Friday, March 31, 2017

Melissa Stylianou No Regrets

Melissa Stylianou
No Regrets
Anzic Records

Canadian born and New York based vocalist Melissa Stylianou has a new recording (her 5th album) on Anzic Records “No Regrets.” Produced by Oded Lev-Ari, Stylianou is backed by a trio of Bruce Barth on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Matt Wilson on drums with appearances by Billy Drewes on alto saxophone on two songs and Anat Cohen on clarinet on two songs. The album was recorded live to two-track on an album that mostly sticks to jazz standards.

There is plenty to delight in Melissa Stylianou’s singing and here she is backed by a superb trio augmented by sax or clarinet at times. Her rendition of the Gershwins’ “Nice Work If You Can Get It” features an introduction that this writer was not familiar with. After her delivery of the lyric, each member of the trio takes a brief break and there is a couple of brief exchanges between her and Wilson. Not all of theses selections are as well known such as “Remind Me” by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields with her perky delivery of the amusing word play here (“Remind me not to mention that I love you, Remind me I am sorry that we are met) with Barth supplying the arrangement.

Drewes’ alto opens a marvelous rendition of the Ellington-Webster lament “"I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" ,” and Melissa is playful on “Humming to Myself.” Linda Oh’s bass opens “I Wish I Knew” and duets with Melissa until mid-way through the first verse. A Billie Holiday song, “Somebody’s On My Mind” is one of the selections with Cohen with just Oh’s bass providing apt support for Stylianou’s languid vocal. Known for her adaptations of songs by Bjork, Johnny Cash and Tom Waits among others, her one unusual selection is a folky adaptation of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Down by the Salley Gardens” accompanied just by Wilson.

Her lovely voice, phrasing and dynamics are factors that enchant the listener. Gutbucket alto sax against the firm backing of the rhythm section spices up "A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues.” Cohen returns with more lovely playing on “"I'll Never Be the Same.” There is a lilting quality to the rendition “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” (with a choice Barth solo), before the album concludes with a bright, delightful rendition, backed just by piano, of Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to Monk’s “I Mean You,” with her scatting and trading fours with Barth.

Melissa Stylianou touches the heart and brightens our spirits throughout “No Regrets.” It is a recording with plenty to charm listeners.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the May-June 2015  Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 360) although a few revisions and corrections have been made.Here she sings "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good."


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Lee Konitz Frescalalto

Lee Konitz

This is a stunning new album by Lee Konitz with a stellar rhythm section of Kenny Barron on piano, Kenny Washington on drums and Peter Washington on bass on a collection of standards that allows the alto saxophone legend to display his fruitful improvisatory skills. "Stella by Starlight" opens with Konitz playing briefly unaccompanied before the rhythm enters and both Barron and Peter Washington take choice solos along with the leader's own dry, slightly sour alto. Konitz's original "Thingin'" also allows his band to shine along with his unpredictable and fresh playing, even avoiding cliches when trading fours with Kenny Washington while the performance fades at close.

A trio record of Barron with this rhythm section would be heaven enough, but add Konitz's alto and you have some magic. Unexpectedly, Konitz scats backed by piano to open "Darn That Dream" before taking an alto solo and then scats after Barron's lovely playing on this duet. The Washingtons return on the swinging "Kary's Trance," "Out of Nowhere" provides another showcase for Konitz's ability to take a familiar number and delight us with his unexpected and fresh improvisation and then scats an improvisation between solos from Peter and Kenny.

After a lovely Konitz ballad, "Gundala," where his lyricism is on full display, there is a superb rendition of the Kaper Bronislaw and Paul Francis Webster classic "Invitation" before the album closes with "Cherokee." Rather than the breakneck tempo "Cherokee" usually is played at, Konitz leads the quartet in a medium walking tempo as he hints at its melodic theme before Kenny Barron accelerates things with a fiery break followed by Kenny Washington's explosive drum break and then the pace slows down with Konitz's reentry. This "Cherokee is a fresh, imaginative end to a fabulous recording.

I received a review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the March-April 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 371), although I have made minor changes from that review. Here is Konitz playing "Cherokee" from a few years ago.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Natalia M. King Bluezzin T'il Dawn

Natalia M. King
Bluezzin T'il Dawn
Challenge Records

Brooklyn born, but based in Europe, Natalia M. King has a fascinating recording of what is described as jazzy takes on the blues. The singer and guitarist has a band of bassist Anders Ulrich, pianist Anthony Honnet, drummer Davu Honnet, trumpeter Ronald Baker, and reed player Xavier Sibre on the seven originals and two interpretations found here.

Billie Holiday's influence is evident in the opening "Traces in the Sand," a slow blues with tight backing with Sibre's clarinet setting the mood as well as soloing, as Natalia sings about her regrets about a love that is no more. Holiday is not the only influence, as she can belt a song out in a manner Holiday never did as on Holiday's "Don't Explain." This starts off almost as a hot jump blues with Sibre on tenor sax, with a middle section done as a lament, before the groove picks up for the closing vocal chorus. Bassist Ulrich and her own rhythm guitar add much to this performance as well. Her original, "Insatiable," has a ambience similar to the Etta James recording of "At Last," and has her strong vocal complimented by strong tenor sax and pianist Honnet's sterling accompaniment .

Baker's muted trumpet and Honnet's piano establish the tone for the lament "This Time Around," as she sings about being lied to, cheated before and had her clothes on the pavement. There are times her conscious phrasing as on "Baby Brand New," comes off as mannered, but is a minor point with Sibre's wooly sounding tenor sax providing a responsive voice to the vocal with an added treat of the incorporation of "Take Five" in Sibre's solo. Baker's growls, slurs and blasts add to the flavor of "Paint It Black & Blue," as she sings about stumbling in her sorrow about unreturned love with the backing suggestive of the late Charles Brown's latter recordings. "You Came and Go" is a folky lament set against a sparse backing and effective use of flute in the performance. The final number matches her evocative vocal take on Fred Neil's "Little Bit of Rain," against some wonderful muted trumpet.

She is a fascinating singer, with a strong jazz leaning, and supported here by a terrific backing band with some well structured solos. The result is one of the more fascinating recent recordings straddling the blues and jazz worlds and hopefully does not get overlooked because of this.

I received my review copy a publicist. Here is a preview of this recording.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

D.A. Foster The Real Thing

D.A. Foster
The Real Thing

The Shaboo Inn was a fabled Connecticut club of the 70s and D.A. Foster was among those running it. He also has been singing music even prior to the Shaboo Inn and in recent years has been leading the Shaboo All Stars. Foster has a new CD out on Vizztone, “The Real Thing” that was produced by drummer Tony Braunagel and keyboardist Mike Finnigan of the Phamton Blues Band and has Foster backed The Phantom Blues Band (Larry Fulcher on bass; Johnny Lee Schell on guitar; Lenny Castro on percussion; Darrell Leonard on trumpet and Joe Sublett on saxophone) with backing vocalists.

Foster’s deep-throated vocals covers a fairly diverse group of jump blues and urban blues starting with a strong soulful take Dave Steen’s “Good Man Bad Thing.” The Phantom Blues Band’s backing provides a very different tenor to Foster’s rendition from the more guitar centered version by the late Michael Burks. It also quickly displays Foster’s virtues as a singer with his phrasing and dynamics. The title track is a roadhouse blues rocker that suggest the bluesier side of Delbert McLinton with rollicking piano and an energetic guitar solo.

