Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Underrated Jimmy Johnson album

Jimmy Johnson, since turning from soul into the blues, developed into one of the blues most distinctive singers and guitarists. Born Jimmy Thompson, he adopted the name Johnson like his more famous brother Syl, while brother Mac was a well respected bass-player (best known for his work with Magic Sam. Initially showing up as a second guitarist behind Jimmy Dawkins and Otis Rush, his recordings as part of the fist batch of Alligator's Living Chicago Blues brought his music front and center to the attention of blues lovers. While he recorded for the MCM label as part of series of recordings made in Chicago clubs (although during day so the ambiance was more like a studio recording than a live date), his recordings for Delmark certainly shown what a distinctive singer and tunesmith (able to turn a clever phrase) he was. Add to this his distinctive (almost ethereal) high tenor and his rapier-like guitar work, Johnson brings his own voice to his originals as well as his interpretations of classic blues.

One recording by him is Livin' the Blues on the French Black & Blue label which is available for download from emusic and Amazon lists the CD. Not sure who the personnel is on this, but they are a pretty solid group. Much of the material are covers but Johnson makes such overdone songs as Jimmy Reed's You Don't Have To Go, his own as one hears a tinge of the classic Bill Doggett instrumental, Honky Tonk. Similarly he adds a West Side Chicago flavor to Elmore James' The Sky Is Crying, laying out a really strong solo that matches his heartfelt vocal. Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me, opens with some sparkling guitar before he launches into the vocal on an arrangement that stays true to the original. The rocking shuffle, Pretty Baby, is a retitled Ride With me Tonight. Not as original a rendition, but still this is solidly handled with some rollicking piano. Johnson adds a funky groove and a slightly quicker tempo to Born Under a Bad Sign. Since I downloaded this I do not know who played on this session, I cannot say who the vocalist is on the two closing selections, Quicksand and When There's A Will, There's A Way, but it may be John Watkins based on the listing of Johnson albums at

At its worst, Johnson provides us with solid covers, but at its best, he does make some overly recorded songs sound fresh and his vocals and guitar are typically first-rate. There are one-dimensional acts out there who are far better known than Jimmy Johnson, and to quote Fats Domino, "Ain't That a Shame."

Here (from youtube) is Jimmy backed by Dave Specter doing, You Don't Know What Love Is. Jimmy performs several songs with Dave on Dave's excellent Delmark album, Live in Chicago, available on CD and also on DVD.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wanted - Authoritative Book on Delta Blues - Ted Gioia's Book Ain't It

Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music
Ted Gioia
W.W. Norton

It's been some four decades since this writer developed his love and enthusiasm for the blues, particularly those blues artists rooted in the Mississippi Delta and surrounding area. As a freshman in college, I bought and read Samuel Charters The Bluesmen, as well as various books by Paul Oliver. I also purchased reissues of rare country blues on Yazoo, Origin Jazz and Blues Classics, as well as albums by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson on Chess; B.B. King and John Lee Hooker on Bluesway; Elmore James on United and a variety of other acts. Charters' book brought alive the music and personalities of the artists he focused on, which included not simply the great artists from the Delta, but also such pioneering Texas blues artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander. Written at the time that Son House, Skip James and Bukka White had been rediscovered and were performing, and with the contemporaneous interviews that he drew upon, he made these artists and their recordings larger than life.

The Bluesmen was a major factor that led me into my four decades old obsession with blues artists and their music. I start reading DownBeat for the incisive articles and reviews by Pete Welding and John Litweiler, the pioneering British publications Blues Unlimited and Blues World, (to which I made modest contributions), and then Living Blues when it began publishing. New information on the blues legends came out along with numerous reissues of rare recordings. Robert Palmer published his pioneering Deep Blues, while Living Blues and Blues Unlimited (and after Blues Unlimited folded, Juke Blues and Blues & Rhythm) published lengthy interviews with the likes of Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Eddie Taylor, Snooky Pryor and others. In light of the surprise success of the Robert Johnson reissue box around 1990, much was written on Johnson and his music and influences, with Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues being important in both debunking myths about Johnson's life, as well as highlighting Johnson's place in the history of the blues. And, in addition to several books about Johnson, we have been fortunate to have had biographies about some of the major figures in blues from the Delta including Skip James, Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter, Memphis Minnie, and Jimmy Reed. And if Mack McCormick never finished his planned Robert Johnson biography (or his equally important book on Texas Blues and Music), his work has been drawn on others including Peter Guralnick.

