rooster music: the first 2000 years (part 6)
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Since we started the first column with our top 20 you might be tempted to think that it would be all downhill from there. But in listening to this group, I think it’s at least as strong as that one or any of the others. We managed to include some key artists that weren’t already touched on, although there’s enough we had to leave out that this project could have gone on almost indefinitely.
As an aside, that process of what to include or exclude reminds me of the Ken Burns Jazz series that was recently on public television. I’ve seen and heard this nine-part program criticized for what it left out — mainly for glossing over the last 30 years or so of jazz evolution — and for the way it approached the music and whose interpretations it leaned on. But this criticism overlooks two cornerstones of what any documentarian faces: (1) You have to have a point of view, and (2) You can’t include everything. To me, just the idea that 19 hours depicting this part of the African-American contribution to our musical heritage was beamed into millions of homes is a ray of light in a modern culture that usually seems geared to the lowest possible common denominator. If you missed it, be sure to catch this brilliant series in re-runs or pick up the boxed set of tapes/DVDs.
OK. Music, maestro, please …
Don’t Have No Mercy" Rev.
Like his great contemporary Blind Willie Johnson, Davis was an unsighted purveyor of "holy blues." But where Johnson used an eerie slide guitar tone, Davis fingerpicked with just his thumb and forefinger to masterful effect. He worked the streets of Harlem for some 40 years and mentored countless young players who were astounded at his virtuosity (Roy Book Binder once paid him $5 for a lesson that ended up lasting about 12 hours.) While he’s best known for his version of "Samson and Delilah" (Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover version awoke renewed interest in him in the early ’60s), "Death Don’t Have No Mercy" straddles the line between religion and blues. In fact it may lean more toward the latter for its emphasis on death’s inevitability with no mention of redemption.
Affair" Lightnin’ Hopkins
This was part of a batch of songs that Lightnin’ recorded for Gold Star that was then sold to Modern Records in Los Angeles and released on its RPM label before finding its way into the Jewel catalogue. I first heard it on a tape that a friend had compiled from a blues radio show in Philadelphia. It stuck with me, and I eventually tracked it down on LP. Reminiscent of John Lee Hooker’s work from the same period, Hopkins’ tolling on the bass strings sets a dark tone in this tale of lost love and regret, while his high runs are like daggers piercing a broken heart.
Mae Blues" Frankie Lee Sims
Lightnin’s cousin, Frankie Lee Sims was another down-home Texas guitarist and singer who cut this little gem in Dallas in 1953. The oldest of 13 children, Sims managed to get a college education and taught school in rural Texas before thinking better of it and taking off for the Big D, where he hung out with Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and Smokey Hogg. "Lucy Mae" features just Sims’ electric guitar and a stripped-down drum kit in a simple and direct delivery.
Me" Sonny Boy Williamson
If Aleck "Rice" Miller had only chosen another stage name we wouldn’t be constantly having to distinguish him from the other harmonica virtuoso, John Lee Williamson, who was murdered in Chicago in 1948. Be that as it may, Rice was a genuine innovator and is the one most people think of when they think of blues harmonica. The stories of this big man’s hard living sound like tall tales but for the fact that they’re all so consistent. The mid-tempo "Help Me" (co-written with Willie Dixon) is one of a string of great records released on Checker between 1955 and 1964. The 1963 session is unusual in that it also features an organ (played by Lafayette Leake or Billy Emerson) which melds beautifully with Sonny Boy’s glorious harp work.
Now" Snooks Eaglin
Little-known outside his New Orleans home, Snooks is the kind of player who has more-celebrated guitarists bowing down and exclaiming, "We are not worthy." (During last year’s JazzFest, Bonnie Raitt stood in the background of his Rock’n’Bowl gig and fixed his broken strings for him.) A fiercely idiosyncratic individual (see Karl Bremer’s feature in BA #38), he draws from a huge repertoire of blues, funk, R&B and rock’n’roll tunes. He was first recorded on his own in 1958 by the late Dr. Harry Oster, who perceived him as a blind folk singer, even though Eaglin had already appeared on numerous Crescent City R&B sessions. "Answer Now" is a slow, pure soul instrumental that showcases Snooks’ playing framed by some of the city’s best musicians: keyboardists Sammy Berfect and David Torkanowsky, George Porter (who co-wrote the tune) on bass and dynamo Herman Ernest III on drums.
the Night" Professor Longhair & His Blues Scholars
In the days when giants roamed the earth, Fess recorded a cookin’ little blues rhumba with a band that included the legendary Earl Palmer on drums, Lee Allen and Alvin "Red" Tyler on saxophones, and Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at the controls. Hard to miss with a krewe like that, and the patron saint of New Orleans R&B absolutely nailed this one. Piano players have always held a place of special reverence in New Orleans, a city that’s turned out a multitude of spectacular players. But Henry Roeland Byrd has commanded obeisance from all who came after him — a list that includes Art Neville, Fats Domino, James Booker, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and a legion of others. More than 20 years after his death, Professor Longhair’s presence is still keenly felt in a town where the music never stops.
