Thursday, March 17, 2011

Johnny Young's Big Fat Chicago Mandolin Blues

There have been few blues mandolin players recorded. One of them was Johnny Young, a traditionally rooted Chicago based bluesman who passed away over thirty-five years. Rich DelGrosso celebrated the music of Young and other blues mandolin players on “Mandolin Man” from the recent album he did with John Del Toro Richardson, “Time Slips By”.

Young was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, learned from an uncle who was part of a string band in Rolling Fork, and later was associated with the Mississippi Sheiks as well as with blues legends Houston Stackhouse and Robert Nighthawk. He moved permanently to Chicago in 1940 and played in clubs with John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson as well as engaged in a number of day jobs. In 1947 he was playing on the Maxwell Street Market and with a cousin, Johnny Williams recorded
Money Taking Woman, for the Ora Nelle label on which he played mandolin and sang. He accompanied his cousin on the flip side on what was one of the earliest post-war Chicago blues recordings.

He made a few more 78s and in the fifties backed Snooky Pryor on a Vee-Jay recording session. Blues and jazz writer Pete Welding extensively recorded Young on his Testament label with selections appearing on anthologies and eventually a full album of recordings with sidemen including harmonica players Big Walter and Little Walter; guitarists John Lee Granderson and Robert Nighthawk, and pianists Jimmy Walker and Otis Spann. Approximately half of these recordings featured him on mandolin. Young was recorded as part of Vanguard’s
Chicago the Blues Today! series although only one of the tracks had him on mandolin. Two albums were recorded on Arhoolie, one of which included members of Muddy Waters band and some selections included his mandolin playing.

In June 1969, Young recorded with pianist Otis Spann, and guitarist/bass guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, harmonica player Paul Oscher and drummer S.P. Leary, who all were then members of Muddy Waters Band for an album that was issued in England on the Blue Horizon label as
Fat Mandolin. Mike Vernon, founder of Blue Horizon, estimated the initial release only sold in the hundreds, which says more about marketing and popular tastes than the quality of the music. Sony/Blue Horizon issued a few years back Johnny Young’s The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions with some alternate takes, false starts and unissued songs. As Vernon observes in his liner notes, this is the first digital reissue of this material.

The album provides a healthy dose of Young’s mandolin starting with the opening
Moaning and Groaning. where the clipped mandolin sound is complemented by Spann’s typically strong piano accompaniment as well as solos to take it out. Taken a lively, but unhurried tempo, Young’s robust vocal here is straightforward and heartfelt. There is nothing innovative here; simple strong Chicago blues sung and played with authority few today can deliver. One can hear the influence of the pioneering Leroy Carr in such Young originals as Heard My Doorbell Ring, as well as the remake of Carr’s Prison Bound, a staple of the Chicago blues scene of the time. On My Trainfare Out of Town, where Young plays guitar, Oscher evokes Walter Horton with his harmonica, while Spann pounds out another solo. 

Lula Mae is a marvelous duet of Young on mandolin backed by Lawhorn on bass guitar, while John Lee Williamson’s Shotgun Blues is titled here as Jackson Bound, and we are provided the incomplete first take as the master take as he sings the terrific line Lake Michigan Ain’t No River, Chicago Ain’t No Hilly Town. Walking Slow opens with some classic slow blues piano from Spann before Young starts his vocal and Vernon suggests Lawhorn is the guitarist here. Mandolin returns for the two, somewhat different takes of Deal the Cards, with a philosophical delivery of the lyric about always being dealt the losing hand. Lend Me You Love has some incomplete takes before a memorable rendition of a Memphis Slim inspired song that fans of the late Junior Wells should recognize. Other highlights include the wonderful rendition of Prison Bound, with just Young on mandolin and Lawhorn on bass guitar and Victoria Spivey’s Mean Old Black Snake. Also included are previously unissued recordings including a lively version of the old Memphis Jug Band’s Stealin’ that he had recorded at least twice before.

It is an important and valuable reissue that should be available from better retailers. I purchased this.

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