|by Wayne Robins|
Johnny Otis may be the most underrated figure in American music. More than a talent scout, a singer, songwriter, producer, arranger and bandleader, he was a galvanizer, lighting a fire under the careers of everyone from Little Esther and Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Rushing and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
At home in musical settings from jump blues to doo-wop, he embodied this country’s musical economy from the declining fortunes of the big bands to the birth and thriving of rock’n’roll. He’s the living link between Basie and Presley, the Count and the King.
Though immortalized by his 1958 hit for Capitol Records, "Willie and the Hand Jive," Otis first made his mark just after World War II with a series of smash R&B singles for Savoy Records and an all-star touring revue. The Johnny Otis Rhythm and Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings (Savoy Jazz 92859) is a three-CD box covering the years 1945 to 1951, when there wasn’t a sound or a style on which Otis didn’t place his own joyous stamp.
The set begins with the original 1945 recording of "Harlem Nocturne" and another four tracks cut for the Excelsior label by the Johnny Otis Big Band, whose better- known players included tenor sax star Paul Quinichette, bassist Curtis Counce and future "Honky Tonk" man Bill Doggett on piano. Otis played drums on these sessions.
By 1949, the Johnny Otis "Orchestra" was smaller, spotlighting three guitarists including Otis’ long-running sidekick Pete Lewis. A good case could be made for "Guitar Boogie," spotlighting Lewis, as the first rock’n’roll-style guitar instrumental, and even a more conventional jump blues like "Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’" gives Lewis’ guitar unusual prominence for its time.
Little Esther Jones (later billed as Esther Phillips) was just 13 years old when she joined Otis’ Los Angeles-based troupe in the studio, and "Double Crossing Blues," a trash-talking duet with Bobby Nunn of the Robins, became a Number One R&B hit in early 1950. (Among the treats on the CD are a radio commercial cut by Otis and Esther to thank fans for buying the record while promoting their next single, and the Otis-penned theme song for famed Los Angeles DJ Hunter Hancock.)
The Robins, a slickly appealing vocal group, carried the Otis Orchestra to the Top Ten again with the exquisite "If It’s So Baby." In a few years the Robins would morph into the Coasters and, under the tutelage of writer-producers Leiber and Stoller, emerge as the great quasi-comic rock’n’roll vocal group with hit after hit on Atco Records.
Otis seemed to record endlessly during 1950 and 1951, wisely sensing that the demographics for R&B were getting younger and there would soon be a large youth market to tap. The musicianship never falters, however, even on obvious novelties like "The Turkey Hop" and "Lover’s Lane Boogie." But, like many three-disc sets, a little ear fatigue sets in before the third disc is done.
Otis would make a big comeback in 1958 with "Hand Jive" and triumph again in the mid-1960s with the publication of his autobiography, Listen to the Lambs, written in the wake of the Watts riots. (Otis, a man of Greek-American descent, so immersed himself in the culture of the African-American community that he never thought of himself as anything but black.)
And once again, in 1970, The Johnny Otis Show Live at Monterey! (now on CD as Epic/Legacy EK53628) would present his contemporaries Little Esther, Cleanhead Vinson, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton and Johnny’s son, guitar whiz Shuggie Otis, to a whole new young audience.
But these Savoy recordings are the roots, and they are deep.
Not long ago we were breezing through the 1999/2000 Fantasy Records catalog and were reminded of the remarkable number of terrific blues, R&B, rock and jazz labels and artists now under this corporate umbrella: Specialty, Stax/Volt, Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, Galaxy, Enterprise, Debut, Milestone, Takoma. We were particularly taken with the addendum section at the beginning, which listed a number of CDs we thought were unavailable, out of print, or that, to be honest, we didn’t know existed. This issue we’ll take a look at some Specialty stuff.
Art Neville: His Specialty Recordings 1956–1958 (Specialty SPCD 7023-2), He never had the solo career recognition of his brother Aaron, but this collection of solo demos, band demos, and a baker’s dozen studio tracks produced by Bumps Blackwell, Harold Battiste or Sonny Bono (!) captures the casual gusto of New Orleans during the early rock explosion. At 18 Art was already a veteran of the Hawkettes, whose "Mardi Gras Mambo" remains an eternal Crescent City jukebox hit, a polished pianist and good enough singer, and an earnest songwriter. (Most of his demos were originals.) Once signed to Specialty, his producers guided him towards novelties. Fortunately, New Orleans musicians tend to find loving eccentricity where others would look for desperate exploitation. So Neville is better than credible on "The Whiffenpoof Song," "Zing Zing," "Cha Dooky-Doo" and the irresistible Bono-produced "Arabian Love Call." None of these were hits, but fortunately Art had the family business to fall back on: the Neville Sounds, the Meters, and eventually, the Neville Brothers Band.
Roy Milton: Volume 2 — Groovy Blues (SPCD 7024) and Volume 3 — Blowin’ With Roy (SPCD 7060). I always figured one solid set from the Solid Sender would be enough. But Groovy Blues is groovy as groovy gets, featuring the vastly unappreciated vocal gifts of Camille Howard on the title cut. The set mostly roars, with standards like "On the Sunny Side of the Street" given Milton’s cockiest Central Avenue strut. The Blowin’ With Roy disc is a little weaker: the A&R genius responsible for "Along the Navajo Trail" should’ve been scalped. And too much of the material seems to underline Milton’s unusual synergy with Louis Prima.
