Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Drop Down Mama (Chess, 1970)
Drop Down Mama conclusively demonstrates that Chess Records' roster of blues singers was extremely deep and focuses on artists other than the "Big Four" of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson #2. Some researchers and embittered musicians have contended that Leonard Chess deliberately signed other performers to contracts and then withheld the release of their recordings so as not to undercut the success of his established hit-makers. The high quality of many unreleased sides that have appeared on numerous subsequent Chess anthologies over the years lends some support to that theory. However, it should be noted that the material on this compilation was recorded between 1949-1952, long before Wolf, Walter, and Sonny Boy had achieved star status.
Indeed, the variety of styles exhibited by the bluesmen featured on Drop Down Mama demonstrates that Chess Records was still searching for a formula that would bring them consistent sales. This willingness to experiment led the label to record several down-home musicians whose styles were deeply rooted in the prewar Delta blues tradition. Robert Johnson disciple Johnny Shines (performing under the moniker of "Shoe Shine Johnny") recorded only one record for Chess, and "So Glad I Found You" and "Joliet Blues" with Little Walter on harmonica and Big Crawford on bass bear a superficial resemblance to Muddy's early sides with the exception of Shines' distinctive keening vocals. Robert Nighthawk (nee McCollum) is an underacknowledged influence on Muddy Waters' slide guitar playing (check out his licks on "Anna Lee") in addition to providing the inspiration for B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel" with his "Sweet Black Angel." "Jackson Town Gal" and "Return Mail Blues" are two additional recordings that are lesser known but cut from the same cloth. Arthur "Big Boy" Spires is perhaps the most down-home of all the musicians profiled here, with a sound like that of an amplified prewar Delta blues band if there had been such a thing. He uses his coarse vocals to good effect on the chilling "One of These Days" and provides an updated version of Tommy Johnson's "Big Fat Mama" on "Murmur Low." The ancient David "Honey Boy" Edwards performs another rendition of an earlier composition, "Mama Don't Allow It" recorded by Papa Charlie Jackson in 1925, which is recast as "Drop Down Mama." Floyd Jones' "Playhouse," "You Can't Live Long," and "Dark Road" are all performed by four-piece groups that would become more typical for Chess Records as the label matured. These recordings still display a strong country blues influence, especially "Dark Road," which was clearly inspired by the work of the aforementioned Tommy Johnson and, of course, covered with great success by Canned Heat as "On the Road Again." The most technically adept of all the musicians to appear on this comp, Claude "Blue Smitty" Smith allegedly taught Muddy Waters, already an accomplished slide guitar player in the 1940s, how to finger the fretboard of his instrument. Smitty's lightning runs on "Crying" are simply breathtaking, and "Sad Story" possesses a sophistication that was rare for the label at that time.
If you are a fan of late 1940s-early 1950s Chicago blues, Drop Down Mama is an essential addition to your collection.
1. So Glad I Found You - Shoe Shine Johnny (Shines)
2. Sweet Black Angel - Robert Nighthawk
3. Anna Lee - Robert Nighthawk
4. One of These Days - Big Boy Spires
5. Drop Down Mama - Honey Boy Edwards
6. Playhouse - Floyd Jones
7. Murmur Low - Big Boy Spires
8. You Can't Live Long - Floyd Jones
9. Joliet Blues - Shoe Shine Johnny (Shines)
10. Jackson Town Gal - Robert Nighthawk
11. Return Mail Blues - Robert Nighthawk
12. Crying - Blue Smitty & His String Men
13. Sad Story - Blue Smitty & His String Men
14. Dark Road - Floyd Jones