Ted Gioia's new book Delta Blues was a surprise when I heard of it. I was familiar with his History of Jazz and his book on West Coast Jazz, but a new book on the deep blues that came out of Mississippi was intriguing. This music, that moves so many of us, was rooted in a community living under the most oppressive conditions. In summarizing what we know about the music's early days and the lives of some of the pioneering artists, Gioia provides a useful service. Gioia integrates the writings of Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow in putting together portraits of Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson and Skip James, and adds some brief sketches of Big Joe Williams and Tommy McClennan as well as highlight the importance of H.C. Speir, who was the talent scout that led to most of the great Delta artists recording. But his focus, even on the early Delta blues, is on the guitarist-vocalists, and outside of brief mentions of Louise Johnson (who recorded at one of Charlie Patton's sessions) and Skip James, there is essentially no discussion of the blues piano tradition of the Delta region or its proponents.

Gioia perhaps places too much relevance in the fact that some early blues recordings were reworked by such rock acts as Cream, Rolling Stones, Canned Heat and Led Zeppelin. In discussing James' I'm So Glad, Gioia goes beyond simply noting Cream would rework the song, and incredulously includes Cream's jam-rock live recording as one of the 100 Essential Blues Recordings. Discussing Johnson, he traces his life and discusses his recordings while integrating the recollections of Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards and others who knew the pioneering blues artist. In addition to the music and biography, he also attempts to counterbalance the writings of Elijah Wald and Barry Lee Pearson who had debunked the Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil myth with a suggestion that Johnson may have presented himself as having done so to the public.

Gioia takes us forward with discussion of the Delta recordings for the Library of Congress that Alan Lomax made, focusing on the sessions with Son House and Honeyboy Edwards as well as Muddy Waters. The discussion of Muddy Waters leads off a detailed discussion of his music and career, along with similarly detailed examinations of John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King. There is a brief overview of Mississippi blues in Chicago and a chapter on the blues revival, detailing the rediscovery and postwar careers of some early blues pioneers. However, seminal Mississippi blues artists like Elmore James and Jimmy Reed are dealt with not as thoroughly, and such equally important Delta artists as Albert King and Sonny Boy Williamson are not dealt with in any substantial fashion.

There are also curious statements made, including one that Jimmy Reed failed to achieve fame or critical recognition in the blues world. The statement simply is foreign to my understanding as a blues fan. Also, in the limited discussion of Elmore James he doesn't discuss James' travels with Robert Johnson or Steve Franz's assertion that Dust My Broom was as much James' song as Johnson's. Enamored by Honeyboy Edwards, Gioia repeats Edwards' claim, without challenge, that Chess held his material back because they would not compete with Muddy Waters. Honeyboy's rendition of Drop Down Mama was first issued on a Chess album of that name nearly four decades ago along with rare and previously unissued recordings by Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Shines, Blue Smitty, Floyd Jones and Big Boy Spires. Listening to that one song in the context of the others on that album, it is likely that Honeyboy's Chess recordings lay unissued because they weren't very good.

You will not find the names of such post-war representatives of the Delta blues as Floyd Jones, Arthur Big Boy' Spires, or Blue Smitty, or their recordings discussed in this book, despite them being equal to some of the recordings that Gioia considers essential. Nor will you find any detailed discussion of the commercial post-war delta recordings of Drifting Slim, Junior Brooks, Boyd Gilmore, Joe Hill Louis, Dr. Ross, J.B. Lenoir, John Littlejohn, Charlie Booker, Walter Horton or Willie Nix. While Sam Phillips and Sun records is acknowledged, the important role of Joe Bihari's field trips in the South, usually with Ike Turner, and the legacy of the recordings he made of Delta artists is ignored. One will not find Pinetop Perkins, whose piano played such a big role in the Delta blues scene of the forties and fifties, in the book's index.

And it is not that the missing artists are biographical phantoms. The late Mike Leadbitter conducted pioneering research on the post-war blues in the Delta Region that has been followed up by many, including most notably, Jim O'Neal. There have been articles published and essays in the booklets accompanying recent reissues of these Delta Blues recordings. Several of the English Ace Records reissues of the Modern Downhome Blues Sessions contain Jim O'Neal's scholarly discussion of the sessions and artists. The volumes devoted the Delta region have been available for a couple of years. In fairness, I have no idea whether Gioia approached O'Neal and others (such as Bill O'Donohue who is writing a biography of Rice 'Sonny Boy Williamson' Miller) about their research. It is possible that work is still ongoing on the post-war Delta blues volume and that some material was not open to be shared, awaiting its separate publication. But the fact is that some of the results of this research have been published. Nothing in the text, or the list of recommended reading provided by Gioia indicates he made use of available material. There is also no reference or the use of the autobiography by the late Delta blues harmonica player, Sam Myers.

