and a gospel intensity to the voices that’s just plain irresistible.

81. "Trouble in My Way" Swan Silvertones
Love Lifted Me/My Rock, Specialty (recorded 1952)

82. "When Troubles Burden Me Down" Vernard Johnson
I’m Alive, Elektra Nonesuch (recorded 1990)

… And speaking of gospel intensity, here’s a couple straight shots of the undiluted Good News. Church music was a huge influence on early rhythm & blues, lending its vocal style, propulsion and syncopation. Not to mention that quality called "soul." (I’ll refrain from inserting a long diatribe on what passes for R&B these days, but when people like Paula Abdul, Donna Summer, House of Pain, Shaquille O’Neal and the Red Hot Chili Peppers appear in the book MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide alongside Dave Bartholomew, James Brown, Dr. John and King Curtis, it definitely signals a confusion — if not a perversion — of terminology.)

The Rev. Claude A. Jeter of the Swan Silvertones has been compared to Sam Cooke, the Temptations, the Impressions and Al Green. Given that Jeter (still around at age 86) formed the group in 1938, it’s safe to say that he provided inspiration to all these great soul stars and more. The Silvertones (who got their full name when their 1940s radio show out of Knoxville, Tennessee, was sponsored by the Swan Bakery) recorded for King Records in the late ’40s, Specialty in the early ’50s and then Vee-Jay into the mid-’60s.

It was those Specialty sides (of which this is one) that virtually define the term "hard" gospel and at the same time provide a template for much of what was to come from Ray Charles and other R&B stars of the next two decades. Listening to "Trouble in My Way" you can almost see Jeter and co-lead Robert Crenshaw ripping their ties and jackets off and mopping their brows with a hand towel. Meanwhile, the rest of the group, accompanied only by kick drum and brushes, sets up a wild syncopated backing that renders useless any attempt to sit still.

Saxophonist Vernard Johnson, owner of a doctorate in music from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has managed to stay well below the radar outside the gospel world, though he’s been "blowing for the Lord" since the mid-’60s. Originally from Kansas City and now residing in Fort Worth, Texas, he has numerous recordings, but only I’m Alive has made it onto CD.

This one, as he describes it on the disc, is "a gospel song that kinda sounds like the blues, but the words are so true to life," as he starts to sing: "because they talk about trouble …" What follows is reminiscent of King Curtis, Junior Walker, Rahsaan Roland Kirk — take your pick of sax players who walk up to the mic and just start steppin in it. While Johnson, unlike some other gospel artists, has great respect for blues and jazz, he insists that his playing is patterned on the human voice lifted in praise.

Say "Amen," somebody.

83. "That’s How Strong My Love Is" Mattie Moultrie
Tell It Like It Is: #1 Soul Hits of the ’60s (and some that should have been), Vol. 1, Relativity (recorded 1966)

84. "I’ve Got Dreams to Remember" Otis Redding
The Very Best of Otis Redding, Rhino (recorded 1967)

There are five artists on our list this time who never made it out of their 30s. Do you know which one lived the longest? The shortest? We’ll get back to you on that one.

If you look up the term "soul man" in the dictionary, you’ll find Otis Redding’s picture next to it. (Well, at least in my dictionary anyway.) Yet, from the time he released his first single, "These Arms of Mine," until the twin-engine plane he was riding in crashed into Lake Monoma in December, 1967, his career spanned a mere five years. Incredibly, until the posthumous "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay" went to #1 in 1968, he never had a song that cracked the top 20 on the pop (i.e., white people’s) charts. Not "Satisfaction," not "Try a Little Tenderness," not "Mr. Pitiful." Not even the stunning "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)," which climbed no higher than #21 (though it did make it to #2 R&B).

As a stone fan of the Big O, I tried to get our small college to bring him in for homecoming in 1966, but they balked at his asking price, which I think was $3500. And then it was too late. Maybe because I heard each of his hits a thousand times, the lesser-known "Dreams" is the song that keeps pulling me back to him all these years later. Recorded in February, 1967, it wasn’t released until late 1968. As a follow-up to "Dock of the Bay" it fell short of the Top 40, but went to #6 R&B. I’m a sucker for slow, sad ones, and this more than fills that bill.

Mattie Moultrie won’t win any awards for name recognition. I can’t say I’d ever heard of her until I found her ultra-tough version of a song that Otis rode to glory in late 1964 on this excellent compilation of soul hits and honorable misses. Mattie cut this composition by Roosevelt Jamison (the Memphis hospital orderly who became the manager for both James Carr and O.V. Wright) in 1966. Produced by Richard Gottehrer, flush from his huge success with the McCoys’ "Hang on Sloopy," it was released on Columbia with high hopes, but the record never took off commercially.

When the reissue came out, here’s what Ted Drozdowski said about it in the Boston Phoenix: "Her superhuman voice rings with devotion and strength born of the church and the cotton fields, bearing the dignity and determination and love that carried generations of African-Americans up out of slavery and bias to a higher place. To connect with this song is to feel the power of the human spirit so profoundly that it's joyful and humbling."

Today she is known by her married name, Mattie Moultrie Wilson. She’s an accomplished gospel singer and evangelist, as well as a playwright, actress and composer of more than 100 songs.

85. "Life Without You" Stevie Ray Vaughan
In Step, Epic (recorded 1989)

86. "The Things That I Used to Do" Guitar Slim
Sufferin’ Mind, Specialty (recorded 1953)

Ah, Stevie, Rave On. I was a reluctant fan, but Vaughan eventually won me over. I had seen him a few times during his coked-out phase and even emceed a "Blues on the Rocks" show at Red Rocks Amphitheater where SRV headlined above Albert King and B.B. King. Given the context, I had high hopes for a blues-filled closing set, but what he played was generally disappointing power rock.

