Thursday, December 31, 2009

Boogie Woogie Kings Is Appealing Blues Piano CD

Among new Delmark releases is “Boogie Woogie Kings”, a compilation of piano blues and boogie woogie performances that is apparently the first in a series following Delmark’s acquisition of the Euphonic Records label master recordings several years ago. Included are representative performances by the trio of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson including a rendition of “Boogie Woogie Prayer” by the trio together. Ammons leads off with a stomping “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” although this listener misses the ragtime and vaudeville aspects of Pinetop Smith’s original. Johnson’s “G-Flat Blues,” displays why he was so influential on the likes of Jay McShann and Archibald, while Lewis on “Doll House Boogie,” switches from piano to a celeste midway (probably accounting for the song’s title). While these are solid performances, they serve more as an introduction to these three boogie woogie piano giants. The remainder of the performances are split between Cripple Clarence Lofton, Henry Brown and Speckled Red. Lofton made some commercial recordings and the six recordings issued here have been issued several times over the past four decades (I believe first by Yazoo) and are spectacular with his “raggedly-ass” driving boogie evident on the spectacular “Streamline Train,” a reworking of the classic “Cow Cow Blues,” and his rapid-fire “I Don’t Know,” which was the basis for Willie Mabon’s hit blues for the Chess Brothers. Lofton made some fine blues for Brunswick and Decca, and Delmark will be issuing a CD of his Session recordings for CD. This listener can’t wait. Henry Brown was a prominent member of the St. Louis school of pianists and recorded extensively, including as an accompanist for singers Alice Moore, Mary Johnson and Edith Johnson, is heard on three numbers including the previously unissued “Deep Morgan,” an evocative blues with Brown’s interjections describing what was the home of St. Louis’ blues scene. Finally, I would use the term barrelhouse more than boogie woogie to describe the stomp down playing of Speckled Red, who reprises his classic “The Dirty Dozens,” as well as “Right String, Wrong Yo Yo,” made famous by his much younger brother, Piano Red.” Bellowing out his blues like Roosevelt Sykes, Speckled Red’s driving piano knows no boundaries. With five previously unissued selections, piano blues lovers will enjoy this collection that brings together some solid performances, but with so many great piano blues collections out there, one cannot call this essential.

Delmark Records sent me the review copy of this CD
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Boogie Woogie Kings

Snooks Eaglin's 1st Black Top LP reissued

One of my favorite artists was the late Snooks Eaglin who passed away in February of this year. Hep Cat, a Collector’s Choice subsidiary obtained the Black Top catalog and started reissues from the catalog with a Digi-pac reissue of Eaglin’s first Black Top album amongst others. Here is my review which was run in the June 2009 issue of Jazz & Blues Report (#317).

Hep Cat, a subsidiary of Collectors Choice, has reissued Snooks Eaglin’s 1987 album, “Baby You Can Get Your Gun.” This was the first of five discs he recorded for Black Top that are the cornerstone of his recorded legacy. Labeled the Human Jukebox because of his vast repertoire, the Black Top recordings captured his wide repertoire along with his singular guitar style with his unpredictable twisting lines and an almost pianistic attack on the strings. This disc had him backed by a stellar band that included Ron Levy on keyboards, Ronnie Earl on guitar, bassist Erving Charles and drummer Smokey Johnson from Fats Domino’s band, and saxophonist David Lastie. Things get going with a solid rendition of Guitar Slim’s “You Give Me Nothing But the Blues,” followed by a reflective take on Percy Mayfield’s “Baby Please,” with Lastie adding the tasty sax. More of a direct second flavor follows on “Oh Sweetness,” while a jazz meets Ventures flavor marks the instrumental, “Profinia,” with Snooks dazzling with what sound like off the cuff riffs. Tommy Ridgely’s blues ballad “Lavinia,” receives a nice vocal followed by the vintage Earl King rocker that gives this disc its title. The hard funk number “Drop the Bomb,” is followed by a reworking of his Imperial recording”That Certain Door.” Another strong blues performance is “Nobody Knows,” with its pleading vocal with more solid guitar followed by a rocking rendition of Eugene Church’s “Pretty Girl Everywhere,” with more fine tenor from Lastie. At the time, this was Snooks best album, and it holds up today as a very fine effort. It would be followed by even better albums later (my particular favorite is “Out of Nowhere”), and we should be thankful that it has been made available once again.

