Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jimmy Witherspoon Singin' the Blues

Much has been written about the late blues shouter, Jimmy Witherspoon. The Arkansas native who first attracted notice singing with with Teddy Weatherford’s Band in Calcutta which regularly broadcast over Armed Forces Radio Service, he made his first recordings with Jay McShann in 1945, recording “T'ain’t Nobody’s Business,” which became one of the biggest records of the times. With changing times, and the new rock and roll turning Witherspoon’s brand of jumping blues out of style, it was an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959 that returned Witherspoon to the spotlight, although now viewed in a context as a performer at jazz venues. He made a number of recordings in the contexts of jazz masters like Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan, and T-Bone Walker, along with a set of Kansas City jazz with Jay McShann (last reissued as a Mosaic single). Recordings with Webster were particularly wonderful but I dare say that none of his influences or contemporaries could belt out a boogie woogie as well as caress a ballad as consistently strongly as Spoon could. Then in the seventies he began an equally fruitful association with Robbin Ford that was equally fruitful, a terrific session with Panama Francis and the Savoy Sultans for Black & Blue (I downloaded this session online), and a solid JSP album with Hal “Cornbread’ Singer on sax if memory serves me right, and he made some sides with sympathetic backing from Duke Robillard and friends at the end of his career.

A few months ago I purchased “Singin’ the Blues” (JazzBeat), an augmented version of a 1959 World Pacific album that included Teddy Edwards on tenor saxophone, Hampton Hawes on piano, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison or Gerald Wilson on trumpet and others. It was a terrific pair of sessions with Spoon in great voice from the opening “S.K. Blues,” that was a smash for Big Joe Turner, but which Witherspoon makes his own, or “Then the Lights Go Out” a Willie Dixon penned tune (for some reason credited to Spoon) that was originally on Chess or Checker, with Edwards taking a terrific booting solo here, and “All That’s Good,” a derivative of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business,” with Hawes featured as Herman Mitchell strums on guitar during the solo while blasts off on the break on “Jimmy’s Blues,” with Edward’s’ adding some tasty obligatos behind Spoon’s vocal. On “It Ain’t What You Thinking’,” Gerald Wilson (Best known today as an arranger) contributes very nice muted trumpet, while Sweets’ muted trumpet weaves around Spoon’s strong vocal on “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business,” while Edwards takes a terrific solo that gets down into the nitty gritty during Spoon’s authoritative take on “Wee Baby Blues.” Another highpoint is “Sweet’s Blues,” opening with Edison playing muted trumpet, with Edwards taking the solo in the middle. This album concluded with an Edwards original, “Midnight blues, a tasty mid-tempo romp with Edwards playing quite strongly and I would not be surprised if Wilson contributed the arrangement here.

In addition to the original twelve recordings, seven tunes are included from a 1960 session with Edwards but a smaller band (no other horns). “Goin’ to Chicago” features strong tenor from Edwards and a nice guitar solo from Mitchell, but Spoon’s vocal is a bit more muffled in the mix. Spoon’s vocal is stronger on “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You,” followed by the easy rocking “Loser Blues.” “Life’s Highway,” is a slowed down “Key to Highway,” with a bit R&B feel. The last of the seven tracks from this session is “Wee baby Baby,” taken at a quicker tempo, as pianist Paul Moer quoting Ray Charles on his intro to the number. From a 1958 session that likely has Edwards as tenor saxophonist is “Coming Home” (a retitled “Going Down Slow”), that opens with some guitar that suggests some of Chuck Berry’s blues recordings before Spoon delivers his vocal. Some hots guitar runs along with some more great tenor from Spoon contribute to a strong performance. The last two tracks come from a 1970 album, “Handbags and Gladrags,” on whom can be heard Sweets Edison along with Plas Johnson on electric sax. Mel Brown and Arthur Adams are credited on guitar. On “Spoon’s Beep Beep Blues,” a censors beep overrides him as he sings ‘shit.’ The backing is a bit too rocked out, including the guitar solo and unlike the recordings from a decade earlier, these sound the most dated even if Spoon sounds good. Even with a couple of throw away tracks, this remains a good listen and over 70 minutes of music, much of it first-rate.

I purchased from JazzLoft, and Amazon lists this as available as well, so you might check your favorite jazz and blues retailer for this CD reissue. It is not available as a download I believe.

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