by Little (I’m Losing You)" Junior Wells
Junior’s first recordings for Mel London’s Chief and Profile labels were attempts to penetrate the R&B, not blues, market. So it’s ironic that on Wells’ first hit record (#23 R&B), there is none of his harmonica playing to be found — that was saved for the slow, bluesy flip side, "Come On in This House." Then again, the original of his best-known song, "Messin’ With the Kid," recorded the next year, is harpless as well. Junior is joined here on vocals by the ubiquitous Willie Dixon and London himself (who wrote the song), but he gets to show off his pipes on the repeated "Little by little I’m losing you, that I can see" refrain. At any rate, the song was a springboard for Wells’ career as one of the dominant forces in Chicago blues for the next four decades.
Before Sunrise" Elmore James
Back in 1970, fed up with a depressing winter in the mid-Atlantic seaboard, I threw my sleeping bag and a bunch of cassettes in my car and took off for Florida. Along the way I picked up a couple hitchhikers — both lovers of fine music — and we about wore out the tape I’d made of an Elmore James LP that I’d probably picked up in a drugstore. "Blues Before Sunrise," with its hard-driving beat, became one of our favorites (although I hadn’t written down the song titles and thought he was singing "I’ve got the blues for Sandra"!). From the same session that produced his classic "Dust My Blues," the song was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio with top New Orleans sidemen Edward Frank on piano, Earl Palmer on drums and Frank Fields at the bass. It features Elmore’s trademark slashing slide guitar and unrestrained vocals. It also happens to be the last single released on the Bihari brothers’ Flair label.
You Ever Loved a Woman" Freddy King
The big man from Dallas is remembered best as a "Texas guitarist," but he really refined his game in Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1960 he signed with Syd Nathan’s King Records out of Cincinnati, the label of such R&B stars as Little Willie John, James Brown, Hank Ballard, Wynonie Harris and Bill Doggett, to name a few. Freddy teamed with pianist Sonny Thompson for a string of well-received instrumentals ("Hide Away," "Sen-Sa-Shun" and "The Stumble," for starters), but it also became apparent that his singing was in the same league as his guitar work. This slow blues is one of Freddy’s best, and of course it’s familiar to fans of King devotee Eric Clapton, who used it to express his feelings about his relationship with George Harrison’s wife, Patty Boyd.
for Marili" T-Bone Walker
Aaron Thibeaux Walker just may be the most influential guitarist of the 20th Century. In interview after interview with guitar players of a certain age, from B.B. King on down, Walker’s name repeatedly comes up as The Man, the one they most wanted to emulate. He was a smooth singer with astounding fretboard facility and an electrifying stage show. His sophisticated style is the foundation upon which the "West Coast sound" in blues is built. This deeply bluesy instrumental is just one of a host of superb tracks he cut for Atlantic between 1955 and 1957 in Chicago and Los Angeles. (Incidentally, these recordings lack the grainy "AM radio" tone often common to that era; they all sound incredibly crisp and modern.)
Me Down Easy" Bettye LaVette
Away" Jimmy Hughes
in My Mind" Maxine Brown
Let us now detour into Soulsville for a bit. You can read elsewhere in this issue about the history of Ms. LaVette, but let it suffice to say that her sweet/tough voice used to entrance me when it appeared on the radio shows of my ’60s DJ heroes like Fat Daddy and Hot Rod. The Detroit teenager poured on the emotion and was rewarded with a Top 20 R&B hit. The song has lost none of its potency today, as evidenced by the over-eight-minute version that closes her recent Let Me Down Easy in Concert CD.
Yet another gospel-turned-R&B singer from the ’60s, Alabaman Jimmy Hughes’ "Steal Away" was the first release on Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall’s Fame label. His composition was an R&B sensation in 1964 and spawned at least a dozen cover versions, including those by ZZ Hill, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, Etta James and Bobby Bland. He followed with other hits like "Neighbor, Neighbor" and "Why Not Tonight" (mining a country-soul vein similar to that of Solomon Burke) but retired from music in the early ’70s. Hughes died of cancer in 1997.
South Carolina native Maxine Brown also sang gospel as a member of two New York-based groups, but found some commercial success when this ballad, her self-composed first single for the tiny Nomar label, went to #2 on the R&B charts in 1961. She’s best remembered for her pop hit "Oh No, Not My Baby," a song that Carole King and David Goffin wrote for the Shirelles, and for her duet with Chuck Jackson on "Something You Got."
Redentor" Charlie Musselwhite
Charlie would probably cringe that I’ve chosen for this list something he recorded in 1967 with Chicago white-boy bluesers Barry Goldberg and Harvey Mandel, along with blues drumming stalwart Fred Below, Jr. But "Christo Redentor" (sometimes incorrectly spelled "Redemptor") is an evocative instrumental that has refused to wear out its welcome over the years. Musselwhite still had it as part of his repertoire at least into the late ’80s. The song, composed by jazz pianist Duke Pearson, takes its name from the gigantic statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Both melancholy and uplifting, it lends itself well to Musselwhite’s blues interpretation. Other significant recordings of the song are by trumpeter Donald Byrd and guitarist Mandel, who made it the title track of his 1968 LP, where I first heard it.
