Thursday, September 22, 2011

Remembering Honeyboy, Wardell and Big Eyes

September has seen some blues and rhythm masters leave us with memories and plenty of reason to celebrate their legacy.
Honeyboy Edwards at Western Maryland Blues Festival in Hagerstown, MD.  Photo © Ron Weinstock
David' Honeyboy' Edwards passing was the last link to the pre-war generation of Delta bluesmen. Edwards literally grew up and played with all of the masters of the style including Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Tommy McLennan and most famously Robert Johnson. It was his association that led Pete Welding to Edwards after Welding had asked Big Joe of any bluesmen who knew the legendary Delta artist. Welding recorded Edwards as well as interviewed him which led to an extensive article back in the sixties.

Big Joe Williams took first Edwards out on the road as a youngster and arguably Williams highly rhythmic style is the most obvious influence on Edwards. Edwards became at times a very capable blues performer in the Delta style. Certainly the recordings Edwards made for Alan Lomax were fine examples of the Delta style. In the post-war era he had a few commercial recording sessions leading to one issued 78 and sessions for Chess and Sun that went unissued at the time, although issued later. Even most of Pete Welding's recordings of Honeyboy were unissued until the CD era, although Honeyboy was among the artists brought to play with Fleetwood Mac in the late sixties. 

Honeyboy may not have had the powerful guitar style or passionate, charismatic singing style that might have appealed to commercial record labels, but his warm personality and his personnel connections to the giants of the pre-war blues made him a popular performer for the past few decades was was capable of reaching across cultural and generational lines so well.
Wardell Quezergue and Jean Knight at the Ponderosa Stomp.  Photo © Ron Weinstock
Wardell Quezergue earned the moniker "The Creole Beethoven" as a reflection of his ability to arrange for large groups. This New Orleans native was famed as a composer, producer and arranger. He put together the charts for "Big Chief," the legendary Professor Longhair-Earl King Mardi Gras classic. As a producer he have us chart-topping soul classics like King Floyd's "Groove Me," and Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff." These two recordings were actually produced on the same day.

In more recent years his arranging touch was utilized for big band albums by Charles Brown and Gatemouth Brown; several acclaimed Dr. John albums (including the Grammy® Award Winning "Goin' Back to New Orleans"); and the wonderful "Deacon John's Jump Blues." Listening to the renditions on this CD and DVD, and comparing them with the original recordings, one appreciates how Quezergue translated small combo recordings into a big band language with considerable grace and elegance. He was spotlighted at a couple of Ponderosa Stomps in New Orleans as well as a special Stomp at Lincoln Center in new York City. When Dr. Ike asked Dr. John if he would consider doing some of his older songs on which he played guitar originally, he agreed when he learned Quezergue would be doing the arrangements and conducting. This gives a sense of the contributions of this marvelous person.
Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith at the 2010 Pocono Blues Festival, Lake Harmony PA. Photo © Ron Weinstock
Finally, we just received word that Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith passed away. Smith was honored with a Grammy® this past year alongside his friend and long-time band-mate, Pinetop Perkins, with whom he spent many years playing together with the legendary Muddy waters and later the Legendary Blues Band. Smith remained active until the stroke that recently felled him, and in more recent years was featured on harmonica and vocals and not simply handling the shuffle rhythms on drums. His presence with Muddy was in part responsible for the rock-solid swing of that band.

The quality of his music as a leader was also noteworthy. I said of his Hightone release Way Back, that it "showcases Smith’s harp as well as his amiable vocals on some choice covers as well as idiomatic originals." His son Kenny has become one of the best drummers in the blues today (and played on Way Back). What I will remember most about Willie was his infectious smile and the sparkle in his eyes. 

RIP Honeyboy, Wardell and Big Eyes.

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