Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hollywood Fats Legacy Burns Brightly Today

Decades after his death, the legacy of Michael “Hollywood Fats” Mann and the Hollywood Fats Band looms large. The members of the Hollywood Fats Band, Al Blake, vocals and harmonica; Fred Kaplan, piano; Larry Taylor, bass; and Richard Innes, drums, are still active and with guitarists Junior Watson, one of the more significant guitarists to model his own playing after that of Fats as well as Kirk Fletcher who was mentored by Watson form the Hollywood Blue Flames that plays in the same approach as Fats. Fats embraced the post-war blues guitar tradition and excelled in the post B.B. King style of playing but his ears made him so skilled that Muddy Waters recruited him after he had toured with the likes of J.B. Hutto, Jimmy Witherspoon and Albert King (the latter allegedly firing Fats because he was jealous of the attention Fats was receiving). The Hollywood Fats band recorded only one album which became a cult release in its initial vinyl release before Black Top issued it on CD.

Delta Groove issued a double CD a few years back, pairing new recordings by The Hollywood Blue Flames with previously unissued locations recordings by Fats. It has just issued a second double CD collection featuring the Hollywood Blue Flames “Deep in America" and more location recordings by the Fats Band “Larger Than Life Volume 2.” Vocalist Blake has become the dominant person in this and, handling all the vocals and on several tracks, he is heard solo playing guitar as well as harmonica) or primarily backed by Kaplan’s piano. Guitarist Watson or Fletcher are heard on 9 of the 14 selections on “Deep in America,” both contributing strong, swing straight-ahead contemporary blues guitar that shows no hard rock influences.

Most of the tunes on “Deep in America,” are Blake penned originals, but it opens with a nice take on L.C. McKinley’s “Nit Wit,” followed by a nice slow blues “Rambler and a Rollin’ Stone,” with some Sweet Charles Brown influenced piano, sizzling Watson guitar and great harp from Blake. Fletcher’s fretwork is spotlighted along with rollicking piano on “Crescent City Rock,” while Blake amuses with “My National Enquirer Baby,” about a lady who has low down ways and treats poor Al so mean which Watson guitar capturing the lyrics sting. Blake plays acoustic guitar and harp on “Music Man,” on of a couple performances that shows him a more than credible Delta Blues guitar stylist (the other being “Hip-Hoppin’ Toad”), as he employs the “Forty four Blues” riff. He is joined by Kaplan for “Leavin’ California, a nice duet as he sings about this rat race and tomorrow morning being south of the border bound. “

“Jalopy to Drive” is a nice rendition of a Sonny Boy Williamson that others would handle in a frenzied fashion, while “Bad Boy Blues,” is a nice classic Chicago Blues styled performance while Blake with Kaplan and Innes does a suitably morose rendition of Jimmy McCracklin’s “I Don’t Care.” Fletcher lends his fretwork to the rocking “Rocky mountain Blues,” with Kaplan’s boogie inflected piano standing out again. Among the other enjoyable performances is Kaplan’s piano feature, “Hushpuppy.”

It would be easy to recommend the new recordings based on their own merits. But as good as these get, but even better twelve live recordings from 1979 and 1980 by the Hollywood Fats Band for “Larger Than Life, Volume 2,” make this package extremely valuable. These are location recordings and the sound occasionally isn’t as vibrant on the more contemporary studio recordings. Tampa red’s “She’s Dynamite,’ is a strong feature for Blake and Kaplan (pounding on the ivories) before Fats takes his strong rocking solo during the second break in the song as the rhythm section (Taylor and Innes) cook. Listening to his playing here, one can understand why Muddy Waters invited Fats to join Muddy’s Band. “Blue and Lonesome” is the Memphis Slim number, again with some really terrific piano from Blake. Fats is featured on a nice “Hideaway,” and is prominent on the jaunty version of “Kansas City,” before turning it up a notch on a set closing jazzy instrumental, “Half Steppin’,” one of several extended guitar improvisations that never are lacking in drive or imagination. Perhaps the high point of these performances are three from Palo Alto’s Keystone from 1979. “Read About My Baby,” sounds like the model for “My National Enquirer Baby,’ with Fats evoking magic Sam with his driving, slashing attack. Its followed by an incendiary rendition of “Nit Wit,” that is taken at a somewhat frenetic tempo, but the band’s hard rocking groove never comes across as frenzied with some more blistering guitar. The last of this trio of selections is a marvelous “Blues After Hours, with a Blake vocal in addition to more dazzling guitar from Fats. One other instrumental, “Jumpin’ With Duncan,” is a tour de force for Fats with Al Duncan (the legendary Chicago drummer I believe) taking over the drum chair for this selection. With the close of the rock until the dawn’s light rendition of “Baby, Let’s Play House,” one simply wants to hear more of what was a great band.

The latest Hollywood Blue Flames release thus helps keep the torch alive for this legendary band, but also makes available more previously unissued and compelling sides that helps one understand the band’s reputation. Thanks to Delta Groove for this release.

For purposes of FTC regulations, I received the review copy from the folks doing publicity for the label. My review originally appeared in Jazz & Blues Report #324 (March 1-April 15, 2010).

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