Sunday, April 29, 2007

Little Milton - The Last Concert

I was at the North Atlantic Blues Festival on the dreary, rainy Saturday when Little Milton closed the day's performances with a solid performance opening with him taking the mike and belting out a few songs before picking up his guitar for the last two-thirds of the set. Milton was in wonderful form including My Dog and Me, Still Some Meat on These Bones, a marvelous medley of Anna Mae’s Cafe, Catch You on Your Way Down, and Walking the Backstreets Crying, and a rousing The Blues is All Right, that closes the performance.

Fortunately, this performance was captured on a marvelous DVD, Little Milton - The Last Concert (Juke Joint Media). The video captures the performance in a simple straightforward fashion, focusing on Milton and his band with the cameras occasionally surveying the audience, but never straying from its focus on Little Milton.

Looking at how vigorous Little Milton was that afternoon, you may understand my shock when I heard about his stroke-heart attack a few days later and his death less than a month after this wonderful performance. I was fortunate to be there but wish it had not been his Last Concert.

This DVD (a CD is also available) is obtainable from and from North Atlantic Blues Records. The CD is available from various sources including The Little Milton Store.

Bobby Rush, Chick Willis, and more coming to DC area May 26

PICT1496 Bobby & dancer
Originally uploaded by NoVARon.
Big Pre-Memorial Weekend Blues Festival takes place at Lamont's at 440 Livinston Road, PoMonkey (or Indian Head in Charles County) Maryland, Saturday May 26. Music starts with Jim Bennett & Lady Mary followed by Big G coming all the way from Richmond. Then DC's legendary Bobby Parker is up with The Blues Night Band, followed by Chick Willis who will play with your poodle and also do "Stoop Down Baby, but insofar as he is playing with Jacques Johnson, one should expect some Albert King tributes and the saxman maybe will do his "Root Doctor." Finally Bobby Rush, appearing at Lamont's for the 1st time who certainly get the crowd really going. Hey the show is on the picnic grounds (unless weather forces it inside) and will end around sunset with an afterparty going on afterwards. So you can spend a day at one of the best lineups in this area and still go out and catch some more blues wherever you want to.
The phone number for Lamont's is (301) 283-0225

Arthur Williams' Tough Blues Harp

Here is a review from 1999 of a neglected but fine downhome harp blues gentleman which will have additional interest because of Boo Boo Davis' vocals who has become really well known with his Black & Tan releases.

Arthur Williams
Harpin’ On It
Fedora Records

Mississippi-born harmonica ace and blues vocalist Arthur Williams was associated with the late Frank Frost and played on Frost’s recordings for the Jewel label. After relocating in St. Louis in 1972, he became a part of that city’s under-recognized blues scene plying with the likes of Tommy Bankhead and Big Bad Smitty. Fedora has just issued his first album, Harpin on It, which provides some choice performances of what he calls “Mississippi Blues with Chicago Drive.” He is backed here by a small band that includes James ‘Boo Boo’ Davis on drums, pianist Bob Lohr , guitarist Jimmy Lee Kennert and bassist Charles ‘Nephew’ Davis. Williams shares the vocals with drummer “Boo Boo” Davis, with Williams covering Jimmy Reed’s Can’t Stand to See You Go, Mercy Dee Walton’s One Room Country Shack, and J.B. Lenoir’s Mama Talk to Your Daughter, while Davis handled originals like Ain’t Going Back to East St. Louis and Talkin’ Too Much. The title track is a Little Walter flavored instrumental which I believe was originally recorded as a harp duet with Frost for Jewel. While Williams sings quite well, when Davis handles the vocals, the music gets a bit more raucous. One can understand that people were talking about how they turned the tent stage at the recent Poconos Blues Festival into a juke joint. While the album never gets that rowdy, one can get a sense of just how these musicians can get a good time rocking and a rolling. Fans of downhome blues sounds will certainly find much to enjoy here.

Post review note - Arthur Williams has another Fedora release, Ain't Goin' Down and Midnight Blue, which is on Rooster Blues. He is part of the The Jelly Roll All-Stars who have an excellent Severn release, Must Be Jelly.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jimmy Burns Lively Live at B.L.U.E.S. CD-DVD

Here is a review I recently wrote for a couple of publications. I made a minor change in what may have been published elsewhere to clarify a point about two songs on the DVD not on the CD

Younger brother of the veteran bluesman Eddie Burns, the Mississippi-born bluesman has distinguished his modern Chicago blues with some tastefully integrated soul accents. His latest Delmark disc (and DVD) is Live at B.L.U.E.S., the celebrated Chicago club. With his solid band of second guitar, Tony Palmer; Greg McDaniel, bass; and James Carter, drums, Burns launches his live set with what is perhaps his signature song, Leaving Here Walking, with striking guitar and his vocal of leaving and going back to his woman back in Mississippi. Its a crisply delivered performance with a solid solo as well. Mixing in other Burns originals like Better Know What You’re Doing and Miss Annie Lou with fresh, interesting reworkings of Little Walter’s Can’t Hold Out Much Longer, and Elmore James’ Wild About You, Baby, Burns showcases his aching, soulful singing with fine playing. Perhaps a few songs go on a bit too long and some solos are more jams over a bass vamp, but this is a live performance after all and is representative of the solid performances by Burns that this writer has seen. A bonus is a guest appearance by Jesse Fortune who is terrific on Lowell Fulson’s Three O’Clock Blues which is mis-attributed to B.B. King. There is nearly 70 minutes on the CD and the DVD has an additional two songs for 80 minutes. I have never been the B.L.U.E.S. and wonder if the room is a narrow room with a somewhat small stage as many of the camera angles of the performers are directed upward at the faces or instruments of Burns and band members and not many at eye level and less crowd shots say than the wonderful videos of Mississippi Heat and Tail Dragger. Still the additional songs are not filler and could have been interchanged with some of the songs on the CD without changing the quality of the cd. Thanks Delmark for another solid CD/DVD release.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Haywood 'Little Sonny' Warner 1930-2007

Originally uploaded by NoVARon.
I already have expressed my appreciation for the late Little Sonny Warner, but felt it useful to place a lengthier obituary for this wonderful singer and person.

Haywood, ‘Little Sonny’ Warner, one of the greatest blues artists to emerge from the Washington DC music scene passed away on April 12, 2007 from the effects of prostate cancer. Warner, born October 30, 1930, grew up in Falls Church, Virginia on Shreve Road, behind what was then Peacock Buick. As a teen he was part of a gospel group "The Four Sons" who sang at the Second Baptist Church in Falls Church. This was the beginning of his lengthy musical career. This group went up to New York and as the Rockets, backed legendary Atlantic Records session pianist Van Walls on Walls' single releases, "After Midnight" and "Open the Door."

Sonny became part of the DC music scene, singing at various area clubs while holding down a day job. In the mid 1950s he became valet for the legendary Lloyd Price in Prices’ touring band who had established the Washington DC based KRC label with Harold Logan and Bill Boskent. Being a valet also included some part-time vocal duties, Initially he shared duties with Price’s cousin, Larry Williams but Specialty Records' Art Rupe got Williams to sign with Specialty and start on his own career. Warner wasn’t unhappy, telling blues scholar Larry Benicewicz ““You see, Larry was also a hairdresser, which gave him an advantage, because Lloyd would always want to look good for his public. I could never compete with that.”

Benicewicz noted that Warner tired of Price’s grueling road itinerary and returned to the Washington area where still popular as a local entertainer he began hanging out at various clubs, including the legendary Maryland venue, where he would sit in with the locals. he recalled to Benicewicz, ““I met Jay McNeely at a place called Evan’s Grill in Forrestville, MD, and his singer wasn’t doin’ nothin. The crowd egged me to go on, so I got Jay to agree. I never saw that vocalist again.” Jay asked Sonny to go on the road with him and a few months later he Sonny left his day job and small local gigs behind to join McNeely in Seattle where Big Jay was based. He fronted McNeely’s Band, scoring with his Ray Charles influenced vocals. In Seattle, they were recorded at the Birdland club which McNeely later issued on his Swingin’ label (and this is available today on Collectables) which mixed a number of wild instrumentals showcasing McNeely’s honking tenor sax along with Warner’s soulful singing which included an early version of “There is Something on Your Mind.”

Big Jay’s recording of “There is Something on Your Mind” with Little Sonny’s vocal was the big moment in Sonny’s career, with the record going gold. The record, issued on the Swingin' label of Hunter Hancock, Roger Davenport and McNeely became a major R&B smash in 1959, even reaching #44 on the Pop Top 100. Sonny’s wonderful delivery of the lyrics and his ad-lib scatting towards the vocal’s end is still appealing almost five decades later. It was a classic recording of a terrific song and has been covered by numerous performers including Bobby Marchan, James Cotton, Kenny Neal, Professor Longhair and B.B. King. Over the next couple years, several more singles, some simply instrumentals, were waxed by McNeely and band but none reached the success of the song that took Big Jay, Little Sonny and band across the country playing some of the great venous and sharing the stage with other R&B giants.
Eventually, Sonny left McNeely and returned to the Washington DC area. He was able to hook up with Bill Boskent who Sonny would have gotten to know when he was with Lloyd Price because Boskent was Price’s road manager. Larry Benicewicz notes that Boskent recorded Sonny producing a pop flavored ballad “Wallflower” backed by the bouncy “That’s For Me” (both Boskent compositions) for the first Bee Bee (for Bill Boskent) release in 1961, and two more sides (duets with Marie Allen) in 1962. Benicewicz stated the recordings had an impact in the Mid-Atlantic region, but did not break out as had been hoped. Then Boskent recorded Warner for a band new Lloyd Price enterprise, Concertone records, but again the recording did not meet expectations. Later in 1966, Sonny recorded what was possibly his best know post-Big Jay recording, the single “Bell Bottom Blue Jeans” and Been So Long,” which was produced by Ted Bodner. The former tune remained a staple of his repertoire until the end.

Over the next few decades, Sonny continued to perform, being one of the most highly regarded artists in the region. He evoked Ray Charles as he sang blues and soul songs, and was always backed by a crack band. He continued to play the top venues in the region, and when Lamont's opened in 1990, was its opening act. He performed at The Taste of DC and twice was featured at the DC Blues Festival (1992 and 1998) where he captured his audience with his singing and his stage presence, being a whirling dervish on the stage. And as former DC Blues Society President Bob Gray would say, no one could sing “There is Something on Your Mind” like Sonny Warner could.

One highlight of recent years was being reunited with Big Jay McNeely at the August 1997, Hot August Blues event in Monkton, Maryland. It may have been the only time since he split from McNeely in the early sixties that the two shared the stage together. Brad Selko, who with his late wife Marcia, produced the event, mentioned that people still tell him that Sonny’s performance that day was among the most memorable shows they had ever seen. This writer also remembers Sonny as one of the acts at the 2000 Gator Blues Festival at Lamont’s where he left the stage to wade into the enthusiastic crowd.

Sonny continued performing, but slowed down his pace. He was discovered by Falls Church community activist David Eckert. Eckert, who had worked vigorously to recover the civil rights legacy of the Falls Church area, earlier helped the region appreciate the role of Piedmont Blues pioneer John Jackson. Eckert helped arrange performances for Sonny at the City’s First Friday celebration, the annual Tinner Hill Festival (a celebration of the first rural NAACP chapter in Virginia) and at the City of Falls Church’s"Concerts in the Park" series held Falls Church's Cherry Hill Park.

In more recent years Sonny endured some health ailments. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and received treatment and slowed down his performances. Some of his last performances were as part of a revue, The DC Allstars that included Pookie Hudson & the Spaniels, The Jewels, The Velons, The Orioles, Skip Mahoney & the Casuals, and The Winstons. Still the health problems limited his ability to perform. When Big Jay called Sonny to join him in Italy to help Jay celebrate his 80th Birthday, Sonny was unable to join his fellow legend.

I happened upon Sonny and his wife Catherine on several occasions the past couple years, and it would always bring a smile just to chat with him. Even when last summer at a Safeway parking lot, when he told me his was undergoing chemo for the prostate cancer, he still had the infectious smile and optimism about the future. Sonny was as nice a person as he was one of the finest blues singers ever to come out of Washington. And he was so good that if there is ever a DC Blues Hall of Fame, he will be one of the charter members.

Sonny was survived by his wife, Catherine, seven children and two stepchildren; sister Jessie Mae Simmons and brother, Joseph Hunter; 13 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, eight sisters-in-law, six brothers-in-law, numerous nieces and nephews, other relatives and many friends. To his family we extend our condolences.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chicago's Blues Queen Goes Old School

Its been several years since Koko Taylor has had a new album. This is remedied by the new Alligator release, The Old School. As the title suggests, the recording is directed to hard-hitting, old-school Chicago blues and includes five interpretations (most definitely not copies) of older songs along with some originals that Chicago’s Blues Queen handles in her own hold-nothing back style. One track is by The Blues Machine, and the other eleven tracks have a studio band led by Criss Johnson and drummer Willie ‘The Touch’ Sutton and guest appearances from Bob Margolin, Billy Branch an Kaz Kazanoff. Most of the new tunes are from Koko and Gonna Buy Me a Mule is a striking song as she tells her man she’s gonna take the place of him and the jaunty warning You Better Watch Your Step, with Billy Branch (excellent throughout) playing some Jimmy Reed inspired harp. Bob Margolin adds slide guitar to Memphis Minnie’s Black Rat, and Lefty Dizz’s Bad Avenue. The arrangements of both tunes are a bit cluttered and the performances come off as too hectic. Criss Johnson who did the arrangements on this album, would have done well to have listened to Koko’s first Alligator album, I Got What It Takes, and have allowed more spaces in the backing, and not have come across overbearing like so much recent Chicago styled blues of the past few decades. I have no fault with Koko’s performances as she sings really well here sounding so at home with the material. Its also nicely programmed with very nice covers of a couple songs associated with Muddy Waters, Don’t Go No Further, and Young Fashioned Ways. Just wish the attempt at being ‘old school’ by the band had a bit more of a lighter, swinging groove than they play with here. If I was giving this stars, 4 1/2 to Koko and 3 for the backing, or overall 4 stars.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Little Sonny Warner Remembered

Haywood 'Little Sonny' Warner passed on Thursday, April 12, 2007. The Falls Church native was one of the finest blues singers in the DC area. As part of a vocal group he first recorded for Atlantic as a teenager and then served as the valet for Lloyd Price for a period. One night at Evans Grille in Forestville MD, he jumped on stage when Big Jay McNeely was performing. McNeely asked Sonny to join him and a few months later he flew out to the West Coast to be part of McNeely's show, scoring with his Ray Charles influenced vocals. The big moment was Sonny's vocal on the classic There is Something on Your Mind. The record went gold. After a couple more years Sonny left Big jay and returned to the Washington DC area recording a handful of singles but one of the top acts on the local R&B circuit. His performances at the DC Blues Festival, Lamont's or the July 2003 Falls Church Parks show, from which these photos were taken, were always memorable. If there is ever a DC Blues Hall of Fame, he will be one of the charter members.

For more images from the July 2003 show check Sonny Warner-July 2003

For some images scanned from prints of the August 1997 show with Big Jay check Big Jay & Little Sonny

I thank Eric LeBlanc for forwarding the Washington Post's death notice which enabled me to correct the date from the 13th. Catherine, Sonny's widow, called me Saturday morning and that's where I found out about him passing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

New Orleans 1960

In 1960, noted photographer William Claxton and German musicologist Joachim Berendt travelled the United States to document the American Art Form. The massive coffee table book JazzLife was published by Taschen and available in a regular edition which lists for $200 or a deluxe edition with prints and an audio CD for over $1000. It is a 700 page book and weighs over 17 pounds. Did I say coffee table book, the book itself might serve as a coffee table. Ok enough for the poor attempts at humor.

From JazzLife, Taschen has published the portion devoted to the New Orleans, New Orleans 1960, which is a more manageable 191 pages and has pertinent text portions to explain their trip across the United States and their experiences in the Crescent City and also Angola Penitentiary. It is dedicated to the many souls who lost their lives and the survivors who are rebuilding the city.

The selling point for this are the stunning photos of Claxton, who is probably best known for his iconic images of James Dean and Chet Baker. There are many striking images here, mostly of traditional jazz performers including the Eureka Brass Band, the Tuxedo Brass Band, the marvelous clarinet player George Lewis (and one of a marvelous one of Lewis' wife and Lewis 100 + year old mother), Nick LaRocca (who they recall was still claiming to have invented jazz), drummer Paul Barbarin, blues singer Lizzie Miles, trombonist Jim Robinson, Lewis Keppard and so many others. There are a couple images of a picnic in Slidell where Snooks Eaglin and band are seen playing on a truck bed, as well as a marvelous image of the Melvin Lastie Quintet (which included at the time drummer Charles ' Honeyboy' Otis), one of the few representations of modern jazz that they captured. A series of images here also follow a funeral to the cemetery and then back witnessing the second line exploding on the way back. The section on Angola includes marvelous images of Hoagman Maxey and Roosevelt Charles.

Text is presented in English, French and German and certainly helps the appreciation of the marvelous images. Certainly this will appeal to lovers of traditional jazz and the Cresent City.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Floored by the Thunderbolt of the Middle West

Brother Joe May
Thunderbolt Of The Middle West

The first time I heard this Brother Joe May Specialty album, (reviewed in Jazz & Blues Report in the November 1993 issue) I was overwhelmed. Here was as powerful a singer as I had heard and if not religious, I could not help but be impressed by the fervor as well as his power in the performances. Concord has acquired Fantasy (and Specialty) and this CD is still in print and should be readily available.

Fantasy Records not only has a fine series of reissues from the Specialty rhythm and blues catalog, but also the equally invaluable Legends of Specialty Gospel series. Space limitations prevents as extensive coverage of all these releases that they deserve. One recent release in particular stands out with one of the most remarkable singers of any genre that America has ever heard. Thunderbolt of the Middle West spotlights Brother Joe May, with guest appearances by Sister Wyonna Carr, the Pilgrim Travelers, and, on the live recording of Old Ship of Zion that opens this collection, Charles Brown on organ and the Sallie Martin Singers. It isn't simply his range, it is, as the annotators state, his uncanny sense of dynamics and vocal projection that leave their mark on the listener. His vocals go from a gentle recitation to a soaring affirmation of his beliefs that make his renditions of Thomas Dorsey's How Much More of Life's Burden Can We Bear or I'm Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song, so compelling. In addition to his powerful singing, there are also a dozen or so songs from the late gospel composer. Brother Joe May was firmly committed to gospel music, and resisted efforts to have him make secular recordings. If he had crossed over, he would have been one of the rhythm'n'blues artists recently honored with a stamp by the postal service.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Snooks Eaglin Live

Has it been Ten Years since Black Top issued Snnoks Eaglin's Live in Japan. A poorly distributed studio album of Snooks had been issued after this, but its amazing that such a striking talent as Mr. Eaglin has not been in the studio in about a decade to present his highly idiosyncratic music.

Here is a review of this album that appeared in Jazz & Blues Report when it was issued.

A new Snooks Eaglin album is cause for celebration enough, but Eaglin’s new Black Top album also marks the return of the Black Top label that had been in hiatus since severing ties with its previous distributor. Live in Japan was recorded during Eaglin’s first Japanese tour, and he is backed by bassist George Porter’s trio (John Autin on keyboards and Jeffrey ‘Jellybean’ Alexander on drums). He gets to reprise songs he has recorded over the years with a few new surprises in terms of material. Eaglin is an exceptional guitarist, often referred to as the Professor Longhair of the guitar with a very individualistic, highly rhythmic instrumental chicken scratching attack, as well as being a fountainhead of material that lead some to call him a human jukebox. Whatever. The man is a dazzling and very effective guitarist. After opening with a Bill Doggett instrumental, Eaglin gets the second line groove going with I Went to the Mardi Gras, that he co-authored with Tommy Ridgely, followed by Earl King’s Soul Train, a superb soul dance number with a solo that is deceptively simple. Then there’s Don’t Take It So Hard, a swamp pop flavored blues ballad. Classic New Orleans is reprised in renditions of Fats Domino’s Josephine and Smiley Lewis’ Down Yonder (We Go Ballin’) and Lillie Mae. It’s interesting to hear Eaglin introduce Down Yonder, telling the Japanese audience he played on Smiley’s original recording. Eaglin is most effective as a singer on laments like Nine Pound Steel, while his guitar’s vocalizations during the solos serves to remind us of why the blues guitar is often referred to as the singer’s other voice. Covers of the Isley Brother’s It’s Your Thing, and Stevie Wonder’s (Boogie On) Reggae Woman get a nice funky groove going. A strong vocal is also given Jessie Mae Robinson’s Black Night.

This serves as a splendid sampler of Eaglin’s music, illustrating his depth as a performer and guitarist, although his skills as a bop guitarist is only hinted at. Snooks Eaglin is an American original, but one probably has a better chance of seeing Snooks in Japan than in the US outside of New Orleans. Well, at least you don’t have to go to Japan to get this album.

Cleanhead's Blues

Among its recent releases, Delmark has just re-reissued Kidney Stew is Fine by Eddie 'Cleanhead Vinson. Originally issued on the French Black and Blue label, the disc has the shouter-alto saxophonist with an all star band that included Jay McShann on piano, T-Bone Walker on guitar and tenor saxophonist Hal ‘Cornbread’ Singer. Its a good mix of classic songs that Cleanhead made famous like the title track, Somebody’s Sure Got to Go, Juice Head Baby, Big Bill’s Just a Dream and Old Maid Boogie, along with Joe Turner’s Wee Wee Baby, Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone to Love, and Duke Ellington’s Thing's Ain't What They Used To Be. Vinson is in terrific form both vocally and instrumentally and the band swings wonderfully for a most enjoyable session that is welcome to be readily available.

As a postnote to this review, I note that when I first came across the various Black and Blue releases on vinyl in the 70s and early 80s I generally found the jazz releases (and this was one that was originally more oriented towards jazz audiences) was generally more satsisfying than the blues releases. In part it may have been because the bands were tighter and could handle the material, even if not fresh, with an authority that many of the label's blues releases could not quite achieve without sounding generic.

Incidentally, amazon still (3/23/08) shows the 1994 Delmark CD cover of this release on its website. I corrected this posting on 3/23/08