Floyd McDaniel with Dave Specter & the Bluebirds
West Side Baby
Delmark 706
How is it possible that the blues world remained unaware of Floyd McDaniel for so long? When the guitarist/singer passed away in 1995, a day after turning 80, he was in the middle of a period of "rediscovery," but how can it have taken decades to get him into the studio after stellar performances at blues festivals in Chicago and elsewhere all through the 1980s?

After 1994's stunning Let Your Hair Down, it was apparent that McDaniel was back, a "bluesman" who had deep roots first in jazz (he had his first guitar lessons from Claude Adams, Ellington's long-time guitarist, and Charlie Christian was a friend, as were Billie Holiday and Ben Webster) and had attended school and played in high school bands with Nat King Cole.

In the '40s McDaniel found his way to the blues through family friend T-Bone Walker, who would serve as a mentor; late in that decade he also became the guitarist for the Five Blazes, whose eclectic work was reissued last year (see review in BA #33). The 1994 recording of McDaniel and his band, the Blues Swingers, came some seven years after that group assembled and would prove his last with this swinging, horn-drenched R&B band (with an emphasis on the "B").

Thankfully, there is more. Detlev Hoegen, the vigilant owner of the European Crosscut label, is like Delmark's Bob Koester -- a committed blues lover with an ear on the music that overrides an eye on the market. In tandem they have given us a final gift, this relaxed and swinging live set from a 1994 date in Germany, McDaniel backed by Dave Specter and his tight, sympathetic band (this same festival yielded Specter's Live in Europe, another terrific Hoegen-Koester release).

Specter is a great choice to provide back-up; his evolution as a guitarist has taken a path the opposite of McDaniel -- from blues to jazz. And the two mesh like old musical friends throughout West Side Baby. This set includes songs old -- W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" -- and others very "Chicago" -- like "Red Top," "Everyday I Have the Blues" and "Mean Old World" -- but McDaniel, 79 when this recording was made, infuses his swinging sensibility into every one and makes them all new again.

Not that he can't burn when he wants -- his bittersweet solo on his own "West Side Baby" is an arch-top lover's delight with the ghost of T-Bone lingering in the notes. Jazz lines erupt in "Route 66" and especially "Red Top," where Specter is inspired to some fine soloing of his own. Even Tad Robinson, guesting throughout on harp, is inspired and blows a great third-position solo on "Sweet Home Chicago." Floyd obviously had everyone flying on stage this particular night, and his energetic attack on "Hold It," which fades as the album closes, has you wanting more.

If you think that classic tunes like those featured here have little life left in them, McDaniel will show you a new light. Detlev Hoegen and Bob Koester should be thanked for giving us one more precious memory of Floyd McDaniel.

-- Tom Ellis III

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.