His discussion of the blues revival provides an overview of the rediscovery of some of the prewar artists who found a new audience for their music as well as discusses some of the more recent artists uncovered such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and the Fat Possum label, but there is no mention of the late Jesse Mae Hemphill, nor of Roosevelt Booba' Barnes, the remarkable singer-guitarist who ran his own Mississippi juke joint, or Joe Willie Wilkins, another associate of Robert Johnson and later guitarist on King Biscuit Time, who Steve Lavere recorded and produced an extremely rare, but excellent album by.

Gioia provides a list for further reading, which also has significant omissions relating to books germane to his text. He does not include several of Paul Oliver's writings (a couple of Oliver's books are included, but not The Story of the Blues, and Oliver's writings specifically directed at the questions of the blues origins are not listed). Another significant omission is Mike Rowe's Chicago Breakdown. Gioia also provides a dubious list of 100 essential blues recordings (Gioia selects songs, not albums, because albums might go in and out of print). The uselessness of this list is seen by the inclusion of a Cream recording but nothing by Eddie Taylor, Floyd Jones, Boyd Gilmore, Junior Brooks, Willie Huff, Little Johnnie Jones, Sunnyland Slim, Robert Lockwood or Jesse Mae Hemphill to name a few. If one is going to include Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson for context, where are representative recordings by Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson? I would also question some specific choices such as Tommy McClennan's Bottle Up and Go, whose controversial lyrics was atypical of McClennan's recordings. I would suggest checking out Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, and track down the various recordings Wald discusses.

One might be more forgiving of Gioia if there was substantial new material presented here, but there is little, if any, here. There is discussion that many will find insightful of the music, and Gioia's consideration of the musical legacy of John Lee Hooker is the most credible discussion of John Lee Hooker's recordings readily available; and there is also cogent discussion with respect to early 78-RPM recordings by Mississippi artists. In fact, he shares, with long-standing enthusiasts of the music, the recognition that some of the recordings that reach us so deeply today had little, if any, commercial success. At the same time, one still must place the performers accurately in the history of this music, not simply relying on the fact it influenced modern popular artists. Gioia simply does not cover the full spectrum of Delta Blues or the idiom's performers.

In addition to photographs of some of the principal figures here (many from Dick Waterman's collection), the book does benefit from Neil Harpe's artwork. Neil, based in Annapolis, Maryland, is an accomplished artist as well as a pretty darn good blues guitarist and vocalist, and even if I am not very enthusiastic about this book, I am about the artwork. That does not change the fact that this book is simply not the authoritative work on the Delta Blues that it is proclaimed to be on the back cover. That work requires substantially deeper digging into the entire Delta Blues history.

By the way, the book has received a number of rave reviews including into the NY Times and JazzTimes as quoted on Gioia's website, I disagree with their opinion.

Also this book is being carried by the major book retailers in addition to online retailers. For those having an Amazon Kindle, you can purchase this for the Kindle.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A bit of Albert Collins for your viewing pleasure

I have been a bit lazy in writing recently but I came across these gems recently of the Iceman.

First up from 1980 with his great Alligator band that included A.C. Reed

Then Albert with Roy Buchanan and Lonnie Mack

Finally, singing the old Jimmy Liggins "I Ain't Drunk" with Debbie Davies on rhythm guitar

I miss Albert. He had style and sure could play the blues.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Interesting, but not essential, New Sleepy John Estes Release

On Highway 80 is the seventh album by Sleepy John Estes for Delmark which he shares with his longtime associate Hammie Nixon. This is a collection of previously unissued recordings that Estes and Nixon recorded in July 1974, prior to touring Japan. It is an interesting, although hardly essential addition to their discography with Estes and Nixon handling a variety of mostly traditional material and songs they had performed before. Estes was not the most accomplished guitarist but his simple rhythmic style could be effective and his crying vocals tugged at the heart while Nixon’s harmonica playing influenced John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson. It is interesting to hear the treatment of the material here from the opening Love Grows in Your Heart, a version of Careless Love. Nixon’s vocal on Potato Diggin’ Man, which might have benefited from a stronger accompaniment, while the vigorous I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead, has spirited kazoo and second vocal from Nixon. Several selections are traditional religious numbers including Holy Spirit, a moving number with Nixon taking the lead with Estes seconding the vocal, When the Saints Go Marching In, on which Estes takes the vocal lead, and Do Lord Remember Me with Nixon’ harp and lead vocal setting the tone. There are also two takes of President Kennedy, about the assassination of the President that Estes first recorded shortly after that horrible event. Nixon’s kazoo gives a jug band flavor to Corrine, Corinna, on which Nixon again seconds Estes’ vocal. The album includes a couple of tracks featuring the pair talking and closes with a rendition of his famous song commemorating their hometown, Brownsville Blues. Some of the accompaniments are a bit more ragged than other of their albums and this might be a difficult release to listen straight through. Estes is a very important artist, as a songwriter and as a vocalist. An excellent collection of his early recordings for Victor and other labels is I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More 1929-1941) on Yazoo. For the recordings made after his rediscovery, recommended titles include his other Delmark albums such as The Legend of Sleepy John Estes, or Brownsville Blues. These should be available from most any good source for blues.