I was sent a review copy from the publicist for Collectors Choice.

Quintus McCormick's Soulful Blues Debut

One of my favorite blues discoveries of 2009 was the debut Delmark disc by Quintus McCormick. I wrote the following review which appeared in the October 15 to December 1 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 321).

It has been an interesting musical journey for Chicago blues man Quintus McCormick. Born in Detroit, he grew up enamored with progressive rock with early inspirations coming from Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Santana, Humble Pie and Steve Howe of Yes. After moving to Chicago, and getting a musical degree he was playing pop music until he started with J.W. Williams and the Chicago Hustlers where he got his musical inspiration and then later worked sideman gigs with Lefty Dizz and James Cotton, as well as getting personal insights from various events in his life such as going down south to help his parents bury his granddad. As he has musically grown he has definitely developed into a contemporary urban blues voice with a strong soul-blues tinge. He brings a vocal style that captures elements of Charles Wilson, Little Milton, and others with an intense guitar style that Delmark has just captured in “Hey Jodie!,” the debut album by the Quintus McCormick Blues Band.

It opens with the title track, which is subtitled “Take Good Care of My Baby,” as he adds to the body of songs involving the back door lover, telling him to take care of Quintus’ baby since he can’t leave her alone. Its a soulful performance with nice horns and synthesized strings from keyboard wiz Roosevelt Purifoy. Its followed by the small group “Get You Some Business,” instead of taking care of Quintus’ business, with an insistent backing suggestive of some of the late Andrew Brown. McCormick is generally quite a solid guitarist but his heavily distorted tone adds little to the beginning of what is an otherwise intense performance, “What Goes Around Comes Around,” with some nice harp from Ted Reynolds. Not any complaints can be had for the driving shuffle “You Should Learn From This,” with its punchy horns. “Fifty/Fifty,” with the horns and harmonica has a funky groove as he sings about how he and his partner who have to share equally for their special love they have. “I’m Alright Now,” is a lazy Jimmy Reed-styled shuffle that McCormick takes a more low-key vocal with Reynolds adding some tasty harmonica. It is followed by a rocker, “Get That Money,” which does not completely jell together because of its frantic tempo and accompaniment. Much better are the soul ballad “Hot Lovin’ Woman,” and the pleading “Plano Texas Blues,” while “I’m a Good Man Baby,” is another fine performance that gets to display his fine guitar playing. Standing out among the many fine performances is the soulful singing on “There Ain’t No Right Way To Do Wrong,” and a nice terse solo. Obviously selections like this suggest that McCormick should be a significant presence on the southern blues and soul music, his music be as equally appealing to fans of such recent contemporary blues legends as Little Milton, Otis Rush, Andrew Brown, and Jimmy Johnson. While there may be one or two disappointing tracks among the 15 here, but overall this is a marvelous debut album by a blues voice I to hear more from.

To satisfy a possible interpretation of FTC regulations, I received a review copy from Delmark Records.

Captivating Afro-Jazz Disc

From the December 2009 Jazz & Blues Report (who provided me with the review copy) comes my review of a terrific recording by Israeli-born clarinetist Oran Etkin and the marvelous Group Kelenia. African grooves and jazz mix here in a truly fine recording.