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Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has been reissuing material from Moses Asch’s legendary Folkways label with great care and consideration. Both recent S-F releases, Big Bill Broonzy: Trouble in Mind (SFW CD 40131) and Memphis Slim: The Folkways Years (1959–1973) (SFW 40128), are as handsomely packaged as they are musically vital. The Slim disc is especially lively and diverse, consisting of solo piano tracks, piano-bass duets with Willie Dixon and piano-guitar get-togethers with Matt "Guitar" Murphy.
The material with Dixon, scattered through the disc, is supreme. The joint-jumpin’, blood-pumpin’ "Joggie Boogie" shows Slim and Dixon at their liveliest. "Stewball," another jaunt with Dixon, sounds like a spiritual at first listening. Perhaps it is, in its own way, if you can accept a prayer about a race horse. And "Beer-Drinking Woman" has a beautiful mid-tempo groove, with Slim’s wandering piano reflections given starch by Dixon’s firm foundation.
"Chicago Rent Party," narrated by Slim as Jump Jackson pounds the skins, looks back at some not-all-that-bad-old-days. The solo "San Juan Blues" sounds like a Professor Longhair blues rhumba, while "Key to the Highway" puts Slim in the role of sideman to singer and harp player Jazz Gillum.
Broonzy also does a version of "Key to the Highway" on his disc, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he also co-wrote the classic with Charlie Seger. The 1956 version on Trouble in Mind sounds as fresh (though much less loud and busy) than the Derek and the Dominos version 15 years later.
Broonzy wasn’t just a bluesman, of course. He found prominence in the late-’50s folk-blues revival, and his spiritual "This Train (Bound for Glory)" became an anthem of the early Civil Rights movement. (A version here, not surprisingly, features Pete Seeger). He stares segregation straight in the eye in "When Will I Be Called a Man."
There are also bedrock renditions of essentials from the blues canon. "C.C. Rider" continues on the road Ma Rainey once took. "When Things Go Wrong It Hurts Me Too" makes a claim on an almost identical song written by Tampa Red and identified with Elmore James. The song "Joe Turner #2" dates back to 1892, a song about a devastating flood whose victims are helped by the Bunyanesque title character. Broonzy begins it as a talking folk narrative, with a few simple hushed chords. As the miracle occurs, however, Big Bill breaks into a broken-field boogie, the sound of a celebration erupting.
The Elmore James "It Hurts Me Too" — or at least one of the many versions the slide-guitar hero cut during the 1950s and ’60s — can be heard on The Very Best of Elmore James (Rhino R2 79803). This compendium has 16 tracks from 1951 to 1962 cut for a diffuse body of labels, including Trumpet, Flair, Modern, Chief, Chess, VeeJay and Flashback. Though the tune selection is obvious, there are some weird, interesting, moments here provided by both James and his sidemen.
The sound is almost willfully decrepit on the 1951 Trumpet single of "Dust My Broom," but the moldiness takes on a kind of nobility thanks to the harp of Sonny Boy Williamson aka Rice Miller. It’s amusing to note that on the 1957 version of "It Hurts Me Too" (which also is acknowledged as a Tampa Red composition by liner-note writer Bill Dahl), the song is credited to Mel London — the owner of Chief Records. London also takes a dubious credit for "The 12 Year Old Boy," one of James’ strangest tunes, about a man so paranoid about his woman getting it on with others that he even sees this kid as his love rival.
Beyond that, James has fun with "Hawaiian Boogie," a flat-out rock’n’roll tune that seems intended to cash in on the ’50s hula and lei craze, while "Sho ’Nuf I Do," backed by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, reveals James as a convincing soul shouter, a kind of precursor to the likes of Wilson Pickett. Rhino’s companion disc in the Blues Masters series, The Very Best of Jimmy Reed (RS 79802), sticks exclusively to Reed’s VeeJay recordings, which makes it a more conventional greatest hits collection ("Big Boss Man," "Bright Lights, Big City," "Baby What You Want Me to Do"). If you ain’t got ‘em, this is where you get ‘em.
The Very Best of T-Bone Walker (Koch KOC-CD-8066) is the prime porterhouse from the Black & White and Imperial labels between 1949 and 1954. Walker, the deep well from which every subsequent great Texas blues guitarist has drawn water, never sounded as shrewd and street-savvy as he does here. Besides the obvious "T-Bone Shuffle" and "They Call It Stormy Monday" are tunes I had forgotten about, like "Alimony Blues," "Street Walkin’ Woman," and "The Hustle Is On." But the killer is "Bobby Sox Blues," a hilarious lament in which T-Bone is running second to his sweetie’s current obsession, Frank Sinatra.
For the liner notes to the Walker set, writer John Swenson interviewed Doug Sahm just before Sir Doug’s untimely death. Two good Sahm CDs are out now, depending on your pleasure. Hell of a Spell (Takoma 6507-2) reissues a 1980 Sahm album that, as one of its songs declares, is "Nothin’ but the Blues." For those who appreciate the work of the best fake English rock band ever to step out of the Republic of Texas, go to The Prime of the Sir Douglas Quintet (Music Club 50116), featuring "She’s About A Mover," "The Rains Came" and 13 other tracks that are much more burrito than they are fish and chips.
Fans of that time and place should be aware that Delbert McClinton’s Don’t Let Go: The Collection (Music Club 60126) is drawn from the archives of the LeCam Records label in the early ’60s, when the label apparently thought it had a teen idol on its hands. Unless you must hear Delbert getting turned inside out by Beatles’ ballads ("This Boy") and tunes that are beyond ("Mr. Pitiful") or beneath ("These Boots Are Made for Walkin’") his reach, you’ll pass this one by … Also avoid: Lester Williams’ Can’t Lose With the Stuff I Use (Specialty 7037-2), to which one can truthfully say, oh yes you can.