Foster does justice with his renditions of a couple of songs associated with the late Bobby Bland, “Ain’t Doing Too Bad,” and “This Time I'm Gone For Good.” The former number sports a nice funky groove with Foster’s raspy vocal very appealing. On the latter number, Schell employs a jazzier tone that along with the backing lends a 3:00AM in the morning feel behind Foster’s marvelous singing. Foster updates Eddie Hinton’s “Super Lover” as a funky dance number, while doing justice to a rocking and swinging treatment of the classic penned by Jesse Stone (as Charles Calhoun) “Smack Dab in the Middle” with a booting tenor sax solo,” along with a nice version the classic Andy Razaf-Don Redman ballad, “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You.”

There is a wistful rendition of Bill Withers’ “You Just Can’t Smile It Away.” The album closes with “Down Home Blues,” that is solidly performed but not very distinctive. But even an ordinary closing performance does not lessen the fact that “The Real Thing” is full of choice musical performances. Wonderfully backed by The Phantom Blues band, D.A. Foster brings a fresh approach to some well known material and sings with a soulful authority that the years of performing bring.

I received my review copy from VizzTone. This review appeared in the March-April 2015  Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 359). Foster has a new album out that I have not heard. Here is a clip of D.A. Foster in performance.


Monday, March 27, 2017

The Jimmys Hot Dish

The Jimmys
Hot Dish
Brown Cow Productions

The Madison, Wisconsin based The Jimmys, sure know how to turn out some hot jumping blues and rhythm sounds. Their disc, "Hot Dish" (Brown Cow Productions), is a showcase for this band led by vocalist and keyboard player Jimmy Voegeli (pronounced "vaguely') which includes Pete Weber (ex-Hubert Sumlin) on guitar; Mauro Magellan on drums; Johnny Wartenweiler on bass and The Amateur Horn Stars; Darren Sterud (trombone/vocals), Pete Ross (saxophones), and Mike Boman (trumpet). Voegeli, Weber and Magellan contributed all the songs here.

This is a terrific band with the horns adding musical colors and texture far beyond the simple riffs of a number of groups with the songs ranging from the scorching "Loose That Woman," a rumba blues that evokes classic Ray Charles with some strong piano and a booting saxophone solo. There is a more stately tempo to Weber's "You Say You Will" which has a blistering guitar solo. Voegeli and Magellan contributed the funky "Freight Train" with Weber's guitar exhibiting a bit of twang. The aptly titled "Funk Schway" and a driving shuffle "Jacqui Juice" are two instrumentals that allow the players to stretch out. The T-Bone Walker style shuffle ""What Gives," with a slightly muffled vocal and some nice growling trombone embellishments and solo, while Vocelli lays down boogie woogie inflected piano. There is even a hint of Little Richard on the frenzied "She's Wild." If one track stands out it is the Charles Brown meets Ray Charles sounding "Saddest Man," with superb piano, a marvelous horn arrangement and terrific guitar and tenor sax solos support Voegeli's world weary vocal about a love that is lost.

The Jimmys are terrific whether playing jump blues, rock and roll, or Memphis funk, and the songs here are both idiomatic yet fresh. Tinsley Ellis (quoted on the cover) is right on, "The Jimmys have mined pure R&B gold with 'Hot Dish.'"

I received this my review copy from a publicist. Last Monday I posted a review of their most recent recording, "Live in Transylvania." This review originally appeared in the January-February 2016 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 364). Here is a clip of The Jimmys performing.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cary Morin Cradle to the Grave

Cary Morin
Cradle to the Grave
Maple Street Music

Of Native American ancestry (he is a Crow Tribe member), singer-songwriter-guitarist Cary Morin in recent years was a member of The Pura Fé Trio before his present solo career. This is his fourth CD, and completes a three-album project of acoustic recordings by him. The press release accompanying this release states "On 'Cradle to the Grave', Cary Morin brings together the great musical traditions of America and beyond like no other artist. These recordings provide a timeline of his songwriting and guitar work spanning 2014 to 2017. The lyrics range from blues to folk and sometimes shine a light on his Native American Heritage and small town life in America. At times, the collection conveys the simplicity of a single chord to complex finger-style guitar."

While there is definitely blues roots to the performances here (eight originals and three interpretations), tone might view this recording as as much folk or Americana. This is a minor point because Morin is wonderful guitarist, who sings with warmth and conviction and writes some real good songs. His rendition of "Mississippi Blues," a Library of Congress recording by a Willie Brown (not the Willie Brown associated with Robert Johnson or Son House), is a marvelously rendered performance full of scintillating guitar runs although taken as an uptempo romp. The title track, a straight blues performance, reflects his own realization that life is fleeting and his accompaniment complements his gospel-like pleas. "Laid Back" opens with more startling finger-style playing (reminds me of some of the more gifted guitarists of the folk revival) with his peppery tempoed singing.

"Dawn's Early Light," was written in support of the efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and he notes, "This song may be an oversimplification of the situation, but I have always felt that the honoring of a treaty, no matter when it was made, is not a complex idea. History has proved this not to be the case, but I hope this time it is." It is followed by the jaunty "Lay Baby Lay," an original, not a cover of the Dylan folk-ballad. "Mishawaka" is a superb folk ballad. "Back on the Train" is his take of a number by the jam-band Phish, with more superb guitar and then followed by a marvelous folk take on Prince's "Nothing Compares To U."

The closing "Watch Over Me," is a different take on the theme explored on the opening title track as he sings about making his way through this world as he asks for one to watch over him as he is only a child. It is a strong close to this album of consistently superb performances. Not having heard of Morin prior to this recording, this writer was thoroughly impressed by him and believe many others will as well by this first-rate CD.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the March-April 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 371) with some minor revisions. Here Cary performs the title track.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Jack Mack & The Heart Attack Horns Back to the Shack

Jack Mack & The Heart Attack Horns
Back to the Shack

Jack Mack & the Heart Attack Horns are veterans of the LA scene with a classic Memphis-Muscle Shoals soul sound. with New Orleans native Mark Campbell handling the vocals, on this new recording the backing includes Tony Braunagel on drums, Andrew Kastner on guitars, Bruce Atkinson on bass guitar, and Carlos Murguia on keyboards with an impressive horn section that includes Les Lovitt on trumpet, Bill Bergman on saxophones. Special guest Lee Thornburg arranges the horns and is on trumpet and trombone on 'Aint No Way" while Mike Finnigan adds his Hammond B-3 and vocal to “Somethin’ In The Water.” Nine of the ten tracks are originals with the exception being Carolyn Franklin's “Ain’t No Way,” that Aretha originally waxed for her "Lady Soul" album.

Andrew Kastner, an original Jack Mack member plays the hard-edged, screaming guitar on the opening track “Standin’ Before The King,” a tribute to the B.B. King with an impassioned vocal from Campbell with Melanie Taylor adding her voice. "Something in the Water" is a funky number with Finnigan adding his voice to enhance Campbell's lead. The medium tempo easy rocker "Don't Let Her Go," is some soulful advice with punchy horns and Bergman's strong booting sax solo. The driving groove of the bluesy "Never Too Late," is followed by a lovely bluesy ballad "Somebody To Trust," with Finnigan again guesting on Hammond B-3 while Campbell displays his range as his voice soars here.

"Serves Me Right" is a terrific number that evokes Muscles Shoals in the backing and horns, while the funky JB's feel of "Bad Habit," should get listeners up and dancing. The lilting ballad, "Change My Ways," which opens with Bergman's sax, like "Never Too Late," exhibits the warmth in which Campbell can put forth a lyric and then after this Memphis sounding gem, we get another gem with his heartfelt delivery of the Franklin song. The closing rocker, "Let Me In," is a bit frenzied perhaps, but the backing is tight and the breakneck tempo doesn't phase Campbell's singing.