Born in Israel where he first heard Louis Armstrong as a youngster, Oran Etkin’s influences are many but it was playing Malian music in New York led him to travel to Mali where he stayed with a family of percussionist Jon Camara where he met and had the opportunity to play with some of the great groits in Mali and when he returned resumed an association with Balla Kouyate (on balaphon) leading to formation of Group Kelenia that also includes Makane Kouyate on calabash and Joe Sanders on bass. Kelenia comes from the Bambara word for love between peoples who are different from each other. On Etkin’s new recording “Kelenia” (Motéma Music), he introduces us to a marvelous meeting of ancient and modern, Jazz and African music, calls to prayer of different traditions for an enchanting experience. Primarily playing clarinet and bass clarinet with occasional tenor, Etkin’s deep woody tone resonates against Balla Kouyate’s dancing balaphon while Makane Kouyate’s calabash adds a gritty texture along with the haunting vocals of Abdoulaye Diabate. Both “Yekete” and the title track illustrate this, with overdubbing allowing Etkin to play off clarinet versus the bass clarinet. “Not a Waltz” is one of several tracks that feature Lionel Loueke’s guitar and John Benitez on bass with Mohamed ‘Joh’ Sidi Camara adding the talking drum. What is fascinating is the constant conversations that take place between the various musicians. Etkin’s tenor adds a honking tinge to “Nama,” as he plays over a vamping accompaniment from Balla Kuoyate. “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” has the ensemble adding a unique touch to the Ellington jazz standard as Etkin’s clarinets set the tone before Balla Kuoyate continues the musical dance with his solo. The music on “Kelenia” will enchant and invigorate the listener with the freshness and vigor of the music here. For more on Oran Etkin, visit, or, where you can purchase this. It is available from amazon and iTunes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Belinda Underwood Is An Enchanting Jazz Bassist and Vocalist

Among the recordings I had the pleasure to review this year for Jazz & Blues Report was the following by bassist and vocalist Belinda Underwood, that was sent to me by this publication. It appeared in the February 2009 issue (#313)

As the publicity for vocalist Belinda Underwood suggests, she is unique. After all, upright bass playing female vocalists are not that common, especially one also holding a degree in Astrophysics and holding a pilot’s license. Based in Portland, Oregon, she has a delightful new release, “Greenspace ,” with some unusual covers and her originals, that sometimes are whimsical, fit the playfulness of some of the performances. Her alto voice has a bit of sassiness, yet also is quite playful, and enchants with her delivery and phrasing. She plays bass on several tracks, but for much of the disc, Phil Baker of Pink Martini handles the bass with Martin Zarzar, also of Pink Martini on drums. Benny Green is the pianist and on three tracks, Belinda’s sister, Melissa is heard on saxophones. Nancy King adds her vocals to two selections and Egyptian Alfred Gamil adds violin to one track. Green is such a marvelous accompanist; no surprise from his tenure with Betty Carter and the rhythm is first-rate throughout.

The program opens with Underwood and Nancy King scatting to John Coltrane’s “Bass Blues,” followed by her lovely reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Secret Life of Plants,” which is one of several songs indicating a concern for things natural, even if she expresses it sometimes unusually. “No Moon At All,” is a playful waltz about falling in love with Green having a choice solo. An instrumental, “Seeing Red,” on which she plays bass has a Latin rhythm with Green emphatically stating the theme before her sister comes in on tenor. Her lovely way with a ballad is exhibited on “Blue Gardenia,” which is followed by her rendition of the bossa, “Estate,” singing about Estate and how he bathes her in the glow of his caresses and turns her no’s to tender yeses. “Polar Blue,” has a playfully expressed, but sober lyric about global warming, how the icebergs are melting and wondering why no one cares about the plight of polar bears. It is followed by a whimsical song of chickens in the chicken coop, recalling their fearful youth and the “Midnight Creeper,” the raccoon who snook into their Hen House. Underwood's playful, vocal is matched by the delightful trio accompaniment. Then there is her demonstrative lyric about singing in odd time signatures, “Odd Meter Blues.” A bit of middle eastern flavor is added by Gamil’s violin on “The Oasis.” On this, Belinda plays the oud as well as bass while the rhythm conjures images of a camel caravan heading to a desert oasis.

There are plenty of pleasures on “Greenspace,” from the songs, the wonderful playing and, most importantly, Belinda Underwood’s delightful manner in delivering a song that results in these completely enchanting performances. “Greenspace” is available from her website,,,, iTunes and other discerning retailers.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tad Robinson's Blue-Eyed Soul-Blues

The following review of a strong recording by Tad Robinson originally appeared in Jazz & Blues Report in 2004. I received the review copy from Severn Records, the label.