Time I’m Gone for Good" Bobby Bland
Written by Houston bluesman Oscar Perry (who had half the composer’s credit stolen from him by Don Robey aka "Deadric Malone"), the production of "Gone for Good" echoes the subdued mood of "Christo Redentor." This was Bland’s first album for ABC-Dunhill after his huge run of successes with Robey’s Duke label. ABC decided to record him in L.A. and match him with pop producer Steve Barri and a group of jazz musicians that included Crusaders Larry Carlton and Wilton Felder, What could have been a recipe for disaster turned triumphant when "Gone for Good" rose to #5 R&B, Bland’s 22nd Top 10 hit.
Wish You Would" Billy Boy Arnold
Arnold first recorded this one for Vee Jay in 1955, and when the time came to make his "comeback" album for Alligator, it was chosen as the lead-off track. As far as Billy Boy’s vocal and harp playing talents go, the nearly 40 intervening years were as mere moments. Also an accomplished guitarist, Arnold leaves that role in the capable hands of Rick Holmstrom and Zach Zunis. Together they recreate the energy of the original … and then some. In popular terms, Billy Boy (early on a disciple of the other Sonny Boy — John Lee Williamson) reclaimed the song from the Clapton-era Yardbirds, who cut a comparatively white-bread version of it in 1964.
Bound" William Clarke
My first contact with Bill Clarke came in the early ’80s at the unlikeliest of venues: the Idaho Springs resort in the mountains of Colorado. Top bill on the show was George "Harmonica" Smith with J.D. Nicholson and Philip Walker. The stage was set up, bizarrely, in a small area next to the steaming indoor pool, with moms, dads and kids splashing obliviously nearby — it was like blues in a greenhouse. Smith introduced Clarke as his "protegé" and the younger man, like everyone on the stage that improbable night, proceeded to just wail.
Years later, in the fall of 1996, Catfish Whitey and I drove through a breath-taking thunderstorm to catch Clarke at a Denver club, where he put on another impressive show. We didn’t hang around to talk because we were going across town to catch Luther Allison’s last set of the night. Little did we anticipate that this harp monster would be gone in less than two months (and Luther less than a year after).
Of his many fine recordings, "Pawnshop Bound" is the one I return to again and again. Someone at Alligator must share my enthusiasm, because they made it the first track on this excellent compilation. (See a review of the reissue of Clarke’s mid-’80s album, Tip of the Top, in this issue.)
Night City Blues" Chris Cain Band
Life" B.B. King
Earlier in this column we’ve already crowned T-Bone as "most influential guitarist." But then there’s also B.B. King and, really, what would modern blues possibly be like without him? It’s a certainty that Chris Cain’s sound would be quite a bit different. Born and bred in the Bay Area, Cain still manages to have at least one of his feet firmly planted in Memphis, the burg that funneled both his Mississippi guitar idols, B.B. and Albert King. Late Night City Blues was Cain’s first album, recorded for Blue Rock’It, a label headed by Patrick Ford, drummer for the much-loved Charles Ford Band and the producer of all of Chris’ subsequent studio discs. The LP received four Handy nominations, and the aching six-minute title track marked Cain as a vocal, instrumental and songwriting talent to watch.
So if Chris Cain was listening to the Kings, who was B.B. listening to? How about Willie Nelson? In 1966 Willie was still a long time away from his "outlaw" status when ol’ B. pulled out this blistering version of Nelson’s country hit on the stage of a Chicago ghetto nightclub. (For good measure, B.B. recorded the song again in 1981 at a London concert with the Crusaders.) Just goes to show you that when you’re a world-class musician, those seemingly solid lines between musical styles can get mighty blurry.
in D Natural" Ronnie Earl
Dazzling guitars seem to be piling up here at the end. You almost have to wonder if the great Jimmy Rogers didn’t have second thoughts about the choice of his backup band for this European tour after Mr. Earl warmed up the crowd with this smashmouth version of the Earl Hooker theme. As much as I love Rogers, and even though this is by rights his album, Ronnie’s guitar explosion is the track I keep returning to.
the Years Go Passing By" Albert King
I've ended numerous radio shows with this one, so it only seems fitting to make it the caboose on this particular musical train. Recorded in Memphis (and credited to that ever-ready-to-claim-the-residuals "composer" Deadric Malone), it first appeared on Albert’s landmark album for Stax, Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert King was the first blues performer I ever saw live and, for that and other reasons, his music will always be special to me. He was a crusty and demanding character, as any musician who played for him will attest, but he could be sweet and tender as well. And that side of him was never better revealed than on this song.