Mark Campbell is a terrific singer that suggests Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett but places his own stamp on the songs here. The backing is terrific and the recording is excellent. This is an impressive album full of soulful music.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is a video of Jack Mack & The Heart Attack Horns.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Best Of Cedell Davis

Cedell Davis 
The Best Of 
Fat Possom / Capricorn 

Arkansas blues artist CeDell Davis is one of the more unique practitioners of slide guitar blues. Originally right-handed, childhood polio left him partially paralyzed. He now plays left-handed, fretting with a left-handed butter knife and developing his unique tunings and the highly individual bottleneck style he employed while working with Robert Nighthawk and others in the delta area.

Robert Palmer, then pop music critic for the New York Times, wrote an enthusiastic article of surviving juke joint blues in the delta area which focused on Davis. Later, Palmer helped arrange for him to appear at the old Tramps in New York. I had the pleasure of seeing him there and was enthralled by his highly unique, bittersweet blues. Field recordings of solo work appeared on anthologies by L&R and Rooster Blues, but only gave a sense of his music. Recently Fat Possum issued a full album, Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong, which was mostly solo with three band tracks. I understand that in the decade between when I first saw him and the Fat Possum album, he had suffered some health setbacks. This was particularly apparent on the solo recordings which sounded tired, while the band recordings were more vigorous. 

CeDell is back with his second Fat Possum album, one of the first to be issued under the label’s licensing arrangement with Capricorn Records. It is oddly titled The Best of CeDell Davis, almost suggesting it is a compilation, but it is not. He is backed by Capt. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit (whom I am totally unfamiliar with), who do a workmanlike job and elevate the music while giving it more focus. Davis is a unique blues artist with a very somber singing style and an acidic bottleneck approach, to which Hampton occasionally adds a busier, blues-rock tone nicely complementing CeDell’s playing. The songs are traditionally based, but treated to Davis’ own particular spin. His own Fattenin’ Frogs For Snakes is a different tune from the Sonny Boy Williamson classic, and CeDell’s Boogie is a chance for he and Hampton to play some slide. 

Davis’ music is never flashy, and his vocals and slide possess a barely restrained, burning edge. While playing time may be short at about 40 minutes, this is a much more satisfactory introduction to Davis’ music than his earlier Fat Possum release. 

This review originally appeared in the May 1995 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 201). I likely received a review copy from the publication or the record company.While I didn't focus on the specific personnel, it is apparently Derek Trucks adding the slide on CeDell's Boogie. Here is CeDell playing a house party.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Eddie Taylor In Session

Eddie Taylor
In Session: Diary of a Chicago Bluesman 1953-1957

This is a public domain British reissue with some terrific blues that involved Eddie Taylor, a brilliant guitarist most associated with Jimmy Reed, but who is heard heard on a number of classic (mostly) Chicago blues recordings along with his own recordings for the Vee-Jay label. The Mississippi native is best known for his association with Jimmy Reed, but played on numerous sessions in the 1950s and 1960s for labels like Parrot, Blue Lake, Chess as well as Vee-Jay who he had four singles released under his own name. In the 1960s he shared on album on Testament and backed up Carey Bell and others for Delmark, Bluesway and other labels. He also made several albums under his name including for Advent (later on Hightone) and Antone's.

This reissue includes several selections from Jimmy Reed and Johnny Lee Hooker including Reed's "Ain't That Loving You Baby" and Hooker's "Dimples." But in addition to these hits, he is heard behind John Brim on "Ice Cream Man" (with great Little Walter harp) and the topical blues "Tough Times"; Sunnyland Slim's terrific take on the "Rolling and Tumbling" theme, "Going Back To Memphis," as well as Slim's "The Devil Is a Busy Man"; a trio of songs (including "Schooldays on My Mind" and "Ain't Times Hard") from Floyd Jones with Sunnyland Slim on piano and Snooky Pryor playing some great harp; and Little Willie Foster's "Falling Rain Blues." Taylor's own sides are equally superb including "Bad Boy," his remake of Little Johnnie Jones "Big Time Playboy" and a "Catfish Blues" variant, "Stroll Out West," which was unissued until released on an album years later.

Longtime fans of the blues will likely be familiar with many of these recordings as this contains some real gems of the Chicago blues of the fifties. Sound is good and Bob Fisher's liner notes provides a nice background of Taylor and the music here. This is an easily recommended reissue, especially for those who do not have many of the recordings on this.

I purchased this. Here is a clip of Eddie Taylor in 1970.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Jimmys Live in Transylvania

The Jimmys
Live in Transylvania
Brown Cow Productions

Led by keyboardist and vocalist (as well as one who helps on his family's 1500 acre Dairy farm), Jimmy Voegeli, The Jimmys, is one of the hottest blues bands out of Wisconsin with its mix of modern and jump blues. Recorded at the 2015 Sighisoara Blues Festival in Romania, this new disc is full of hot jump blues grooves with slashing guitar, greasy organ and rollicking piano, and hot riffing brass.

A hot organ instrumental, "Jacqui Juice," kicks things off with the leader starting off with some strong organ before the horns add their voices before Pete Weber takes a guitar solo that sounds like a cross between Pee Wee Crayton and B.B. King followed by Charley Wagner taking off on trumpet, then some booting sax from Pete Ross before the leader returns with some deep burning organ. Kudos to John Wertenweiler on bass and Mauro Magelian on drums for pushing the groove here and throughout.

It is followed by a jump blues, "I Wonder" with the leader on piano with some T-Bone Walker styled guitar from Weber with Voegeli wondering where his love gone and what she does to him as Darren Sterod's growls on the trombone. Voegeli's straight-forward blues shouting also has considerable appeal. There is a rock and roll feel on a cover of Jim Liban's jumping blues "You Can't Hurt Me Anymore," with Weber and the leader's piano featured. In contrast is "Hell or Heaven," a number in the manner of the pop supergroup, Chicago, and shows how solid Voegeli and band are playing non-blues material (also displayed on the group's closing number, The Band's "Ophelia").

The buoyant "Love will Find a Way," is followed by a credible interpretation of Mack Rice's "Cold Women," although Voegeli can't quite match Albert King as a singer. Nice to hear a cover that is not the usual over-played blues standards. The classic Freddie King recording "Lonesome Whistle Blues," is slowed down and reworked into how it might have been performed by B.B. King, with Wagner adding some growling obligatos. Weber sings the gruff sounding vocal on his medium tempo "You Say You Will," with a dedication to Hubert Sumlin as he takes a torrid solo. Voegeli's 'Lose That Woman" is a Ray Charles' styled romp with the rhythm laying down a terrific groove with short fiery solos from the leader, Ross and Weber.

The sound of this spirited location recording is quite good. Jimmy Voegeli and The Jimmys put on quite a show in Transylvania and listening to one can imagine what a party folks had that evening with this wonderful jumping blues performance.

I received from my review copy from a publicist. This review appeared originally in the January-February 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 370). My review of "Hot Dish" the previous album by The Jimmys, appeared in the January-February 2016 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 364) but not on this blog and I will post it next week. Here are The Jimmys  at the 2015 Sighisoara Blues Festival.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville 1899 -1926

The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville 1899 -1926
by Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff
University of Mississippi Press: Jackson MS
2017: 420 + viii

This is the third in a trilogy of volumes in which authors Abbott & Seroff chronicle the development of African-American Popular Music. The earlier volumes  explored previously in of "Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895," and "Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, 'Coon Songs,' and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz." This is a textbook size book, handsomely printed and designed. The main body of text is 309 pages long and there are over 70 pages of end-notes (over 2000 end-notes) along with a bibliography and general index. The extent and amount of end-notes should provide an idea how thoroughly researched this volume is and the end-notes are not simply citations, but link some of performers and songs they performed on the stage to artists and recordings when such music was in fact recorded commercially at a later time.

