This incredible package from Rooster Blues warrants space in every CD rack! First issued on LP in 1980, reissued on compact disc in 1991 and repackaged last year as a two-disc import, Rooster now offers the hands-down winner in the Maxwell Street blues sweepstakes, easily topping another recent reissue comprising the original Nighthawk LP cuts trussed out with a few more tracks.
The new Rooster Blues set is three CDs containing over 120 minutes of music, 45 minutes of Mike Bloomfield interviewing Robert Nighthawk and a 60-plus-page booklet which seems likely to clear up 20 years of confusion with respect to origins and artist credits which has dogged students of these sides since they first saw the light of day.
For those new to this material, filmmaker Mike Shea began in the autumn of 1964 to document Chicago’s open-air Maxwell Street market and its people — Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Carey Bell, Arvella Gray, James Brewer and others — for his film And This Is Free. His film reels didn’t survive the ’70s, but the sound recordings from the project were stored separately and, fortunately, the tapes have survived.
This set contains some of the toughest blues ever laid down in Chicago. About an hour belongs to Robert Nighthawk, backed by a small band. Recorded in the cluttered Maxwell Street area, these performances have an incredibly loose feel, but everything works beautifully.
These recordings are also of the utmost importance since they fill out Nighthawk’s small catalog. Prior to this, Nighthawk’s ability as an accomplished single-string electric player had been showcased only on late-’40s and early-’50’s sessions that barely hinted at Nighthawk’s ultimate direction. His music on this set is rugged and aggressive, interspersed with gospel performances and traditional numbers by other outstanding street musicians.
Nighthawk’s music here is rugged and aggressive, and he takes center stage with powerful renditions of "Honky Tonk," Dr. Clayton’s "Cheating and Lying Blues," Junior Parker’s "I Need Love So Bad" and John Lee (Sonny Boy I) Williamson’s "Take It Easy Baby." His guitar work is muscular and forceful: His slide sound is powerful in spots and relaxing in others, while his single-string attack is always compelling.
The rowdy and rocking "Peter Gunn Jam" and the "Back Off Jam" bristle with energy, and there’s a wild coupling of "Annie Lee"/"Sweet Black Angel" packed with intense guitar leads and blazing rhythm fills that brings to mind his Chess years.
Another earmark is his hard-edged voice on this large assortment of standout cuts. Often called reticent and taciturn by writers and historians, here he’s talkative and at ease with his audience.
Of the other artists featured on this collection, Johnny Young takes charge on "The Sun Is Shining" and "All I Want for Breakfast"/"Them Kind of People," where he’s confident and tough. Big John Wrencher, a seldom-recorded Maxwell Street regular, takes on Little Walter’s "Can’t Hold Out Much Longer" and two rousing originals: his own "Lucille" and "Love You Tonight." His voice is tough and captivating, and his inclusion adds another distinct touch to this set.
Carey Bell plays a definitive role with five tracks of his robust harp and gritty vocals, but he’s especially potent when he pulls out the chromatic for a solid reading of "I’m Ready" and the brilliant instrumental "Carey’n On." Arvella Gray contributes the traditional "Corinna, Corinna" and "John Henry," and James Brewer adds two exceptional tracks with "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "I’ll Fly Away," and full-scale gospel performances by Fannie Brewer and Carrie Robinson are also featured.
Big Mojo Elem appears with J.B. Lenoir’s "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter," and there’s an hilarious "Long Gone John" by an unknown performer. The sparkling guitarist on "Red Top"/"Ornithology" is believed to be Little Arthur King.
The interview with Nighthawk by Mike Bloomfield, included on a separate disc, is both moving and telling, adding considerably to what had been known of Robert’s legacy. The packaging is top-shelf, and the sound quality is far better here than on previous packagings of this material, with the added bonus that everything is now made available in its original form.
Rooster Blues should be lauded for putting out this definitive piece of work. Robert Nighthawk deserves space in all blues collections, and this is one of those rare, don’t-miss occasions where those who love, respect and thrive on this historical music are in for a significant treat. Highly recommended.
— Craig Ruskey