Tad Robinson is an exceptional blue-eyed blues and soul singer who recorded some years back on Delmark and I was privileged to write the notes for one of his discs. David Earl's Severn label has just issued his latest CD, Did You Ever Wonder? Robinson has really grown as a singer and along with the veteran Billy Price, label-mate Darrell Nulisch and also Curtis Salgado has emerged as a first-rate exponent of blue-eyed soul. There is more than a tinge of Memphis in the feel of these songs with Willie Henderson contributing the first rate horn arrangements for these tracks. Benji Porecki and Kevin McKendree handle the keyboards while Alex Schultz adds some hot guitar as on the remake of Jimmy McCracklin's The Bitter & the Sweet, on which Robinson tosses in some harp. The legendary Otis Clay even provides backing vocals on the Cornelius Brothers' hit, Too Late to Turn Back Now. Other covers include Robert Ward's marvelous Your Love is Amazing, and the Little Willie John's Suffering With the Blues. On both of these Robinson puts forth his own distinctive interpretation of the song. The highlights on a consistently excellent album may be two of the originals by Robinson and lyricist John Bean, Woman Trouble, and Pockets Full of Nothing. Perhaps its the exceptional lyrics that standout, but this whole disc should appeal to fans of modern urban blues and soul.

This CD was nominated for a Handy Award (now known as a Blues Music Award)

I Blueskvarter made Blues History Available

The following was a review of the 3rd double CD in a series that an offshoot of the Swedish blues magazine, Jefferson, released in the earlier part of this decade. The review below was written in 2004 and may have appeared in Jazz & Blues Report. I purchased this recording.

The Scandinavian Blues Association has issued on its Jefferson Records, I Blueskvarter * 1964, Volume Three. This is the third double disc volume in the series which makes available recordings that the Swedish Broadcasting Company made in Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans in 1964 that was broadcast in autumn 1964. The first two volumes were devoted to recordings from Chicago and included recordings by such legendary figures as Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Johnny Young, Walter Horton, Willie Mabon, Johnny Young, Washboard Sam and Paul Butterfield (on what were Butterfield's first recordings). This volume includes New Orleans recordings by Snooks Eaglin and Babe Stovall and Memphis recordings by Johnny Moment, Will Shade, Furry Lewis, Earl Bell and Moose Williams with the second disc containing extra recordings from Mabon, Sunnyland Slim, Walter Horton, and Johnny Young among others before concluding with three 1961 recordings by Big Joe Williams and then from Champion Jack Dupree recorded in performance and conversation in Sweden. This is a varied set of music opening with Snooks Eaglin performing ten numbers in a vein similar to his early recordings as a 'street singer' although the opening Yours Truly, a Pee Wee Crayton song he had recorded for Imperial as a R&B artist. Few could pull off PInetop's Boogie Woogie on guitar like Snooks can and other songs he provides his unique skills to include My Babe, Let Me Go Home Whisky, and Hello Dolly. Babe Stovall, who also was resident in New Orleans presents some more down home blues on his four songs that includes renditions of Candy Man and Gonna Move to Kansas City. The first Memphis selections are by harmonica Johnny Moment, whose rendition of Keep Our Business to Yourself, is heavily indebted to Rice 'Sonny Boy Williamson II' Miller. He also backs legendary jug band musician Will Shade on a slow I Got the Blues So Bad, Furry lewis has sounded better than on Baby, I Know You Don't Love Me, which does have moments of nice slide guitar. Traditional Mississippi blues are represented by one Earl Bell who does a competent cover Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues. The selections from Chicago supplement recordings by these artists that are on the first two volumes in this series. Willie Mabon delivers a strong Somebody's Got to Pay, while piano blues are also represented by Sunnyland Slim on Leroy Carr's Prison Bound and Little Brother Montgomery who reprises his immortal Vicksburg Blues. Walter Horton, accompanied by Robert Nighthawk on guitar is heard on three numbers including a nicely delivered Tin Pan Alley. Two early recordings by Paul Butterfield with Smokey Smothers on guitar include One Room Country Shack, while Johnny Young is backed by Slim Willis on harp and Otis Spann on piano for You Got Bad Blood, I Think You Need a Shot. The Joe Williams performances are typically fine and are followed by a Swedish broadcast of Dupree and Olie Helander in which Dupree recalls growing up, his big influence and other matters along with a rendition of his Drive 'em Down Special, as well as Leroy Carr's Barrelhouse Woman. In addition to being a great pianist, Dupree was a marvelous conversationalist. As with the first two volumes, there are copious notes that discuss the artists and how the recordings were made. This is an invaluable addition to the body of downhome blues of this time. This is an important musical document and contains some very strong performances by artists who have mostly passed away. The Swedish Blues Alliance is to be thanked for the over six hours of vintage blues music that they have made available in this series. You probably can only obtain these by mail order, and I would suggest contacting either Bluebeat Music at or Triangle Music at for information on obtaining these. Its too bad that Olie Helander only did a radio documentary of the blues forty years ago, because the musical legacy of this radio series stands tall compared to the recent over-hyped Martin Scorcese PBS series on the blues.