In the acknowledgement, the authors note that their work is a detailed account of the appearance and popularization of the blues on the black and professional stage as they trace the emergence of African-American vaudeville stage out of the minstrelsy in the age of Jim Crow and segregation. It is a story of African-American artists telling their own story, even when still employing some of the conventions of the minstrel stage such as blackface. When doing so, the artists and comedians attempted to subvert the original white supremacist theme. Furthermore, the creation of theaters for African-Americans to enjoy their music and comedy was liberating. There was a certain jarring in reading some of the descriptions of the performers, even in African American newspapers like the Indianapolis Freeman, as "coon shouters," and the use of the term "coon song" as a description of the some of the pre-blues material.

The first chapter takes us through the emergence of Southern vaudeville in cities such as Houston; Galveston, Jacksonville; Pensacola; Tampa: Frenendina; Savannah; Macon; Louisville; New Orleans, Memphis and Atlanta, with early establishments serving as both saloons and theaters. The principals behind such ventures, their place in the community as well as the performers, and the character of what the shows were are considered along with advertisements and photographs of some of the facilities. Some of the reports and advertisements even listed the programs presented with songs and acts enumerated.

I found the discussion of the creation and operation of Lincoln Park  in New Orleans fascinating. In its early days, The John Robinchaux Orchestra was resident along with a variety of acts such as (in 1905) Madame Magladene Tartt, better known as the "Black Swan" singing operatic selections that are reported to have set the house crazy. There is an illustration of her from an advertisement for a 1911 Ryman Auditorium performance. Others performing included a husband and wife comedic team who also sang, along with contortionists and acrobats. Then there was the comedy team of Lew Kenner and John Lewis. Kenner has sung with a minstrel show getting encores for "I Got Mine," while Lewis started singing with a quartet before getting billed a great southern tenor, and the two eventually formed the Kenner and Lewis Amusement Company with sixteen performers who barnstormed the region as well as playing Lincoln Park, and also inaugurated the vaudeville stage at a competing Dixie Park.

After an interlude that examines briefly the emergence of African-American vaudeville in Chicago out of the city's saloon culture, we are introduced to "The Life, Death and Untold Legacy of Bluesman Butler "String Beans" May." In this lengthy chapter. the authors provide May's biography and an overview of his career and influence. May was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and the authors were fortunate enough to find someone who knew May, to provide background on May's family and his performance style. May left Montgomery with Benbow's Chocolate Drops, a southern road show that took residence in Pensacola, Florida and not long after taking resident there William and Gertrude Rainey came aboard. Early descriptions of May describe him as a funny man, but he was also a pianist of some reputation as well as a singer. It was in Pensacola that May's "String Beans" persona emerged and was becoming a favorite and known for singing the infectious "I've Got Elgin Movements in My Hip and Twenty Years Guaranteed," helped this "metaphor of clockwise hip action" become "entrenched in the blues tradition." The authors trace the succession of his stage partners, including one who he married and later separated from, along with accounts of his popularity as well as reviews of his performances in Chicago by one Sterling Russell, who was not receptive to certain vulgar aspects of the blues and southern vaudeville. As the authors note, his style of performance was "anathema to those accustomed to judging performers by conventional standards."

May's outrageous risqué comedy, blues songs, and suggestive eccentric dancing did not fit their concept of proper entertainment" (p.74). However String Beans clearly was a significant attraction who filled theaters and his songs included "The Sweetest Man in Town," and "Get You a Kitchen Mechanic. With his wife Sweetie May, they closed shows with "I'm Alabama Bound." The authors note that "Kitchen Mechanic" and Alabama Bound" were signature markers of the blues revolution. Others songs that would be echoed in recordings was Chris Smith's "Fishing," that would be recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928 and by the Loving Spoonful in the 1960s, and one of his other songs in his repertoire "Blind Man Blues" contained an interjection 'doggone my soul," found in numerous blues recordings are further descriptions of his piano playing, singing and dancing (often the term pianologue is used in describing his performances) and press reactions as well as his responses to what he viewed as unjust criticisms.

May died as a result of a 'hazing accident' at an Masonic lodge that was not a general Masonic fraternity, but an independent one of local recognition in Jacksonville, Florida. It has led to a gap in the historiography of the blues that the authors that despite the fact he was the first national blues star cannot be simply filled. As they note, the realities of the recording industry at the time left no trace of what his music sounded like and unfortunately he never copyrighted his compositions. We can only speculate what he may have sounded like just like one wonders what the mythical Buddy Bolden's cylinder sounds like. Abbott and Seroff speculate on why he disappeared from the historical record noting some of his contemporaries were jealous of him and his popularity. The last portion of this chapter is an attempt to show the influence of the songs associated with him through examining recordings by others made long after he passed.

For all his fame in his lifetime, Abbott and Seroff note that String Beans was still a blackface comedian with a skill set tailored to the vaudeville stage as talented as he may have been, even if he made blues his specialty. The next chapter focuses on some of the other male blues pioneers, few of which, because of attrition, recorded, leading to the view that the classic vaudeville blues was a primarily female art form. Some of these like Kid Love and H. Franklin 'Baby" Seals," began as piano players in the pit of Houston Theaters which served as an incubator of early blues piano. In fact in Houston, Seals was on piano on a bill that included future blues recording artist Viola McCoy. Later he would be part of a husband and wife team with Little Baby Floyd Fisher. Kid Love and his wife performed "The Grizzly Bear Rag" and "Elgin Movements" with similar lyrics to String Beans, which they steadfastly claimed to have originated. He unfortunately died in 1913 at the age of 35 after having moved from playing blackface comedy on a minstrel show in 1904 to performing on the southern vaudeville stage when he passed.

While death ended Love's career, Seals and Fisher's career is traced including his protestations against the racial abuses in the old south as well as what he felt were unfounded criticisms directed against southern vaudeville. In Chicago, after playing at the Monogram Theater, Seals did a week at the Virginia Theater before white audiences. Seals became known for his composition,'"Sing Them Blues" that was published in 1912 as "Baby Seals Blues" and may be the earliest vocal blues published as sheet music. It was taken up by fellow southern vaudevillians although there were not many complete recordings of it (the authors cite recordings by Charles Anderson as "Sing 'Em Blues" and Ida Cox as "Mama Doo Shee Blues") although signature phrases from the song were sampled in numerous recordings including those by Sara Martin, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Peg Leg Howell and others including Memphis Slim's fifties recording, "The Comeback." Seals earned a reputation as a writer of the blues but suddenly died at the end of 1915, the details of which remain mysterious. The authors do suggest that had he not died so young, he might well have been a contender for the father of the blues.

The chapter then discusses Charles Anderson, described as a tenor and yodeler, and in 1913 "Baby Seals Blues" was the first blues in his repertoire which he would record in 1923 at the start of his Okeh recording career. He apparently also introduced Handy's "St. Louis Blues" in vaudeville and discussion indicates blues became a more important part of his repertoire. The chapter also introduces us to other acts including Johnny Woods and his dummy Little Henry who was presented as a "drunken-hearted, blues singing vagabond."

