Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Amos Milburn was the Chicken Shack Boogie Man

Back in the early 1990s, EMI issued a series of blues reissues that made some important and vintage blues available for blues listeners. In the October 1994 Jazz & Blues Report (issue 195) I reviewed a pair of reissues by Amos MIlburn and Big Joe Turner. These reissues included their important recordings for Aladdin and Imperial which in Milburn’s case was his legacy. I have noted that while the original CD sets (which had wonderful booklets) may be available from used sources, but the music is available as downloads on itunes and amazon (and I presume other sources), so my observations are worthwhile, especially since Milburn is such an important artist whose star has faded. Given that most people today associate Milburn’s big hit “Chicken Shack Boogie” with Pinetop Perkins, these recordings should be a revelation to many. What follows is the pertinent portion of my review from 1994 with a few stylistic changes. 

Milburn’s star has been in eclipse for at least twenty years, yet, in the late forties, he was one of the biggest hit-makers in the rhythm and blues world, with most of his hits included on his collection. Despite Amos Milburn’s importance and influence, Rhino Records included no selections by Milburn on their Blues Masters Jump Blues or Texas Blues volumes. With the release of Down the Road Apiece, Milburn’s star will perhaps shine a bit brighter today. Inspired by the boogie woogie threesome of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson, and Louis Jordan’s jumping jive, Milburn was discovered playing in Houston by Lola Anne Cullum and taken to the West Coast to record at sessions that also produced Lightnin’ Hopkins’ first sides.

His earliest recordings were strong Texas boogie woogie numbers, represented here by the title track, with Milburn’s firm piano and smooth, soulful singing, and a November 1947 session that produced his chart record, Chicken Shack Boogie, which was on the charts for 23 weeks and reached number 1. It would start a period of several years where Milburn consistently was on the Billboard R&B charts, with the boogie instrumentals and uptempo numbers Let’s Have a Party, Roomin’ House Boogie and Sax Shack Boogie (many with Maxwell Davis’ gritty tenor saxophone); Charles Brown influenced ballads and dreary blues including Hold Me Baby, Empty Arms Blues and Bewildered, (some also showing kinship to T-Bone Walker’s blues ballads); and mid-tempo blues like Walking Blues and Thinking and Drinking, the latter one of many recordings he made about booze including Bad, Bad, Whiskey, and One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer.

With the success of his songs about drinking, Milburn’s life imitated art and he started drinking heavily, including shot glasses from his his piano while performing. While he continued to chart records until mid-1954, he wasn’t able to stay on the charts with the advent of rock and roll despite efforts to update his sound. Even a pounding new version of Chicken Shack Boogie, in New Orleans with Dave Bartholomew’s studio band, that rocked with the force of a two-trailer diesel doing 75, could not restore him to his status as a chart topper. It is one of the greatest rock and roll records, and it is unfortunate that EMI did not include it in this collection.

After his tenure with Aladdin ended, Milburn continued performing and he recorded for a variety of labels, including some duets with Charles Brown for Ace. He even did an album for Motown, now a collector’s item. He suffered the first stroke in 1969 while working in Cincinnati. He suffered a second stroke shortly thereafter, and in April, 1971, this writer spent an afternoon with Milburn, then in a wheelchair, at the Cleveland VA Hospital. Somehow Milburn recovered enough use of one hand so that in 1976, with Johnny Otis playing the left hand parts, Milburn recorded for Otis’ Blues Spectrum label, although these cuts were not memorable. He died in 1980.

Down the Road Apiece collects his hit records and a few other choice items, although obviously ignoring a substantial part of his 160 or so sides for Aladdin (for instance, there is also a great version of Flying Home). Fans of boogie woogie, club blues and jump blues will find plenty to enjoy here, and, if it meets with your approval, you might watch for a rumored Mosaic box set. {The Mosaic Box was a joy, but has been long out-of-print}.

This collection includes liner notes and lists all of the pertinent Aladdin and Imperial recordings. Lacking is personnel and other complete discographical information, although the notes do highlight the important sidemen. Given the absence of available Amos Milburn, Down the Road Apiece, is a particularly important reissue.

As a footnote to my review I should mention that Milburn’s guitarist, Texas Johnny Brown, is still on the scene, laying down his sophisticated, urban blues.

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