One other matter. I was chatting with Washington area blues artist Memphis Gold, and he mentioned that his father grew up around Estes and others. Interesting how blues roots run deep in families.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A bit of magic on video

Some magic by the incredible Rashaan Roland Kirk in 1969 (From the Supershow 1969?). Incidentally there is a terrific DVD of Kirk in the latest batch of the Jazz Icons® DVDs and for those who but the entire thrid set, there is even more Kirk on the bonus disc. Great stuff. Here is a link for Kirk with Buddy Guy and Jack Bruce from Supershow 1969. The video can't be embedded in a thread.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

M.S.G.'s Mighty Fine Acoustic Blues and More

I preference my comments on the new CD by M.S.G. - The Acoustic Blues Trio, “Done Spoke My Mind,” by noting that the members are personal acquaintances of mine, who I have had the pleasure of seeing perform several times. Jackie Merritt and Resa Gibbs hail from the Tidewater area of Virginia while Miles Spicer hails from around Washington, D.C. I have known the multi-talented Miles Spicer from various D.C. Blues Society events including the jams where he would play the trap drums if needed. After the late Piedmont blues legend Archie Edwards passed, Miles was one of those who helped launch and establish the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation and it was through the jams and other activities at the Barber Shop in Northeast Washington that the trio, M.S.G. took shape. It was a number of years ago when during a program conduced by the Barber Shop regulars at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that this writer heard a spell-binding rendition of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” by Gibbs with Spicer’s accompaniment. Later I had the pleasure to hear the trio at the Barber Shop and delighted in the trio’s initial recording.

The present CD displays there maturation as performers, and songwriters. There are numerous pleasures to be experienced here including the marvelous vocals by all three and the very solid musicianship evident throughout. Despite being rooted in the blues, especially the Piedmont tradition, this album might be better termed as urban acoustic music insofar as there are healthy elements of the church, folk and other musical genres evident here. The church background is evident on the opening traditional “God Don’t Like It,” followed by Jackie and Resa’s “Mean Church People,” a jab at some close-minded church folk. “Resolution,” an original ballad by Miles and David Bird, has a lovely, soulful vocal by Resa with some marvelous harmonica from Jackie. Joel Bailes' “The Katrina Flood,” is a song in tradition of similar songs about other tragic events and even if the lyrics have some holes, the rousing chorus of “wasn’t that a mighty storm,” does come across powerfully. Jackie’s “Racetrack Blues” , sports some lively guitar from Miles with Resa enlivening the performance on rubboard, while “Penniless Rag,” is playful with Spicer evoking Blind Blake while Jackie is on the bones and Resa adds to the fun on rubboard and bicycle horn.

“It’s Always Something,” is a nice slow blues from Spicer and David Bird with a mesmerizing slide guitar riff, crying harp from Jackie and Resa singing compellingly. “Ain’t No Grave” is a field holler type performance by Resa with simple percussion backing, while “Come Back Baby,” credited as traditional is the Henry Townsend blues originally recorded by Walter Davis, again with a wonderful vocal from Resa. “Fast Food Mama,” is another entertaining, raggy blues from Jackie, with Resa on rubboard, followed by the brisk, skittle band blues “I Need More Trouble Like That,” with Miles taking the vocal, with Resa on kazoo. The ballad “Sometimes,” has some of an old-timey feel with Resa on strumstick as well as singing Jackie’s thoughtful lyrics. Back to the church for the closing two numbers, Resa’s a capella rendition of “Go Down Hannah,” followed by Reverend Gary Davis’ “I Heard the Angels Singing.” There is a lot of heart and feeling throughout these performances that is always entertaining and usually quite moving. In addition to the wonderful music, the CD packaging by Jackie Merritt is stunning. This is available on or check their website, for information on how to order.