Blues Access Summer 2001
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Blues & Roots
by John Sinclair

An ever-rising tide of blues reissues by our favorite musical giants continues to flood the CD racks, for which we must truly be grateful. But many carry the misleading titles "The Best of …," "The Essential …," "The Very Best of …" and other such irresistible epithets, when in truth they contain simply a collection of tracks which the reissuing party has been able to license (or, dare we say it, bootleg) from a particular label or labels which happened to have the headline artists under contract either before or after their really essential recordings were made.

In rarer cases, though, the "Best of …" collections really hit the mark, and we get the stuff we’re looking for, pure and undiluted, presenting the artists at the very top of their form on the recordings that indelibly established their reputations and influenced successive generations of musicians: John Lee Hooker on Modern or VeeJay, Sonny Boy Williamson on Checker, B.B. King on RPM and Kent.

Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions (Buddha 74465 99781 2) by the great Elmore James is a beautiful example of the latter and the perfect companion to a compilation of his Meteor and Flair singles for the Bihari brothers made several years earlier. Recorded between 1959–’61, these timeless classics were originally issued by Bobby Robinson as 45 rpm Fire singles or on Sphere Sound and Fire LPs and have been reissued again and again for almost 40 years.

Backed by Homesick James, Elmore’s bandleader and musical mentor, and a collective of top-notch players (including Sam Myers’ fiery harmonica on the sides cut in New Orleans), Elmore’s blazing guitar and emotive vocals are so skillfully and effectively framed that his masterful artistry is showcased to utter perfection. And the repertoire on display here represents the full canon set forth by this genius of the electric blues as composer and interpreter of songs, from the title track, "Dust My Broom," "Standing at the Crossroads," "Rollin’ and Tumblin’," "Fine Little Mama," "Sunnyland" and the brilliant "Done Somebody Wrong" to "The Sky Is Crying," "Held My Baby Last Night," "Something Inside Me" and "Stranger Blues."

The familiar selections are programmed here for maximum listening pleasure, the discographical data is comprehensive and the packaging is superb. If you’re a blues lover who’s never seriously investigated the peerless recorded work of the "King of the Slide Guitar," Shake Your Moneymaker is a perfect place to start.

The Essential Magic Sam: The Cobra and Chief Recordings 1957–1961 (Fuel 2000 302 061 104 2) is another crucial compilation that lives fully up to its title, although there are quite a few less-than-essential cuts included with the true gems by Magic Sam, another absolute master of modern blues. While you may not want to hear all of these sides more than several times, every repeated listening to masterpieces like "All Your Love," "Easy Baby," "Look Whatcha Done," "Love Me With a Feeling" and "Everything Gonna Be Alright" will be rewarded with the deep feeling of joy and contentment afforded only by the very, very best of blues recordings.

The 1957–1961 masters were cut under the direction of Willie Dixon (Cobra) and Mel London (Chief), with backing by top Chicago blues players — pianists Little Brother Montgomery, Johnny Jones and Harold Burrage, bassists Willie Dixon and Mack Thompson, and drummers Odie Payne, S.P. Leary and Billy Stepney, among others — and the endlessly inventive, uniquely personal guitar and vocal stylings of Sam Maghett, the one and only Magic Sam. His subsequent Delmark recordings are well worth hearing, but these selections — originally issued as 45 rpm singles by the two tiny Chicago blues labels — represent the opening salvo in Sam’s successful campaign to gain recognition for his work in music, and they’re just as good as it gets.

MCA has just issued on CD the important Muddy Waters album, Live at Newport 1960 (MCA/Chess 088 112 515-2), featuring the master’s powerful line-up of James Cotton, Otis Spann, Auburn "Pat" Hare, Andrew Stephenson and Francis Clay in a program of then-current recordings — "I Got My Brand on You," "Soon Forgotten," "Tiger in Your Tank" — and Waters classics "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Baby, Please Don’t Go," Big Bill Broonzy’s "I Feel So Good" and "I’ve Got My Mojo Working."

The program is augmented by the June 1960 Chess studio recordings of "Brand," "Tiger," "Forgotten" and "Meanest Woman," plus a soulful Otis Spann rendition of "Goodbye Newport Blues," a lament penned on his way to the festival grounds by the great Langston Hughes after he heard that the festival would be cancelled after Muddy’s performance due to some over-the-top hi-jinks by drunken college students in town the previous night.

This is one of Muddy’s greatest bands, and they entertain the Newport audience with a program full of fire and light. The studio recordings are rarely heard today and constitute a welcome addition to the live set. Mary Katherine Aldin contributes some typically astute liner notes, and Andy McKaie has done his usual stellar job in preparing the reissue for CD release. Get this one today!

In a sort of reverse twist, Luther Allison’s obscure Motown album, Luther’s Blues (Motown 440 013 407-2), recorded in Detroit in 1973, has been augmented by a previously-unreleased 19-minute show-closing medley performed at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. Allison had been signed as Motown’s only contemporary blues artist after his stunning set at the 1972 Ann Arbor festival, and Luther’s Blues was his second release for the label.

Unhappily, Luther’s association with Motown produced very little in the way of sales, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Allison’s recordings for the label are well worth listening to today, and Luther’s Blues is an especially rewarding set of originals — the title track, "Now You Got It," "K.T.," "Let’s Have a Little Talk" and "Into My Life," plus the previously unissued "early version" of "Bloomington Closing" — coupled with hip versions of "Someday Pretty Baby," "Part Time Love," Magic Sam’s "Easy Baby," Roosevelt Sykes’ "Driving Wheel" and an unissued "San-Ho-Zay" cut in tribute to one of Luther’s idols, Freddie King.

Luther became extremely frustrated with Motown’s inability to create a larger audience for his state-of-the-art work for the label, and he left the USA to resettle in Europe not long after his contract had expired. Almost 20 years later, of course, he returned to the States to overwhelming acclaim and stunned American audiences with his relentlessly inventive guitar mastery and non-stop, high-energy performances before his untimely death from cancer at 58.

B.B. King, one of the few legendary blues giants who still walks the earth (he’ll be 76 this year), has been a massive presence on the blues record scene for more than 50 years. We have spoken here of his magnificent recorded output on RPM and Kent Records in the ’50s, and we’ve looked deep into the recent compilation of his finest recordings for ABC and MCA from the early ’60s to the end of the 20th century.

Now comes B.B. King Live at San Quentin (MCA 088412-517-2), recorded in performance before an enthusiastic and literally captive audience of convicts at San Quentin prison in the spring of 1990. Along with the musical delights and emotional thrills delivered that day by B. and the band, Live at San Quentin provides an irrefutable testimonial to the King’s continuing prowess at the end of his first 40 years in the blues business. B. has always carried the baddest band in the land, and the ensemble here smokes and steams behind and underneath his incomparable singing and incredible guitar playing to the increasing delight of the incarcerated crowd.

B.B. gives the prisoners a set of dynamite songs drawn from the immense repertoire he’s amassed over the course of his amazingly fruitful career, including "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Whole Lotta Loving," "Sweet Little Angel," "The Thrill Is Gone," "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother," "Sweet Sixteen" and "Rock Me Baby," plus "Let the Good Times Roll," his opening salute to Louis Jordan, and a very well-received reading of the underworld anthem, "Ain’t Nobody’s Business." You’ve heard these before, but the performances here are charged with the tensions and pressures of the San Quentin Prison yard and fairly pulsate with energy and conviction.

B.’s Memphis blues colleague Bobby "Blue" Bland made one of the finest modern blues albums of the late century in Two Steps from the Blues (MCA 088 112 516-2), featuring tracks recorded between March 1956 and November 1960 with plenty of killer guitar from Wayne Bennett and Clarence Hollimon, and the original Duke LP package is now available on CD with a pair of bonus tracks added to the LP program. From the opening title track, a chilling lament wherein the singer plaintively reviews the specific causes of his emotional demise, through a set stuffed with B.B.B. masterpieces like "I’m Not Ashamed," "Don’t Cry No More," "I Pity the Fool," "Little Boy Blue," "I’ll Take Care of You" and "I’ve Been Wrong So Long," Bobby wails, sobs and shouts with consummate skill and deep emotional commitment, stamping each track with his unmistakable artistic signature from first note to last.

The songs, mostly credited to Duke Records president Don Robey (under his song-writing pseudonym, D. Malone), and the arrangements, fashioned by the great Joe Scott and interpreted by the crack blues orchestra under his command, each fit the singer like a fur-lined glove on a cold winter day, and by the time Bobby adds his impassioned vocals everything is just as lovely as it could possibly be. If you don’t own this record or go out and cop it today, shame on you!

Our closing selection, Honeyboy EdwardsMississippi Delta Bluesman (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40132), was first released on a 1979 Folkways LP and is a whole different thing from the electric blues albums we’ve examined above. David Edwards, born in 1915 and still one of our most compelling performers at 85, is presented here in a most intimate setting: all alone with his acoustic guitar, his captivating, idiosyncratic vocals and the sound of his shoe beating out the time on the studio floor.

Honeyboy offers a riveting program of traditional Mississippi songs immortalized by the Delta blues giants who were his contemporaries: Charley Patton ("Pony Blues"), Tommy Johnson ("Big Fat Mama"), Memphis Minnie ("Bumble Bee"), Robert Petway and Muddy Waters ("Catfish Blues"), Robert Johnson ("Sweet Home Chicago"/"Dust My Broom"), Howlin’ Wolf ("Ride With Me Tonight"), Junior Parker ("Next Time You See Me"), Bobby "Blue" Bland ("Further On Up the Road") and Magic Sam ("Things Gonna Be Alright"). He contributes two songs of his own making, contrasting "Blues Worry Me All the Time" with "I Feel So Good Today," and stops playing for a couple of minutes in the middle of the program to speak with his interrogators about his life and music, even revealing how he came to acquire his life-long nickname.

But, you know, even a fool can see why they call this sweet man who sings and plays such sweet, soulful music by the name of Honeyboy, and if you need any further proof, just sit yourself down in a comfortable place and stick this album in your CD player. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

Finally, while we’re talking about great recordings, let’s all wish Chris Strachwitz much happiness as he celebrates his 70th year, the last 41 of which have been spent recording, marketing and reissuing a steady stream of timeless American blues and folk music collections on his Arhoolie label. Hey, Chris — Many happy returns!

Ann Arbor/Detroit
May 22–23, 2001

©2001 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA