Friday, January 22, 2016

Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James

Chester Burnett was well known as the Howlin’ Wolf, and The Chess Box is an excellent three compact disc boxed set which is a fine survey of his compelling recordings starting with a healthy dose of his early Memphis recordings for Sam Phillips with the great Willie Johnson on guitar through his classic Chicago recordings with the likes of Otis Spann and Hubert Sumlin. While some of his later recordings perhaps showed the wear from his health, the music remains as gripping, whether on his reworking of Charlie Patton’s Saddle My Pony, Smoke Stack Lightning, How Many More Years, I Asked For Water, Rocking Daddy, Spoonful, Who’s Been Talking, Back Door Man, Killing Floor and others. There is one recording from his London session album with a variety of rock superstars, a couple of solo acoustic selections recorded at the otherwise best forgotten psychedelic album and some brief excerpts from an interview. The booklet contains biographical information and a review of his music. Another classic boxed set reissue.

One artist who diffused Robert Johnson’s music was Elmore James, whose most celebrated recording, Dust My Broom, married Johnson’s riff from Rambling on My Mind, with the lyrics for I’ll Believe
I’ll Dust My Broom. Elmore recycled this along with several other themes throughout his recordings career that spanned from 1951-1963. His last recordings (from 1959 to 1963 (with the exception of a 1960 Chess session) were made for Bobby Robinson’s Fire, Fury and Enjoy labels. Recently I noted a fine Relic collection Rollin’ and Tumblin’, that had most of his best recordings for Robinson. Poor Relic, insofar as Capricorn has just issued Elmore James, King of Slide Guitar, The Fire/Fury Recordings, that may represent all of the songs Elmore recorded for Bobby Robinson. There is a booklet that includes remembrances of Elmore by Sam Myers, Bobby Robinson and others, a biography, general appreciation and discographical information. Although I have heard this on a preview cassette, the sound (like the Relic) seemed particularly good. Unless you already have the Relic, this is a must buy, and it isn’t extravagantly priced.

This review originally appeared in the December 1992 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 177)  (along with reviews of Lightnin' Hopkins box sets that was posted yesterday). I likely received review copies from the record companies. Both sets are available as downloads and can be obtained as used (although Collectables has also has a box set of the Elmore). While not perfect, a recent public domain reissue of Elmore James, The Ultimate Collection (Not Now) is a handy compilation surveying his recordings from the entire span of his recording career although includes a few accompaniments to others as well as his featured recordings).

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