Bluebeat Music shows the three volumes of this series as still available.

Solid Smokin' Joe Kubek and B'nois King

I have had a fondness for Smokin' Joe Kubek and B'nois King since first becoming aware of them with their association with Rounder Records and its Blullseye Blues subsidiary in the 1990s. The pair has always had strong bands and their contrasting guitar styles as well as B’Nois King’s soulful blues singing make them a strong act to listen to and see live. The following review dates from 2004 and appeared in Jazz & Blues Report, and the review copy was most likely provided by the Blind Pig Label.

The pair of Joe Kubek and B'nois King continue to lay down some strong blues tracks with their latest Blind Pig release, Show Me the Money. Kubek's muscular and incendiary guitar playing is complemented by King's soulful vocals (suggestive of a cooler Otis Rush) and his own jazzier guitar comping and soloing. While one gets a sense of a rock feel to this music at time, perhaps a result of Kubek's tone at times, yet they never stray from the blues perhaps because of the solid and never overstated rhythm section. The album is full of solid new slow blues and shuffles including the cautionary She Can Smell Another Woman, where B'nois warns one that one day he is gonna slip up and she will sense when he has another woman and "you'll lose her and your girlfriend and wind up all alone." My Heart's in Texas is a rocker with as King songs about some places he's been and while he's seen Big Ben in London, his heart's in Texas as Kubek takes off on a short concise solo. Burnin' to the Ground has a funky little groove with a lyric about about a love that was too hot and high and came crashing down with some hot slide from Kubek who is quite capable of playing sheets of sound with his guitar but knows when to lay out. In fact this is reflected by the fact that the longest tracks here extend to slightly more than 4 1/2 minutes. There is plenty of passion invested into these performances, but they play with intelligence and keep their performances focused and concise resulting in this first-rate cd.

Tad Robinson's Blue-Eyed Soul-Blues

The following review of a strong recording by Tad Robinson originally appeared in Jazz & Blues Report in 2004. I received the review copy from Severn Records, the label.

Tad Robinson is an exceptional blue-eyed blues and soul singer who recorded some years back on Delmark and I was privileged to write the notes for one of his discs. David Earl's Severn label has just issued his latest cd, Did You Ever Wonder? Robinson has really grown as a singer and along with the veteran Billy Price, label-mate Darrell Nullisch and also Curtis Salgado has emerged as a first-rate exponent of blue-eyed soul. There is more than a tinge of Memphis in the feel of these songs with Willie Henderson contributing the first rate horn arrangements for these tracks. Benji Porecki and Kevin McKendree handle the keyboards while Alex Schultz adds some hot guitar as on the remake of Jimmy McCracklin's The Bitter & the Sweet on which Robinson tosses in some harp. The legendary Otis Clay even provides backing vocals on the Cornelius Brothers' hit, Too Late to Turn Back Now. Other covers include Robert Ward's marvelous Your Love is Amazing, and the Little Willie John Suffering With the Blues. On both of these Robinson puts forth his own distinctive interpretation of the song. The highlights on a consistently excellent album may be two of the originals by Robinson and lyricist John Bean, Woman Trouble and Pockets Full of Nothing. Perhaps its the exceptional lyrics that standout, but this whole disc should appeal to fans of modern urban blues and soul.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Houston Person Featured on Harold Arlen tribute