Having presented the early Male performers who played a major role in the blues emergence on the Vaudeville stage, Abbott and Seroff turn attention to women. The first significant section is dedicated to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and while detailing their performances on tent shows and theaters, certain myths including the one that Smith was Rainey's protege is discredited as the music transitioned from a transitional style of vocal ragtime into the blues. Smith's vaudeville career was fully under way by 1909, but in contrast to blues lore that Rainey took Smith under her wing, the authors relate that in 1910 Smith did perform with the Raineys, "The collaboration was brief and did not end well."

They recount how Smith was with the Raineys for an engagement at the Pekin Theater in Memphis, but after week four she had been replaced by Laura Smith, another future blues recording artist. There paths did not cross again until 1917, but the so-called apprenticeship lasted less than four weeks (pp.164-165). The ups and down of their respective careers are detailed along with bits of their repertoire such as the performance of "Lovie Joe" by Joe Jordan and Will Marion Cook by Smith, her partnership with Wayne Burton (which ended in 1913) with increasing recognition of Smith's singing, and the bumpy reception they initially received when appearing in front of Northern audiences ("they may have been too unpolished"). Smith is credited in 1913 with singing a proto-blues, the same year that Ma Rainey is reported as singing a blues and the book traces the increasing use of blues in describing their performances. As documented here, by the time both recorded in the 1920s, they were very experienced performers who had transitioned from the ragtime songs of a decade early into the blues.

Other women discussed in the chapter include Victoria Liston (noted for her rendition of "Titanic" and "Casey Jones") Laura Smith (who had performed "Baby Seals Blues" and would record "Don't You Leave Me Here" a version of "Alabama Bound"); Ora Criswell who never recorded; Trixie Smith, who had begun as a blackface comedienne and would become the first southern vaudeville blues artist to record (for Black Swan); and Estelle Harris (who was one of the first to be identified as singing a blues, but more usually described as a a rag song shouter. She may have recorded for the Pathe Record Company in 1923). In this material there is a discussion of the blackface characters that women on the southern vaudeville stage might be expected to play including "Crow Jane" and "Black Sis Hopkins," and the "Crow Jane" character is one referenced in a number of blues including that by Skip James in 1965.

One important point made is that "the black vaudeville theater entertainment for a black audience enabled the full creative development of the blues. Insular black theater entertainment was a liberating phenomenon for performers. Unconstrained by what white theater goers were prepared to accept, their blues spoke directly to African-Americans. Audiences felt validated and empowered. The "birth of the blues manifested artistic, commercial and political motives." One consequence of the cultural impact of the blues was the term "coon shouter," descended into the dustbin of history as the blues gained acceptance. (p.175).

After an interlude on the theater circuits and the formation and decline of the T.O.B.A. circuit, the author's final Chapter focuses on "The Commercialization of the Blues: 1920-1926," as the shift of the music north but the blues here were as more jazzy form of 'polite syncopation' as opposed to the bawdier blues heard in the southern vaudeville stage pioneered by String Beans. The legendary musical "Shuffle Along" was also a vehicle in which the blues was filtered and which early stars Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills performed in with Saunders recording songs from the show. Edith Wilson, one of the first artists to record blues after Mamie Smith's pioneering recordings is described as jazzy interpretations of the blues representing a style suiting the New York market as were most of the first wave of artists that recorded blues in 1921 and 1922, a full year before Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and others would set foot in a studio.

In addition to Broadway and recordings the authors discuss the Burlesque Stage as another vehicle for the mainstreaming, then turn mull fully with the recording of the blues starting with a brief discussion of Black Swan Records who recorded Trixie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters and others with some focus on Waters career in this time as she toured with Fletcher Henderson. Black Swan had financial difficulties that led to its essentially being taken over by Paramount. Okeh's recording activities and those of artists such as Mamie Smith and Sarah Martin are discussed as are that of Butterbeans and Susie (whose performances influenced by those of String Beans and Sweetie May of a decade before). The signing of Bessie Smith and Clara Smith by Columbia Records was also significant as is the fact Smith in Birmingham hawked recordings at her performances. The role of the T.O.B.A. also played a significant part in promoting race record stars. Ma Rainey herself started recording for Paramount in 1923, although the advertising by Paramount were the ones that credited her as the "Mother of the Blues." One curious aspect of the marketing of the new stars was to suggest they were fresh faces, including examples relating to Bessie Smith, including an incredible depiction by a T.O.B.A. news column of a 1925 visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, her home town as her first there. After discussing the relationship of the T.O.B.A. and the blues recording stars, the final pages of the chapter (and text) discuss the emerge of the guitar playing blues artist with the concluding paragraphs making an effort to link the blues of the piano playing blues star String Beans with Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first popular blues star of the country blues.

This review only hints at the richness of the materials in this volume "The Original Blues" is a remarkable work that takes us from the minstrel stage to the vaudeville stage and the emergence of blues in this theatrical and performance world. It sheds new light on the emergence of the blues, and artists and performers whose names and music who have been obscured for a variety of reasons, along with the institutions that made the emergence of this music possible. There are numerous illustrations including reproductions of advertisements and photos of the performers, along with the extensive end notes for the text. This superb book is among the most important recent books on blues and African-American music history.

I purchased this.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Remembering James and Chuck

I was reading Holger Petersen's wonderful collection of interviews of blues and roots musicians, Talking Music 2," and Steve Miller remembered recording backing Chuck at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a recording that I once owned when it came out. Then later on Facebook I saw the posts about Chuck having passed away on Saturday March 18. This was sad news, especially after coming so shortly after blues harmonica legend James Cotton passing away as well.

I had the pleasure of seeing James Cotton a number of times over the decades, first seeing him in Cleveland in 1967around the time of The James Cotton Blues Band album on Verve Forecast. It was probably the first live blues performance I saw. Over the years I saw him at clubs (The Belle Star outside of Buffalo and the Maryland venues Twist & Shout and Tornado Alley) and festivals such as the Western Maryland Blues Festival and several times at the Pocono Blues Festival. Even after Cotton had surgery that limited his singing, he always had terrific bands and front men as singers. He was also such a warm person as well. Mr. SuperHarp will be missed.

I only had the pleasure to see Chuck Berry once at a music festival held only once at the Kennedy Center where he was backed by local DC area musicians led by Daryl Davis, who was his East Coast pianist of choice.  Others will have written about Berry's legacy but songs like "Johnny B. Goode," "The Promised Land," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Back in the U.S.A." and "Roll Over Beethoven" will forever be part of the soundtrack of our lives.

Here is a playlist of a few songs by each starting with Chuck Berry with "Johnny B. Goode."

Now a bit from James Cotton doing the Creeper which he first recorded on the album Pure Cotton, an album that in my humble opinion belongs in the Blues Hall of Fame, if it isn't already.

One of my favorite Chuck Berry recordings is "The Promised Land," which also was known from Elvis' cover as well as the cajun cover from Johnnie Allen. Here is Chuck doing it live.

James Cotton was an important member of Muddy Waters Band for many years and hear he is backing Muddy at the Newport Jazz Festival on "Got My Mojo Working."

Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" was one of numerous numbers that influenced the folks over in Great Britain.

James Cotton seen on Playboy after Dark in 1968/69 with Luther Tucker and apparently Rod Piazza is in this cip

Finally I close with Chuck Berry's "Sweet Sixteen" that the Beach Boys would be influenced by. The performance is from 2014 when Cotton received the Polar Music Prize, the Nobel Prize of the Music World.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Robert Ealey If You Need Me

Robert Ealey
If You Need Me

Robert Ealey is somewhat of a legend around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and has made several recordings before this. Backed by a variety of Dallas area musicians (including Mike Morgan, Sumter Bruton and Tone Somner) and special guests (Coco Montoya), he has produced a set of blues that covers a wide range of stylistic bases, from Chicago blues to Texas jump, and even a Tex-Mex flavored number. 

