Blues Access Fall 2001
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Blues & Roots
by John Sinclair

By the time Luther Allison returned to the United States in the mid-í90s to stun American audiences with his relentlessly inventive guitar mastery and high-energy, non-stop performances, he was already well into his 50s and had spent 20 years in self-imposed European exile. The early promise of his Delmark recordings from the í60s and the three albums he cut for Motown Records in the í70s had gone unrewarded, the blues business was collapsing around him, and Luther left the USA. not long after his Motown contract had expired to resettle in Europe.

Allison had been signed as Motownís only contemporary blues artist after his stunning set at the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, but his association with the label produced very little in the way of sales, and Luther became extremely frustrated with Motownís inability to create a larger audience for his work. It wasnít for lack of trying, though, and Allisonís recordings for Motown are well worth listening to today.

Happily, the first two of these releases, Bad News Is Coming (Motown 440 013 407-2) and Lutherís Blues (Motown 440 013 407-2), are finally available on CD, and Lutherís Blues is an especially rewarding set. Allisonís originals ó "Now You Got It," "K.T.," "Letís Have a Little Talk," "Into My Life" and the title track, plus the previously unissued "early version" of "Bloomington Closing" ó are coupled with hip versions of "Someday Pretty Baby," "Part Time Love," Magic Samís "Easy Baby," Roosevelt Sykesí "Driving Wheel" and an unissued "San-Ho-Zay" cut in tribute to one of Lutherís idols, Freddie King. The studio recordings, made in Detroit in 1973, have been augmented by a previously-unreleased 19-minute show-closing medley performed at the 1973 Ann Arbor festival.

Bad News Is Coming, Lutherís initial release for the label, is a little heavier on the covers ó "Little Red Rooster," "Evil," "Rock Me Baby," "Dust My Broom," Mel Londonís "Cut You A-Loose," an unissued "Sweet Home Chicago" and Freddie Kingís "The Stumble" ó and the original compositions arenít quite so compelling. The irritating nasality of his vocal on the title track mars an otherwise effective performance, while "Raggedy and Dirty" and the previously unissued "Itís Been a Long Time" were not destined to become blues standards. But itís certainly interesting to hear Lutherís early attempts to develop a fresh approach to his material, and Allisonís many fans should enjoy the opportunity to fill in this gap in their CD collections.

When Allison settled in Europe in the late í70s to live and work, American blues artists had been visiting the continent with regularity for more than 20 years, many of them under the aegis of the Lippmann & Rau production agency. The German promoters had formed the L+R label to document these trips and recorded a series of albums for European release. Although this series featured an all-star cast of bluesmen from the USA, the sessions were usually impromptu affairs and the albums very rarely rank among the artistsí finest achievements.

In recent years Evidence Records has licensed a slew of these productions for American release, of which Billy Branch & Lurrie Bell and the Sons of the Blues, Chicagoís Young Blues Generation (Evidence ECD 26114-2) is the latest. The young Chicagoans of 1982 turn in a program of well-chewed blues and R&B chestnuts ó "Help Me," "Breakiní Up Somebodyís Home," "Sweet Little Angel," "Donít Start Me Talkiní," "Just a Little Bit," "Mystery Train" and Magic Samís "I Need You So Bad" ó which are skillfully but unmemorably performed, and thereís nothing here to break the mold.

Gary, Indiana, bluesman John Brim remains a minor figure in the post-war Chicago blues pantheon. Best known for his early í50s recordings for the Chess brothers, Brimís work first saw the light on day on a series of J.O.B. 78s cut between 1950Ėí52 in the company of blues notables like Roosevelt Sykes, Sunnyland Slim, Moody Jones and Eddie Taylor. Authorized Blues (Anna Bea ABCD 451) gathers these sides for CD release, and contemporary listeners can finally hear little gems like "Dark Clouds," "Lonesome Man Blues," "Going Down the Line," "Young and Wild," "Trouble in the Morning," "Hard Pill to Swallow," "Drinking Woman" and "Moonlight Blues," along with the 1971 coupling of "You Put the Hurt on Me"/"Moving Out" on which Brim and his wife, drummer Grace Brim, are joined by son John Jr. Anna Bea Records even swears that Brim will finally reap some royalties from the re-release of these obscure sides, which is always a good thing.