I have become a huge fan of Houston Person over the past few years, and he certainly merits acclaim as one of the great tenor saxophonists. A master of blues and ballads, he is showcased on a marvelous tribute to Harold Arlen by guitarist Peter Hand's Big Band. This review written for Jazz & Blues Report but it has not run yet.

Guitarist Peter Hand has years of performing and writing experience and in more recent years put together several larger ensembles including his big band that has a notable roster of players including saxophonists, Kenny Berger, Don Braden, Ralph LaLama, Mike Migliore; Trumpeters and flugelhornists, Cecil Bridgewater, Valery Ponamarev, Jim Rotondi; and pianist Richard Wyands, to name some of the more recognizable names. For a concert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Birth of Harold Arlen, held at Irvington Town hall Theater on April 22, 2005, he also added Houston Person as featured guest where they ran through some of Arlen’s most beloved compositions such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Ill Wind,” Let’s Fall in Love,” Stormy Weather,” and “Over the rainbow.” The Peter Hand Big Band’s concert was recorded and Savant has released it “The Wizard of Jazz: A Tribute to Harold Arlen.”

Any album featuring Houston Person is going to benefit form his warm, rich tone and the melodic quality of his improvisations and this comes to the fore early with his opening statement in then opening “Come Rain or Come Shine,” with interesting orchestral interjections to spice things up with some nice solos also from Hand and pianist Wyands. On the ballad “Ill Wind,” Person’s romantic playing evokes Ben Webster although his tone is feathery compared to the heavy vibrato Webster employed. Bridgewater has a lovely muted trumpet solo here. Hand in his annotation notes that the rendition of the ballad “This Time’s The Dream’s On Me,” is an uptempo one inspired by the Charlie Parker recording with Valery Ponamarev sparkling on his solo, while Person’s ballad playing once again is at front for “The Man That Got Away,” written for the 1955 film version of “A Star is Born,” and Person’s familiarity with this comes from the many years he played this with the late great Etta Jones. Special kudos here for the marvelous arrangement with Hand and Wyands making some nice contributions in the background. The bossa nova arrangement enlivens “Let’s Fall in Love,” with Don Braden’s snake charming soprano sax solo, and Jim Rotondi adding some blistering trumpet. “Stormy Weather” is among Arlen’s most famous songs and Person is magnificent here on an arrangement built upon that used by Person for his small group performances. One performance is a ringer, being a medley of Person’s “Blue Jug” and Hand’s “Harold Blues,” which is a lengthy blues jam with a number of different soloists (one of the trumpeters quotes “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”), with Person taking his last. The performance closes with an unaccompanied Houston Person performance of “Over the Rainbow.” Having an opportunity to listen to a number of recent Houston Person recordings in the past several years, he has become a favorite who can constantly be counted on for swinging tenor sax deep in the blues and a master of the ballad which is showcased as the special guest of Peter Hand’s marvelous big band for a thoroughly captivating recording.

For FTC purposes I was provided the review copy from Jazz & Blues Report which recived it from the record label.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Joe Louis Walker Returns With Boss Blues