Ealey is an appealing vocalist with a slightly slurred diction. He can put forth a nice Chicago shuffle, as on the opening Turn Out the Lights, or the slow I Had a Dream, both with Hash Brown’s full-bodied harp, and the jump-flavored groove on She’s a Rocket works well (perhaps attributable to Bruton’s T-Bone Walker flavored guitar that kicks it off and Johnny Reno’s booting sax). Also appealing is the Tex-Mex flavored Tica. The title tune is a soulful ballad with Reno ripping off a tough sax break, but one can imagine another vocalist handling this a bit more forcefully. The small group instrumentation gives a novel flavor to The River, a thinly disguised reworking of Percy Mayfield’s River Invitation, but Ealey is not convincing here, and the backing falls apart. 

Certainly an engaging album which makes accessible a stalwart of the Dallas region’s blues scene, but Ealey comes off as only a workmanlike vocalist on this.

This review originally appeared in the March 1995 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 199). Robert Ealey passed away in 2001. I likely received a review copy from the recording copy, a publicist or the publication. Here is Robert Ealey in performance.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Wee Trio Wee + 3

The Wee Trio
Wee + 3
Bionic Records

A new album from The Wee Trio, a Brooklyn, NY based group comprised of vibraphonist James Westfall, bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Jared Schonig. The trio is known for transcending musical genres in their material, but with their latest release they recruited colleagues Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Nir Felder (guitar) and Fabian Almazán (piano) to appear as guest soloists on individual tracks.

Discussing the guest artists, Loomis explains "Nicholas Payton is the prelude to our story as a band. We say that the trio connects so well because we had listened to so many of the same records. Mr. Payton's music was definitely an important part of all our lives. His playing, his intention as a bandleader, and his compositions were important building blocks for all of our own musical conceptions and development. Nir Felder is the present tense in the story of the band. We all met Nir very soon after we moved to the city and played with him a lot in our first years here. Our encounter with Fabian Almazán is a look to the future. Jared has known Fabian for a several years, but James and I just started playing with him for this project. Fabian plays with relentless creativity that really brings out the best side of the band. We love to play familiar material and take a lot of risks with it - push it to see what new options we can find hidden in it. With Fabian we got a chance to expand that approach to a quartet setting and bring it some new material that we wrote especially for him."

The trio opens with a chamber jazz mood with guitarist Felder on "R T 3." His guitar and Westfall's vibes initially mesmerize. Felder's solo quietly builds its heat with supple support from Loomis and Schonig. He is also heard on the closing two tracks, "Gibbs Street" and "Apparition," with marvelous interplay with Westfall, and the seamless backing from Loomis and Schonig.

With pianist Almazán, "Titan Up" is a brief, quite energetic performance followed by another performance with him, "Climb," where he displays his facility and imagination as he takes off from the somewhat reflective opening to very spirited mode followed by lively playing from Westfall. "Redwood" is a tribute to the California Redwood groves, with pianist Almazán joining on a performance of a composition that attempts to grasp the expansiveness of the feeling of walking there of being in an endless horizontal and vertical space.

Nicholas Payton is heard on a blues, "Sabotage," and then "No Justice," playing exquisitely, imaginatively and lyrically as he constructs his solos which serve as the take off for Westfall's own (marimba on "Sabotage" and vibraphone on "No Justice"). "Belle Femme De Voodoo," the last selection with Payton evokes a New Orleans parade with Payton's playful solo incorporating growls and slurs against the bouncy rhythm.

The one cover is Meshell Ndegeocello's "Lola," that Schonig arranged with Loomis bass providing the center of the performance before Westfall takes off on his solo. It is one of the two trio performances on this latest release from The Wee Trio. With their accomplished guests they have provided another fresh and highly engaging recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist.This review originally appeared in the March-April Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 371). Here is the Wee Trio with Fabian Almazán performing "Titan Up."

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown The Man

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
The Man
One of the founding fathers of modern blues, Gatemouth came from a musical family and grew up playing cajun and country as well as blues. He was discovered at Don Robey’s Peacock Club in Houston, where he took the stage filling for an ailing T-Bone Walker. Initially recording for Aladdin Records, he became a mainstay of Robey’s Peacock label. Only B.B. King exerts a comparable influence on modern blues guitar. Gatemouth’s dirtier, more emphatic attack (based on T-Bone’s jazzy approach) was the direct influence on such Gulf Coast, West Coast and Texas guitarists as Guitar Slim, Johnny Copeland, Earl King, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan. 

His new album, The Man, has the eclecticism of his ‘80s sets on Rounder Records - opening with Bill Doggett’s Honky Tonk, including explorations in blues and jazz with a funky remaking of Louis Jordan’s calypso blues, Early in the Morning,and hitting nice late-night blues grooves with You Can Disagree and Someday My Luck Will Change. Cajun accordionist Joel Sonnier joins for an instrumental version of Big Mamou (with Gatemouth on viola), and Jambalaya, while Gatemouth sings a straightforward country lament, You Can Disagree while closing with a country breakdown, Up Jumped the Devil

Gatemouth’s slightly crusty vocals are delivered in a relaxed fashion without any artifice, and his guitar and viola and fiddle are played with considerable skill and occasional sense of drama as on his melodramatic instrumental reading of Unchained Melody, with his very deliberate phrasing and changes in tempo. His regular band is augmented by rhythm guitar and a larger horn section, which do occasionally come across as a bit heavy handed. To use a term Gatemouth Brown himself prefers, The Man is a solidly constructed album of “Texas Swing”.

This review originally appeared in the March 1995 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 199). I received my review copy from a publicist, the record company or the publication. The CD may be out of print but may not be hard to find used or as a download. Here Gatemouth performs "Up Jumped the Devil."


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio

Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio
Alligator Records

The aptly titled Elvin Bishop's Big Gun Trio brings together guitarist and vocalist Bishop with pianist and guitarist Bob Welsh and percussionist and vocalist Willy Jordan who brought a cajón, a South American percussion instrument. The three started jamming in Elvin's studio one day and the combination of the three clicked big time leading to the present recording which has four Bishop originals, three co-writes and four covers. Kim Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite and Rick Estrin each lend their harmonica talents to a song each.

Big Fun is so true and the sparse instrumentation matched with the good-time feel from the interplay by the three make for some marvelous listening. Not being familiar with Willy Jordan, to these ears he was a revelation as a singer. Bishop has his appeal in his almost goofy, back porch style, but Jordan can mix humor and a deep blues soulfulness while Welsh's piano helps push things along. Things open up with Welsh's rollicking piano and a steady groove on "Let It Roll" with its message of don't let the politician bastards get you down. "Honey Babe" matches Bishop's stinging guitar with Welsh playing bass lines on his guitar on a number with a back porch feel. Wilson joins in on a raucous and terrific cover of Sunnyland Slim's "It's You, Baby," with a standout vocal by Jordan, and terrific piano, and fat-toned harmonica.

