Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Otis Spann & Lightnin Hopkins

This is a review I did of the now out-of-print Mosaic Box of the Candid recordings by Otis Spann and Lightnin' Hopkins. The review as presented here is taken from the Cleveland Based publication, Jazz & Blues Report in its Septrember 1992 issue. Rereading it, I don't think there is much I would change about the review. You probably can pick up reissues of the Candid lps in some form or another on CD. Amazon does have Otis Spann is the Blues for $11.99 or something and lists a Japanese import of Lightnin' Hopkins in New York.

Otis Spann /Lightnin’ Hopkins
The Complete Candid Otis Spann /lightnin’ Hopkins Sessions
Mosaic Records has a well deserved reputation for its exhaustive reissues of classic jazz recordings that issue a particular performer’s complete output for a label or labels. For instance they have issued the complete Blue Note records of Thelonious Monk, Sidney Bechet, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, and Larry Young, the complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, the Complete Live Roulette Recordings of Count Basie, and the Complete Capitol Recordings of Nat King Cole. Not too long ago they issued their first package devoted to a blues artist, The Complete T-Bone Walker, 1940-1954 which compiled this pioneering blues artist’s recordings for Black and White, Mercury, Comet, Imperial and other labels. Mosaic has issued its second blues release, The Complete Candid Otis Spann/ Lightnin’ Hopkins Sessions (Mosaic MD3-139), a three compact disc or five record boxed set that puts together two masters of the postwar down home blues. The entire contents of Otis Spann is the Blues, Walkin’ the Blues and Lightnin’ in New York are released here along with a number of unissued titles and alternate takes. Black Cat, a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune that was originally issued on the Candid anthology, The Jazz Life, in edited form is heard here for the first time in its entirety. While Mosaic claims that 13 recordings from the the Spann recordings are previously unissued, four titles, including one of the takes of Baby Child and It Hurts Me Too, were issued in German reissues of Otis Spann is the Blues and Walkin’ the Blues. Candid was run by Nat Hentoff as a jazz offshoot of the Cadence label (home of the Everly Brothers), and in its two year history had an imposing roster of recordings. Its blues offerings were somewhat limited with Otis Spann is the Blues being the most famous blues release on the label. Spann is generally acknowledged as the major postwar blues pianist, and was a fundamental part of Muddy Waters band from the mid-fifties to the late sixties, as well as a major session player for Chess Records, recording with everybody from Muddy, Wolf and Sonny Boy to Chuck Berry. While the consummate band pianist, and a superlative accompanist (listen to his incredible work on Buddy Guy’s first and still best album A Man and the Blues), most of his band recordings were flawed by competent but not inspired bands, or production gaffes, like a session for ABC’s Bluesway label on which George “Harmonica” Smith’s harp was not recorded amplified. Nat Hentoff recorded Otis in a more intimate solo, or duet context (with Robert Lockwood’s tasty, jazzy playing) that many consider his finest recordings. Certainly instrumentals such as Walking the Blues,This is the Blues, Cow Cow Blues (mistitled Great Northern Stomp on earlier releases) or Otis in the Dark, are among the greatest examples of blues piano, but equally stirring is his renditions of Big Maceo Merriweather’s Worried Life Blues, his own deep blues, The Hard Way and the rocking It Must have Been the Devil. With his laconic, smokey delivery, Otis Spann was as expressive a blues vocalist as he was a pianist. Not to be ignored are Robert Lockwood’s four vocals, Take a Little Walk With Me, Ramblin’ on Mind, Little Boy Blue and My Daily Wish, which feature wonderful interplay between the two, or Jimmy Oden’s vocals, delivered in an grainy, slightly halting fashion including his standard Going Down Slow and such other great songs as Monkey Man Blues and Can’t Stand Your Evil Ways. The use of a vocal chorus on the two takes of Baby Child spoils that track for me, but this is less of a problem on Spann’s fresh interpretation of Tampa Red’s It Hurts Me Too. Of particular interest are the two takes of the talking blues Talkin’ the Blues, where Spann and Oden swap stories (Lockwood joins in on the second take included). I recall having Robert Lockwood on my WRUW-FM show Ramblin’ With the Blues back in 1971, and when we discussed these sessions he expressed his feeling the sessions would have been better if a full band had been used. While there can be little fault with the music produced (although some tracks are admittedly not classics) Lockwood’s point may be relevant in explaining why most of the tracks are done at a relatively slow tempo. This observation aside, the original Candid recordings have held up well since being recorded in August of 1960. Robert Lockwood is quoted reacting to the news that these were being reissued, “I’ll be damned, I think it’ll still sound OK.” He’s right, of course. The Hopkins Candid recordings are newer to me. Given the fact that only John Lee Hooker recorded more frequently between 1946 and 1970, it is easy to overlook a particular recording by him, particularly since his greatest recordings have to be considered his early recordings for such labels as Aladdin, Gold Star, Sittin’ In With, and Herald, and the genuine consistency of many of his recordings. If not among the essential Lightnin’ Hopkins sessions, his November 1960 Candid recordings were very good indeed. For one thing, several of his performances of such basic parts of his repertoire as his blues about the stuttering boy who tries to tell his boss about a farm fire, Mister Charlie and the boogie blues Mighty Crazy, with its neat guitar playing receive extended treatment here along with Black Cat, described by Mark Humphrey as “Lightnin’s saga of wino race relations.” Another valuable aspect of the Candid session is the fact that Lightnin’ was recorded extensively playing the piano, including Lightnin’s Piano Boogie, Take It Easy and Come Go Home With Me, switching between piano and guitar on both of the latter two selections. A capable barrelhouse pianist, his playing does not reach the level of his guitar work. There are fine interpretations of John Lee Hooker’s When My First Wife Left Me, and his version of Going Down Slow, I’ve Had My Fun If I Don’t Get Well No More; each given a very personalized treatment. Like other Mosaic releases, this comes with a booklet containing biographies of Spann, Lockwood, Oden and Hopkins, discussions of each recording and complete discographical information. Also, there are a number of rare photos included in the handsome booklet that comes with these boxed sets. This is another superb Mosaic reissue. These sets cost $45.00 plus $4.00 shipping for either the 5 lps (MR5-139)or 3 cds ( MD3-139), directly through Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stanford, CT 06902-7533, or credit card orders can be phoned to Mosaic at (203)-327-7111 or faxed, (203)323-3526. (Ron's note, Amazon listed a used copy of this from a seller for over $100.00. You can also try ebay or other rare record sources to try to get this. Mine is not for sale.)

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