A new Joe Louis Walker recording is always welcome and Stony Plane has just issued “Between A Rock And The Blues.” I believe this is his second album for Stony Plain and like the prior one is produced by Duke Robillard and the 19th album that is not a compilation of prior recordings. Walker has produced the most impressive of any artist in the blues over the past quarter of a century, and has not produced a disc that was not at least good. This present release may be his best release in a decade with its consistently strong playing, solid backing support, impassioned singing and varied, interesting material. Ten of the tracks were in Rhode Island with a band that included Robilliard, Bruce Katz, Doug James and Carl Querforth on nine and the closing “Send You Back” an acoustic duet with Sugar Ray Norcia’s harmonica. The ensemble playing here is leaner, tighter and sharper sounding than on Walker’s last few albums and his own playing seems to be more focused. Good range of material from the rocking opening “I’m Tired,” where he recites a litany of things he is tired up. It is followed by a hot, bluesy reworking of Travis Phillips’ rockabilly stomp, “Eyes Like a Cat.” “Black Widow Spider” is a nice original with solid keyboards from Katz and sax from James while Walker is strong on guitar and vocals on Murali Coryell’s “Way Too Expensive,” a solid jump blues styled number with a solid Robilliard solo added. Two of the songs were recorded at Kevin Eubanks (you know the one who is associated with Jay Leno) with a band that includes Eubanks, the great Henry Oden on bass and Ellis Eugene Blackwell on keyboards. “If There’s a Heaven,” is typical of the two with an intense driving backing supporting a fervent vocal and some driving slide guitar by one of the blues slide guitar masters of today, evoking Elmore, Muddy, Tampa Red and Earl Hooker, yet immediately recognizable as his own sound. “I’ve Been Down,” the other tune with this band is a driving Rolling Stones inspired blues rocker. “Prisoner of Misery,” with Robillard’s band is back to the West Side Chicago blues while Steve Hall’s “Hallways,” is built on a soulful lyric embellished by Walker’s guitar with Katz taking a solid piano solo while his organ helps set the atmosphere here. The Boss Talker is back with one of the best recent blues albums by anyone.

To the extent required by FTC regulations, I received a review copy of this CD from the record compnay or promotional firm.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

King of the Queen City is Important Label History

King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records
Jon Hartley Fox
University of Illinois Press
(280 pages, 23 photographs)

This writer have long been a fan of many of rhythm’n’blues artists that recorded for the King family of labels. These include Roy Brown, Wyonnie Harris, Ivory Joe Hunter, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Freddie King, Little Willie John, Esther Phillips, The Five Royales, Billy Ward & the Dominoes and James Brown, to name a small part of the musical legacy of Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati based group of labels that included Queen and Federal. King was a pioneering label in more ways than one as this very welcome history of the label and overview of the extensive recordings that were made for it makes clear.

“King of the Queen City” expands upon a public radio series of the same title that Fox did in 1986 and is a history of the label that Syd Nathan launched in 1943, which became a company that Fox observes was “one of the most, important successful and influential record companies in history. During the almost twenty-five years Nathan was at the helm, King recorded — and introduced to the American public — a stunning array of musical giants, from country stars Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones and bluegrass greats Don Reno and Red Smiley to blues guitarist Freddie King and R&B and soul stars Hank Ballard and James Brown.” Furthermore, while one of hundreds of independent labels to emerge during the forties, none of these matched “King for variety, innovation, depth of catalog and sheer moxie.” It changed not only how music was recorded but also the music itself and whereas almost all other independent labels concentrated on one type of music, King was active in virtually all genres of American vernacular music and did not simply dabble in these styles but had many top stars and some of the biggest records in these styles. It was music and records for “the little man,” as Nathan often put it.

King did more than simply pioneer in the music it recorded and issued. King Records under Syd Nathan pioneered in other ways. It was a record company that had an integrated staff, in what really was a southern city at the time. Nathan started the record company during the middle of World War II when there was a shellac shortage and during the first Petrillo recording ban, may not have been what one might have been instructed in business school. Despite these circumstances Syd Nathan developed King into pioneering record company. He recorded his artists in his studios, manufactured his records (which entailed learning how to master and manufacture records) and using a national promotion force under his control. Other companies may have had their own studio, or perhaps manufacturing plant, but they would not also have their own promotion staff, rather relying on regionally based independent promotion staff. And one cannot emphasize enough his pioneering in hiring individuals on merit, not on the basis of race or other matters.