What changed my attitude was a night a few years later in New Orleans on the Riverboat President. During a typically high-energy set he calmed down the frenzied crowd with this sweet number, pausing in the middle to talk about hitting bottom with drugs before finally finding his bearings. It was obviously deeply felt, as were the heart-rending guitar licks that followed. I left that show totally exhilarated and with a special fondness for "Life Without You."

I was also mightily impressed with a radio interview that Stevie did with Timothy White, some of which is excerpted on the 1999 Epic/Legacy reissues of his studio CDs. Sitting in a studio in New York, guitar in hand, he discussed with loving reverence the blues greats who had influenced him, picking up his ax to demonstrate their styles.

What we have here is a live bonus track from a night in Denver in 1989 on the CD re-release of In Step. The original studio rendition was on 1985’s Soul to Soul.

What Texas guitarist — Stevie Ray certainly included — doesn’t owe a debt to Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones? Born in Mississippi, he moved to New Orleans and was a regular on the Louisiana-Texas circuit, where his live performances became the stuff of legend. Dressed in outrageously colored suits (hair often dyed to match), no stage was big enough to hold him when he started roaming around a club, trailing several hundred feet of guitar cord behind him.

Produced by Johnny Vincent at Cosimo Matassa’s renowned J&M Studio in New Orleans, "Things" shot to #1 R&B in early 1954. The song was arranged by Ray Charles (who also played piano on the date), but the credit for its success belongs entirely to Slim’s fervent vocal and his distorted guitar sound. It provided the basis for several more of Slim’s recordings but was the only one to have any chart success.

87. "Thaw Out," Albert Collins
Truckin’ With Albert Collins, MCA (recorded 1962 or 1963)

The Iceman plays heavily on his nickname with this disc of early recordings made for Bill Hall’s TCF Hall Records. Titles include the million-selling "Frosty," "Don’t Lose Your Cool," "Icy Blue" and "Snow-Cone II."

I can’t pretend that "Thaw Out" is Collins’ best instrumental, but I go for its "Caravan"-like drumbeat and the cheesy organ that somehow makes it all the more effective. Albert jumps right in with that piercing attack before turning the middle part over to Walter McNeil for some organ riffs that Ron "Pigpen" McKernan of the Dead would’ve loved. Collins takes it home to the fade-out of a succinct offering that’s jukebox ready.

Albert continued making great records up until liver cancer took him in 1993, mixing studio albums with recordings of his dynamic live show. There’s nary a clunker in the bunch.

88. "Go Now," Bessie Banks
A Brand New Bag: #1 Soul Hits of the ’60s (and some that should have been), Vol. 3, Relativity (recorded 1964)

The only thing blue about the Moody Blues was their name and a terrific song that they rode to international stardom in 1965. At the time virtually no one knew that this was a remake of an R&B single on the Tiger label by one Bessie Banks. Not that it would’ve made any difference to the public that made the Moodys rich.

But had you been given the option, we’re sure that you, gentle reader, would have invested your jukebox nickel on Bessie’s original every time (even though your girlfriend/boyfriend would’ve given you a hard time for always playing that "obscure stuff"). As good a record as the Moody Blues’ was (and it was), it only takes one listen to Banks’ anguished rendition to know that their cover was as pallid as any by Pat Boone or Patti Page.

Despite a few follow-up singles and an attempt to revive her career in the ’70s, Banks has sunk into obscurity without a trace that I could find. One bit of good news, though: Her husband — singer Larry Banks, whom she married on stage at the Royal Theater — had half the songwriting credit, so she at least should have seen some money from the Brits’ hit.

89. "Feeling Uneasy," Etta James
The Essential Etta James, MCA/Chess (recorded 1974)

This is one the superb vocalist considers a "lost song." Etta has recorded so many great numbers, spanning every decade of the rock’n’roll era. She’s one of those singers who, as the cliché goes, could sing the phone book and still get your attention.

"Feeling Uneasy," though, is more minimalist even than that. The track’s title provides the only lyric, sung at the end of 2:47 of Ms. James moaning over a smooth backing track highlighted by Gabriel Mekler’s piano. At the L.A. session where it was recorded, Mekler and Trevor Lawrence played the changes for her, expecting her to come up with the lyrics. "It was my first day out of rehab and I was wasted," James told biographer David Ritz. "I heard the music, the music was moving me, but all I could do was moan."

She never went back to add words to it, and listening to it now, anything more would have been superfluous. As with Charlie Parker and "Lover Man," this is a rare glimpse of a musician operating on pure emotion.

90. "Blue Lights," Tom Principato
Hot Stuff!, Powerhouse/Ichiban (recorded c. 1991)

Principato is a Washington, D.C., guitarist who has recorded with Danny Gatton, Geoff Muldaur and Jimmy Thackery, as well as turning out 10 discs of his own. During a stint in Boston in the ’80s he was the leader of the band Powerhouse. He has been awarded 16 Wammies (the D.C. local music award).

With "Blue Lights" he pushes all the right buttons in the "guitar weeper" category before digging in with some seriously gritty and impassioned playing. He gets such a beautiful distillation of the blues essence that you’re left wondering, "Haven’t I heard this somewhere before?" The answer is "no," because this is not a copy of anything else, and "yes," if you’ve ever traveled to the heart of the collective blues unconscious.

• •

About those musicians who died young: J.B. Lenoir passed on as the result of a car wreck at age 38; Little Walter met his demise in a street fight at 37; a plane crash killed Stevie Ray when he was 35; Guitar Slim essentially drank himself to death at age 32. And Otis? I still have trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that he was just 26 when they pulled his body out of that chilly Wisconsin lake.

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 it’s not available in your area, have your favorite station contact Red Rooster Productions for a sample CD: 303-443-7245.


©2001 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA