Monday, March 30, 2009

A Celebration of John Cephas

I was among those attending the celebration of the life of John Cephas at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium yesterday. It was a marvelous salute to one of the finest performers of traditional blues of the past thirty years. XM-Sirius' and (list member) Bill Wax did his usual marvelous job in emceeing this event. Those with remembrances of John included Barry Lee Pearson and Joe Wilson from the National Council For Traditional Arts and Nick Spitzer. Before the program started, there was some music provided by Daryl Davis on piano, Phil Wiggins on harmonica and Mark Puryear on guitar with a bass player whose name I do not remember. Maybe someone can help me identify Harold?.

There was also a number of spirited performances, including a number of "younger performers who were inspired to keep traditional acoustic blues alive. Rick Franklin and Phil Wiggins did a nice "Guitar Rag," while BluesWorks, the trio of Judy Luis-Watson, Paul Watson and Mark Puryear did a marvelous number. Eleanor Ellis mentioned how John Cephas played such an important role in helping keep the music of Skip James alive before doing a memorable "Special Rider." Diamong Jim Greene, another of Cephas musical children, had perhaps the most moving remembrance of his mentor, before launching into "Twelve Gates to the City." The musical highlight was Corey Harris with Phil Wiggins doing "Keep Your Lights Trimmed and Burning," (I am sure I botched the title), and the "Saddle My Pony." The Smithsonian celebration concluded with a trio of bluegrass musicians that had toured with Cephas and Wiggins being joined by Wiggins and Joe Wilson on a gospel hymn. It was a marvelous performance that was followed by a reception, jam at the Westminster Church that I was unable to attend.

A number of blues folks made long trips to attend including M.S.G, the Acoustic Blues Trio; Saffire-the Uppity Blues Women, and Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks. Mary Flower flew in from Portland, Oregon. Warner Williams & Jay Summerour along with Memphis Gold made it there as well as was Annie Raines, as well as countless friends and family. John Cephas will be missed but he left a strong imprint on our lives.

Pictured is Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Nelson's "Screamin' the Blues" Merits Attention

One of my recent downloads from emusic was of the Oliver Nelson, Screamin' the Blues. Originally issued on Prestige's New Jazz imprint in 1963, this 1960 session includes a strong band that included Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Richard Williams, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist George Duvivier and the great Roy Haynes on drums. This is a similar group in composition to that on the classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth, although that session had Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans on piano and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. Five of the six numbers are Nelson originals and this disc perhaps does not quite reach the level of the earlier date but it has many impressive moments. There is the contrast between Dolphy's alto leaps, Williams' muted trumpet and Nelson's full-bodied tenor on the late night blues Three Seconds, while the title track opens with Nelson on alto sounding as so much like Louis Jordan that I was expecting him to start singing, as Dolphy and Williams riff in the background, before Wyands takes a nice solo with a hint of gut bucket, before Nelson takes a more modern solo followed by Williams and then Dolphy on bass clarinet. The Meeting, has a bit of the flavor of Hoe Down, with its country-tinged flavor. March On, March On, is the one tune not composed by Nelson but the performance fits in well in this session. Nelson's strong tenor is exhibited in The Drive. There is plenty for Dolphy fans to savor and the rest of the band is strong. This is a 31/2 to 4 star (out of 5) effort using that arcane rating system.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson

One of the real delightful surprises in the past few years has been the emergence of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band that embraced a dying tradition. African-Americans have been playing banjo and fiddle since slavery times well into the 20th Century. The Chocolate Drops were mentored by Joe Thompson, of North Carolina, the oldest and last known black traditional; fiddler, and have recorded several albums of old time string band music with many songs that would be at home with a revivalist, old-time string band. Their music led them to appear not only as blues events of the Music Heritage Foundation but on the Grand Ole Opry. The Music Maker Foundation has just issued their most recent recording, “Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson” that was recorded in April 2008 at MerleFest. While its a short recording, its spirited fun as they open with a bit of a jug band flavor on “Memphis Shakedown,” before their rendition of “Cornbread And Butter Beans,” an old timey number and then they bring up Joe who leads off on the fiery“Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind” which was the title track on the Chocolate Drops first album. The addition of bones here gives it a nice feel, followed by a lively “John Henry,” with Thompson handling the vocal. A white banjo player who has been visiting Thompson for nearly four decades, Bob Carlin joins the group for the last five numbers, including “Old Joe Clark,” and “Georgie (sic?) Buck” and the hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved.” They close with a lively rendition of the traditional “Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad.” The value of this live recording is enhanced by making available a sample of Joe Thompson performing, with friends, doing tunes he has performed for decades before a highly appreciative audience. This is available from the Music Maker Foundation’s website,

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

If there is any justice it's Lady Bianca's time now

“Lady Bianca” Thornton has quietly been building a strong catalog of music for the nearly quarter of century. Conservatory trained, and initially a session singer, this writer first became aware of her with a surprising release on Telarc and a strong performance at the Pocono Blues Festival. She has continued to perform and with her partner, Stanley Lippitt, have continued to produce stunning blues recordings and performances that never have received the acclaim they deserved such as the excellent Through A Woman’s Eyes. Her latest effort, A Woman Never Forgets (Magic-O Records), hopefully will help her break through to a wiser audience.

On this disc, she is backed by an excellent band of guitarist Steve Gannon, bassist Henry Oden (of Joe Louis Walker’s greatest edition of the Boss Talkers and who played with countless legends like Percy Mayfield), and drummer Steve L. Eldridge (who adds tambourine) along with percussionist Jon Bendrich. Oshmin Oden (I assume Henry’s son) is on bass for two songs. It is a strong group with Lady Bianca handling all the keyboards, able to rock it as well as get down in the alley with guitarist Gannon first rate in his vintage sixties-sounding bluesy playing. The opening shuffle Lay Down Like You Mean It, displays her strengths with her rolling, rocking piano as well as her marvelous singing with her soulful delivery. What’s nice on He Just Do Me So Good, another marvelous collaboration with Lippitt that celebrates her man, is the jazzy touch in her piano playing with her understated vocal complemented by the spare piano making a superb performance. I’m in Love With You Baby, has a Latin groove as Gannon conjures up Carlos Santana with his guitar as her almost whispered vocal is spellbinding. Accompanied just by her piano, Sweetie Pie, is another blues celebrating her lover who sets her heart aflame, while Ugly Man Blues, has a lyric that Denise LaSalle would be proud of as she talks about her two men, one the pretty boy she sends out to work, but when she wants some real loving she goes over to another’s house, where she don’t want to see nothing but just feel him as they are loving which mixes a nice LaSalle styled rap with a celebration of her good loving ugly man. The title track has a bit of country and church feel as she tells he no good cheating man to get his coat on and don’t ask for forgiveness because a woman never forgets. The only cover is a slow reworking of an Elvis Recording, Heartbreak Hotel, which is transformed into a soulfully shouted slow blues dirge. She has such a way of making new songs of Elvis standards (she previously recorded Don’t Be Cruel) making them almost new songs as well as making them her own.

I could on and on about the other selections, but this is a terrific recording. Lady Bianca is on the same level as other, more celebrated female blues pianists-vocalists that I could name. This and other discs by her are available on and merit your serious consideration. Her website is

The photo of Lady Bianca is from the North Atlantic Blues Festival (my memory is going so I do not know if 2004 or 2005). This review origin ally appeared in the March 2009 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 314).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lester "Mad Dog" Davenport

Another veteran blues artist has passed. Not the best known act perhaps though folks who have the classic Bo Diddley sides have heard his harmonica playing. In the past couple decades, we can thank Earwig and Delmark for issuing albums by the Mad Dog. More and more links to the golden age of post-war blues are leaving us and will be missed.

The following is taken from an email from Earwig Records:

We're saddened to share the news that blues musician Lester Davenport passed away last Tuesday. Visitation will be held this Friday, March 27, 3pm-9pm and funeral services will be this Saturday, March 28, 10am to 12pm, at A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home, 5911 W. Madison, Chicago, IL 60644, phone 773-626-4222, fax 773-626-5223.

Until 1992, Lester Davenport's chief claims to blues fame were the 1955 Bo Diddley Chess session he played harp on (it produced "Pretty Thing" and "Bring It to Jerome") and a lengthy, much more recent stint holding down the harmonica slot with the multi-generational Gary, IN, band, the Kinsey Report. That instantly changed with the issue of Davenport's own album for Earwig, "When the Blues Hit You," and the follow up on Delmark, "I Smell A Rat." Now this Chicago blues veteran had something on the shelves to call his very own.

Davenport hit Chicago in 1945 at age 14. He quickly soaked up the sights and sounds so prevalent on the local blues scene, checking out Arthur "Big Boy" Spires, Snooky Pryor, and Homesick James, who invited the youngster to jam sessions and tutored him on the intricacies of the idiom. Gigs with Spires and James preceded his brief hookup with Bo Diddley (which included a booking behind Diddley at New York's famous Apollo Theater). Davenport led his own band while holding down a day job as a paint sprayer during the 1960s, remaining active on the West side prior to joining forces with the Kinseys during the 1980s.

Now, about that "Mad Dog" handle: it seems that Davenport liked to prowl the stage while playing a few notes on every instrument on the bandstand during his younger days. The shtick earned him the name; his tenacious playing did the rest.

Aside from all of his great credentials, Lester was a wonderful man who was eager to welcome new friends and share his harmonica secrets to aspiring players. He had a warm smile and the ability to add humor to any situation. His harmonica playing will be remembered for its glorious, sweet tone and perfect phrasing

(Includes bio written by Bill Dahl, photo courtesy of Kevin Johnson)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mel Brown 1939-2009

Bob Corritore sent the word of this latest sad news to blues folks everywhere in his email newsletter:

  • RIP Mel Brown 10/7/1939-3/20/2009: This note just in from Eric Thom: "Mel Brown has just passed - around 5pm tonight, but details are still pending. He was to open for Mavis Staples tonight, but has been in St. Mary's Hospital in Kitchener fighting to get his breathing back without the use of a machine. This is a huge loss for the blues, and for the blues world in Canada, specifically". Mel Brown was one of the real treasures of blues guitar and piano. He had a long history of spectacular recordings for labels such as Impulse, Bluesway, Antone's, and in recent years, for his home base label of the Electro-Fi records. He also recorded as a sideman for some of the greatest of blues artists, including T-Bone Walker, B.B. king, Bobby "Blue Bland," Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Snooky Pryor, Jimmy McGriff, James Cotton, Doug Sahm, Earl Hooker and Charles Brown (could a discography be any more fulfilled than that?) Yet another irreplaceable blues great has left us.
Mel Brown's biography can be found at Electro-Fi's website.

A few highpoints.

He was the son of John "Bubba" Brown, a Delta Blues Artist of note who ha traveled with Tommy Johnson and the Chatmon Brothers, but in order to raise his family, did not pursue music full time. Growing up in Jackson he met numerous blues legends and saw others growing up like
Elmore James, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters and Sonny Boy Williamson. Mel ended up working several gigs with Sonny Boy in nearby Vaughn, Mississippi "He needed a guitar player, so he came by my house and got me".

In 1958 he moves to LA where he hooks up with Jimmy Beasley and then Johnny Otis. Later he tours with the Olympics and Etta James.
At this juncture of his career Mel begins to work steadily in the highly competitive L.A. studio scene appearing on sessions with everyone from Bobby Darin to Doris Day, Bill Cosby to Jerry Lewis. Meanwhile back in the blues world, after impressing T-Bone Walker with his playing one night at the Sands Club, Walker invited Mel to appear on an album , "Funky Town", that he was preparing to record for the ABC/Impulse label . Also impressed with Mel’s guitar work on the T-Bone sessions, producer Bob Thiele summoned Mel back to the studio a week later to record his debut "Chicken Fat". The LP is a flavorsome mix of blues, jazz and funk instrumentals with special guest Herb Ellis along for the ride.

He waxed several more albums for ABC-Impulse as well as records with many blues legends like Bobby Bland (The California Album), Charles Brown (the album "Legend" opposite Earl Hooker), Jimmy Witherspoon (again opposite Earl Hooker) and way too many more. He also worked off and on with Bobby Bland from 1971 to 1981. In 1983, he moved to Austin and becomes part of house band at Antone's including recording as part of the Silent partners. He is heard on a number of Antone's label albums as well as some by Albert Collins.

He moved to Ontario, Canada in 1990 where he remained for the rest of his life. He recorded a number of albums as a leader for Electro-Fi, as well as played on albums by Snooky Pryor and other legends. His 1999 Electro-Fi debut album "
"Neck Bones & Caviar," which in 2001 won Mel the W.C. Handy (now Blues Music Award) "Blues Comeback Album of the Year" award."

He was highly respected in the music world throughout his career. I never had the pleasure of seeing him perform, but his legacy as a leader and a sideman is substantial.

The image of Mel is by taLkiN' bLuEs and taken from his website,

Since writing this I became aware of a Mel Brown obituary on the cbc's website.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Eddie Bo 1930-2009

Word came out today that Eddie Bo, yet another New Orleans piano playing funk pioneer passed away on Wednesday, March 18. Bo is among the last pianists from the age of classic New Orleans rhythm and blues where he had some big hits as well as wrote a number of songs that became classics for others. His career spanned the boogie influenced jump blues to the more modern funk.

His website biography summarized his career succinctly: "In a career that spans well over five decades, Eddie Bo has made more 45’s than any artist has in New Orleans other than Fats Domino. He has produced records for Irma Thomas, Robert Parker, Art Neville, Chris Kenner, Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and the late Johnny Adams. Bo is a prolific songwriter, having penned several timeless songs: "Check Mr. Popeye", "It Must Be Love", "I’m Wise" (made famous by Little Richard under the name "Slippin' and Slidin'") and the hit recorded by Etta James, "My Dearest Darling". He also wrote Tommy Ridgely's "In The Same Old Way" and further demonstrates genius in the realm of contemporary New Orleans funk on the highly creative works, "Hook and Sling" and "Pass the Hatchet.""

I had the pleasure of first seeing him perform at one of the Ponderosa Stomps performing solo, and at several JazzFests with a tight, funky band where he always did some of his favorites. Rounder reissued some of his funky R&B that included the popular dance number "Check Mr. Popeye," after all Olive Oyl was in the danger zone. A favorite CD of his was "New Orleans Solo Piano" on Night Train. His death, coming shortly after the death of Snooks Eaglin, is a terrible loss to fans of New Orleans music. I join the many world-wide, who mourn this great artist.

The picture is from April 26, 2008 at the Fais Do Do Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & heritage Festival

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Brother Tryone's Soulful Blues

A genuine surprise is the recent album by New Orleans singer Brother Tyrone, “Mindbender (Guitar Joe’s House of Blues), apparently the second disc by the Crescent City soul and blues vocalist. Its an old-fashioned album with live rhythm and horns including bassist Jack Cruz and the late Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold from Wolfman Washington’s band, and some fine uncredited horns. Special note has to be given to producer Everette Eglin who also supplies the guitar on this session. There is a nice mix of originals and covers of classic songs. Brother Tyrone for example lends his own voice to the Eddie Floyd’s “I Never Found A Girl,” as well as Toussaint McCall’s classic ballad “Nothing Take the Place of You,” but its an original like “If You Ain’t Cheating,” on which he shines as well as “When It’s Gone, it’s Gone,” a reflection on watching your stuff float away in a flood while he is joined by Richard “Tricky Dick” Dickson’s reference to classic soul as similarly floating away, a sentiment also found in “New Indian Blues,” as he mixes in some Mardi Gras references with references of the classic blues and soul artists he grew up on with Eglin taking a nice solo against the steady rocking groove as he presses on singing these rhythm and blues. “Old Friend is a terrific performance of a George Jackson number that Spencer Wiggins recorded for Goldwax with a nice bluesy solo, and followed by a nice down-in-the-alley rendition of Otis Spann’s “Country Girl,” on which Eglin plays some stinging slide guitar. The tempo picks up on “The Money’s Gone,” as Tyrone shouts out about finding his woman at the pawn shop but the money’s gone, and “you keep standing by the corner and I will be gone before too long.” Johnnie Taylor’s hit blues-ballad “Just Because,” is nicely delivered, while “New Roll and Tumble,” is a 21st Century reworking of Elmore James Fire recording of this classic theme. The set closes with a neat reworking of The Valentino’s “I Used to Love Her,” that some may now as “It’s All Over Now,” with a driving funk groove. This is a refreshingly vibrant disc of soul and blues that is available from the Louisiana Music Factory, itunes, cdbaby, amazon and other sources.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

John Cephas

John Cephas
Originally uploaded by NoVARon
I was privileged to know John Cephas for the past twenty or so years and have been a fan of his music for a longer time. Still word of his passing came as a shock, although I was aware that he had announced his retirement from music. The Library of Virginia very recently honored him as an African-American Trailblazer.

I first met John around the time I joined the DC Blues Society at the 1987 Smithsonian Folklife Festival when a number of DC blues performers were featured. He was one of the founders of the DCBS and its first President, and may have played a major role in the Society's fostering of acoustic blues in the early days which gave it a different flavor than the older Baltimore Blues Society had.

John's involvement in its first years was immense, including bring a sound system to the JFK Lounge for shows by John Dee Holeman and Flora Molton. He was also always available for advice.

Of course he is best known as a performer, rooted in the Piedmont fingerstyle guitar tradition and with a young Phil Wiggins, formed a memorable blues partnership. He was also one of the finest blues singers in the acoustic blues of the past fifty years. He may have learned to sing in the church, but his ebullient vocals reminded me of Big Bill Broonzy.

He won many honors, toured the world over and left us with a body of music that will be listened to for decades to come. The picture is from the last time I saw John Cephas performing, along with Phil,Wiggins at a DC Blues Society Festival Fundraiser at the Ratner Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, June 8, 2006.