"Delta Lowdown," an instrumental that sounds based on the Jimmy Rogers' 1950 Chess recording "Goin' Away Blues," with Estrin channeling Little Walters' country inflected harp. Jordan then takes the vocal on a solid cover of The Valentinos' "Its All Over Now," as Elvin channels Bobby Womack in his guitar playing. "100 Years of Blues" is a talking blues duet between Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite as they recall their old times that evokes Louisiana swamp blues of Lightnin' Slim and others with the restrained backing. Elvin plays slide guitar with some New Orleans piano heard behind Jordan's solid vocal on a lively cover of "Let the Four Winds Blow." "That's What I'm Talkin' About," is a culinary travelogue as Elvin talks about going to a place on Polydas in New Orleans as Jordan sings some of the items on the menu. Then making it Seattle, and Elvin suggests a drive through and get burgers and instead there is a soul food menu with Jordan again singing about some of the menu items. "Can't Take No More," has a gospel-inflected Jordan vocal on this slow blues with Bishop laying down a super West Side Chicago styled guitar solo.

A nice, lazy instrumental "Southside Slide," that sounds inspired by "Blue Monk" and "Honky Tonk," closes this marvelously entertaining recording of blues big fun.

I received my review copy from Alligator Records. This review appeared in the March-April Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 371). Here Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio is in performance.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John Mayall Talk About That

John Mayall
Talk About That
 Forty Below Records

As not one that gets overly excited by John Mayall recordings, I did find his latest album, "Talk About That," a very entertaining one. His vocals, keyboards and harmonica are supported by Rocky Athas on guitar, Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums with Eagles/ James Gang guitarist Joe Walsh guesting on two selections. His previous new recording "Find a Way To Care," with a number of covers, struck me as mediocre whereas this new release with mostly his own songs strikes me as much better and his band plays strongly in support of him.

The title track opens this album with a funky groove and Athas and Rzab providing interesting backing riffs as Davenport lays down a hard groove. Horns are added to "It's Hard Going Up," with a lyric about hard going up, but twice as hard coming down, and his piano sounds better here than other recent recordings while the band keeps things tight. Joe Walsh contributes lead guitar to "The Devil Must Be Laughing," a slow topical blues that shows Walsh hasn't lost his blues touch from playing in Cleveland bars nearly five decades ago. "Give Me Some of That Gumbo," finds Mayall in a Crescent City groove with the horns adding to the flavor, and followed by a very nice low key cover of Jimmy Rogers' "Goin' Away Blues." Walsh returns with the slide lead on "Cards on the Table," set against a strutting groove.

"I Didn't Mean To Hurt You," is an appealing slow blues ballad with Mayall singing with much emotion while "Don't Deny Me," is a solid blues in the vein of Little Willie John and Chuck Willis even though Mayall is not a singer on their level. "Blue Midnight" has a nice swampy feel created by Mayall's electric piano and Athas' guitar riff. Athas also takes a strong, well-constructed solo here along with one by Mayall. "Across the County Line" is a lively shuffle with horns added behind Mayall's vocal and harp playing with another terrific Athas guitar solo. "You Never Know" has a philosophical lyric and jazzy feel. On this, Mayall's vocal and piano are backed only by bass and drums (Davenport using brushes) closing one of Mayall's better recent recordings.

I received my review copy from a publicist. I have made a few corrections from the review as it originally appeared in the March-April 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 371). Here is a video on the making of this recording.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Race Records and the American Recording Industry 1919-1945: An Illustrated History

Race Records and the American Recording Industry 1919-1945: An Illustrated History
Allan Sutton
Mainspring Press, Littleton, Co.
2016: 366 +x pp

Allan Sutton is a noted historian of the American Recording Industry. I have read two of his three volumes detailing the history of the American Recording Industry from its inception in the cylinder days and the emergence of discs to the transition from acoustic to electric recording, as he detailed the rise and fall, bankruptcy, consolidation and more of the recording companies in the United States: "A Phonograph in Every Home," and "Recording the Twenties." A succinct description of this present volume is that it "is the story of the companies, and individuals, who within several decades, made the recording more inclusive, and far more interesting than it once had been." It is a history of the emergence of 'Race Records,' or a history of recordings that were intended primarily for black consumers.

In his introduction, Sutton notes that Blacks comprised only a minuscule portion of early record catalogs. Black songwriters fared somewhat better but their material was likely to be performed by whites often employing stereotypical 'darky' accents. The few black recording artists generally only recorded " carefully polished spirituals, antebellum plantation songs, close-harmony quartet songs or self-deprecating "coon songs," material that white audiences expected and found acceptable.

At the close of World War I, three companies dominated the recording industry, Victor Talking Machine Company, the Columbia Gramophone Company, and Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Victor catered to an upscale market as well as its founder and president believed part of Victor's mission was to refine public taste. Victor did issue recordings of the Castle House Orchestra, under the direction of James Reese Europe's direction, but his picture was not used in advertising and the company reportedly auditioned a Creole Jass Band, but nothing was ever issued. Edison, the smallest of the three, was hobbled by Thomas Edison himself who was nearly deaf (and had strong ethnic and racial prejudices) and insisted on auditioning his company's recordings and his veto was rarely challenged. Columbia was the most populist of the labels and released recordings of Bert Williams, W.C. Handy, and Wilbur Sweatman. Increasingly though Blacks were clamoring for better representation in record catalogs and with the success of Mamie Smith's recordings along with the efforts of George Broome's label and Harry Pace's Black Swan label, recording companies a more accepting attitude in pursuit of profit.

This somewhat detailed background (two pages of text in the volume) provides the context for the story Sutton provides here. He briefly chronicles the career of George W. Broome who was the first black-owned record company (First publicized in Tim Brooks "Lost Sounds —Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry"), who was manager for the renown African-American tenor Roland Hayes. Hayes, after not being able to interest Columbia in recording him, paid Columbia to record a number of his solos which he sold by mail. Broome started a label in a year, 1919, in which some newer labels had begun to record Black artists including Aeolian-Vocalion label who signed Fred Dabney, a popular Harlem composer, bandleader and associate of Jim Europe. Pathé recorded vocalist Noble Sissle and the Eubie Blake Trio as well as the Wilbur Sweatman Jazz along with Europe's 369th's Infantry Band. However these artists were still artists having appeal to whites. Broome recorded composer Harry T Burleigh making his only recording of "Go Down Moses," along with recordings by sopranos, a baritone and a violinist. These recordings however sold very little and in a few years Broome was operating a printing business.

Sutton next touches on the Mamie Smith's recording of "Crazy Blues," which resulted in part from the General Phonograph's Company's Okeh Records efforts carve out a niche with songwriter Perry Bradford's persistence as a song plugger and promoter of the blues and the talent of Smith, a stage and cabaret artist. After sufficient sales of her initial recording, on August 10,1920, she recorded "Crazy Blues" and another tune backed by the Jazz Hounds. This was released in October 1920 and the advertisements for it indicate it was sold to a general audience not simply blacks as some like Daphne Duval Harrison erroneously has written. Sutton also corrects the claims of 75,000 sales the first week and over a million that have been made over the years as sales records have not survived but also hard to reconcile with what we know generally of sales of recordings at the time. Still it clearly was a strong seller. The book thus plays a service in correcting some myths and providing more to the story of Smith and how her success impacted the other recording companies. and led to the blues craze although more conservative companies like Edison and Victor were resistant. In contrast, Columbia and smaller labels like Arto recorded acts like Mary Stafford and Lucille Hegamin.

Next discussed is Harry Pace, formerly W.C. Handy's partner formed his new venture, Black Swan, to hire only Black talent. With the Black press itself promoting Black Swan, Pace hired a young Fletcher Henderson to play piano on many recordings. Initially to present Black Swan as a reputable operation to investors, he produced cautiously records to appeal to Harlem's upper crust who viewed blues as distasteful, so initial releases were a black concert singer or concert soprano appropriately accompanied. But it was the recording of Ethel Waters doing popular numbers that led to a change. Her initial release of "Down Home Blues" and "Oh Daddy," sold well and the chapter details Harry Pace's sometimes excessive claims in promoting his company as well as follows some of the other artists Pace recorded like Trixie Smith, details his efforts to get his records distributed and the ultimate inability to obtain national distribution, a problem white start-up labels also faced. Sutton also describes efforts at getting manufacture of the records closer to home, forming a classical division and unsuccessful efforts to find capital. This lack of capital eventually led to Black Swan s acquisition by the New York Recording Laboratories (owners of the Paramount label) which was one of its most substantial creditors and many Black Swan releases became issued on a hybrid Paramount-Black Swan label.