King also pioneered in having his R&B acts record songs penned by his country stars and vice versa (such as Wyonnie Harris “Bloodshot Eyes”), therefore enabling the exploitation of the songs in the music catalog the label cultivated and owned in addition to the recordings. Overseeing many of the sessions (whether country and R&B) was Henry Glover, Nathan’s first Artist & Repertoire Director. Glover was probably only the second black man to hold an executive position with a United States record label and helped produce some of the label’s early hits like those by Bull Moose Jackson and Harris. Fox, in telling the story of King Records, notes the unheralded and pioneering role that Glover, and also Ralph Bass played in the development of American music of the past 65 years, and notes how few of these have received the recognition they deserve.

Nathan had a strong personality and could get into intense arguments with his staff. The book recounts the legendary story of Nathan’s reaction to James Brown & the Famous Flames’ “Please, Please, Please,” that Ralph Bass recorded, spewing “This is the worse piece of shit I’ve ever heard in my life. …” The earliest acts on King were country acts like Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Merle Travis and King would build a distinguished country catalog that included Hawksaw Hawkins, Hank Penny and the great rocking honky tonk piano pioneer, Moon Mullican and then rockabilly sessions with such pioneers as Charlie Feathers. And there would be the countless blues and vocal groups as well as gospel sessions held under the eyes of Glover, Bass and others. Lets not forget such important popular instrumental performers as Earl Bostic and Bill Doggett. Is there anyone reading this who has never heard “Honky Tonk?” The recordings story along with that of Doggett, saxophonist Clifford Scott and guitarist Billy Butler is among those recounted here. This is just to give a small flavor of what the King Catalog represented. King Records passed along with Syd Nathan when he died. The label’s catalog was purchased as was the music publishing. and Fox discusses the various reissues of King recordings and other matters that have happened over the four decades since Syd Nathan passed away.

Fox weaves the label’s history around a discussion of the many performers and musical styles the label touched on and even one familiar with a number of the artists will discover much new. This is not to say there are not omissions in discussing artists, especially after they left King. For example, the discussion of Esther Phillips sort of dismisses her post-King years, ignoring the fact that the Beatles invited her to England because of her recording “And I Love Him,” and one year Aretha handed Esther Phillips a Grammy one year when Aretha won over Esther’s classic album “From a Whisper to a Scream. Its his superficial summary discussion of her and Johnny “Guitar’ Watson, that have me wondering what has he missed on performers who I am less familiar with. This does seem a minor point as his achievement is compiling so much information on the King Records story and artists and recordings of King and associated labels. The label’s story is perhaps not as integrated with the narrative of the performers, but that is a function of what he has attempted here. 

If not a perfect book, it is a remarkable achievement and Fox makes the case for the recognition to folks like Henry Glover, Ralph Bass and Syd Nathan himself by popular music historians. Their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have been secured years ago, and hopefully this volume will lead to that belated recognition. To the extent these folks are not in The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame, that oversight should be immediately addressed. Jon Hartley Fox is to be thanked for his impressive addition to the popular music literature. “King of the Queen City” is highly recommended for anyone seriously interested in American vernacular music.

To comply with FTC regulations that may or may not be applicable, I obtained a review copy of this book from either the publisher or someone doing publicity for the publisher.

What Lifetime Achievement by Honeyboy Edwards

The announcement that David 'Honeyboy' Edwards is receiving a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award is startling. According to the NARAS website,

"This Special Merit Award is presented by vote of the Recording Academy's National Trustees to performers* who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artist significance to the field of recording."

Maybe someone can explain what creative contribution as a performer of blues Honeyboy made. He made some enjoyable recordings (Notably his Library of Congress Recordings) but can someone explain how he receives such an honor when such clearly more important associates as Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Tommy McLennan, Son House, Bukka White, Robert Lockwood, Johnny Shines, Skip James, and Fred McDowell have not been honored to name a few.

Is survival until one is in one's 90s a criteria for a relatively minor artist being heralded as a major creative artist, when that was simply not the case.

I look forward to getting some brickbats on this but Ma Rainey, Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy have not been so honored, but Honeyboy Edwards has.