Blues Access Winter 2002
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Blues & Roots
by John Sinclair

I don’t care how many times they reissue Muddy Waters’ great Chess and Aristocrat singles from 1947–1967, it won’t be enough until these magnificent recordings are safely ensconced in every American home. Muddy Waters: The Anthology (MCA/Chess 088 112 649-2) is two discs worth of the crème de la crème of Muddy’s output for the Chess brothers, from Aristocrat 78s like "Gypsy Woman," I" Can’t Be Satisfied," "Feel Like Going Home" "Train Fare Home," "Mean Red Spider," "Standin’ Here Tremblin’" and "Rollin’ & Tumblin’" (Part One), to the Chess Records masterpieces "Rollin’ Stone," "Louisiana Blues," "Long Distance Call," "Honey Bee," ‘Still a Fool," "Baby Please Don’t Go," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "I’m Ready," "Young Fashioned Ways," "Mannish Boy," "Forty Days and Forty Nights," "Got My Mojo Working," "She’s Nineteen Years Old," "Walking Thru the Park," "You Shook Me" and more. If you’ve ever wanted to turn on your friends to the utter greatness of Muddy Waters and his template-cutting blues bands of the late ’40s and ’50s, this is the disc to slip into their Christmas stockings.

Muddy made his first recordings as the guest of pianist Sunnyland Slim, who played the deep Delta blues and the post-war urban swing styles with equal aplomb but never enjoyed the kind of long-term relationship with any of the many little Chicago labels he recorded for that Muddy had with Chess. Consequently, his important early post-war recordings are scattered all over the place, and the new Westside (UK) compilation, Sunnyland Special: The Cobra & J.O.B. Recordings 1949–56 (WESA 910) brings some of his most influential sides together on a single CD.

Along with the early band recordings of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, J.B. Lenoir, Snooky Pryor and Little Walter with the Aces, Sunnyland — backed by friends like Robert Jr. Lockwood, Floyd Jones and his cousin Moody Jones, J.T. Brown and John Brim — set the pace for the new sound of the urban blues with J.O.B. 78s like "Down Home Child"/"Sunnyland Special" and "Mary Lee"/"Leaving Your Town" (1951). He provided crucial backing for Floyd Jones on "Big World"/"Dark Road" (1951) and "Skinny Mama"/"On the Road Again" (1953), and for Robert Jr. Lockwood on "Aw Aw Baby"/"Sweet Woman from Maine" (1955).

All of these obscure historical recordings are present here, along with "That Woman"/"Four Day Bounce" from 1954 and the magnificent "Highway 61"/"It’s You Baby" produced by Willie Dixon for Cobra in 1956. There are also alternate takes and unissued cuts, including Lockwood’s "Dust My Broom" and "Pearly B" from 1951, Sunnyland’s "City of New Orleans" (1952), "When I Was Young," "Bassology" and "Worried About My Baby" (1953), and an apocryphal cut from 1956 with Jimmy Rogers. This CD is a real treasure trove of seminal modern Chicago blues featuring the late Sunnyland Slim, one of the greatest American musicians who ever lived.

A fine companion to this most welcome CD is Snooky Pryor & Friends, Pitch a Boogie Woogie If It Takes Me All Night Long (Westside† WESA 869), a collection of real obscurities by another (and somewhat overlapping) set of friends — Snooky Pryor, Moody and Floyd Jones, and Johnny Young — who made their own pioneering Chicago blues 78s for little Windy City labels like Planet, Old Swingmaster, Marvel and J.O.B. between 1948–53.

All four artists weigh in as early as 1948 with the sort of performances that would dominate the urban blues world for the rest of the century: Harpman Pryor and ace guitarist Moody Jones are spotlighted on "Telephone Blues"/"Snooky and Moody’s Boogie," they back Floyd Jones on his classic "Stockyard Blues"/"Keep What You Got" and Johnny Young on "My Baby Walked Out"/"Let Me Ride Your Mule." "Boogie Fool"/"Raisin’ Sand." appeared the following year, and there are more fine recordings from 1952, 1953, 1962 and "unknown dates", including some excellent sides that were unissued at the time — but definitely not for musical reasons. Joe Brown probably couldn’t afford to get them out on 78, but we can hear them now, half a century later, and our knowledge and pleasure are pleasantly increased thereby.

The next stage in the development of the Chicago blues can be heard on the Muddy Waters Anthology and on a new Fuel 2000 compilation, Mr. Dixon’s Workshop (302 061 138 2), which investigates the enormous impact made on the music by bassist, brilliant composer and producer Willie Dixon. Mr. Dixon’s Workshop compiles classic selections Dixon produced for Cobra Records on Otis Rush ("I Can’t Quit You Baby"), Magic Sam ("Easy Baby," "All Night Long"), Walter Horton ("Have a Good Time"), Buddy Guy ("Sit and Cry"), Harold Burrage ("Satisfied," "I Don’t Care Who Knows"), Betty Everett, Jesse Fortune, Lee Jackson and Charles Clark.

Other gleaming Dixon-penned and -produced gems here include the unbelievably fine "Two-Headed Woman" by Junior Wells on Chief, Buster Benton’s "Spider in My Stew" and "I Just Got Some" by Willie Mabon from 1963. The backing musicians on Dixon’s sessions included Rice Miller, Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Lafayette Leake, Syl Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, Jody Williams, Wayne Bennett, drummer Odie Payne and the indomitable Willie Dixon himself on bass, so there was no way the music could ever go wrong — and it never did.

Chicago-born singer Harold Burrage was sort of Willie Dixon’s Smiley Lewis, an artist with whom he labored long and often without achieving the desired impact on the marketplace. Not that Harold approaches the mighty artistry of Smiley Lewis, but Messed Up! The Cobra Recordings 1956–1958 (Westside† WESA 634) gives us a complete picture of what Dixon was doing with the R&B-flavored vocalist to try to get him some hits. Backed as usual by top-flight musicians — Wayne Bennett, Jody Williams, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Henry Gray, Harold Ashby, Dixon, Al Duncan and Odie Payne, among others — Burrage rocks on songs like "You Eat Too Much," "Messed Up," "She Knocks Me Out," "Betty Jean" and the amusing novelty number, "Stop for the Red Light," plus a raft of alternate takes from the Cobra vaults. Not for casual listeners, but essential for Chicago blues completists.

Those casual listeners will get their rewards from the next set of three new CDs by the fabulous Kings of the Blues: Albert, B.B. and Freddie. If you’re looking to hear their best work, this is not the place to go, but each of the albums has its special pleasures. I Get Evil (Music Club [UK] 50176) is a compilation of tracks from Albert King’s 1975–78 tenure with Utopia and Tomato Records that — among other things — points up the guitarist’s predilection for Motor City songwriters. He does Little Sonny’s "Love Shock," Detroit Junior’s "Call My Job" and the Sir Mack Rice masterwork, "Cadillac Assembly Line," plus live versions of Stax-era favorites "Born Under a Bad Sign," "That’s What the Blues Is All About" and "I’ll Play the Blues for You." There are also a couple of cuts from his Crescent City collaboration with Allen Toussaint, most notably a hip version of Lee Dorsey’s "Get Out of My Life Woman."

Fans of America’s greatest living blues artist, B.B. King, are bound to enjoy … Here & There: The Uncollected BB King (Hip-O 314 556307-2), a new collection imaginatively compiled by Universal’s Andy McKaie. Featured are a bunch of B’s modern-day collaborations with artists like Grover Washington Jr. ("Caught a Touch of Your Love"), Albert Collins ("Frosty"), Gary Burton ("Six Pack"), Jimmy Smith ("Three O’Clock Blues"), Willie Nelson ("The Thrill Is Gone"), Arthur Adams ("Get You Next to Me") and the GRP All-Star Big Band (a rousing reading of "Stormy Monday Blues"), plus a pair of soundtrack tunes (from Garfield and The King of Comedy) and two interesting unissued numbers produced on B.B. by Jon Tiven and Vernon Reid. As you might expect, there’s more of a pop music sheen here than on his excellent recent releases with his own band, but almost any B.B. King record is superior to most contemporary releases of any stripe.

Freddie King’s The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O/Universal 314 520 909-2) is one of those misnomered compilations that has a few of the artist’s finest works and a bunch of other stuff from quite a bit farther down the list. There are a pair of ultimate Freddie King collections which collect the seminal Federal Records sides produced by pianist Sonny "Long Gone" Thompson — one set of vocals, one set of strictly instrumentals, and both issued in the early ’90s by Modern Blues Recordings — but less than half of this Hip-O CD is drawn from the deep King/Federal well. FK classics like "Hideaway," "The Stumble," "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" and "Love Her With a Feeling" testify to the fearsome strength of the King masters, while the material produced by King Curtis for Atlantic and by Leon Russell for the Shelter label fails to reach the artistic heights of Freddie’s earlier work. Still and all, as they say, it’s great to hear anything by the great Freddie King in these terrifying early years of the 21st Century.

©2001 Blues Access, Boulder, Colorado, USA