After a chapter on other early Black Entrepreneurs and short-lived labels like G-B Record Company, the Spikes Brothers Sunshine label, SeeBee, Meritt and Blu-Disc (whose releases included The Washingtonians and Duke Ellington), Sutton discusses the Mass-Producing of the blues by labels such as Emerson (releases by Fletcher Henderson, Lena WIlson, Hazel Meyers and others), Vocalion (who signed Ethel Waters, Victor, Brunswick and even Edison (whose racist head still auditioned all his artists and recordings and also auditioned recordings from other labels), along with the efforts of Joe Davis to promote his artists and songs he published.

A chapter is devoted to Ajax Records that advertised itself as The Quality Race Record. It should be noted that while Race Records depicted the performers and expected market for a recording, the term "Race" was used by Black intellectuals who wanted to uplift "The Race" through various activities, including cultural ones. Ajax recorded a variety of jazz and blues, including Hazel Meyers, a few releases from Mamie Smith and even boxer Jack Johnson (depicted in an advertisement that is among the many illustrations in this book), but factors like poor distribution and lack of distinctive artists contributed to its failure like other labels of the time.

Attention is next directed to the recording activities in the Midwest and Gennett, who after recording the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings, waxed the classic recordings with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Richmond, Indiana, as well as some of recordings in Chicago. Bessie Smith's recording career is also discussed and it is noted that despite being a race artist her recordings crossed over to a more general audience. In addition to the efforts of Gennett, the recordings for Okeh and other labels in Chicago are chronicled as are those of Paramount in recording Ma Rainey and Ida Cox as well as the recording of more rural sounding performers. These efforts are documented along with numerous examples of newspaper advertisements and discussion of efforts at promoting and distributing such material.

There is a full chapter on Paramount and the country blues and the success of artists like Blind Blake and Papa Charlie Jackson was highly influential and the the major labels themselves were in transition in how they recorded similar material. But such efforts are also contemporaneous with the recording of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Seven recordings. also labels like Okeh and Victor started traveling to remote locations to record race and old timey artists. The result of field recordings led to performers like Cow Cow Davenport, Victoria Spivey, Lonnie Johnson and Rev J.M. Gates being waxed, while in Chicago studios King Oliver and his Dixie Syndicators, Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers and others were recorded. Sutton also notes shifts in the individuals holding management position of efforts at producing race records, their approach to producing recordings and how they sold and distributed such country blues records.

A chapter is devoted to the recording of "Shouting Preachers and Singing Evangelists' that included the Black Billy Sunday, Reverend James M Gates, and other preachers along with evangelists including Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. A further chapter focuses on 'Urban Blues, Hokum and Boogie Woogie' and the impact of such folks as Leroy Carr, Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, and Roosevelt Sykes.

In the pivotal year of 1929 Victor was acquired by the Radio Corporation of America and it finally creating a race record catalog. It was a year Victor issued Blind Willie McTell, Jim Jackson, Johnny Dodds and Rev. McGee, while Louis Armstrong's recordings appeared to veer in popular music direction and a year Paramount first recorded Charlie Patton at Gennett's Richmond, Indiana studio while starting construction of its Grafton Studio.

Sutton chronicles the decline in the industry following the October, 1929 stock market crash which augured bad times ahead for the record industry. Labels like Paramount fell, others went into bankruptcy followed by the rise of cut-rate labels including Bluebird as well as the emergence of Decca Records and the emergence and demise of American Record Corporation that was owned by Consolidated Film Industries. Consolidated had acquired Columbia after the esteemed label fell into bankruptcy, and issued recordings on a variety of labels including Perfect, Romeo and Vocalion. While Robert Johnson was among those who recorded for the ARC labels, Sutton observes that he "made no impact on America's recording culture or its musical culture prior to his rediscovery in the 1960's." While ARC flourished in the late 1930's, it was eventually acquired by the Columbia Broadcast System, which would operate it for decades.

The next to last chapter concerns the rebound in the recording industry as reflected in the catalogs of various companies and describes changes in the production and sale of recordings. The final chapter considers the War Years, including the impact of the first Petrillo strike and the emergence of new independent labels relating to records directed primarily, not exclusively, at Blacks. An epilogue notes changes in attitudes leading to abandonment of the term, 'Race Records" and its replacement by Rhythm & Blues. One appendix lists the various race record series of the various record labels, while another one enumerates Race Series talent scouts, talent brokers, and artist and repertoire managers.

Sutton's monograph provides a concise, well-written, discussion. Its most immediate appeal will be to enthusiasts of blues and early sacred material. One might wish a bit more space had been provided on the black jazz and dance bands, along with vocal quartets. It was perhaps unavoidable otherwise one might have a considerably (and perhaps unwieldy) larger volume which likely would not added much more to understanding the history of race records. In any event, this volume likely belongs in any strong library relating to African-American music, and replaces Dixon and Godrich's "Recording the Blues," as the basic authority on the subject of the pre-World War II blues recording industry.

I purchased this book. It is $39.00 for US sales (postage included) and $59.00 for shipment outside the US (includes insured airmail). Visit

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women Old, New Borrowed & Blue

This is the 4th Alligator album by Saffire - the Uppity Blues Women, and the first in which Andra Faye McIntosh fully participates as a vocalist as well as a musician. Her presence has added to Saffire’s music by providing new instrumental voices (particularly her mandolin, and fiddle) as well as her wonderful singing. 

The program of 16 songs includes a number of songs that reflect influences and particular favorites of the trio’s members. It opens up with a rousing version of Phil Wiggins’ Fools Night Out with each taking a turn at lead and Ann Rabson pumping the piano with a New Orleans flavor. Then, Ann launches into T’aint Nobody’s Business and Andra Faye sings Sippie Wallace’s You Got to Know How, adding a nice fiddle solo. Gaye Adegbalola provides a wonderful version of Do Your Duty, a song long part of their repertoire. Listening to Gaye’s vocal, one appreciates how confident and expressive she has become after being on the road for all these years, and she sings it here with as much enthusiasm as back in the group’s early days. 

While some tunes hark back to the twenties, some are of more recent vintage. Ann does Amos Milburn’s Roll Mr. Jelly, although her piano sounds too polite for this boogie woogie blues. Highlights from Gaye include a nice reading of Johnny Ace’s The Clock, and her own Bitch With a Bad Attitude, where she tells off her no-good man, from telling the IRS he has no dependents to threatening to Bobbittize him. Andra Faye conveys similar sentiments in The Richest Guy in the Graveyard. Andra Faye closes the album with Ma Rainey’s Yonder Comes the Blues, with her mandolin accompaniment joined by Ann and Gaye on guitars with a fitting nod to the “Mother of the Blues,” ardently sang and played. 

This is the Uppity Blues Women’s finest album. Their newest member plays no small part with her strong playing that augments Ann Rabson’s own solid instrumental contributions, and strong singing is heard from all three. 

This review appeared in the December 1994-January 1995 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 197). I likely received a review copy from Alligator Records. Here is a video from Saffire's farewell tour.