New Orleans guitarist Snooks Eaglin has done the finest work of his long and fruitful recording career for the BlackTop label since signing with Naumann and Hammond Scott in 1986, and a new Fuel 2000 release, Crescent City Collection (Fuel 2000 302 061 122 2), cherry-picks 16 splendid selections from his BlackTop albums. Snooks, known as an exceptionally tasteful human jukebox who specializes in making the songs of others his own, is showcased on tunes by Crescent City composers Earl King ("Baby You Can Get Your Gun," "Teasiní You," "My Love Is Strong," "Soul Train"), Tommy Ridgley ("Lavinia," "Oh Lawdy, My Baby"), Lloyd Price ("Baby Please Come Home," "Mailman Blues"), Professor Longhair ("Red Beans"), Smiley Lewis ("Lillie Mae"), Allen Toussaint ("Lipstick Traces"), the Spiders ("Iím Slippiní In"), and Snooks himself ("I Went to the Mardi Gras," "Cheeta," "Oh Sweetness" and "Nobody Knows"). If the music of New Orleansí secret weapon is missing from your collection, get this tantalizing Crescent City Collection without delay!

The late John Lee Hooker and Texas blues giant Lightniní Hopkins were probably the most-recorded modern blues artists of all, each dropping hundreds of tracks in their long careers. Hopkins recorded solo and in all kinds of combinations for a plethora of labels, but the 1954 Houston recordings on Lightniní and the Blues: The Herald Sessions (Buddha 74465 99782-2) catch him at the very height of his considerable powers. Backed here by bass and drums throughout, Lightniní amply demonstrates his ability to adapt blues material by divers composers to his own conception, stamping each performance with the power of his own personality. Highlights include "Nothiní But the Blues," "Lightninís Boogie," "Sick Feeliní Blues," "Lonesome in Your Home" and "Evil Hearted Woman," all issued on his 1959 Herald Records LP, and there are four previously unreleased tracks from the same sessions to boot.

And speaking of unreleased masters, the CD version of the classic Etta James album, Tell Mama, is now subtitled The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions (MCA 088 112 518-2) and contains not only the 12 original album tracks but 10 more gems from the Fame Studios sessions of 1967Ėí68, including a pair of takes on the Chips Moman-Dan Penn song "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" popularized by Aretha Franklin. A dozen years after her debut as a 14-year-old rocker ("The Wallflower," "Good Rockiní Daddy") discovered by Johnny Otis, Ms. Jamesetta Hawkins is at her very peak as a singer and interpreter of songs for Chess Records. Included are the undeniable classics "Iíd Rather Go Blind," "Steal Away" and "Donít Lose Your Good Thing," plus great tunes like "The Same Rope," "Security," "It Hurts Me So Much," "The Love of My Man" and the title track. The bonus cuts include the previously unissued "Iíve Gone Too Far" and "Misty" and the Cadet singles "I Worship the Ground You Walk On," "Almost Persuaded" and "Fire." This is definitely the Etta James youíve gotta hear!

Ettaís Chess stablemate Koko Taylor can be heard in a pure-D Chicago blues setting from the same period (1965Ėí69) on the CD reissue of her self-titled premiere album, Koko Taylor (MCA/Universal 088 112 519 2). Produced by Willie Dixon and backed by blues greats Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim, Lafayette Leake, Buddy Guy, Matt Murphy, Johnny Shines, Jack Myers, Clifton James, Fred Below, Gene Barge, Donald Hankins and others, the young Cora Taylor cuts loose on a carefully-crafted program of Dixon originals ó "Wang Dang Doodle," "29 Ways," "Insane Asylum," "Fire," "Yes, Itís Good for You," "I Donít Care Who Knows" ó her own "Nitty Gritty" (not at all the Shirley Ellis number), and other tailor-made songs like "Love You Like a Woman," "I Love a Lover Like You" and Betty Jamesí "Iím a Little Mixed Up." There are also two bonus tracks, including the very fine "He Always Knocks Me Out." You could tell from the beginning that Ms. Taylor would go a long way with the blues.

After all this meat and potatoes, our dessert item for this issue is Specialty Records Greatest Hits (Specialty SPCD 7074-2), a sweet little compilation of Specialty singles from the Golden Age of Rhythm & Blues, including monster hits by Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams, Roy Milton, Jimmy Liggins and others. The fierce energy and rhythmic intelligence packed into these selections should be heard and felt by every music lover in America, because this is a lovely sampling of the music that once made this country great.

©2001 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA