Sunday, March 16, 2008

Last Century's Blues Dream

Has it been 40 years since Mike Vernon had traveled to Chicago and recorded Sunnyland Slim and Johnny Shines for the Blues Horizon label. With Willie Dixon on bass and organizing the sessions, and a band that also included Walter Horton on harmonica and Clifton James on drums, two albums were produced, Slim's Midnight Jump, and Shine's Last Night Dream. The two albums along with a few alternates from Slim's session are now available on the just issued CD, Sunnyland Slim & Johnny Shines, The Complete Blue Horizon Session.

Mike Vernon's notes in the booklet gives a pretty thorough account of the lives of both of these legends as well as what went on the June, 1968 day when these were recorded. Sunnyland Slim today is remembered by those lucky enough to have seen him perform. He could band that piano out exhibiting an occasional stutter step in his phrasing matched by his booming voice that delivered the songs with an authority that is missing among the living blues pianists with the possible exception of David 'Omar Sharif' Alexander. Equally impressive solo or fronting the band that would be Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars here, Slim does not disappoint with a few staples of his repertoire, Get to My Baby, one of the songs heard in alternate takes, the fine Stella Mae with some exquisite harp from Shakey Horton, as well as Slim's topical Depression Blues.

Slim sets out the ten performances by Shines, although Otis Spann sits in for Pipeline Blues. The Shines performances include somewhat more intimate performances with piano or harp, and all feature Shines, certainly one of the most adept slide guitarists and one of the great blues singers of all time (with echoes of Howling Wolf, Lonnie Johnson and Robert Johnson). Certainly there are echoes of Johnson on several songs such as Baby Don't You Think I Know (a reworking of Sweet Home Chicago), Solid Gold and Last Night's Dream (both echoing Walking Blues), as well his rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson I's Black Panther (although I prefer the version of Otis Spann he recorded for Testament). Vernon talks about some issues of Shines and Dixon being in tune and Clifton James' timing occasionally drifting, but Shines' voice simply cuts through any shortcomings.

Slim died in 1995, a few years after Shines had. Listening to these recordings by the Delta natives today one simply must recognize that the what is called Mississippi blues today simply pales in comparison to what these two produced four decades ago. Highly recommended and available from various online sources.

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